Ornithomancy in Kabbalah

Albrecht Dürer, Dead Blue Roller, 1500

While divination is forbidden in Lev. 19:26, ornithomancy (that is, divination through the use of birds) is understood to have been popular with educated Jews beginning at the latest in Roman antiquity — Chrysostom among other church fathers was known to warn against the “Jewish” custom of listening too intently to bird cries. By way of rabbinic background, there are several aggadic references to ornithomancy throughout the Talmud Bavli. One early rabbi notes that a colleague who “understood the language of birds” was able to escape captivity by listening to the advice of a dove (TB Gittin 45a). The rabbis also explain that King Solomon was himself a skilled diviner, and that his wisdom of ornithomancy surpassed even that of the “children of the east” — a reference to pre-Islamic Arabs, who were thought to be masters of the practice.

Indeed, it was probably under Arab influence that medieval Jewish mystics living in Spain re-familiarized themselves with ornithomancy — the 12th century Kabbalist Jacob Sheshet relates ornithomantic techniques that have been found in earlier Arabic sources, particularly concerning the division of ornithomantic interpretation between that of bird calls and bird movement. Nachmanides, a contemporary of Sheshet, would later write that birds were able to listen to angelic utterances and heavenly secrets which they would then repeat to humanity in their calls. Birds thus functioned in the kabbalistic imaginary as a kind of intermediary between sefirotic and earthly realms.

To expand on this, it’s important to note that terrestrial events were thought by Nachmanides to be known in the heavenly realms some time (usually thirty days) before their occurrence. Dragons and birds, by virtue of their gift of flight, were understood to be proximate to the moon, a symbol of shekhinah — “from here the raven receives its knowledge,” relates a kabbalist following after Nachmanides.

This sentiment is repeated in the the Book of Zohar (13th c.), which in its conservatism generally condemns the practice, asking: “Why is someone who watches birds called ‘nahash’ [serpent]? … because it [the birds’ knowledge] comes from the sitra ahra, the realm of evil and impurity” (Zohar 1:126b). A famous Zoharic discourse on ornithomancy appears in its discussion of Bala’am, the gentile sorcerer from parshat Balak, who is said to have received his (forbidden) wisdom from the mouth of a magical metal bird called Yadua who in turn drew its power from the sun and moon (an explicitly pagan reference given the ancient rabbinic tendency to conflate heresy with “star-worship”).

The Zoharic association of birds with demonic secrets becomes a bit more complex when one considers the conflation of birds with angels that appears as a motif throughout Zohar. Consider, for instance, Zohar 1:13b, which relates that “with those souls entering that living being [Shekhinah] emerge many birds, flying, soaring throughout the world. As a soul emerges into this world, the bird flying forth with this soul from that tree emerges with her.” This reference to birds as divine servants and celestial companions of souls in flight is clearly using the animal as a symbolic, imagistic stand-in for angels. Similarly, in 1:46b, the reference to birds in Genesis 1:20 (“let birds fly above the earth”) is interpreted by the kabbalists of Zohar as an allusion to the immanence of Elijah; purposefully misreading the word al to mean “upon” rather than “above,” the kabbalists of Zohar write: “Upon the earth — Elijah, appearing continually on earth, arriving in four glides.” The interpretation of Genesis’s birds as Elijah relies on a reference in an eleventh century midrash on Psalms which interprets the “bird of heaven” from Psalm 8:9 as such: “this is Elijah, who flies through the world as a bird.” The contention that Elijah was and is an angel is a longstanding one in kabbalistic literature, and the Zoharic interpretation of a biblical verse referring to birds as a coded allusion to this prophet is clearly drawing on this exegetical precedent. In sum, then, we find in Zohar a recurring chain of association linking angels with birds, perhaps paving the way for later, more generous portrayals of birds in kabbalistic thought.

Indeed, by the time of the Tsfat kabbalists (16th c) the Zoharic condemnation of ornithomancy had been reinterpreted to refer exclusively to impure birds (ravens) whereas divination with pure birds (doves — a symbol of the people Israel) was thought to be permitted. The question of what prompted such a lenient adaptation deserves its own essay; regardless, this works conveniently for Rabbi Isaac Luria, who was acclaimed by his students for his comprehension of the speech of birds (along with that of the speech of trees and angels). He even understood birds that are mute, particularly vultures. While certainly being potential vehicles of divination (Luria is said to have had knowledge of his own death three days in advance by virtue of listening to bird calls) birds also serve as conduits for secrets of torah in Lurianic cosmology. According to Luria’s disciple, Hayyim Vital, birds clear a path through which heavenly decrees are able to penetrate the air of the physical world. Birds are also said to communicate secrets of heaven through both their calls and wing movements.

This dramatic reversal of the Zohar’s position is revitalized in the Hasidic tradition through the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov. In the words of the BeShT: “The language of each animal of the upper chariot [heaven] descends to the lower animals, beasts, and birds. The wise man who can understand everything in heaven will be able to understand the origin and details of the speech of the birds.”

To end with a caveat: I’ve glossed over most of the halachic history concerning the legality of ornithomancy and divination generally. As such, the takeaway from this thread should be that Jewish mysticism has had a complex and tumultuous relationship with divination and not that it’s a widespread practice. That being said, the spectre of the bird in kabbalistic literature as an animal in intimate proximaty with heavenly knowledge is a fascinating notion which, I contend, deserves to be treated more in depth.

(These notes — used originally for a Twitter thread — derive almost entirely from Gerrit Bos’ excellent article “Jewish Traditions on Divination with Birds,” with some additional references on the conflation of angels and birds in Zohar pulled from personal research.)

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J. N.

J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022