Jewish Hawking in Medieval France: Falconry, Rabbenu Tam, and the Tosafists
Oqimta: Studies in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature, Vol. 1 (2013)
The house of Rabbi Ishmael taught that when the Israelites left Egypt they were comparable to a dove that fled from a hawk and entered a small hole in a rock and found a snake’s nest. She could not enter any further because the snake was there, and she could not turn around for the hawk was waiting outside. What did the dove do? She began crying out and flapping her wings so that the owner of her birdhouse would come and rescue her. (Canticles Rabbah 2, 2)
An interdisciplinary approach is useful in interpreting medieval rabbinic sources related to hawking. Traditional rabbinics, Jewish history, general history, the history and modern practice of hunting and falconry, zoology, and medieval art all must be harnessed in a unified approach. In this manner, much light is shed on the various aspects of the practice, which are otherwise distanced from the modern gaze by a wide dark chasm of ignorance regarding “primitive” hunting techniques.
Hawking, otherwise known as falconry, is a method of hunting, which utilizes captive trained predatory birds. It was developed in ancient times somewhere in the East—the precise time and location lost in the mists of ancient Eastern prehistory. Apparently, it was relatively unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who did not practice it. Falconry was developed extensively by the Persians, through whom the Babylonian Jews became acquainted with it. The practice spread independently both to Arabia and west into Europe. Falconry reached an apex in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, but in the modern era it was displaced to a great extent by the use of firearms. The present article explores the medieval Jewish knowledge of, and especially the exploitation of this technique, centered in twelfth-century Northern France in the communities surrounding the great master Tosafist, Rabbenu Tam. Various concerns regarding the Jewish dietary and other laws will be addressed in depth, as well as medieval biblical exegesis, all with an eye towards extracting material which may be of interest to general historians and scholars of falconry.