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Lovey Dovey

Ask anyone what bird is the symbol of peace or what beautiful creature is sometimes released at weddings and the answer will be a dove. Ask what bird is a dirty scrounging street dweller and the answer is likely to be a pigeon. But these birds are branches off the same tree, to mix our metaphors. Doves and pigeons are both members of the Columbidae family of birds; they have slight differences in their bodies but in most ways they are the same. Columba means swim in Greek and seems to refer to how the birds fly, with a swooping motion. The English word dove (as in diving) means the same thing.

Common pigeons (Wikipedia)

This exploration of bird categories is connected to Betzah 9 and 10. 聽The Mishnah discusses a ladder by a dovecote, a 砖讜讘讱, and how the birds have to be designated as dinner in order to be caught and slaughtered on Yom Tov:

MISHNA:Beit Shammai say: One may not carry a ladder, which was used for reaching doves, from one dovecote to another. However, one tilts it from one window to another. And Beit Hillel permit鈥 (Betzah 9a)

The Gemara goes on to discuss why moving the ladder was not permitted by Bet Shammai, but let us further explore the situation of the doves and where they lived . Doves and pigeons are already referred to in the Torah. We have the famous story of the 讬讜谞讛 who is sent out by Noah to see if the flood waters have receded and who returns with an olive branch in her mouth. More prosaically, doves and pigeons were brought as sacrifices by people who could not afford to bring the larger animals (cows, sheep and goats).

聽讜职讗执支诐 诪执谉志讛指注譀讜止祝 注止诇指芝讛 拽讎专职讘旨指谞謻讜止 诇址纸讬讛止讜指謶讛 讜职讛执拽职专执郑讬讘 诪执谉志讛址转旨止专执謼讬诐 讗譀讜止 诪执谉志讘旨职谞值芝讬 讛址讬旨讜止谞指謻讛 讗侄转志拽讎专职讘旨指谞纸讜止變 鈥

If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he shall choose his offering from turtledoves or pigeons.鈥 (VaYikra 1:14)

The Torah also uses two terms to refer to them: 转讜专 and 讘谉 讬讜谞讛. Dr. Moshe Raanan explains that these terms correspond to dove and pigeon. The 转讜专/dove is smaller, thinner and has shorter wings and a longer tail than the 讬讜谞讛/pigeon.

Common turtledove (Wikipedia)

Nachmanides explains that these particular birds are chosen for a practical as well as a symbolic reason. Practically, they are raised by people and easy to find and bring as a sacrifice. On a metaphorical level, they are monogamous and do not leave their partner, a sign that Israel will not abandon God for other gods. This loving quality is perhaps the reason that the Song of Songs uses 讬讜谞讛 as a term of endearment:

鈥. . . My darling, my faultless dove!鈥 (Song of Songs 5:2)

These qualities mentioned by the Nachmanides are indeed two main reasons why raising doves was wildly popular in ancient times. Once the birds find a mate and build a nest, they will always return to it. The female lays an egg and then the female and male take turns sitting on it for about twenty days. After twenty days, it hatches and the process begins again. Doves and pigeons live five to fifteen years so there is a really good return on your investment. Whether you gather the eggs or wait for the baby birds to hatch so that you can eat them, you have a constant source of food. Small birds are a particularly useful food source since one or two provide a meal for a family, In the days before refrigeration, you could only slaughter small animals unless you were expecting a large crowd, so cows and goats were saved for special occasions. Besides providing meals, pigeons were useful for what they left behind: their dung was a great source of fertilizer.

So if everyone was raising doves, where did they keep them? There were a number of possibilities. Our Mishnah talks about a 砖讜讘讱, a dovecote. These were tall structures (hence the ladder) that had spaces cut into them for individual nests. They could hold anywhere from ten to dozens of nests. An even larger type of structure was a 诪讙讚诇, a tower. This was used for commercial purposes and could hold hundreds of nesting spaces. Both these structures have been used in our region until modern times. Their prevalence is attested to by the laws in the Mishnah about how they can be placed and how to prevent theft from one dovecote to another. For example:

鈥淥ne must distance his ladder four cubits from a neighbor鈥檚 dovecote so that a mongoose will not be able to jump from the ladder to the dovecote and devour the birds. And one must distance his wall four cubits from a roof gutter, so that the neighbor can lean a ladder in the empty space to clean and repair the gutter. One must distance a dovecote fifty cubits from the city鈥 (Bava Batra 2:5)

A relatively modern dovecote in Mazkeret Batya (Wikipedia)

You could also raise your birds in an 注诇讬讛, an attic. Here you just cut niches into your house so that the birds can nest there. In all these scenarios, once the structure is built and you have procured your doves, you are set. They go out and get their own food and raise their own young.

Another structure, visible today in many parts of Israel, is called a columbarium (from the scientific name for the dove and pigeon family, Columba). These are niches cut into rocks, usually the soft chalky rock of the Shephelah, the lowlands of Judah. They can be small, with a few dozen niches, or enormous like this one found in Bet Guvrin:

Columbarium in Bet Guvrin (Wikipedia)

While not all scholars agree that these were used to raise pigeons, most do. Their presence indicates that raising these birds was as common as it seems in the Mishnah. A fascinating twist on the story is that sometimes these columbaria, built in caves and often underground, were converted into hideouts by the rebels of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century CE. In the past fifty years many underground complexes with narrow entrances have been discovered in Judah as well as in the Galilee and the Judean Desert. They were used by the rebels to hide out from the Romans. Instead of starting from scratch, often they would take an existing underground structure: a cistern, a mikveh or a columbarium, and convert it into a hideout cave.

Entrance to a hideout cave (Wikipedia)

The lowly pigeon was as prevalent a sight in ancient Israel as it is today, perhaps even more so. But in ancient times it was much more functional as well as symbolic: love, loyalty and even Godly revelation were all connected to these birds. So the next time you see a pigeon, give it some respect!




Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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