Richard Goode explores the emotive place the hare has within biblical and post-biblical tradition.
I am very fortunate where I live as the neighbouring fields are often frequented by a small population of hares. It is a real joy to watch them about their daily life or, early in the morning, racing down the lanes. As we we see, the hare can evoke a number of different emotional responses in us. Although, in many ways similar to the rabbit – on first sight, our initial reactions are often, ‘is that a hare or a rabbit?’ – they engender an altogether different set of emotional and psychological associations.
It is apt that the hare has an equally emotive, sometimes poignant, and sometimes enigmatic place within biblical and post-biblical tradition.
It is probably for this reason that hares inhabit such a very special place within human culture, featuring in folklore, myth and art all around the globe; see Carnell’s (2010) fascinating book, Hare, published by Reaktion.
Within ancient Egypt the hare was a popular image. The snake-formed goddess Unut (or Wenet), meaning ‘the Swift One’, was later depicted as a woman with the head of a hare. Presumably this was a nod towards the speed of the running hare.
Furthermore, the stylised image of the hare was commonly used within Egyptian hieroglyphs with the biliteral value ‘un’ or ‘wn’. France (1986:75) notes that hares, particularly within a hunting scenario, were frequently depicted on Egyptian wall paintings as well as being “a popular theme in Assyrian seals and reliefs.”
Within (later) Jewish culture and tradition, the hare became a fairly common motif. Slifkin (2015:324) describes its use by the Sages, within the Mishnaic period, as a symbol for the nation of Greece. What is interesting is that, unlike the symbolic animals that feature in Daniel’s vision (and the hybrid beasts of Revelation) that are all predatory by nature, these animals are not entirely negative, and can often display a positive aspect.
‘… “the hare” is Greece. “Because it raises up its cud” – that it [raised up its voice in] praise to the Holy One. When Alexander of Macedon saw Shimon HaTzaddik, he proclaimed, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Shimon HaEzaddik!”’
Vayikra Rabba 13.5
Slifkin (2015:325) also notes the association of the hare with Haggadic tradition and that Esau (and, by association, his descendants) are often symbolised by the hare.
The Haggadah relates to material used within and tells the story of the weekly Seder (or Passover) and, within western traditions, there seems to have been a strong association between it and the hare – specifically the hunting of the hare.
Slifkin (2015:325) argues that the reason for this association is that the mnemonic used to help remember the sequence of the Seder (YaKNeHaZ) “sounds similar to the German phrase jag den Has, meaning “hunt the hare.” A very helpful discussion of the hare-hunting motif within early Haggadot can be found on the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute for Religion blog: Hare Hunting in the Haggadah.
As a rather poignant footnote, the post also includes an image from the Moss Haggadah, created by David Moss and published in 1990, which includes the following image (below), about which Moss writes:
‘When European Jews included hare hunt scenes in their Haggadot, I suspected that their sympathies lay with the hare! It seems to me that this apparently incongruous hare-hunting scene found its way into these European Haggadot precisely because it represented the image of the persecuted Jews. I became suddenly obsessed with images of hares and their relentless huntsmen. Then, at one point, my focus shifted from the human hunter of the hare to its natural predators. I caught a glimpse of a stark and powerful new image: that of the eagle. I began tracking down this bird of prey in zoology and mythology, heraldry and human history. I’ve collected some of these images on page 7b, adding only the hares which appear in the eagles’ clutches. … The last panel shows the hare which, always, somehow, manages to escape.’
David Moss, A Song of David, Commentary
It is, therefore, a little surprising that the Bible says very little about this rather fabulous creature. Although this striking figure of the fields and scrub might have caught the imagination of cultures spread right across the globe, the two short mentions it gets in the Bible are prosaic to say the least; essentially stating, don’t eat them!
‘Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you.’
Deuteronomy 14:7 (NRSV)
The Priestly re-working of the Deuteronomic code adds a little more explanation, but still remains very brief.
‘The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.’
Leviticus 11:6 (NRSV)
Those familiar with hares will have immediately spotted something distinctly odd about these two references – hares do not chew the cud; they are rodent not ruminant. Perhaps, once again, the hare is playing its role of trickster!
Whilst it is true that the hare does not chew the cud, research from the mid 1940’s has shown that, like rabbits, they practice ‘refection’ (also known as ‘pseudo-rumination’). This involves the excretion of partly digested faecal pellets which are then consumed a little while later, and it is this that gives the hare the appearance of cud chewing. Refection enables the hare (and rabbit) to gain as much nutrition as possible from their grass diet (Borowski, 1998:193; Goodfellow, 2015:135).
The United Bible Societies (1980:39) suggests that it was the process of refection in the hare and the observation of the “peculiar movements of its jaws when chewing” that led to the belief that it was chewing the cud. For an extremely good discussion looking at the zoology, as well as the Jewish perspective on this, see Slifkin (2015:321-323).
Tristram (1883:99) observes that there are two species of hare common to biblical Israel; the Lepus syriacus (similar in size and colour to the European hare) that is found in the woody and cultivated northern regions and the relatively more recent Lepus judeae, a much smaller, grey species found in Judea and Jordan valley.
Although Tristram (1883:99) states that “the flesh of the hair is highly esteemed by the Arabs”, it is interesting to note that the view that eating the flesh of a hare as being taboo, was not restricted to the ancient Israelites.
In the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar observes that the Ancient Britons
‘… do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure.’
Buczacki (2002:486) also notes that, even relatively recently in some parts of Britain, that caution was advised concerning its consumption. He cites James Shirley’s (1633) The Triumph of Peace:
‘Some old country people refuse to eat hare, even where it still thrives, for it seems to have a greater volume of blood inits body than other animals of its size, which makes the meat dark. As a result, it is believed that if a pregnant woman eats hare she will have a miscarriage.’
James Shirley cited in Buczacki (2002:486)
Slifkin (2015) argues that within Rabbinic tradition the eating of the hare was considered to be a pagan practice.
Shirley’s connection between the hare and pregnancy reflects a very old tradition that associates the animal with issues relating to childbirth. Although it is unfortunately unattested*, France (1986:74) relates how, within Hebrew mythology, the hare is thought to have magical powers, including the ability to change its sex or allow the male to give birth to its young (an idea that is found within other cultures as well). The Hebrew legend draws on the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood. Whilst on the ark, the female hare unwisely escapes and is drowned leaving the single male hare on his own.
‘[W]hen the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, only the male hare came out. And God gave him the power to bear children. Because of this ability, the stomach of the male hare was though to cure sterility, and this was the cure suggested to Samson’s mother, against which the angle warns her in Judges 13:7. It was also said the Zedekiah was able to exercise power of Nebuchadnezzer in the act of cutting a piece of flesh from a live hare and eating it, according to the habit of the barbarians.’
The 17th century physician William Sermon (1629-1680) author of The Ladies Companion or The English Midwife is said to have decided to take up medicine after witnessing a woman give birth whilst he was out hunting hares. Taylor (2007) argues that this might be why so many of his ‘cures’ include elements of the hare! Two such instances that are both related to curing sterility are cited by Taylor. Interestingly one includes a reference to the properties attributed to the hare’s stomach/womb:
‘Take the slime that a hare will have about his mouth when he eateth mallows and drink it in wine,… Two hours after lie with your husband and fear not (faith my author) but that you will conceive.
Give to the woman without her knowledge the womb of a hare to eat. Or burn the same to powder, and give it to her in wine to drink.’
Whether by appearing to use its stomach to produce its own young or fooling us into thinking that it is a ruminant, the hare seems to continue its long history of being the trickster of the animal world… and long may it continue!
*If anyone knows where this story can be found, I would be very grateful if you could pass it on to me.
Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press
Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. London: Hamlyn
Carnell, S. (2010) Hare. London: Reaktion Books
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Biblical Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume 1: Chayot/Wild Animals. New York: Biblical Museum of Natural History.
Taylor, J. (2007) ‘When 17th-century women would seek out hare spittle‘ The Independent. (29/11/2007)
Tristram, H.B. (1883) The Natural History of the Bible. 7th edn. London: Society for the Promoting Christian Knowledge.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: UBS
This article was originally posted here as part of Richard’s ‘Biblically Wild’ blog series on Newman University website.