Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yiqra  5766/ April 1, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



For the Birds: Offerings of Fowl in the Late Second Temple Period*


Dr. Zohar Amar


The Martin (Szusz) Dept. of  Land of Israel Studies and Archeology


In the beginning of Leviticus, at the outset of the laws of sacrifices, the Torah mentions turtledoves and pigeons as the only possible offerings from the family of birds (Lev. 1:14).  In Maimonides’ opinion, one of the reasons was that turtledoves and pigeons were the most commonly-available birds in the land of Israel:   “Since it is beyond the capabilities of most people to make an animal offering, He also commanded that offerings could be made of the most common, best, and most easily attainable birds in the land of Israel, and those were turtledoves and pigeons.” [1]

Tannaitic sources, mostly dating from the period prior to the destruction of the Temple until two generations after the destruction, provide extensive information about bird sacrifice.  The sources of this period call offerings of turtledoves and pigeons kinnim, a term derived from the word ken (meaning bird nest), and referring to an offering of a pair birds of the same gender, apparently because turtledoves and pigeons generally lay eggs in twos.

Shalosh Regalim

were in greatest demand during the three pilgrimage festivals, since in many instances people waited for the pilgrimage time to fulfill their accumulated sacrificial obligations.  The number of pilgrims during each festival is estimated at several tens of thousands, [2] and presumably every pilgrim either brought with him or purchased in Jerusalem at least one turtledove or pair of pigeons, either as an obligatory offering or as a voluntary offering.  In excavations of the area around the southern wall of the Temple Mount a fragment of a stone vessel from the Herodian period was discovered, on which was engraved the word korban, offering, and under the inscription, upside-down figures of two birds. [3]   This finding may have been a special vessel in which bird-offerings were brought. [4]   As most of the people who brought bird-offerings were apparently women either after birth or discharge, therefore in dealing with a certain halakhah the Mishnah cites as examples the offerings of such women.  It follows from these examples that often women would bring five or more bird-offerings. [5]

The greatest number of pilgrims to gather in Jerusalem would come for the festival of Passover, on account of the pascal offering.   During this time of year the demand for bird-offerings was greatest, sometimes causing a shortage of birds and a steep rise in price.  It is told that Rabban Gamaliel the Elder once sought to proclaim a leap-year because the fledglings were too young.  This story is countered by a baraitha in the Talmud stating that one is not to proclaim a leap year simply “because fledglings have not yet matured.” However this argument could be used as partial support for declaring a leap year. if there were additional arguments as well. [6]   Rabban Gamaliel was apparently referring to the fledglings of a specific type of pigeon (yonat ha-sela’im), a bird that begins nesting only in early March, [7] or to the common turtledove, which only returns to Israel from its winter migration to have its young here in early April.  That year it seemed the pigeons and turtledoves might not be large enough by Passover to be brought as offerings, but the Sages ruled that this in itself did not suffice to proclaim a leap year, since alternatively one could use pigeons that lived in the land the year round.

Some pilgrims brought their bird-offerings along with them, but most celebrants, especially those who came from far away, purchased their offerings in Jerusalem since they preferred not to carry them along on the lengthy journey.   Another reason for buying the offerings in Jerusalem was the age limitation on the pigeons that would be accepted for sacrifices on the altar.  According to one interpretation, this age span was relatively short, so there was a distinct possibility that the offerings of pilgrims coming from afar would be proclaimed not fit by the time they reached Jerusalem.   Therefore, pilgrims who nevertheless preferred bringing their offerings with them presumably chose to bring turtledoves, since there was no upper age limit on these birds once they had reached maturity. [8]

Raising the Birds

The birds were sold by people who raised them for a living, as well as by an organized industry run by the priests.  In the late Second Temple period commerce in bird-offerings took place outside the walls of the Temple Mount. [9]   The payment for bird-offerings sold to the public was placed in two shofar-shaped horns, one of them bearing the inscription, kinnim, and intended for payment for large turtledoves, and the other bearing the inscriptions gozalei olah, fledglings for offerings, and intended for payment for pigeons. [10]   The priests would collect the money from these horns daily, in exchange sacrificing the bird-offerings for the owners. [11]

For the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) it was customary to bring first-fruits to the Temple, with fledglings as an adornment.  The fledglings that were brought as offerings were apparently placed in separate baskets, or “on top of the baskets” of first-fruits, while the fledglings that were brought as gifts for the priests were held in the pilgrims’ hands. [12]   The fledglings for offerings were not placed directly in the baskets of first-fruits, so that the birds would not soil the fruits with their droppings. [13]  The method of fastening the birds around the outside of the baskets of first-fruits is depicted in a mosaic that was discovered in the ancient synagogue at Sepphoris. [14]

A special person

 A special person was placed in charge of all bird-offerings in the Temple.  In the late Second Temple period the person who held this position went by the name of Petahiah and was known as a very wise man:  “Petahiah was in charge of bird-offerings (Petahiah is Mordechai).  Why was he called Petahiah?  Because he could sound forth (Heb. pote’ah be-devarim) and explicate things, and he knew seventy tongues.” [15]

The Essentials of Halakha

It was necessary to have a special person in charge of bird-offerings for several reasons.  Firstly, the laws concerning bird-offerings were considered especially complex and difficult:  “Bird-offerings and the laws of menstruation (niddah) are the essentials of halakhah.” [16]   Thus it was necessary to appoint someone who was particularly expert in the details of the law.   For example, if obligatory and voluntary bird-offerings became confused with each other, or bird-offerings brought as burnt-offerings were confused with those brought as sin-offerings, that might lead to all the bird-offerings becoming unfit, according to the mishnaic statement that “if a sin-offering were confused with a burnt-offering, or a burnt-offering with a sin-offering, even one among ten thousand, then all of them must be left to die.” [17]   From this mishnah we learn that one of the ways a bird-offering could become unfit was by the birds themselves becoming interchanged because of the crowding among the people bringing the sacrifices and the great number of bird-offerings at the Temple, especially during the three pilgrimage festivals.  Another possible reason a bird-offering might become unfit was mixing up the money that was set aside for their purchase, [18] hence extreme care was taken that the payment for them go into separate horns. [19]

Be that as it may, we can easily understand why an entire tractate was devoted to the subject, Tractate Kinnim.  This tractate as we have it today was redacted after the destruction of the Temple, and is complex also by reason of the way its mishnahs are arranged. [20]

The second reason a special person in charge of bird-offerings was necessary was economic.   We are dealing with an extensive and complicated branch of commerce, which involved contacting suppliers, setting prices, collecting money from the public, [21] and managing a complex work schedule of sacrifices.   It appears that the public preferred to buy their bird-offerings from the system under supervision of the priests in the Temple, rather than from private merchants, since these bird-offerings came with insurance and in the event that they might be declared unfit, one could invoke the court stipulation that “unfit bird-offerings be replaced by those that came from the public.”  Moreover, the Temple’s private suppliers were required to provide replacement bird-offerings free of charge in the event that the birds flew away or were lost. [22]   This provision was made due to the great loss resulting from bird-offerings in the Temple being declared unfit, which could come to quite a considerable sum of money.  Nevertheless, it was apparently still worthwhile for suppliers to take the risk and absorb the possible losses, since in exchange they were assured steady business supplying bird-offerings to the Temple the year round, not only in the peak seasons of the three festivals.

Keeping the Prices Down

The increase in population and in demand for bird-offerings in the late Second Temple period led to private pigeon-breeders charging exorbitant prices.   A story is told of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel attempting to lower prices by a halakhic ruling that would cause a substantial drop in the demand for pigeons:

The price of a pair of pigeons in Jerusalem once reached a golden dinar.  Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel then said:   By this Temple (an oath), I shall not rest tonight until a pair of pigeons are sold for [a silver] dinar.   He went into the court and taught:   If a woman underwent five definite births or five definite issues, she brings only one pigeon as a sin-offering and she may then eat of the sacrifices, and no obligation devolves on her to bring the other offerings.  That very day the price of a pair of pigeons stood at two quarters [of a silver dinar]. [23]

The bird-offerings sold in the Temple came primarily from large suppliers who specialized in the business, but also from private dovecots. [24]   Pigeon-breeding was a business that naturally focused around Jerusalem.   Talmudic traditions note that pigeons were raised on the Mount of Olives, on a tree on which there grew “forty se’ah of fledglings each and every month, providing sufficient bird-offerings for all Israel.” [25]   Another version of the text attributes their breeding to King Yannai on King’s Mountain, claiming that from the same tree “forty se’ah of fledglings were taken down from three broods (berekhot) in a single month.” [26]

This depiction is only appropriate to raising pigeons, since the term berekhot means a single breeding cycle, [27] which with pigeons is relatively short.  Even if the quantities mentioned here seem an exaggeration, the general picture that emerges from Talmudic sources is certainly reliable.   It is also supported by archaeological findings from the same period, as well as by the descriptions of the first-century B.C.E. Roman writer, Varro, [28] who describes the practice of raising pigeons in columbarium towers that held as many as 5,000 domesticated pigeons at any one time.   Remains of such towers were found in Israel, most notably three towers in the area of the City of David in Jerusalem. [29]   In Jerusalem and its environs alone an archaeological survey found columbaria dating to the Hellenistic and early Roman period (2nd century B.C.E. – 1st century C.E.), and these attest that raising pigeons was an important branch of commerce when pigeons and fledglings were brought to the Temple, were eaten as meat, and their droppings were used to fertilize the fields.   During the Hasmonean period demand for pigeons as sacrifices was high, but after the destruction of the Temple this branch of the economy was reduced to supplying meat and fertilizer alone and eventually declined throughout the region of Judea.


* See Z. Amar, Massoret Ha’of: Collected Articles (Hebrew), Neve Tzuf, 5764[2004].

[1] Guide for the Perplexed (Y. Kapah edition), Jerusalem 1977, 3.46, p. 382.

[2] S. Safrai, Ha-Aliyah la-Regel be-Yemei Bayit Sheni, Tel-Aviv 1965, pp. 71-74.

[3] B. Mazar, “Harifot Archaeologiyot be-Yerushalayim ha-Atikah,” Eretz-Yisrael, 9 (1969), pp. 168-170.

[4] A vessel with the work korban (sacrifice) on it is mentioned in the Mishnah (Ma’aser Sheni 4.10).

[5] Mishnah Keritot 1.7; Kinnim 2.3 (All further references are to Mishna, unless stated otherwise).

[6] Tosefta Sanhedrin 2.6; Jerusalem Talmud, loc. sit., 1.18d; Babylonian Talmud, loc. sit., 11a.


[7] The nesting season continues until August and can have as many as two or three cycles of nesting.  Pigeons in Israel lay eggs almost throughout the entire year and, when conditions are good (such as a nest which is shielded from the cold), a pigeon can have from eight to twelve cycles of nesting.  Only in the cold weather of Europe the pigeon takes a short break from   nesting, as Rashi notes in his commentary on Betzah 10a (cf. M. Katan, Ha-Hayyim be-Yemei Rashi, Jerusalem 1997, p. 83).

[8] “Turtledoves – once they hatch, and even if they are old,” (Tosefta Hullin 1.15).

[9] For further elaboration, cf. Safrai, p. 148.

[10] Shekalim 6.5.

[11] Tosefta Shekalim 3.2-3.

[12] Bikkurim 3.5; Tosefta loc. sit., 2.11; S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Peshutah on Bikkurim, Jerusalem 1993, p. 851.

[13] Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 3, 65d.

[14] Z. Weiss and E. Netzer, Havtahah u-Geulah, Psefas Beit ha-Knesset mi-Zippori, Jerusalem 1996, p. 24.

[15] Shekalim 1.1.

[16] Avot 3.18.

[17] Kinnim 1.2.

[18] Kinnim 1, דגם בארץ [what on earth is this about?]

[19] Shekalim 6.5.

[20] Cf. M. Weiss, “Seder ha-Mishnah be-Masekhet Kinnim:   Le-She’elat Pirkei Mishnah Toseftiyyim,” Sidra 13 (1997), pp. 61-91.

[21] Cf. Maimonides, Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash, 7.9.

[22] Shekalim 7.7; Jerusalem Talmud, loc. sit., 5, 50d.

[23] Keritot 1.7.

[24] Me’ilah 3.6.

[25] Jerusalem Talmud, 4, 69a; Lamentations Rabbati, 2.4.  Josephus mentions a rock in this region which was called the “dovecot” (Jewish War, 5.12.2).

[26] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 44a; cf. Tosefta, Menahot 9.13.

[27] Cf. Bava Batra 5.3.

[28] Varro, Rerum Rusticarum III, 7.

[29] B. Ziso, “Hafirot David Alon be-Hurbet Abu Haf bi-Shnat 1980 – Gilui Migdal Columbarium,” in Yishuv, Civilizatzia ve-Tarbut – Divre ha-Kenes le-Zikhro shel David Alon (A. Meir and A. Barukh, eds.), Ramat Gan 2001, p. 177;  A. Kloner, “Columbaria in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem and Eretz Israel (J. Schwartz, Z. Amar,  I. Ziffer, eds.), Tel-Aviv 2000, pp. 61-66.