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Of Biblical Unicorns and Jews With Horns


Following my (relatively) recent post about dragons and mermaids in the Bible, today I want to explore another subject that has to do with mythical beasts: the symbolism of horns and unicorns in Judaism. If you thought that unicorns are just honor members of a much-later medieval bestiary, you will be surprised to know that the King James Bible uses the word “unicorn” no less than six times (Num 23:22, Num 24:8. Job 39:9-10, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10), although surprisingly other versions of the Bible translate the same word as “ox,” “wild-ox” or other horned animals. The problem is that these oxes seem to have a single horn, as implied by a text we recite twice every Shabbat: “you raise my horn (not ‘horns’) like that of the triumphant ox (or unicorn).” So these are the questions: are there unicorns in the Bible? And how do we read the metaphor of raising somebody’s horn in Jewish culture?

The Hebrew word usually translated as “unicorn” is ראם (re’em), a term of uncertain meaning. G. Dennis defines the re’em as a mythic giant ox-like animal with horns, or perhaps with a single horn. Let us explore what rabbinic literature and Jewish myth tell us about these unicorns. Very strong and agile, the re’em is so big that its horn touches the clouds and its droppings can dam the river Jordan (Yalkut II: 97d). The re’em was created on the sixth day of creation, that is, at the same time that the Divine created human beings and the rest of animals not included on the 5th day. Apparently, the legend says that there are only two re’emim (plural of re’em) at a time, and that they only mate every 70 years. After mating, the female re’em kills the male. The next pair gestate in the female for at least 12 years, and then the female dies while giving birth. It is said that King David inadvertently mistook a re’em for a mountain and climbed on it (B.B. 73a). Of course, the biblical and rabbinic legends about the re’em are later conflated with popular beliefs about unicorns in medieval writings.

The essence of this mythological beast is, obviously, his prominent horn, in Hebrew קרן, keren. Horns are the symbol of power, of alarm and of other-worldliness. A midrash says that Cain sprouted a horn from his forehead as a mark given by God in order to protect him, but his semi-blind grandson Lemach accidentally killed him thinking he was a game animal. Based on Ex. 34:29, early Christians depicted Moses as having horns, as light was radiating from his face, and because the Hebrew language uses the word keren also to mean “rays of light” (קרני אור). This representation of a horned Moses (see, for instance, Michelangelo’s sculpture) influenced the Christian myth that Jews were minions of the Devil. Popular belief was that Jews actually had real horns under their head cover, a myth reinforced by the mandatory wearing of horned hats.

The fact is that in medieval Europe Jewish males were forced to wear a single-horned skull cap or pilleus cornutus. It begun by being just another shape of the traditional head covering, but quickly became mandatory in order to distinguish Jews from Christians. The law was based on the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), which ruled that non-Christians must at all times be distinguishable by their dress, less Christians engage in sexual intercourse with them by mistake. Through the centuries, the wearing of the horned hat was substituted in other countries by the wearing of a badge, a trend that continued down to Nazi Germany. Rules of distinctive garb for Jews were also enforced in the Muslim world continuously at least until mid 19th century. In European art, the wearing of the horned hat is often symbolic: Egyptian magicians are depicted wearing it too, as a sign of being “like Jews,” that is, on the wrong side of the dispute depicted in Ex. 7:10-12; in scenes of Judgment Day conversions, removing the Jewish hat is a symbol of abandoning infidelity and recalcitrant Jewishness. On the other hand, antisemitic depictions of the male Jew –not unlike later prejudices against black males in our country— regularly included being a sexual predator that targeted gentile women, and some authors argue that a long “shapely” nose was nothing but a code for the Jewish phallus.

The point is that, for some primal, etiological reason, many cultures have equated the symbolism of the horn to that of the phallus, with implications of strength and ruling power. Going back to the Bible, the word “horn” appears often in the text in a literal, functional way, but also in a metaphorical sense. Here and there we have faint hints of horns and magic-ritual uses in the Bible. Thus Zedekiah made for himself (or perhaps for the king) a cap with horns of iron, saying “thus says Hashem: with these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed” (1Kings 22:11), the idea being that the wearer of the horns would be transformed in an invincible, triumphant bull. The concept of kings as “young bulls with horns” was quite common in the ancient Near East (Shalmeneser III, Thutmose III and Seti II all receive this epithet). The whole tribe of Efraim is poetically described in these terms: “his glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together” (Dt 33:17). Once again, the King James Bible’s “unicorn” is none but the re’em in the original Hebrew.

In another interesting biblical epithet God is described as “the horn of my salvation” (Ps 18:2, 2Sam 22:3). This implies that horns not always have the connotation of attack or destruction, but also positive implications of deliverance and not-so-veiled phallic allusions, as the texts imply vertical representations of raising horns. Such is the case of “my horn is lifted up like the horn of the wild-ox (or unicorn, re’em), I am anointed with fresh oil,” which arguably could represent the erection as a symbol of power and victory. Redemption and strength for the future messiah are reflected in the phrase “I will make a horn to sprout for David” (Jer 48:25). One can easily read a castration metaphor when “the horn of Moab is cut” (meaning that Moab’s political domination is over). Note that in all of these cases, the texts mention one single horn, not a pair of them.

Despite the contemporary commercialized, sanitized version of the unicorn myth, unicorns also have a close link to phallicism, that is, the veneration of the generative principle in the form of a phallus. As both phallus and horn are symbols of primal masculinity (only male animals have horns), as such they have connotations of both destruction-agression (the horn as a weapon) and generative powers. The cornucopia –the “horn of abundance,” a classical symbol of Western art, often related in America to Thanksgiving– is depicted as a horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers and nuts. This is an interesting symbiosis, as the masculine/horn symbol has a fecundity effect in the feminine/earth abundant harvest. Of particular interest are the many mythical beings depicted with horns, often inspired in anthropomorphic gods, as many of the moon-cult (think of the inverted crescent shape in the head of a figure) and bull-cult deities are represented with horns. Pan, Apollo Carneus and Dionysus are all horned gods with phallic implications, and they have been linked to fertility, a certain ritual madness, and religious ecstasy. We find similar connections in the myths related to Shiva, Osiris, Priapus, Hermes, Cernunnos, etc. It is quite interesting that Christianity turned the images of these horned gods into representations of the devil, the antithesis of God and incarnation of destructive passions as much as of unruly sexuality. To me, it is a symbol of the Christian discomfort, if not plain rejection, of anything related to the body and to sexuality.

And thus we close the circle. In this totum revolutum of popular imagination, Jews –perceived as horned creatures of insatiable and disorderly sexuality— conflate with images of alterity, of ancient gods and modern devils, sitting together around the fire, dancing the primal, generative dance of the unicorn.



Bienstock Anolik, Ruth and Douglas L. Howard, edit. The Gothic other: racial and social constructions in the literary imafination. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004, p. 188.

Davis, Christian. Colonialism, antisemitism and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015, p. 103

Dennis, Geoffrey W. The Encyclopedia of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism, Woodbury MN : Llewellyn, 2007, pp. 117, 122-123.

“Jewish hat,” Wikipedia [, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]

Mystery, Mel, “Unicorns and phallic horns,” Discovering the male mysteries podcast, episode 10, May 18, 2014 [, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]

Süring, Margit L., “The horn-motifs of the Bible and the ancient Near East,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1984, Vol. 22 no. 3, pp. 327-340

Keep the Mitzvah in Bar Mitzvah

There are subjects one cannot afford to write about right away, things that need some time and reflection, cooling down, perhaps a change of circumstances like not having a pulpit anymore. So there you go, let’s talk about bene mitzvah (that’s the plural of bar / bat mitzvah), the quintessential rite of passage we all love to hate.

On my way to work, and given the season, I pass in front of a neighbor’s yard, scarcely decorated for the holidays, where a lawn sign reminds passers-by that it is time to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To me Christmas is overwhelming: the crowds going crazy at the malls, season’s songs pumping from loudspeakers since shortly after Halloween, and the overall commercialization of the event. I imagine that if Jesus’ birth were central to my faith, this pageant of consumerism would be almost insulting. My neighbor’s message is clear: celebrating Christmas is all good and well if you believe, but do not take away the real meaning of the holiday.

I believe we have done pretty much the same with bene mitzvah (from now on, BM), a name that means “sons or daughters of the precept.” We have just taken the mitzvah away and made it all about sons and daughters, introducing in it a serious devirtualization. This rite of passage –rather new in our cultural history– marks the moment where Jews are considered adults, and thus responsible for the observance of the commandments, a new status they mark by getting the honor of being called to the Torah and counted for minyan for the first time, an action often accompanied by another adulthood responsibility, leading the prayers. Therefore, let’s ask ourselves what should BM be and what have they become instead.

1. BMs are not passive sacraments. In spite of the common usage, the passive participle barmitzvaed does not exist. Kids reach the age of BM or celebrate their BM, but the ritual is not sacramental, that is, not an hocus-pocus that makes you Jewish. What is more, it will happen anyway, at age 13, ready or not, ceremony or not: you will be an adult in Jewish terms. You may skip your birthday cake the day you turn 18, but you will still be an adult and have the right to vote.

2. BMs are a community celebration, not a family affair. The congregation receives a new member with full rights by giving him or her a role in the service. Instead, it has become a day where families exert full pressure on ritual committees imposing their demands, and everybody accepts it thinking that it’s a “family function” and not a kehilah function. I have seen parents requesting that for their BM the whole congregation should use a children’s siddur, or that all aliyot should be given to family members, or that they want a minchah BM so that only family and friends attend and the kid doesn’t feel intimidated. So much for a kehilah affair.

3. BMs are a beginning of a life of learning and mitzvot, not a graduation from Judaism. Let’s face it: as soon as the last of their kids is “barmitzvaed” most families leave the synagogue. Parents can’t wait for Hebrew school obligations to finish and they shamelessly verbalize it. What is worse, rabbis, cantors and ritual committees buy into it without sounding the alarm. After all, the kid will come back when they have children of their own in order to repeat the circle of non-sense.

4. BMs are a challenge to make kids competent and proud of their achievement, not a watered down version for show off. Some kids are really prepared and take it seriously, but for most of them it is all about memorizing 3 Torah verses without understanding a word, and reading a transliterated haftarah in a Hebrew so poorly pronounced that no Hebrew speaker can follow. But G-d forbid we dare to delay their BM: the magic rite has to happen at the right time. And who will ask the parents to go through another year of the agony of participating in Jewish life? By the way, unless you consistently pronounce Ashkenazi Hebrew, please try to pronounce it “haf-tah-RAH,” less people go around thinking they learned their Torah and their half-Torah.

5. BMs should be meaningful, not superficial. This should be obvious, until you encounter frivolities like a shopping themed bat mitzvah, with the bimah adorned with huge palm trees in giant shopping paper bags, and parents’ speeches praising the kid’s high fashion taste and complaining about shopping sprees on their American Express. Yes, this was the main message, and no, I am not making this out.

6. BMs should be culturally reaffirming and deeply Jewish. It is all right to borrow from other cultures: Jews have done it successfully throughout history. Even some Christian weddings borrow from us and use a flower-adorned huppah. However we should know what are we borrowing and why. This is the case of beginning the BM banquet by lighting 6 or 7 candles, a ritual borrowed from Hispanic quinceañera celebrations You call your family and friends by turns to light a candle in memory of a deceased relative or for celebration. The problem is that you just became obligated by the mitzvot and the first thing you do is to transgress Shabbat by inviting people –including your hazzan– to make a fire on Shabbat. Yes it is cute. Now, can it wait until sundown?

7. A BM should be an opportunity for non-practicing Jews to experience vibrant Judaism, not to overtake and kidnap the service. This can be a great family opportunity to learn: anybody can learn aliyot, compose poems, learn how to raise the scroll, etc. This should be carefully planned. Do not assume people know what they are supposed to do (remember they often left the synagogue as soon as they turned 13!). Otherwise you end up with your cousin looking totally puzzled when asked to open the ark, as if it were the first time he sees an ark in his whole life. Later he will probably greet the rabbi and make excuses such as that he belongs to another Jewish denomination and that’s why he didn’t know what to do. By the way, disaffected relatives are an interesting phenomenon in itself. How can you tell a non-Jew from a disaffected BM relative? The non-Jew wears kippah and stands and sits with the congregation out of respect. The disaffected relative sits there with a blank stare, not opening the siddur or reading in English, looking at the rabbi in the eye as if saying: “I don’t buy into this and I will let you know with my attitude.”

8. BMs should be reaffirmations of identity, not insurances of identity. We do not extend tribal certificates, and yet people will argue that they are indeed Jewish because they were “batmitzvaed and all” or tell you they are very bad Jews because they even didn’t “get barmitzvaed.” In our days, progressive parents would rather skip circumcision than BM. And yet, BM is not sacramental, nor magically imbues the person with Jewish identity. Rather, it makes kids stand in the crowd and proclaim their Jewishness, even in spite of being part of mixed families. We should focus on this reaffirmation of identity.

9. Most kids are not operatic singers. They are there to act as shelihe tzibur. The rest of us is not there to admire their often cracking voice, but to participate in the prayers he or she is leading. Why should we stop saying the Shema so that we can hear a kid mumble through it?

10. A BM is not about kids, it’s about newly minted adults being welcomed to the kehilah. We should be moving on from pediatric Judaism. In fact, it is time to evaluate what pediatric Judaism has brought us: BM mills, school-centered versus mitzvah and limud-centered synagogues, dumbing down and loss of richness. A good example of it is using Shabbat morning melodies all the time, from Friday night to Yom Kippur, just “because that’s what kids learn at Hebrew school.” There are plenty of examples more, such as sanitized divre torah; model seders as the only seder the family will attend this year; school Sukkot parties as the only Sukkot; the total disappearance of Shavuot simply because it falls outside of Hebrew school calendar, etc.

11. Finally, BM celebrations should be socially mindful and not wasteful. What is the value we are teaching the youngsters when a BM becomes a crazy mini wedding? Welcoming a kid to the community and celebrating it should be an equalizing event, not a display of the economic cliff between the haves and the have-nots. Let us plan real mitzvah projects that teach kids and adults that we live in a broken world but that we can do a lot to fix it. Placing a couple of empty boxes at the entry of the synagogue so that other people can bring cans of food, or spending two afternoons at the animal shelter playing with puppies may give the kid a check-out of a mitzvah project, but will hardly teach her anything about responsibility towards humanity

As a maturity rite of passage, it is perfectly ok to delay a BM. Some of the best BM I have seen are celebrations involving adults and older children. So let’s bring the mitzvah back where it belongs.