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Kinyan L'Shabbos (published weekly by Hamodia) - July 18, 2012, page 11 has a fascinating article by Rabbi Avraham Y. Heschel regarding an ancient custom of displaying ostrich eggs in a Beis Knesses. Seemingly an ostrich, unlike other birds, does not sit on its eggs but keeps them warm simply by gazing at them from a distance. It mentions it in the name of HaRav Yaakov Emden Zatzal and explains that the reason is that they are meant to remind the Mispallelim of the awesome power of looking at something, and to inspire them to concentrate on Davening and not look in other directions.

It also mentions three reasons from the Sefer Midrash Talpios by Harav Eliyahu Hakohen, author of the Shevet Musar.

  1. It is to remind us that in order for our Tefillos to be accepted, Kavanah is key. Therefore the eggs are present to remind the Mispallelim to ensure that nothing may interrupt our prayer and thus stand between us and Hakadosh Baruch Hu, Whom we are addressing personally.

  2. The eggs symbolize the fact that the Eye of Hashem (so to speak) is at all times focused on Klal Yisrael. Nothing can possibly get in the way of this Hashgacha Pratis. Like the eggs that hatch only through the continuous surveillance of the mother ostrich. whose gaze must be continuous without distraction or interruption, or else the chicks will not survive. so we owe our survival solely to the constant Hashgacha of Hashem.

  3. A Beis HaKnesses is a Mikdash Me'at, and placing the ostrich eggs there serve as a reminder of the fact that the Torah tells us (Devarim 11:12) that the "Eye of Hashem" is always watching Eretz Yisrael, and this in turn inspires us to Daven for the Geula and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.

This article from Bar Ilan University has more information regarding this Minhag.

Has anyone ever seen ostrich eggs in their Shul? If not why was this Minhag discontinued?

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Having never heard of this before, I decided to Google it, and this exchange came up: why do we have (in egyptian Coptic Orthodox churches, not sure about any other church as if i havent seen this in new churches in UK) an ostrich egg hang at the top of the altar's curtains? [...] The reason why our coptic orthodox church has the Ostrich egg is becasue: When ostriches lay an egg, they keep staring at it until the offspring comes out. Our church outs it as a sybol that God is always watching us closely and taking care of us. I hope this helped –  Dave Jul 20 '12 at 15:55
    
Also: Physiologus, an early Christian text compiled around the second century A.D. and a popular read in the Middle Ages, asserts that the ostrich incubates its eggs by staring at them. It was widely held at the time that vision was the effect of special "seeing" rays emanating from one's eyes; thus, the heat in the gaze of the ostrich hatched its chicks. The author of Physiologus presents this as an allegory to inspire worshippers to keep their eyes on C----. –  Dave Jul 20 '12 at 15:57
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maybe it was discontinued when people realized that ostriches DO sit on their eggs t3licensing.com/video/clip/331025_135.do netvet.wustl.edu/species/birds/ostrich.txt (scroll down to "incubation") –  Danno Jul 20 '12 at 15:58
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Just realized that the Hebrew word for ostrich, בת היענה, has the same letters as בת העין, pupil of the eye. FWIW! –  Dave Jul 20 '12 at 16:18
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@SethJ The problem is that בית is a masculine noun. Rather, you could describe a moving house with the exclamation, הבית נע! The connection to ostriches eludes me at the moment. (Which, of course, was your point...) –  Dave Jul 20 '12 at 18:01

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I actually have heard of this minhag before, although I have never seen an ostrich egg in a synagogue myself. It was a fairly common symbol in both Christianity and Islam, and so churches and mosques would frequently have ostrich eggs in them as well (see this book, for example). The symbolism is largely what has been mentioned above with regard to the (mistaken) belief that ostrich eggs are hatched through the power of observation... There is also some relationship to the "Cosmic Egg"/globe of the world.

In terms of Jewish practice, Simonsohn's book on Jews in Sicily records that ostrich eggs were stolen from the synagogue there in 1492 (he then, mistakenly, suggests that this is a uniquely Sicilian custom), and this source tantalizingly records that a Jew in Bulgaria (?) in 1578 explained to someone (?) that they hang ostrich eggs in synagogue to remind the shelihei tzibbur to think of nothing else but prayer, just as the ostrich does not turn its sight away form its eggs until they are hatched. Yaron Ben-Naeh's book on Jews in Ottoman Turkey records that ostrich eggs were hung in synagogues there as a symbol of Divine Providence. Tudor Parfitt's book on Jews in 20th century Yemen documents ostrich eggs in the synagogue there, while Harvey Goldberg notes that in Yemen, ostrich eggs also were part of the ceremonial decoration of a birthing mother's room (with a reconstructed picture, on the next page).

I would imagine that it was discontinued for social factors, largely that we don't decorate our synagogues in the same way that they did in the "Old World" and that an ostrich egg (especially since it holds little symbolism in most people's minds) would seem out-of-place, if not disrespectful. Although I am all for reviving the minhag!

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Like Dave, I also did a little bit of internet searching. The only thing I could find out about religious symbolism was Christian symbolism. Also, it's generally (in most Christian symbology that I've found) seen as very negative - the ostrich is the symbol of the bad mother for not sitting on the eggs.

Speculation: Maybe it was discontinued when people realized it was based on Christian superstition (that is also not upheld by natural facts)?

In addition to the fact that ostriches do, in fact, incubate their own eggs (the female sharing responsibility with the male), it says in that sefer that the בת היענה lays the eggs and places them in a tall place. This is also not factually correct. It could be, then, that whatever bird is being talked about is a different bird than what we call the ostrich. Or not, because the rest of that paragraph makes no sense either.

My guess is that, Jewish or not, it's either symbolism based on incorrect fact that was disbanded when the true nature of ostriches was discovered, or that it was symbolism that was based on some other bird that is both misunderstood (thinking that the bird's behavior of staring at the eggs is critical for the eggs' survival) and whose identity was lost.

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I truly appreciate your answer and maybe you are correct, however I am sure there would be a source indicating such being that the HaRav Yaakov Emden Zatzal mentions the opposite. –  Gershon Gold Jul 20 '12 at 17:42
    
Right, but perhaps Y'AB"Tz was informed of the practice, or found the practice prevalent around him (perhaps he even grew up with it) and was recording the reason he was told. The fact that we are having a hard time finding an earlier source indicates that he may be the first recorded source in Halachic literature for the practice. I'm suggesting that the reason for that may be the same as the reason for its discontinuation. –  Seth J Jul 20 '12 at 18:45
    
"that is also not...": Clearly נשתנה הטבע. –  Double AA Jan 24 '13 at 3:33
    
@DoubleAA, #eyeroll –  Seth J Jan 24 '13 at 18:07

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