The miraculous and prophetic ingathering of the exiles to Israel now includes four-legged returnees: descendants of Biblical sheep. Rare and listed as a threatened breed, Jacob’s sheep, believed to be the breed which Biblical forefathers shepherded across Israel, are making a comeback. A full flock of Jacob’s sheep, now found only in North America, will soon return to their homeland.
Small, piebald, and crowned distinctively with four horns, Jacob’s sheep thrive in desert climates. They are a ‘heritage’ breed, meaning the sheep retain many of their genetic traits and remain relatively unchanged from their origins. The sheep are unique, with devotees who claim the breed is living proof of the Biblical story of Jacob’s deal with Laban for which it is named.
No longer found in the Mideast, Israeli flocks today are made up of Awassi sheep which originated in Syro-Arabian desert and are white, with brown or black faces. Jacob’s sheep are distinctly speckled or striped, conforming to the story found in the book of Genesis 30.
In the story, Jacob demands his wages for working for 14 years, claiming the speckled and black sheep that would be born. He removed all the speckled and black sheep and placed poplar, plane, and almond branches in the troughs of the stronger sheep, with the bark stripped off in stripes. He separated out the striped and speckled sheep as his own.
Experts believe the uniqe breed accompanied the Hebrews into slavery in Egypt, and spread from there to North Africa. The Moors traded them to Spain, and then to England. Collectors have since brought them to North America.
In a story almost as miraculous as a lost tribe finding its way back to Israel, the flocks that accompanied the forefathers are returning as well. An Israeli couple, Gil and Jenna Lewinsky, are moving back to their ancestral homeland and bringing their flock with them, much like the Biblical matriarchs and patriarchs of old.
The Lewinskys live in Abbotsford, British Columbia, with their flock of about 130 rare Jacob’s sheep. Neither had a background in farming or animal husbandry – Jenna worked for the Israeli foreign ministry and Gil was a journalist – but upon hearing that the breed originated in the Holy Land but is no longer found here, they were inspired to take on the mission.
Bringing the flock home has entailed a long battle with international bureaucracy and a long wait for an import license from Israel. Despite close economic ties that include agriculture, there are no provisions for transferring livestock from Canada to Israel. Bringing in live animals is especially problematic for fear of transferring disease and is strictly regulated by the the World Organization for Animal Health. The complicated process requires a specially outfitted plane to transport the sheep and a period of quarantine upon arriving.
The Lewinsky’s plan to establish a park for the sheep in the Golan Heights, where they will raise them for scientific and educational purposes. They will also spin the sheep’s wool, which is used in several Biblical ceremonial garments, such as tzitzit (fringes on four-cornered garments), tallitot (prayer shawls), and priestly garments, into yarn to be weaved into cloth. The horns of the sheep can be used to make shofars, the traditional ram’s horn.
Israel’s Awassi sheep are numerous and most people naturally associate them with Israel, as Palestinian shepherds are often seen wandering the hillsides with large flocks. Nonetheless, the Awassi are not indigenous to Israel and, though kosher for the Temple service, it is much more likely that Jacob’s sheep, and not Awassi, were brought as sacrifices in Biblical times.
Though the prophecies describing the Jews’ return to Israel didn’t mention sheep, there is a precedent for flocks being essential to the Jewish return to Israel. Before the Plague of Darkness, Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Hebrews leave Egypt to go into the desert to serve God. Pharaoh agreed – on the condition that their flocks be left behind. Moses refused, risking the future of Israel for the sake of their animals. His reasoning was that they were unsure of what types or number of sacrifices they would be required to bring.