Gil Lewinsky didn’t know much about sheep.
“God has a way of connecting the dots,” he says today, surveying his flock of 114 Jacob sheep at Moshav Ness Harim. As the wooly animals grazed in their pen, Lewinsky pawed at a Bible, flipping through passages relating to sheep.
“For 2,000 years Jewish people weren’t shepherds, since the time of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash [the Temple], we were dispersed and people had different professions – doctors, lawyers… agriculture stopped being our thing,” Lewinsky says. “But our ancestors were shepherds, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, and there was an ancient flock that belonged to us specifically.”
Now the flock is back. In a sort of reverse scenario of the cloyingly emotional Kevin Costner Field of Dreams – if you bring them, they will build it. These rare, exotic- looking sheep have returned to Israel, the land of their past and future.
The most distinguishing characteristic of these sheep is their horns. With between two and six horns, both males and females have a unique appearance. No two seem to look alike. Some have horns that look like traditional ram horns, others look like some sort of African kudu, others have a devil-like appearance and some just seem silly.
I had to see these comical, ancient sheep for myself.
Lewinsky used to work for The Jerusalem Post, so we’ve been friends for years and I followed his sheep adventures on social media and in the press coverage he and his wife Jenna received in Canada before the sheep made aliya.
I arranged to meet up with him at Ness Harim, where he is based.
NESS HARIM is nestled in the Jerusalem hills, overlooking the coastal plain. The name of the moshav comes from the Book of Isaiah: “All you people of the world, you who live on the earth, when a banner is raised on the mountains [ness harim], you will see it and when a trumpet sounds, you will hear it.” Portentous stuff.
To get to the community from Jerusalem, I drove via the tunnel road (Route 60), which takes one near Betar. In 135 CE, Betar was the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. When the legions conquered it, Rabbi Zera relates in the Talmud that “he hath cut off in fierce anger all the horn of Israel.” The same passage notes that 80,000 “battle trumpets” were taken in the battle, and that so many people were massacred that their blood ran down to the Mediterranean.
It might strike one as more than a coincidence that the word “trumpet” appears in relation to Ness Harim, nor that the Jacob sheep and their biblical connections grow such luscious horns that can be used to make a shofar.
LEWINSKY WAS born in Ramat Gan in the mid-1980s but raised in Canada. Several years ago he was living near Vancouver in Western Canada on a farm. The sheep came to Gil and Jenna by way of a rabbit. A rabbit he had given Jenna had offspring and a woman who owned Jacob sheep was interested in the rabbits.
It came to pass that the woman did not want her flock of Jacob sheep and was preparing to send them to auction for slaughter.
“My wife decided unilaterally without consulting me and she took a few sheep,” says Lewinsky.
“This opened up a cascade. Four sheep became 15. I thought it was crazy.”
Soon the young couple found themselves being evicted, along with their new sheep. But like any biblical story, things always work out. A local politician had a property near Abbotsford and needed tenants.
“I began researching the Jacob sheep,” recalls Lewinsky today, sitting watching the sheep in his pen, part of a larger metal barn-like structure amidst the towering trees. Gil and Jenna live in a house attached to the pen, so they can keep an eye on the sheep.
Someone has to be with them 24 hours a day to protect them from theft. Sheep rustling is a major problem in Israel, and flocks are often stolen in the Negev, the Galilee and the Jerusalem hills. Lewinsky keeps dogs that he brought from Canada, but they are not enough. So today he sits on a chair – his camera, a Hebrew Bible and printed Torah on a table in front of him – watching the animals.
“In the Bible there is a story about Esau threatening to kill Jacob, who went to Haran in what is now Syria, and met his cousin Rachel before working for his uncle Laban.” Jacob wanted to marry his cousin, but there was a “switcheroo,” Lewinsky says, and “he got [her sister Leah instead].” Eventually it all worked out; Jacob got the two sisters as wives, and most importantly, when it comes to sheep, he got a got a flock of “spotted, speckled and brown goats and sheep” from Laban.
“This was the property of the house of Jacob and so we are descendants of Jacob, so the biblical flock are the property of Am Yisrael [the People of Israel].”
Gil fetches his Artscroll Chumash from the table and opens it to an appendix that shows how the sheep might have looked in the time of Jacob.
“What makes them unique is their depiction. Jacob received animals as wages and bred sheep to look like the ones you see here – speckled, dappled, ringed and striped. Most of the miracle comes when you shear the animals. More than half the sheep have speckles on their skin.”
There are around a billion sheep in the world today. Jacob sheep make up only a tiny number, around 5,000 according to Lewinsky. The Jacob Sheep Breeders Association in the US says that the breed has graced large estates and country homes in England for centuries.
“Their impressive horns, black-and-white faces and spotted bodies have no doubt contributed to their popularity and survival.” ▼ association notes that although the origins of the beasts are unknown, “documentation throughout history indicates that the spotted or pied sheep may have originated in what is now Syria some 3,000 years ago. From Syria they journeyed to North Africa, Sicily, Spain and on to England. The Jacob Sheep Society in the UK says the sheep came to the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa in the eighth century with the Moors during the Islamic invasion and reached the UK during the time of Queen Elizabeth I.
Does that ring a bell in Jewish history? Sheep originating in Syria, where Laban lived and where Jacob acquired them. Sheep exiled from their land and wandering in North Africa, where Jewish communities flourished after the fall of Rome. Sheep migrating to Spain, where Jews were in their Golden Age after the eighth century.
After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the sheep end up in Britain and from there to the New World.
The rabbis of old saw the sheep in Ezekiel and other biblical passages as symbolic of the Jewish people.
Lewinsky sees a more literal interpretation as well.
“I believe those rabbis didn’t have sheep in front of them or this breed… it talks about sheep being dispersed, it says the spirit of Hashem [God] will remove the sheep from the peoples and put them on the mountains of Israel and the shepherd will pasture them on the heights.”
So here Lewinsky is with his sheep on the mountains.
EITAN WEISS, the third man in the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, also saw the sheep as an inspiring story.
“I followed this story from its infancy… and helped them [the Lewinskys] understand intricacies of policy and bureaucracy and bypass the hurdles that they faced.”
Weiss heard about the sheep from Jenna soon after his posting to the country of maple leafs and hockey.
“So I Googled ‘Jacob sheep.’ I wanted to understand what they are and I said there is an amazing potential for a great story that can boost everyone’s morale.”
The Middle East was suffering through a brutal Syrian civil war in 2013 and 2014 and the ramifications of the Arab Spring. It was an inspiring story not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims in the region, he says.
Getting the sheep to the Land of Israel was a story of biblical proportions. They had to fight bureaucracy and wrestle with regulations. Canada and Israel had no protocol for the importation of livestock so Weiss and the Lewinskys had to approach the Agriculture Ministry.
“It took almost three years; it was very difficult to invent something that wasn’t there.”
For Weiss the story is important because the sheep serve as one more aspect of providing proof and legitimacy to the Jewish experience in the Holy Land at a time when UNESCO and others are trying to undermine the Jewish connection.
“It’s a beautiful story, a message of hope to the people of the region.”
He adds jokingly, “At least Jacob didn’t raise crocodiles.”
One needs Weiss’s sense of humor and optimism when confronted with the difficulties that the Lewinskys faced. Even after getting approval and pioneering livestock relations between Canada and the Jewish state, the sheep had to come on commercial flights.
First they had to drive the flock from western Canada over five days and 4,500 km. to Toronto. They were brought to Israel in groups of 10 at a time on planes.
Quarantine laws said they had to live for eight days in quarantine. Because of all the groups, that consumed many weeks. A private quarantine facility near Ofakim was their first stop. It happened to be a week of terrible rains and the sheep became stuck in the mud. The roads flooded, and four sheep died. Customs officials demanded $80,000 in taxes, charging on the value of each sheep and the cost of the flight. That comes to $672 per sheep in taxes, when the cost of a sheep generally is around $300.
But people were pulling for the Lewinsky endeavor.
“They wanted to see the ancient Israelite sheep flock come home. Gentiles like this idea of sheep that belong to us returning home; it excites the imagination of many people around the world.”
Lewinsky wants to establish a tourist attraction where people can come and see the sheep, pet them and even go trekking with them. For a moderate cost of NIS 30 to NIS 50, he hopes people will come out to Ness Harim to see the sheep and support the endeavor.
To illustrate what he means he takes one of the docile, pleasant older sheep named Isaac (they all seem to have biblical names), and puts it on a leash.
“They do this in Wales and Scotland,” so it can be done in Israel.”
Gil speaks highly of being a Jewish shepherd and returning to the roots of the forefathers.
“We are used to living like you, as a journalist or professional,” he says to me, “but our ancestors were shepherds and returning to the land is a good thing.”
Suddenly I feel like a pencil-pusher, not fulfilling my destiny of sheep herding.
Lewinsky also wants the animal to be recognized as a national symbol, and receive conservation status.
He hopes there will be more genotype studies to show that it is a pure breed from the region, linking it to the biblical era.
“The sheep represent us. They got dispersed and have miraculously survived and returned home.”