Rotating Rabbit Logo -its origins 

text by Felice Naomi Wonnenberg


Deutsch - German version of the text

The following article explores the cultural significance and historical background of a rotating rabbit symbol whose origin can traced back to Buddhist culture in China, where it is documented from as early as the sixth century. "Ex oriente lepus" subsequently made its way over the silk road into the medieval kingdom of Saladin, and then into European Christian culture, where it appeared in medieval churches and in Eastern European wooden synagogues of the 17th and 18th century.

How do the rabbits get into the synagogue?
From China via Midlle East and Germany to Galizia: On the tracks of the

by Felice Naomi Wonnenberg


 “The Jewish synagogue, a quintessential location of Jewish culture, is filled with a surprising amount of non-Jewish symbols. Moroccan synagogues are replete with Islamic hamsa symbols – hands of luck, Florentine synagogues are built on the base of a cross, and the Dura Europos synagogue sports many representations of the human face – in clear defiance of the Jewish dictate, from the tencommandments themselves, not to pray towards a human depiction. These are just a few of the many non-Jewish cultural symbols that have woven their way into Jewish life.

There is one rather small creature that has similarly entered the synagogue from outside, one who might otherwise have sneaked in unnoticed: rabbits.


Christian and Easter context

The rabbit was originally a pre-monotheist symbol of fertility based on its prolific rate of procreation – "breeding like rabbits" – especially at this time of year. Their strong libido earned them their reputation as a symbol of fertility in diverse cultures.  With the rise of Christianity, this ancient symbol was integrated into the Easter customs, and together with another archaic fertility symbol – the egg – the rabbit mutated into the "Easter Bunny" delivering the "Easter Eggs". But when not on duty to deliver the colorfully decorated eggs, this mammal was stigmatized with quite a negative image in the sphere of Christian iconography and did not look “kosher” in Christian eyes. The little furry creature can often be seen sitting at the feet of Mary of Magdalene, where, along with her long open hair, he forms an iconological attribute of her life as a former prostitute. The rabbit is "a reminder for the church-goer of the lady's unchaste life prior to her pious conversation to Christianity" explains Matthias Deml a member of the curatorial staff of the Cologne Cathedral where one such depiction can be found in the beautiful medieval windows.

In the secular medieval context, the rabbit appears amid symbolism of love.  The love scenes of the famous tapestries of the Musee de Cluny in Paris, for example, take place in a garden in which the lovers are surrounded by numerous rabbits. Similarly, the memoirs of the famous Casanova record a rendezvous in a rabbit warren, a little garden surrounded by walls that was considered a customary love nests in the medieval time.

The rabbit in general in the Jewish context

The hare, or "shafan" in Hebrew, also has a symbolic meaning in Judaism. Although it is listed as a non-kosher animal in the Bible, that is no reason for the fast runner to feel ashamed. After all, other non-kosher, or "traif/tarev", animals, such as lions and eagles, also carry very positive connotations in Jewish symbolism. 

The "shafan" gets another mention, albeit frequently mistranslated, in Psalms. Luther, for example, translated shafan in Psalm 104,18 "the rocks a shelter for the shafan sela" as "rabbit". A more accurate translation would have been "hyrax" or "rockbadger", an animal with short, round ears, as it can be found in Ein Gedi nature reserve. This animal is, in fact, not a rabbit at all.

Some Jewish thinkers, such as 16th century German scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, saw the rabbits as a symbol for Jews in the Diaspora. 1 In an Augsburg Haggadah dated from 1534, he described an illustration of dogs hunting hares as the hares escaping as follows:  “The hare is representative of the Jewish people and the dogs their enemies and … (they are) an allegory of the persecution and salvation of the Jewish people.”

Indeed, depictions of hare hunts are found in numerous Passover prayer books. One example can be found in the Prague Haggadah of 1526.

Similarly, the Chodorow Synagogue from Poland contains many depictions of rabbits in its beautifully painted wooden ceiling of 1714.  One of them shows a murderous scene in a hilly landscape with a griffin coming down on a rabbit to catch and devour it. Two brown rabbits and a white rabbit witness the scene helplessly, their eyes wide open in terror. This early "rabbit commix" is  "a codified way to visually recall the traumatic historic events that occurred decades earlier when Cossacks committed pogroms in near Ukraine in 1648 against the Jewish community", explains Rachel Schnold, Curator at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, where a replica of the ceiling is on display.

In contrast to this grueling imagery, we also find more hopeful images, such as animals of prey – a bear, a lion and a unicorn – embracing each other and holding flowers. These express the longing for the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the "messianic age" when there will be no more cruelties and even "and the lion shall eat straw" as is prophesied in the Bible in Isaiah 11:7. Representations of theses hopes for a messianic age found their expressions in the events around Sabbatai Zevi, the false Messiah in the late 17th century.

Another occurrence of rabbits can be seen in the large central painting of the ceiling. Here, a double headed eagle holds two brown rabbits in its claws without harming them. The painting is surrounded by a citation from the end of Deuteronomy, the one but last weekly portion of the Jewish Torah readings.

  • כנשר יעיר קינו על גוזליו ירחף. יפרוש כנפיו יקחהו ישאהו על אברתו.
    פרשת האזינו, ספר דברים
     (Deuteronomy 32:11, The Song of Moses 

As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her pinions  (….thus is G'd to the Jewish people)

It is striking that the artist did not depict the eagle symbolizing G'd bearing young eagles (that would symbolize the Jewish people), as would be logical, but that he painted him lifting up rabbits to bear them on her wings. Here as in the scene with the griffin the artist Israel Ben Ben Mordechei Lisnicki of Jaryzcow again represents the Jewish people by rabbits.
Intriguingly, the hare hunt depictions in Hagadot also provide as a mnemonic tools. The Yiddish expression "YakNeHaz" – literally "hunt a hare", is an abbreviation meant to help remember the complicated order of blessings when the Pessach Seder and Motzei Shabbat coincide, as it is the case this year (2008): Y = Yain (wine) K= kidush (blessing), N= ner (candlelight) H = havdalah (Shabbat ceremony) Z = zeman (blessing related to time).


The Rotating Rabbits symbol in the synagogue

In the Jewish context, the hare also frequently appears in the form of the symbol of the "rotating rabbits", three rabbits chasing each other in a circle. An ancient German riddle describes this graphic symbol as follows:

"Three hares sharing three ears,
Yet every one of them has two."

The German modern artist Joseph Beuys translated this old saying into a drawing.

This curious graphic riddle can be found in all of the famous wooden synagogues from the period of the 17th and 18th century in the Askenaz region that are on museum display in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


Moreover, not only do they appear among the animal and floral ornaments, but they are in a very distinguished location: directly above the place where the holy scriptures are kept, the Torah ark. 

The Rotating Rabbits appear in the synagogue from the city of Horb in southern Germany that was donated to the Israel Museum Jerusalem by the German government. The three animals also adorn the wooden panels of the prayer room from Unterlimpurg near the German town of Schwaebisch Hall. A reproduction of this mobile synagogue is on view in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They can also be found in one of the main exhibits of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. When the painter Israel Ben Ben Mordchai Lisnicki of Jaryzcow painted the interior of the wooden synagogue of Chodorow near Lvov in 1714, he included the three hares in a circle. The Nazis destroyed this jewel of art history in 1941, but with the help of historic photographs the interior was reconstructed for display in the museum. Israeli art historian Ida Uberman wrote about this house of worship: "…Here we find depictions of three kinds of animals, all organized in circles: an eagle, fish and hares. These three represent the Kabbalistic elements of the world: earth, water and fire/heavens.…The fact that they are always three is important, for the number three is important in the Kabbalistic context".


The origin of the Rotating Rabbits symbol

Uberman’s interpretation seems fitting, but it would be misleading to see the rotating rabbits as a symbol of Jewish origin. The earliest occurrences of the symbol can be found in the Buddhist cave of Touenhouang in China. They date to the Sui dynasty from 589 to 618 C. E.

Occurrences of the Rotating Rabbits symbol in Middle Eastern Culture

In the 12th century, the symbol migrated via the Silk Road to the Middle East where many examples of the usage of this symbol can be found in the Ayyubid kingdom founded by Saladin (Salah al-Din). In the Islamic context, they are most commonly found as metal engravings, less frequently on ceramics, such as in the example below. 


The three hares on their way through Christian Europe

"Ex oriente lepus" – from the east the hares eventually found their way to Europe. The most prominent example in Europe is know from the Paderborn Cathedral, a late Gothic 16th century edifice where they can be found as a stone engraving on one of the windows of the cloister. The stone detail became so popular in this German town, that even today numerous private businesses adopt the rotating rabbit symbol. When in Paderborn, you may let yourself be entertained in the "Three Hares Theater", or by the video artist group "Rotating Rabbits", spend the night in the "Three Hares Hotel" and in case you start to feel dizzy from too much rabbiting on you can buy a headache pill in the "Three Hares Pharmacy".

In the South-Western England, in the region Devon the symbol appears so frequently in medieval churches that Sue Andrew founded "The hare research group" in 2004. documented 29 examples of the furry beasts, as they are used to embellish the crossing points of wooden beams in the ceiling, so called bosses. Because of the diversity in style, it can be assumed that many different artist workshops used this symbol over hundreds of years, the numerous preserved examples stemming from medieval times.


It is not clear how the three rotating leporids found their way from medieval and Gothic churches into the Jewish world of Ashkenaz. But the fact is they can be found in all of the famous preserved wooden synagogues of the 17th and 18th century in the Ashkenazic regions from Germany to Eastern Europe. The rotating rabbits symbol has migrated into many different cultures, undergoing reinterpretation and symbolic adaptation to fit in to the local philosophic and religious context. For example in the context of Christian iconography there was an attempt to (re-)interpret the symbol as the holy trinity. Thus, when it reached Judaism, Kabbalastic thought was superimposed on the imagery to give it a particularly Jewish meaning.

Art historians seem to bend over backwards in their attempts to affix a definite explanation to the symbol. Though they may rabbit on and on, apart from the rabbit’s recurrent role as a fertility symbol, the only observation that can be stated with certainty, is that rabbits have continuously fascinated people from most diverse cultures and regions. Throughout art history, cultures, regions and religions, we find traces of the rabbit, but just as we are about to catch them, they escape our interpretation with their zigzag jumps, time and again.