The deer have always been of considerable importance to humankind. Their flesh, known as venison, has been a delicacy to some people, but to many people in far-off places it means life itself. The deer's hide serves many purposes, and its handsome antlers can be made 'into useful tools.

Deer are found in all sorts of regions. They are at home in lowland swamps, grassy plains, and sparsely covered brush country; they dwell in dense woodland, in mountainous highlands, and even in the snowbound wastes of the Arctic.

Just as they live in many different places, so they come in many sizes -from the size of a spaniel (small dog) to that of a large horse. The Chilean pudu, the smallest of American deer, stands only thirteen and one-half inches at the shoulder, and weighs up to twenty-four pounds; the massive moose is six feet tall and weighs fourteen hundred pounds.

Remarkable Antlers

One of the most remarkable features in the entire animal kingdom is the deer's antlers. Generally, only the male has them. A few species, the musk deer and the Chinese river deer for example, have no antlers in both males and females, while both male and female caribou [1] have antlers.

The antlers are bone-like structures that grow from permanent bases on the frontal bones of the skull. The deer sheds them annually, usually in mid-winter or early spring. About two weeks after the old antlers are dropped; a round fur-like ball begins to rise from each base. Very rapidly these small growths swell and expand into the curving and branching structures that will soon grace the deer's head. In this growing stage, the antlers are soft; their tissues are richly provided with circulating blood.

Growth continues until the supply of blood and nourishment slows down; finally it stops altogether as the blood vessels shrink and cease to function. The antlers now harden as bone, while the overlying "velvet" dries and peels off. The animals "polish" the antlers by rubbing them against tree trunks and branches. They are probably prompted to do this by an itching sensation caused by the drying up of living tissues.

The shedding and replacement of the antlers is truly amazing. Even the enormous antlers of the moose, which may weigh up to sixty pounds, falloff and reappear every year!

The antlers vary quite a bit in size and shape, and each species of deer have their typical pattern. Often magnificent, as a headdress, the antlers are also a formidable weapon, even if just to frighten away a would-be attacker. But the male deer use them more often in battle against each other for the possession of a herd.

Aside from their remarkable antlers, nearly all deer are exceptional for another reason - they have no gall bladder. Scientists do not know why deer lack a gall bladder. This is one of those strange mysteries of nature, which only the Creator knows.

Deer are ruminants -animals that chew their cud. When grazing or nibbling at soft shoots of trees and shrubs on which they feed, the fresh food is partly chewed, then swallowed, and passed to the first stomach, called the paunch, or rumen. Here it remains to soften and soak, turning into the cud. When the animals are at rest, they bring up mouthfuls of the cud back to the mouth. This time the cud is thoroughly chewed and swallowed again. Bypassing the paunch, the food is digested in other parts of the stomach.

There are close to a hundred kinds of deer. Additional kinds probably remain to be discovered and identified in the more remote, and as yet, incompletely explored wilderness of the world. Members of the deer family are spread throughout the northern half of the globe -over Asia, Europe, and North America. In the southern half of the globe, these cud-chewing animals are to be found almost entirely in South America. In Africa, with the exception of the Barbary Coast region where certain kinds of red deer live, no deer are found; nor are there native species in Madagascar or Australia.

Deer have split hoofs; that is to say, they have two even toes on each foot. Deer belong in the family Cervidae - from a Latin word meaning "deer."

Many people confuse deer with antelope -another large group of cud-chewing two-toed animals with horns. Antelope are members of the same family as goats and cattle, but they look much more like deer, because most of them are slender and graceful. Antelope, like oxen and goats, have horns, which they keep as long as they live; horns are not shed annually like antlers. Antelope's horns are never forked like branches of a tree, as deer antlers are. Antelope belong in the family Bovidae -from a Latin word meaning "ox."

Beauty, Grace, and Swiftness

Deer are among the most graceful and gentle of all hoofed animals. They are also noted for their swift running. Thus, the deer (as well as the gazelle, which more than any other antelope resembles the deer) became a symbol of beauty, glory, and swiftness in our Holy Tongue. The Hebrew word for deer is Tzvi, and our Prophets used it to describe our Holy Land, the Land of Israel. They referred to it as "Land of the Deer," "the Glory of All Lands," and the like. (Jer. 3:19; Ezek. 20:6,15; Dan. 11:16,41,45).

Our Sages gave a further reason why the Land of Israel is likened to a deer: " Just as a deer is swift on its legs, so is the Land of Israel swift to ripen its fruits." (Ket. 112a).

The deer is mentioned in the Torah among the ten species of animals - domestic and wild -that are kosher for Jews to eat, being both cud-chewing and having wholly split hoof (two even toes). The deer's flesh, called venison, was considered a delicacy. It is mentioned prominently in the menu of King Solomon's daily banquet (Kings 1,5:3).

"Tzvi," often in combination with its Yiddish equivalent "Hirsh," is a popular boy's name, as is "Tzivia" (or "Tzvia") for girls; and no wonder, considering all the nice things that have been said about the deer. But, having such a nice name means also having a special responsibility -in light of the well-known saying by a great Sage of the Mishnah: "Yehuda ben Tema used to say: 'Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven.' " (Pirke Avot, ch. 5, Mishnah 20).

It has also been said that the hebrew word Tzvi is a combination of the first letters of the words Tzadik B'Emunoso Yichyeh -"the righteous lives by his faith." (Hab. 2:4).