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In Search of the True Nesher

In this week’s parsha, Hashem continues to afflict Pharaoh and the Egyptians with some of His plagues, and soon he will extricate us from Egypt on the wings of nesharim (singular nesher), a word usually translated as “eagles.” Clearly, this is meant to symbolize how Hashem will lift the Jewish people above all the difficulties of a mass exodus. Although the exact identity of the nesher is not significant to the extent of this great miracle, the curious among us would appreciate knowing exactly which bird Hashem is using for His metaphor?


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

In this week’s parsha, Hashem continues to afflict Pharaoh and the Egyptians with some of His plagues, and soon he will extricate us from Egypt on the wings of nesharim (singular nesher), a word usually translated as "eagles." Clearly, this is meant to symbolize how Hashem will lift the Jewish people above all the difficulties of a mass exodus. Although the exact identity of the nesher is not significant to the extent of this great miracle, the curious among us would appreciate knowing exactly which bird Hashem is using for His metaphor. To begin with, I will note that Tosafos contends that the "nesher" of the Torah cannot be the eagle (Chullin 63a s.v. neitz).

Let us note some characteristics that identify the nesher. The prophet states:

Make yourself bald like the nesher (Micha 1:16).

This verse implies that the nesher is bald, and seems to place our major contestant, the eagle, at a decided disadvantage, since no known variety of eagle is truly bald. Even the bald eagle actually has white plumage on its scalp, giving it a bald appearance, but it is not truly bald. (Its name may come from the Old English word balde, which means "white"). Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that Micha expected his audience to understand him referring to the bald eagle, a non-migratory American bird.

However, let us not be quick to eliminate the eagle’s candidacy since we can interpret Micha’s comments in a way that it refers to the eagle. In fact, there are at least two ways to interpret the pasuk that I quoted above:

A. Make yourself bald as a nesher is bald.

The most obvious interpretation of the verse means that a nesher is bald. Indeed, the Ramban, in his commentary to Chullin (62b) explains the verse this way:

The "bald nesher" is the nesher that our Sages mention and is referred to by the Torah, as the verse states "Make yourself bald like the nesher" (Micha 1:16).

B. Make yourself bald as a nesher makes itself bald.

The Targum and Rashi explain that the nesher has a tendency to pull out most of its feathers and bald himself - much the same as the typical father of contemporary teenagers might feel like behaving in reaction to his offspring's exploits. We find similar approaches in other commentators, such as the Radak, who explains that since the nesher flies closer to the sun than other birds, its feathers fall off; and the Malbim, who explains that it develops a disease that causes it to lose its feathers. Thus, the commentaries are disputing whether the nesher has a full head of feathers and may be the eagle or whether it is a different bird that indeed has a featherless head. Indeed, some other Rishonim specifically identify the nesher as an eagle (Chizkuni, Vayikra 11:13).

Further support for the eagle’s candidacy can be drawn from the numerous Tanach references to the nesher as an incredibly swift bird (Shmuel II 1:23; Yeshayah 40:31; Yirmiyahu 4:13; Habakuk 1:8; Mishlei 23:5). According to my research, an eagle can attack prey at a speed of almost 200 MPH, faster than any creature on earth. No other bird has this ability.


On the other hand, let us analyze the following verse that implies that the nesher is a scavenger that feeds on carrion.

Is it by your command that the nesher rises and makes its nest on high? It dwells and lodges on rock, upon the rocky cliff and stronghold. From there it searches for food, its eyes seek from a distance. Its young gulp blood; and it is found wherever there are carcasses (Job 39:27-30).
Eagles, however, do not usually feed on carrion; they generally take live prey that they kill themselves. Could the nesher indeed be a vulture? This seems to support the Ramban’s approach that a nesher is bald, as most varieties of vulture are bare-headed, and for good reason. Hashem performed a tremendous chesed for the vulture by making it bald, even though it has no teenagers to raise.
Birds that feed primarily on carrion are usually bald because they insert their heads inside the carcass to feed. If they possessed a headdress, the feathers would get in the way while the bird is feeding; furthermore the feathers would become full of decaying matter causing all sorts of other problems even if one is not concerned about the aesthetics. A bald head thus can be highly advantageous, particularly when neither spouse seems too disturbed by the fact. (Some people could derive a good lesson from this.)
Thus, some suggest that the true nesher is a variety of vulture. The bird usually suggested is called a griffon vulture -- it is an extremely high flyer, and has a majestic appearance. Indeed, several early Middle Eastern cultures respected this bird as awesome and magnificent, and used it as a symbol of speed, might, and height; much as American society names sport teams after animals like the lion, the bear or the eagle. The griffon vulture was a symbol of royalty in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Although many of us might have difficulty accepting that Hashem removed us from Egypt on the wings of vultures, this is only because vulture has a very negative connotation in modern use. For example, my desk dictionary provides the following definition of vulture: "a person or thing that preys, esp. greedily or unscrupulously." Who would want to fly from Egypt on the wings of a greedy, unscrupulous creature!

However, do not forget that the condor, the largest flying bird of the Americas, is also a vulture, yet it is viewed with the type of respect as is the eagle. We should not allow our cultural biases towards certain species to interfere with our research.
Thus far, our evidence shows that some opinions identified nesher as an eagle, and others felt that it is not. In addition, we have shown that the nesher might even be a vulture, or for that matter, some completely different species.

It is noteworthy that both Rav Saadya Gaon and the Ibn Ezra associate the nesher with the Arabic word, nasr, the Ibn Ezra basing himself on its similarity to the Hebrew word nesher. Although my comprehension of Classical Arabic is nonexistent, knowledgeable people have told me that nasr refers both to eagles and to vultures.


Let us see if any later sources can help us discover the true nesher. The Gemara (Chullin 61a) notes that the tor, the turtledove, possesses four indications, simanim, that it is kosher and that any other bird possessing all four of these indicia is also kosher. (As I noted in other articles, a kosher bird does not necessarily possess all four simanim. The Gemara specifically mentions that the turtledove possesses all four of these indicia, and the nesher possesses none of them. Most bird species possess some of the simanim but not others, and our knowledge as to whether or not they are kosher is based on mesorah.) On the other hand, although there are 24 varieties of non-kosher bird, only the nesher lacks all four of the indications that the dove possesses. Thus, if we can positively define these simanim, we should be able to identify the nesher. The four signs are as follows:

(1) Any bird that is doreis is not kosher. Any that possesses an (2)"extra toe," (3) and has a crop, (4) and whose gizzard can be peeled is kosher (Mishnah Chullin 59a).

The turtledove is the proud possessor of all four of these indicia, whereas the nesher possesses none of them. Let me explain what these simanim are:


Most opinions explain that doreis has to do with the way the bird claws its prey. Doves are not doreis - they do not use their claws to eat, and subsist on seeds. It is possible that being a true vegetarian may be the reason why this bird, and its close relative, the yonah (usually associated either with a different variety of dove or with the pigeon), are the only birds that may be offered as korbanos. (By the way, the terms dove and pigeon are somewhat interchangeable, although in conventional use pigeon is often used to connote the larger species, and dove the smaller ones.)

Rabbeinu Tam explains the word doreis somewhat differently: that it is a predator that devours live birds or rodents (Tosafos, Chullin 61a s.v. hadoreis; and Ran ad loc. s.v. Garsinan).

The eagle fulfills both definitions of doreis, since it both seizes it prey with its claws and devours live birds and rodents. Although the griffon vulture does not usually feed by being doreis, it is capable of doing so. Since it is evident from the Gemara that a bird that is doreis very rarely is also non-kosher, both these birds qualify as dorsim as do many others.

(2) ETZBA YESEIRAH - literally, an "extra toe"

I will explain this shortly.


The turtledove possesses a gizzard whose inner lining can be peeled off, whereas the nesher lacks this lining. The nesher candidates mentioned above lack this lining.

(4) CROP

Similarly, the turtledove possesses a zefek, a crop, while the nesher does not. I discussed in a different article the exact function and appearance of the crop.


One of the four simanim that identify a bird as definitely kosher is the possession of an etzba yeseirah, which translates literally as an "extra toe." However, most Rishonim already abandoned this definition of the term. In fact, almost all birds have four toes, except for ostriches and a few other flightless birds, which have only two or three toes, and some unusual avian varieties that have five. Since the Gemara states that the turtledove possesses an etzba yeseirah, and it has four toes, either a nesher possesses only three toes, or the term etzba yeseirah means something other than what the words seem to imply.

The first approach, that a nesher possesses three toes, eliminates both the eagle and all Old World vultures as candidates for nesher, since these species all possess four toes, each of which has a pronounced claw, three in front and one behind. Thus, if the Gemara teaches that a nesher has only three toes (claws), whereas a dove has four, then a nesher must be a different species than any we have heretofore mentioned.

Indeed, we find the Rishonim already noting this concern. Precisely because of this problem, Tosafos (cited above) concludes that the nesher should not be identified as an eagle because the eagle has four toes. However, he offers no alternative suggestion, presumably because where he lived in Northern France he had no means of researching which Middle Eastern birds might meet the necessary requirements (Chullin 63a s.v. neitz).


Rashi, who seems to have assumed that nesher is indeed the eagle, resolves the problem that both the eagle and the turtledove possess four toes, by explaining that the etzba yeseirah that the dove possesses does not mean an extra toe, but an elevated toe (Chullin 59a). This can be compared to the neshamah yeseirah we have on Shabbos, which some explain to mean not an additional soul, but an elevated soul. In the case of the dove, this means that its hind toe branches off the foot at a point slightly above its other toes.

The next time you are walking the streets and notice a pigeon nearby, seize the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! According to the Rambam, it is a Torah-mandated mitzvah to identify the kosher species and their indicia. Take a careful look at a pigeon’s foot, something not easy to do while it is walking or flying, and notice that his hind toe protrudes off a very slightly higher place of his foot than the rest of the toes. However, the hind toe of both the eagle and the vulture is exactly parallel to the other toes. Thus, according to Rashi’s explanation, pigeons and doves possess an etzba yeseirah, meaning a slightly elevated hind toe, whereas eagles and vultures do not, since their hind toe is even with their front toes. (For an alternative explanation, I refer the reader to Shu"t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #74, s.v. vehinei shitas Rashi.)


On the other hand, some Rishonim explain etzba yeseirah literally, concluding that since doves and pigeons have four toes, a true nesher must have only three. By this definition, a nesher cannot mean either an eagle or an Old World vulture since they all have four toes.

To resolve this problem, the Ramban explains:

Rabbeinu Tam (referring clearly to the above-cited Tosafos that could not identify the nesher) ...was unaware that the "bald nesher" is the nesher that our Sages mention and is referred to by the Torah, as the verse states "Make yourself bald like the nesher" (Micha 1:16). And this has no extra toe at all.

We find a similar approach expressed by another Rishon, the Baal HaItur, who states authoritatively that a nesher cannot be an eagle because the eagle has the same number of toes as a dove. (In the Itur’s case, there is an interesting and unresolved contradiction, since a few pages later he identifies the nesher with the word igula, clearly the word for eagle in the Old French dialect spoken in his time and place, Twelfth Century Marseilles.)

In the Ramban’s opinion, the nesher of the Tanach and the Gemara is indeed bald and has only three toes. He was obviously aware of a bald, three-toed bird that he felt is the true nesher. Which bird is this?

For a city slicker like myself, resolving this question was impossible, but I fortunately have highly educated friends. My ornithologist friends suggested two candidates - both of them bald-headed, large, high-flying birds that have reduced hind toes and are native to areas near Eretz Yisroel.


One candidate is the northern bald ibis, a large wading bird with a thin, long, downward-curved bill that now lives in southern Turkey, an area fairly close to, and possibly even included in, the promised Eretz Yisroel of the Torah. It has a reduced back toe, which easily could qualify it as missing the fourth etzba yeseirah that the turtledove possesses. The ibis lives in arid areas, nesting on cliffs. Thus it fits the Ramban’s understanding of the above quoted verses magnificently -- it nests in cliffs, it is bald headed -- and it might fit Rabbeinu Tam’s description of a doreis.


An even better candidate is the marabou, a large variety of stork. The noticeable advantage of this bird is that the opposing toe is exceedingly small and thus it definitely appears to have only three toes. I have seen close-up photos of a marabou, and when sitting it appears to have only three toes. It is bare headed and eats carrion; in addition, it has an impressive wingspan like that of a bird of prey. In today’s world, it inhabits sub-Saharan Africa, but it certainly could have been well-known in the days of Tanach, and may even have flown as far north as Eretz Yisroel.

These two bird varieties may be good candidates for nesher according to the Ramban. Both are bald, live near Eretz Yisroel so that they would be very familiar to those reading Tanach and Chazal, and they both have a reduced fourth toe.

So upon which bird did we ride out of Egypt?

We have seen that the Rishonim did extensive research into this question, which is rather incredible considering the difficulty in their era of observing and procuring bird specimens. I am quite comfortable to say that Rashi, the Radak and the Chizkuni concluded that the nesher is indeed the eagle, whereas it is possible that Rav Saadya and the Ibn Ezra felt that the category nesher might also include large vultures, thus explaining the verses that do not smoothly describe eagles. According to the Ramban’s approach, the most likely nesher candidate is the marabou.

It is indeed fascinating to see how much effort the Rishonim expended to correctly identify the correct species. We certainly see that one should utilize secular knowledge in order to properly understand the halachos of the Torah.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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