Monday, June 11, 2007

nesher and ayit

Sometimes how you define a word actually "defines" you as well.

For example, let's take the Hebrew words nesher נשר and ayit עיט.

From an informal survey I have taken, most native English speakers (who know Hebrew) will identify the nesher with the eagle, and if they have an answer - the ayit with the vulture.

Israelis, on the other hand, generally reverse the definitions. If they know English - they'll say nesher = vulture, and ayit = eagle. For those that didn't know, I showed them this picture:

The Israelis would usually say that #1 is an ayit, and #2 is a nesher.

Typically, the modern commentaries reflect this division. The JPS translates nesher as eagle, for example in Shemot 19:4, where the translation "on eagles' wings" sounds much more natural than "on vultures' wings" (82,000 hits on Google for the former vs. 7 for the latter.) On the other hand, the Daat Mikra almost always identifies the nesher with the Griffon Vulture.

The dictionaries also know their audience. The Even-Shoshan Dictionary (Hebrew-Hebrew) has the Griffon Vulture as the primary definition for nesher, with eagle as only a secondary option. Even-Shoshan also has eagle for ayit. The Alcalay Dictionary (Hebrew-English) has exactly the opposite order.

But of course, there are always those people who take it upon themselves to correct popular usage and put the masses on the proper path. And here we find two articles - each trying to convince the reader that they should change their initial association.

First we find an article by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin - no stranger to controversy. In his article, The Identity of the Nesher, he tells an English speaking audience why they should think of vultures, not eagles, when they say nesher.

Here are some of his reasons:

  • Rav Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra "translate nesher with the Arabic term nesr, which refers to the griffon vulture" (but see below)
  • Despite our association of the eagle as noble and the vulture as loathsome, in ancient times, the vulture was revered
  • The nesher is described as eating carrion (the carcass of a dead animal) in Iyov 39:27-30 and Mishlei 30:17, which fits a vulture, not an eagle
  • The nesher is described as bald in Micha 1:16, which matches the vulture not the eagle. As far as the "bald eagle", Slifkin writes:

    Even the bald eagle is not actually bald; it merely has white feathers on its head (its name comes from the Old English word balde, which means “white”). Besides, it only lives in America, and Scripture would therefore not discuss it.
  • The nesher is described as "the highest flying bird", a title which belongs to the griffon vulture, not the eagle
  • The vulture better fits the Talmudic description of the nesher (Chullin 61a) and Tosfot on 63a (s.v. netz) says that those who say the nesher is an eagle are mistaken (such as the Chizzkuni on Vayikra 11:13)
On the other hand, we have an article by one of Israel's premier linguists, Ze'ev Ben-Hayyim. Ben-Hayyim was one of the founders of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, and its president. In his book, B'Milchamta Shel Lashon (The Struggle for a Language) he has two pieces about nesher and ayit (both originally published in the journal Leshonenu).

He writes (in 1943) that every "Ivri" knows that nesher is eagle and ayit is vulture. But then came those who turned everything upside-down and began teaching the opposite. He says it is clear that when we refer to the Rambam as "HaNesher HaGadol" הנשר הגדול - we are talking about a symbol of royalty, just as the Romans had an eagle for their royal symbol.

So where did this "mistaken" view originate? According to Ben-Hayyim, from two faulty etymologies.

On the one hand, there were those who thought the word nesher derives from the root נשר - "to fall out, to drop, to shed". This would seem to be appropriate for the vulture, who, as we saw above, has more of a bald head - one whose feathers "fell out". But this does not work out when we realize, as Horowitz writes, that shin is "a double letter". Nesher (the bird) in Arabic and Aramaic becomes nesr and nishra נשרא respectively, but the verb "to fall out" is נתר (with a tav) in Arabic and Aramaic.

He also writes that the identification of ayit as eagle is mistaken. This was based on the Greek word for eagle, aetos, which looks a lot like ayit, but isn't connected etymologically. (Gesenius mentions both terms together here.)

(About 20 years after that article was written, a heated debate took place in the Academy between zoologists and linguists. In the end the vote was 12 to 3 to have nesher mean "eagle", followed by a unanimous vote for nesher kerech נשר קרח to be the term for vulture.)

So where do we go from here? Let's start by looking at the word ayit. All seem to agree that it derives from the root עיט or עוט meaning "to rush down, to dart" - the description of a bird of prey. We see this description in Bereshit 15:11, where it says that the ayit descended on the carcasses. - וַיֵּרֶד הָעַיִט, עַל-הַפְּגָרִים.

Onkelos translates ayit as עופא - "birds", indicating that this is a more general term, not referring to a particular type of bird. (Drazin and Wagner in their Onkelos on the Torah, suggest another reason, saying that "Onkelos and Saadiah tone down the biblical "birds of prey descended on the carcasses," which seems a somewhat disrespectful and savage depiction of a solemn occasion.) So while an eagle might fit into the category of "ayit", there is no reason to make an exclusive association. (In fact, at least based on the Bereshit story, it would seem that an eagle is not the best word, since it does not generally eat carrion.)

What about nesher? One of the participants in my survey responded as follows:

Both in Biblical usage and modern scientific parlance, nesher is appropriately associated with the griffon vulture; whereas ayit refers to the eagle. The possible exception to this in Tanach is Yechezkel's depiction of Melech Bavel in Perek 17; as noted by Yehudah Feliks, the depiction of this particular nesher as "full of feathers" suggests an eagle rather than a vulture.
Indeed, even the Daat Mikra (on Yechezkel 17:3) agrees that this verse is likely referring to an eagle. But if we go by the rule that "The Torah speaks in the language of man" (Berachot 31b), then the word nesher in that context must have made sense to the reader. And so, it would seem that nesher as well, refers to a larger group of birds, including both vultures and eagles.

This is the explanation of the Encyclopedia Mikrait as well, who writes that the Arabic term nesr also does not refer to only one species, but to both eagles and vultures (in contrast with Slifkin above.) The EM also says that while most examples of nesher refer to vultures, Mishlei 23:5 is likely referring to the Imperial Eagle, and Shemot 19:4 to the Golden Eagle.

So I think that in the end, both native English speakers and native Hebrew speakers can go on referring to the nesher and ayit the way they always did, but hopefully with a great deal of understanding of the other side.

For further reading:

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