Vultures and Eagles
One of the most famous birds in the Torah is the nesher, the king of birds. Although many assume that this is the eagle, and some of the commentaries have identified it as such, the identity of the nesher is in fact not at all straightforward. As we shall see, it seems more likely that it refers to a vulture - specifically, the griffon vulture. This spectacular bird has a wingspan that can measure eight feet and is the most magnificent bird of prey in Israel.
Rav Saadiah Gaon translates nesher with the Arabic term nesr, which refers to the griffon vulture. Ibn Ezra does the same, noting that the Arabic language provides good evidence for the identity of the bird. Contemporary scholars in the field of Biblical zoology have likewise concluded that the griffon vulture is the nesher.
Many people feel uncomfortable with identifying the nesher as the vulture rather than the eagle. The reason for this is that the nesher is described in noble terms by scripture, and regarded as the king of birds in Jewish thought. Whereas people today perceive the eagle in this light, the vulture is commonly regarded as a loathsome creature.
However, aside from the fact that such sentiments do not counteract the powerful evidence that the nesher is the vulture, the truth of the matter is that the vulture was perceived very differently in the ancient world. The Talmud mentions the Arabian deity called Nesra (Nasr), which was a vulture-God; the Assyrians also worshipped the vulture as a god. The griffon vulture was the symbol of royalty in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. One of the most prominent goddesses of the early Nile was Nekhbet, the female counterpart of the king of the gods, who is most commonly depicted as a griffon vulture. It was only in the time of Alexander the Great that the eagle was substituted as a symbol of royalty, due to the greater familiarity that Europe had with it. But in the Middle East, it is the griffon vulture that is the king of birds. Assyrians and Persians depicted images of the griffon vulture, not the eagle, on their battle standards.
"It should also be pointed out that vultures were by no means despised in antiquity. In ancient Mesopotamia, especially in earlier ages, the vulture, as also in Egypt, often took the place of the royal eagle." (F. S. Bodenheimer, Animals and Man in Bible Lands)
Still, since in the modern Western world, it is the eagle that conveys the imagery of the griffon vulture in the ancient world, the practice of translating nesher as eagle can be defended. Eagle is the translation of vulture for the modern English reader.
The Scriptural Identification of the Vulture
There are different methods for ascertaining the identity of the nesher. The first is the Scriptural references. Of the dozens of statements about the nesher in Scripture, there are several that do not match the eagle.
Some of these references speak of the nesher feeding on carrion:
Does the nesher rise up at your command, and make its nest on high? It dwells and abides on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From there it seeks the prey, and its eyes behold from far away. Its young ones gulp blood; and where there are carcasses, there it is. (Job 39:27-30)
The eye that mocks at his father, and scorns to obey his mother, will be picked out by the ravens of the valley, and the young nesher shall eat it. (Proverbs 30:17)
Eagles do not usually feed on carrion; they generally take live prey, which they kill themselves. Vultures, on the other hand, are renowned for feeding on carrion, and the griffon vulture eats nothing else.
Another reference speaks of the nesher as being bald:
Make yourself bald like the nesher. (Michah 1:16).
This verse might be referring to the nesher molting, or even to the phoenix, in which case it does not give us a reason to translate nesher as vulture. But certainly the simple meaning of the verse is that it is referring the nesher being bald on its head. As such, this description would not match the eagle. 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.
Certain vultures, on the other hand, are indeed bald. This feature relates to their aforementioned habit of feeding on carrion. Vultures insert their heads into the carcasses of large animals. Were their heads to be feathered, these feathers would be filled with blood and flesh, which would provide a place for dangerous bacteria to develop. By virtue of lacking feathers in its head and neck, the vulture can safely insert its head and neck into the carcass without incurring this danger. This verse provides strong evidence that the nesher is the vulture.
The bald vultures that live in Israel are the griffon vulture, the lappet-faced vulture, and the black vulture (aegypticus monachus). nesher may be a broad term that includes all three, but the primary reference appears to be the griffon vulture, since the other two species are rarely found. Unlike the lappet-faced vultures, griffon vultures are not entirely bald; they have a white downy covering on their head and neck. However, since there are no feathers, this would probably qualify as being bald.
A further proof that the nesher is the vulture rather than the eagle is that it is described as being the highest flying bird. This is only implied in Scripture, but it is explicitly stated by the commentaries. As we shall later explore, the griffon vulture is indeed the highest flying bird. Finally, it should be pointed out that eagles are rarely found in Israel, whereas vultures were relatively common. Thus, the Scriptural descriptions all point to the nesher being the griffon vulture rather than the eagle.
The Talmudic Identification of the Vulture
The second source for identifying the nesher is the Talmud. In discussing the laws of kosher birds, the nesher, king of birds, is listed first:
And these are they which you shall have in abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination; the nesher... (Leviticus 11:13-19)
The list is repeated in the Book of Deuteronomy:
You may eat every kosher bird. These are the birds that you may not eat: the nesher,... (Deuteronomy 14:11-18)
The Sages of the Talmud took this to mean that the nesher is the paradigmatic non-kosher bird. By contrasting it with the paradigmatic kosher bird, the dove, the Sages derived four characteristic differences between kosher and non-kosher birds. This gives us four identifying characteristics of the nesher:
Just as the nesher is unique in that it has no extra toe, no crop, its gizzard cannot be peeled, and it preys to eat, and is non-kosher, so too any similar bird is non-kosher. (Talmud, Chullin 61a)
As discussed in the introduction to Birds, there is considerable controversy regarding the precise meanings of these four characteristics. Unfortunately, it is difficult to define them in such a way as to fit the griffon vulture. However, there is no bird that better matches these signs, not even the eagle. Furthermore, it is difficult to posit that these signs describe a bird that is now extinct. One of the main objections to identifying the nesher as the vulture is that the nesher is said to lack an "extra toe," which according to the most popular definition refers to the rear-facing toe. Yet no perching bird lacks this toe, as it would be difficult to perch without it; and no bird of prey lacks this toe, as it would not be able to grasp its prey without it. It is unlikely that any bird of prey entirely lacking a hind toe has ever existed, and no traces of such a bird have been found. Thus, it seems best to remain with identifying the nesher as the griffon vulture, and to try to define these signs in such a way as to match it.
It should be remembered that the various Rishonim who attempted to give precise definitions of these four signs did so without actually being able to examine a nesher first-hand. Even contemporary scholars who have made efforts to explain this topic have often suffered from not being able to examine the foot of the griffon vulture or eagle. Thus, we should not be surprised to find that many of the explanations of the four characteristics cannot be reconciled with the facts on the ground. Furthermore, with a first-hand examination of the birds in question, we have an advantage even over the Rishonim in giving a more precise definition of these signs.
The first characteristic described is that the nesher lacks an "extra toe." There is one explanation that the "extra toe" refers to the dew claw (a claw that emerges from half way up the hind leg), which vultures (and eagles) lack; however, this explanation does not fit with the subsequent statement of the Talmud that doves possess this extra toe. Some instead explain this "extra toe" to refer to the hind toe (hallux); however, griffon vultures also possess such a toe. Others explain it to refer to the central front toe being extra large; however, griffin vultures do indeed possess such an extra large toe - in fact, it is far longer in proportion to its other toes than is the case with most birds. It is true that the toes of vultures are smaller and far weaker than those of eagles, since they do not use them for killing prey. However, there is no sufficient contrast here with the toes of doves, which are also slender and weak. Yet another suggestion is that the "extra toe" refers to the hind toe in a case where it emerges slightly higher on the leg than do the front toes (elevated rather than incumbent), which give it an appearance of being "extra." With vultures, the hind toe emerges at the same height as the other toes; however, with doves it is barely raised, if at all. A recent suggestion is that the "extra toe" refers to the front central toe being longer than the tarsus (lower section of leg), however, aside from being a far-fetched explanation, this is also the case with the griffon vulture.
If we look at the feet of griffon vultures and doves, we can make a suggestion. Perhaps the hallux is only rated as an extra toe when it is comparable in length to the other toes. In vultures, the hallux is far shorter than the outer front toes, and vastly shorter than the middle toe. (The ratio of toe length is approximately 1:2:4:2, going from toe 1 through 4). However in doves, the hallux is only slightly smaller than the front three toes (ratio of approximately 2:3:4:3).
Foot of a griffon vulture
Another characteristic stated of the nesher is that it lacks a crop. The griffon vulture does possess a crop; its distended crop and gizzard can hold over 13 pounds of meat at a time. (The only bird of prey to lack any form of crop is the bearded vulture, but this is not bald and is therefore not a likely candidate for the nesher, aside from it not lacking an extra toe). But it should be remembered that the Talmudic definition of a crop is not the same as the zoological definition of a crop. It is noted in Jewish law that the crop must be of standard appearance. The hawk, for example, possesses a crop according to the zoological definition. However the shape of it is very different from the shape of a pigeon's crop, and Ramban states that it is therefore not rated as a crop by the Talmud. The vulture's crop is similar to that of a hawk and likewise is not rated as a crop by the Talmud. The definition of a crop may also relate to its function. Normally, a crop is used to soften the food - usually grain - that a bird eats. With vultures, on the other hand, the crop functions merely to store excess food. Perhaps, according to the Talmud's definition, this means that the vulture lacks a crop.
Above are the crops of a griffon vulture, chicken, and dove
The third characteristic stated regarding the nesher is that its gizzard cannot be peeled. This sign is obviously true of the vulture. The gizzard in most diurnal birds of prey is relatively thin-walled and saclike due to the soft nature of fish and meat.
The fourth characteristic by which the nesher is differentiated from the dove is that it is dores, which is roughly translated as it being a preying bird. Some explain this as meaning that the bird kills with its claws; others explain it to mean that it eats live prey without killing it. Neither of these are true of the griffon vulture. Vultures generally feed only on carrion, although in times of great need, they may kill small animals. However, others explain this characteristic to mean that it holds its food down with its feet while tearing pieces off it with its beak, which the vulture does.
In conclusion, while some effort is required to explain how the griffon vulture matches the Talmud's description of the nesher, it is still far easier to do this than to propose that the nesher is not the griffon vulture.
Vultures on High
The vulture is described in Scripture as being a bird that flies very high, and the commentaries state that it is the highest flying of all birds. This also alludes to its status as king over all birds.
The vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom; We have heard tidings from the Lord, and an ambassador has been sent among the nations, Arise! Let us rise up against her in battle! Behold, I will make you small among the nations; you shall be greatly despised. The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; who said in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? Though you soar aloft like the vulture, and though you set your nest among the stars, from there will I bring you down, says the Lord. (Obadiah 1:1-4)
When migrating, birds reach a great altitude of five to twenty thousand feet. Perhaps the most impressive altitude record for migrating birds is that of a flock of whooper swans which was seen on radar arriving over Northern Ireland on migration and was visually identified by an airline pilot at 29,000 feet. One possible explanation for selecting such a high altitude is that the air is cooler and this helps avoid dehydration. Another suggested reason is that the thinner air allows faster flight without much effort, thus saving precious energy on a long trip.
Still, in the course of normal activities, most birds fly far lower. Most birds fly below 500 feet, with no reason to expend the energy in flying higher. Vultures, however, rise to great heights in their daily routine, sometimes over 10,000 feet. One reason for this is in order to scan larger areas for food. A second reason, which is cause for them to fly even higher, is to watch for other vultures heading towards a carcass. The highest altitude recorded for any bird was on November 29, 1973, when a Ruppell's griffon vulture collided with a commercial airline over western Africa at an astonishing height of 37,000 feet.
The griffon vulture, highest flying of all birds, is the king of birds - the nesher.
© Nosson Slifkin 2004. This essay is extracted from The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, currently in preparation. Rabbi Nosson Slifkin is the director of Zoo Torah, an educational enterprise that offers a series of books, programs for both adults and children, zoo tours, and African safaris, all on the theme of Judaism and the animal kingdom. For more details and a taste of the experience, see www.zootorah.com.
 Sefer Ha-Itur, Chizkuni and Yalkut Me'am Loez state that the nesher is the eagla.
 Yisroel Aharoni, Menachem Dor, Yehudah Feliks.
 Avodah Zara 14b?
 birds of the bible.
 As Rashi and Malbim seem to understand.
 Radak, Metzudas David ad loc.
 Ramban to Chullin.
 Baal HaTurim, Ri MiVIenna, Minchah Belulah cited in Torah Sheleimah 11:65.
 Sefer HaYere'im 68 states that perhaps the features of the nesher have changed since the time of the Talmud, but such rapid evolution is inconsistent with our knowledge of the natural world.
 See Tosafos (Chullin 63a): "They mistakenly identify the nesher as the eagla, and this cannot be, for the nesher has all four signs of a non-kosher bird, and the eagla has an extra toe." The only exception is that according to those who define dores as killing its prey with its claws, the eagle fits the definition better than does the vulture. The other minor advantage that the eagle has over the vulture is that the Talmud uses the nesher to allude to Rome, whose symbol was the eagle (Sanhedrin 12a and Pesachim 87b).
 Chassam Sofer, Yoreh De'ah 74, says that even though a nesher has a hind toe, it is capable of being dores without it, and therefore doesn't count as one of its toes. But it is difficult to see how this explanation would translate to doves possessing a hind toe.
 Aruch HaShulchan.
 Prof. Yisroel Aharoni, Ha'aros LeChiddushei HaRamban LeChullin, Sinai, vol. 13, pp. 62-64.
 Fry, C.H., Keith, S. & Urban, E.K. (eds) The Birds of Africa (London: Academic Press 1982) vol 1 p 326
 Yam Shel Shlomo 115.
 See too Meiri.
 Sichas Chullin.
 R' Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (cited in Torah Sheleimah to Shemini) says that the term nesher includes both vultures and eagle. Eagles presumably need to be somewhere in the list of non-kosher birds. If they are not included in any of the other types, then they must be included in the category of nesher. But the eagle has an extra toe, something that the nesher is said to lack.
 Ibn Ezra to Exodus 19:4; Ibn Ezra, Metzudas David and Malbim to Iyov 39:27.