Word of the Day / Nesher: The Great Hebrew Battle of the Birds

The harrowing tale of how 'nesher' became eagle - only to be reduced to the vulture once again.

Daniel Bar-On

No discussion in the Academy of the Hebrew Language was as heated as the discussion concerning what bird nesher is, and to some extent the battle still rages on, with confusion raging among the people as to which it is – eagle or vulture.

Officially, as we shall see, a nesher is a vulture. But ask the Israeli in the street what bird is found on the flags of Egypt, Mexico and several other countries, and they'll probably say nesher amerikai - though in fact the eagle is correctly referred to as a’it (a-YEET).

The word nesher appears 27 times in the Bible, where it clearly means vulture. Still, the first translators of the Bible from Hebrew and Aramaic, the Greek translators that created the Septuagint, got it wrong and wrote a’etos, which is the Greek word for eagle.

The same switch took place in post-biblical Hebrew texts, as is clear by the fact that a Roman legion is referred to by its symbol - the eagle - using the word nesher in the Talmud. (Sanhedrin 12:1).

The rabbis don’t discuss eagles much during the Middle Ages but from time to time rabbinic students are called nesharim and great rabbis, especially the Rambam, are referred to as hanesher hagadol (“The Great Eagle”). They most probably did not mean vulture, as the hapless birds were reviled in Europe, unlike in the East.

When science books began to be written in Hebrew in the 18th century, the tradition of using the word nesher to mean eagle continued. In Baruch Linda's important book, Reshit Limudim (“Elementary Learning”) of 1788, he called the eagle nesher . So too did Mendeli Mocher Sefarim in his translation of the second volume of Toldot Hateva (Natural History) of 1866.

This was also mirrored in the dictionaries of the period well into the 20th century, most notably in the dictionary of Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

But something would disrupt this order.

A biblical scholar wonders

It all began when the Reverend Henry Tristram, a Bible scholar and ornithologist, traveled to the Holy Land in the 1860s. In a book he published in 1867, Tristram wrote that the biblical nesher was not an eagle but a vulture. This was picked up by the Israel Aharoni, a highly influential zoologist working in Palestine in the early 20th century. In his 1923 book Torat Hachai (“Zoology”) he announced the flip and suggested that the word nesher be reinstated to its biblical use, and used to refer to the vulture.

Aharoni had to come up with a name for the eagle, so he named it a’it, a word that in the Bible means a group of birds of prey. Students of Aharoni, who were the first generation of Israeli zoologists and science teachers followed his decision.

Thus some confusion ensued: people in the “business” and the young used nesher to mean vulture, while the older generation continued to use it to mean eagle, as it has been for generations.

In 1964, the Academy of the Hebrew Language was holding meetings to approve the names of the birds of Israel, as were suggested by a joint zoologist-linguist subcommittee, and have them printed in the academy’s official dictionaries. But the zoologists were unable to persuade the linguist members of the academy, who attacked the deceased Aharoni, saying that they would not stand for the undoing of thousands of years of tradition.

No decision was made and the bird dictionary was printed without the word nesher.

The zoologists turn nasty

And there the matter rested until the summer of 1972. Once again the zoological camp tried to convince the linguists to accept what was already a fact among those who actually discuss birds - the nesher was a vulture. But the linguists would not have it and held a vote, deciding that it would remain the Hebrew word for eagle.

“It is true we have come to a decision, but what can we do - that is the language of zoologists, which will remain fixed anyway,” Dr. Moshe Amikam warned. “The zoologists will continue to use their terms in their books despite our decision!”

Prof. Ze’ev Ben Haim, vice president of the academy tried to calm things down. “Following conversations with people,” he said, "I can assume that the zoologists will eventually accede to the academy’s decision.”

It was not to be. In the fall of 1973, in his first academy plenary session as president, Ben Haim - who up to then was the leader of the nesher-is-eagle camp - announced that a “compromise” was reached, though in fact this was a complete capitulation on the part of the linguists.

“The Zoological Society threatened to appeal to the Supreme Court,” Ben Haim explained. He was concerned that this would irreparably destroy the prestige and authority of the organization he was just voted to lead, and thus after a heated debate and a tied vote of 7:7, Ben Haim used his authority as president to break a deadlock in favor of the eagle becoming a vulture and thus the saga came to an end. At least officially.