What's in a Word?

For the week ending 19 November 2016 / 18 Heshvan 5777

Fowl Language and Poultry

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Biblical Hebrew has three different words for birds: of (with a long vowel “o”), tzipor, and kanaf. As we have explained in other cases of apparent synonyms, these words do not all mean the exact same thing. There are slight differences between the connotations of each word.

The word kanaf is used colloquially by the Torah to mean “bird”, but it literally means “wing” or “winged creature”. In essence, when using the word kanaf for birds, the focus is on the fact that a bird has wings. When G-d commands Noah to bring all the animals to his ark, He tells Noah to bring “[from] every of according to their species, every tzipor, every kanaf” (Genesis 7:14). Rashi explains that the latter clause serves to include all winged creatures, such as grasshoppers — a detail not included in the phrase “every tzipor”.

Radak, in his commentary to Genesis, expands on Rashi’s explanation of G-d’s directive to Noah. He writes that of is a general term for any flying creature (as the word “of” also means “flies”), whereas tzipor and kanaf refer to specific classes of flying creatures. Tzipor refers to any type of bird, while kanaf refers specifically to winged insects like grasshoppers, wasps and flies. In his book called Sefer ha-Shorashim (about root-words in the Hebrew language), Radak remains consistent with his view that the word tzipor is a general term for all types of birds. This is an idea with some Talmudic precedent (see Chullin 139b).

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller in his commentary Tosafot Yom Tov to the Mishna notes that there is a disagreement amongst rabbinical sources as to the implications of the word tzipor. While the Talmud seems to suggest that that the word tzipor is a general term for all types of birds, the Sifri (a halachic Midrash) maintains that tzipor refers to a kosher bird, while the word of refers to all birds. This is an approach also adopted by Maimonides. The Bible commands that one must send away the mother bird before taking her eggs or hatchlings (Deuteronomy 22:6–7). The Mishna in Chullin (12:2) rules that this commandment applies only if taking the eggs or hatchlings of a kosher bird, but one taking those of a non-kosher bird need not send off the mother. Citing Sifri, Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishna) explains the source for this ruling by noting that in the context of this commandment the Bible uses the word tzipor to mean bird, and that word specifically refers to kosher birds. Therefore, non-kosher birds are excluded.

Nachmanides (to Leviticus 14:4) also rejects Radak’s view that tzipor refers to every type of bird, but he restricts its meaning in a different way. As opposed to those who understood that tzipor means only a kosher bird, Nachmanides maintains that tzipor refers specifically to small birds which wake up in the morning and chirp. According to this approach, the meaning of tzipor is derived from the Aramaic word for “morning”, tzafra.

Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialastok bridges the disparate views on the nature of the word tzipor as opposed to of, throwing in a moral lesson for good measure. Just as the Talmud often differentiates between “thick animals” (behama gasa) and “thin animals” (behama daka), there is similarly a difference between stronger and weaker types of birds. The word of denotes a bird with strong wings (even if it physically a smaller bird), and such birds usually serve as predators in plundering other creatures and eating them. The word tzipor, on the other hand, denotes flimsy and weak types of birds. These birds are generally not predatory, but rather suffice with accepting whatever foods man or nature grants them. With this in mind, Rabbi Chanoch Zundel reconciles Maimonides’ explanation with Nachmanides’: a tzipor which trusts in others to provide for its food is able to sleep at night, awakening in the morning and begins to chirp. An of, however, does not sleep at night to waken in the morning, because as a predator it always seeks its next victim upon which it will feast. It relies on nobody else but itself — so it is always restless and cannot relax. This fundamental difference between these two sorts of birds is reflected in the criterion for determining a non-kosher bird. While the Torah simply lists all the non-kosher birds (Leviticus 11:13-19), the Mishna (Chullin 3:6) reveals that any predatory bird is non-kosher. Accordingly, the very characteristics of a tzipor according to Nachmanides are congruent with Maimonides’ understanding that a tzipor by definition means only a kosher bird.

This idea serves as a moral lesson to man: one who trusts in G-d to provide can rest assured, relying on his Creator to supply his needs. However, one who believes only in his own handiwork will constantly be on edge, trying to make sure that he can produce for himself all the provisions necessary for survival.

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