RabbI YY Jacobson
RabbI YY JacobsonYad Lachim

The Raah Bird

This week’s portion Re'eh repeats—for the second time in the Torah[1]—G-d’s “Kosher List,” of mammals, fish and birds, suitable for Jewish consumption. In the category of birds, the Torah enumerates twenty-four species of birds which are not kosher. One of them is called by three names—the Raah, Dayah and Ayah.[2]

The Talmud explains[3] that these are three names for the same bird. The Torah specifies all of them, because if it would mention only one name, then if someone knows the bird by one of its names not mentioned in the Torah, he might have entertained the idea that it was kosher.

What type of bird is this Raah/Ayah/Dayah creature? Many have translated it as the Vulture or the Hawk. Yet, after all the research, it seems that the most accurate translation for the Raah bird is the Kite, or in its scientific term—the Milvus. Indeed, in Arabic the Kite is known as the “Chadaa” (חדאא), quite similar to the biblical Dayah.[4]

Three Names

Why three names for the same bird? “Raah” stems from the verb “to see.” “Dayah” is from the verb "to fly, sore, or glide." “Ayah” is from the verb “to wail, scream, cry.” All these names describe characteristics of this bird. This Kite indeed is scattered all over the Middle East, feeding chiefly on smaller birds, mice, reptiles, and fish. In the capture of fish the Kite is almost as expert as the osprey (the “Shalach” in the biblical language), darting from a great height into the water, and bearing off the fish in its claws. The wings of the Kite are long and powerful, bearing it through the air in a peculiarly graceful flight. That is why it has been called the Glede or the Kite, representing its gliding movements.

The sight of this bird is remarkably keen and piercing. From the vast elevation to which it soars when in search of food, it is able to survey the face of the land beneath, and to detect the partridge, quail, chicken, or other creature that will become its food.

Should the Kite suspect danger near its nest, it escapes by darting rapidly into the air, soaring at a vast height above the trees among which its home is made. From that elevation it can act as a sentinel, due to its incredible eyesight, and will not come down until it is assured of safety.

The Talmud’s Observation

What is remarkable is that seventeen centuries before all of the scientific research, the Talmud described it in a few words: [5]

אמר רב אבהו, ראה זו איה,ולמה נקרא שמה ראה? שרואה ביותר. וכן הוא אומר [6] נָתִיב לֹא יְדָעוֹ עָיִט, וְלֹא שְׁזָפַתּוּ עֵין אַיָּה. תנא עומדת בבבל ורואה נבלה בארץ ישראל!

Translation: Rabbi Abahu said, the Raah bird is the same as the Ayah. Why is this bird it called "Raah?" Because it sees exceedingly well.

The Talmud proceeds to prove this from a verse in Job:[7]"There is a path which no bird of prey knows; and which the kite’s eye has not seen." The very fact that the biblical verse underscores the fact that the Kite’s eye has not perceived the hidden path indicates that the kite usually possesses piercing vision.

The Talmud continues to illustrate the kite’s keen eyesight:

We have learnt that this bird stands in Babylon, and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel!

Now, that’s impressive, being that the distance between Babylon (present day Iraq) and Israel is some 500 miles.[8]

Three Questions

The obvious question is why the Talmud uses such a strange illustration: “This bird stands in Babylon and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel!” It could have used so many more examples of what the bird is capable of seeing and where it is capable of seeing it.

Another, more substantial question: The reason some animals are not kosher is because the negative characteristics these animals possess can have a negative impact on their consumer. “You are what you eat” is not only a cliché. It is why we are instructed to abstain from eating certain animals whose traits we would not wish to incorporate into our psyche. Kosher animals, on the other hand, are characterized by peaceful traits that are worth imitating. [9]

But why, then, is this bird not kosher? Surely keen eyesight and perception are worthy traits. Shouldn't this bird then be kosher? [10]

What Do You See?

The Talmud is not only illustrating the keen vision of the Kite, or the Raah; it is also explaining to us why it is not kosher: “This bird stands in Babylon, and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel!” When you gaze at the land of Israel, you can see many things, including many positive and heartwarming items; yet what does this bird see? Corpses! Being a carnivorous bird, which kills, devours and eats the meat of other animals, its eyes gaze at Eretz Yisroel but observe only one thing: the carcasses in the land! [11]

This is what makes it a non-kosher animal—because this quality is prevalent among some people as well, and we do not want to “eat” and incorporate this type of behavior into our psyche.

Helpless Critics

Some people are simply chronic complainers. They will gaze at their wife, children, relatives, and community members and all they will see are flaws, deficiencies, mishaps, and negative attributes.

Some people never stop criticizing everybody and everything. While some see the good in everybody, even in the worst situation or person, these characters manage to somehow see the evil in everybody and in everything. They can always show you how everyone has an “agenda,” and everyone is driven by ulterior motives; there are smelly carcasses everywhere.

Are they right? They may be partially, or even completely correct. Every person has flaws. Even the greatest saint has demons; even a great man usually has some skeleton—a corpse—in his closet. That is why we need a Torah to guide us, and that is why the Torah asks of us to never stop working on ourselves, to challenge our conventions, to scrutinize our motives, to refine our behavior, to make amends of our mistakes. But why is that the only thing you manage to observe?

The “Holy” Preacher

A story:[12]

A renowned Maggid (traveling preacher) arrived one day at the hometown of Reb Shmuel Munkes, a noted disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who was a deeply pious man with an incredible sense of humor. After reading his letter of approbation, lauding him as a tzaddik wont to wander from town to town for the sole purpose of inspiring fellow Jews, the townspeople—who were simple, G-d fearing, innocent Jews—invited him to preach.

Throughout his sermon the Maggid berated his fine audience, chastising them for “dreadful sins.” He rebuked them, for being such terrible, lowly and horrendous Jews, evoking G-d’s wrath. He proceeded to describe in vivid detail the severe punishment that awaited them as a result of their evil ways. When finished, the proud orator quickly retired to his room, leaving his crestfallen audience to wail over their horrific moral state and the Divine retribution about to befall them.

No sooner had he made himself comfortable, when a man walked into his room. It was Reb Shmuel himself.

Reb Shmuel took out a long knife and a sharpening stone entered his room. He proceeded to sharpen his knife.

After a few tense and wordless moments, the Maggid broke the silence. “What’s this all about?” he asked with a look of astonishment.

His eyes still trained on the sharpening stone, Rabbi Shmuel Munkes replied in mock sincerity: “As the honorable Maggid knows, we simple folk never had the merit of having a righteous scholar in our midst. Who knows, perhaps it is because of our wanton sins you just described.”

Bemused as to where this was heading, the Maggid replied, “Yes, yes, but what does any of this have to do with the knife you are sharpening?”

“Well,” retorted Reb Shmuel, “We were taught by our parents that before Rosh Hashanah one should pray at the gravesites of the righteous. And sadly, we never had in our cemetery the grave of a righteous man. All of our residents—as you have eloquently described us—have been utterly wicked.”

“Of course, of course, nodded the Maggid. But why the knife!?”

“It's rather simple,” explained Reb Shmuel calmly. “The nearest burial site of a tzaddik is very far from our town. It is extremely cumbersome for the townsfolk to make the yearly trek. We decided that we finally need to have a righteous man buried in our midst.

“After hearing your speech,” Reb Shmuel continued in a straight face, “I know there is no one more holy and righteous than you in our entire region. So I decided to… slaughter you and bury you right here in our very own cemetery. Finally, before Rosh Hashanah, we will be able to come pray at your sacred grave site.”

As the grim reality began to set in, the Maggid adeptly switched course. “Come to think of it,” he stammered, “I am not all that righteous after all. I have committed some small sins here and there; they were obviously all inadvertent.”

Reb Shmuel dismissed the Maggid's confession: “Honored Maggid! You are still very righteous and learned. As for the transgressions? They are so minor; who would even know that these were sins. Your humility is nothing but proof of your exceptional righteousness. Besides, relative to our heinous sins—which you have just described in your sermon—you are, trust me, a complete tzaadik! You are the man we need buried here.”

By now, Reb Shmuel was done with the sharpening of the knife. The “holy preacher” began to panic.

“On second thought,” stuttered the Maggid, “Some of my transgressions were a bit more serious, such as…” He went on to share some immoral things he has done in his life, which disqualified him from being a tzaddik. Rabbi Shmuel quickly dismissed these as well: “To us you are still a great Tzaddik. You are far better than anything we have.”

Finally, the Maggid confessed to some rather ugly and embarrassing transgressions. He admitted that in truth he was far from the great tzaddik that he portrayed himself to be. He was actually a disgraceful low life.

Now, it was Rabbi Shmuel’s turn to preach: “How dare you admonish these beautiful, innocent and pure Jews, when you yourself are a despicable, immoral charlatan! How dare you cause such fine, lovely, well-intended Jews so much anguish. It is you who needs to transform his life; it is you who needs to repent for all of his transgressions.

The Maggid got the message. He left the town in deep inner shame. He never again rebuked his audiences with stern, harsh words.

The Mirror

How did Reb Shmuel know that this guy was really playing a game and that he was far from holy?

The answer is simple: When you are pure and holy, you see innocence and purity in others. When you are in touch with your own soul, you sense the soul in others. When you have a genuine relationship with G-d, and your appreciation of the G-dliness within every person is far more palpable. When you don’t suffer from an inflated ego, or from terrible insecurity, you will truly appreciate the goodness in others.

To be sure, there are corpses, skeletons, demons and ghosts in almost every human person; that is what makes them human. Even the Holy Land has its share of carcasses—physical and psychological. But when that is the only thing you see, it means that you are a non-kosher person. You need your own cleansing.

The Bias Toward Israel Today

This insight of our sages concerning the non-kosher Raah bird is so relevant today when it comes to Israel.

Is Israel a perfect country? We all know the answer. Israel has many challenges and problems. Is the government perfect? Only a fool can think so. Over the last three decades, the Israeli leadership has made some historical errors which might take generations to fix.

But there are those who when they look at Israel see nothing but “corpses.” In our own day and age, with modern technology, we were all blessed with the eyesight of the Kite. We sit in our homes in Babylon (or US, or Canada, or Europe, Australia, South Africa, or anywhere else in the world), and with the help of CNN or BBC or other news cameras, we can see Israel. But often, all the reporters, journalists, bloggers, academics, and politicians see in Israel are stinky corpses. When they report on Israel, you would think that the country does nothing besides producing Palestinian Arab Children's corpses.

And this is how you know how terribly biased and unfair they are. When someone criticizes Israel—that is legitimate. There is much to comment and argue about. But when one has nothing but criticism for Israel, when there is nothing good to say about Israel, when Israel is portrayed as the most racist country—then you know it has nothing to do with Israel; rather, the person spewing the hate is treif.

At the end of the day, it is all a matter of perspective. Each of us has to choose what we are going to see—in ourselves and in the world around us.


[1] The first time in Leviticus chapter 11, in the portion of Shemini.

[2] Deuteronomy 14:13

[3] Chulin 63b, quoted in Rashi to Deuteronomy ibid.

[4] The bird is mentioned another two times in the Bible: Isaiah 34:15, "There shall the kites [dayos] also be gathered, every one with her mate." In Job 28:7, there is a similar word, ayah. This verse is quoted below in the essay.

[5] Chulin 63b

[6] Job 28:7

[7] Job ibid.

[8] The Maharal of Prague, in his book Beer Hagoleh, explains this in two possible ways: It means literally that this bird has extraordinary vision. Another possible explanation is that this bird in its most perfect state possesses this ability, though practically, the physical bird is always flawed. This is based on the prevalent idea in Jewish philosophy and in the works of the Maharal that every being and object possesses two dimensions: its tzurah and its chomer. The tzurah is the abstract form of this particular object; it is the concept of this object in its most perfect and ideal form. Chomer is the way it is manifested practically in a concrete and flawed universe. This duality is a major theme in the works of the Greek Philosopher Plato.

[9] See Ramban on Leviticus 11:12. See also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah end of section 81.

[10] This bird is indeed carnivorous, which makes it non-kosher (see references in previous footnote.) Yet the fact that the list of non-kosher birds the Torah titles it as “Raah,” indicates that this quality itself, its keen eyesight, is part of what it makes it non-kosher. Yet, we would think that keen eyesight is a positive quality!

[11] In other words, this bird possesses two negative qualities: it is carnivorous, and it “sees” nothing but the carcasses.

[12] I copied some paragraphs of the story from an article by Rabbi Yosef Kahanov http://www.crownheights.info/index.php?itemid=23516