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Is the Phoenix a Real Bird?

Is the Phoenix a Real Bird?

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Unlike some other mythical creatures found in fantasy books, there is reference to the phoenix in ancient Jewish sources as far back as the Book of Job. When Job reminisces about his “good old days,” he says, “And I said, ‘I will perish with my nest, and like a chol [ וְכַחוֹל] I will multiply my days.’”1 According to many translations, the word chol refers to the phoenix.

(In fact, there is a fascinating incident in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe used this verse to show the widow of renowned artist Jacques Lipchitz that the phoenix was indeed a Jewish symbol. You can read the full story here.)

The Phoenix and the Tree of Knowledge

The Midrash (cited by Rashi) explains that after Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, she gave its fruit to all of the animals to eat. Only the chol (phoenix) abstained from eating it. Thus, death was decreed upon all animals except the phoenix, which lives forever and is rejuvenated every thousand years, returning to its youth.2

There are two opinions in the Midrash on how this rejuvenation process works: According to one opinion, the phoenix lives a thousand years, at the end of which a fire issues forth from its nest and burns it up. All that remains is an egg, from which the phoenix grows new limbs and lives again. According to another opinion, the fire issues forth from the phoenix itself.3

The Phoenix: The Most Patient Animal

The Talmud, however, gives another explanation for how the phoenix got its long life. Here is the account, as described by Noah’s son Shem:

Indeed, we endured great distress in the Ark. Any creature which normally ate by day, we fed it in the daytime, and any creature whose habit it was to eat at night, we fed it by nighttime . . . As for the avarshinah [phoenix], Father found it lying in its quarters in the Ark. Father said to it, “Do you not need food?” The creature replied, “I saw that you were preoccupied with feeding all the animals, so I said, ‘I will not trouble you.’” Noah said to the bird, “May it be G‑d’s will that you never die! As the verse states, ‘I will perish with my nest; like a chol I will multiply my days.’”4

Reconciling the Two Accounts

The commentaries offer a number of explanations reconciling the account in the Talmud with the one in the Midrash.

Some explain that for refraining from eating from the forbidden fruit, the phoenix was blessed that it would be rejuvenated every thousand years. However, the process still involved dying and being reborn from the egg, so Noah blessed it that it wouldn’t need to die at all.5

Others explain that the phoenix’s long life was not a result of Noah’s blessing. The account in the Talmud was just an explanation of why the phoenix was so blessed—by by virtue of its patience, it merited many blessings, including the one for eternal life.6

Alternatively, for refraining from eating from the forbidden fruit, the phoenix was blessed that it would not die of natural causes, and every thousand years it would return to its youthful state. However, it could still be killed by unnatural causes, such as an arrow. Noah’s blessing was that it should not get killed.7

There are, of course, different ways of understanding Midrashic accounts (for more on that, see our series Is Midrash for Real?), so I can’t give you a more concrete answer to your question about how “real” the phoenix is.

The Phoenix and the Jewish People

Real or not, the phoenix provides a beautiful metaphor for the Jewish people. Just as the phoenix is eternal, so too is the Jewish nation. Just as the phoenix experiences highs and lows in its lifetime, so too are there moments of greatness and moments of tragedy in Jewish history. But from the darkest of ashes, the Jewish nation is always reborn—with more youthful vigor than ever before.

Footnotes
2.
Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 18:5; Rashi on Job 29:18.
3.
Midrash, ibid.
5.
Torat Chaim on Sanhedrin 108b.
6.
Maharal, Chiddushei Aggadot, Sanhedrin 108b.
7.
Yafeh Toar on Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 18:5.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Matt Hodge September 25, 2017

How is it that phoenix is translated from avarshinah in Shem's account but chol means the same thing a few sentences later as well as in Job? Chol seems to be translated sand in Genesis 32:12, 41:49, Judges 7:12, and other places. Could Job not be planning to multiply his days as the sand as is mentioned in Genesis and Judges? That would certainly fit with having a secure nest he planned to reside in for the rest of his days. If so, this would mean the Phoenix is not in the Torah. Reply

Henri Lai Kuala Lumpur November 3, 2016

Phoenix is the symbol for Chinese too The primordial symbolistic animal for the Chinese is the Phoenix and not the Dragon. Dragon is a later addition and originated from the serpents. Phoenix is extremely revered in Chinese culture because of its virtue and grace. Reply

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