Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On the Wings of Eagles

There is a common belief that is taken semi-seriously by people in the Orthodox world that when Moshiach comes the Jews still living in galus will literally be flown to Eretz Yisroel on the wings of eagles. Despite the obvious physical difficulties with such a scenario, Messianic times could be saturated with miracles and thus reality would be no object.

Here is an excert from one interesting dream sequence of such a phenomenon occurring that I found on the web:

"We saw hundreds of thousands (revavot) of Jews. A gigantic eagle that was 1/2 the size of Yerushalayim had his tail on the "landing" and Jews climbed aboard. There was no pushing or nervousness. Families stayed together. Members of families that were not on "speaking terms" prior to this, made peace without any effort. The Eagle boarded 20,000 Jews at a time and within seconds, he waved his wings and disappeared. The eagle returned in less than 5 minutes to pick up more Jews. We waited for about 10 minutes and were told to "board the Eagle". Within seconds, the eagle took off. It seemed there wouldn't be enough room for everyone to stand on the Eagle's back but the Eagle seemed to stretch even bigger and each person was comfortable. No one was scared of falling off. He waved his gigantic wings 3 times and we arrived in the holy land - Eretz Israel."

Others prefer to take Isaiah's metaphor found in 40:31 - "but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" as a specific prophecy where Jews will indeed fly to Israel (though Isaiah wasn't even referring to the ingathering of exiles here) but not on eagles per se, but on airplanes - on which Jews do indeed use to fly to Israel. I imagine that the founders of El Al considered naming themselves NesherAir for a little while.

Though there is also a relevant passage found in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) where it does speak of Jews flying during the End Times - "And should you ask, in those years during which the Almighty will renew his world, as it is written, And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day, what will the righteous do? — The Lord will make them wings like eagles', and they will fly above the water, as it is written, Therefore we will not fear when the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. And should you imagine that they will suffer pain — therefore Scripture saith, But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."

Hence the Talmudic rabbis interpret the scenario as when the world is destroyed in the process of God's rebuilding for Olam Habah, the righteous folks will grow eagle's wings and fly around until the earth is re-established. Funky, eh? I bet they didn't teach you that in yeshivah.

Anyway, let's take a look at the first time we see this phrase and try to understand it contextually.

Ex. 19:4 - "'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself."

Does this, in fact, happen anywhere in the text? Not literally. So why are Jews later on taking it literally? Let's see Rashi for this passage: "on eagles’ wings" - Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings, for all other birds place their young between their feet since they fear another bird flying above them. The eagle, however, fears only man, lest he shoot an arrow at it, because no other bird flies above it. Therefore, it places them [its young] on its wings. It says, “Rather the arrow pierce me and not my children.” I [God] too did that: “Then the angel of God…moved, …And he came between the camp of Egypt, etc.” (Exod. 14:19, 20), and the Egyptians shot arrows and catapult stones, and the cloud absorbed them.

Furthermore, Deut. 32:10-12 explains the metaphor in full: "10 In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, 11 like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. 12 The LORD alone led him; no foreign god was with him."

So what do we get out of all of this simply? The metaphor "on the wings of eagles" means that God protects the Jews like an eagle protects its young - exactly as Rashi explains. Isaiah's later use of the metaphor to mean renewed stength in those who hope in God still is not close to the contemporary conception of Jews literally flying on eagles' wings.

So when and why did people start taking the metaphor literally? That literal interpretation has no contextual or even traditional reason behind it. It's a metaphor! Why does it seem like someone went out of their way to make Judaism more fantastical than it already was?

This post was inspired by Guest Poster Happywithhislot at Baal Habos.

Edit - Check this out.


happywithhislot said...

I think i inspired this post, didnt i?
dont i deserve a link to my guest post at bhb?

Orthoprax said...

Sure, why not? I'll get on that.

Baal Habos said...

>So when and why did people start taking the metaphor literally?

The more miraculous it sounds, the more appeal it has.

alex said...

I'd maintain that the number of Orthodox Jews who take this metaphor literally (as opposed to letting it mean airplanes) is a whole lot smaller than what you're suggesting. I'm sure you have your reasons.

Orthoprax said...


"The more miraculous it sounds, the more appeal it has."

Does it? Maybe for immature minds.


I didn't suggest anything about popularity. In fact, I very clearly qualified the idea as being taken "semi-seriously." All I know for certain is that as a child it was an image I was lead to believe in.

If you were alive when Moshiach would come then you'd fly to Israel on top of eagles' wings and if you were dead, you'd roll there along undergound tunnels or something. It was considered a "real" prophecy that might just be fulfilled through modern aviation technology.

Anonymous said...

there are all these conceptions floating around, but based on the majority of my moshiach related discussions outside of Chabbad, I think there's a lot more people who are only too happy to give you the whole "but we're not actually supposed to discuss the times of Moshiach, bc no one really knows what any of that actually means" line. Chabad, of course, is only too happy to discuss it, but even they'll bring you a wide range of possible scenarios.
btw, I've heard that the translation for nesher isn't actually "eagle" at all; it's a crow or a raven or something, but people just liked the way eagle sounded better. the image is more noble, I guess.

Orthoprax said...


"btw, I've heard that the translation for nesher isn't actually "eagle" at all; it's a crow or a raven or something, but people just liked the way eagle sounded better. the image is more noble, I guess."

R' Slifkin says it's a vulture.

Tzvimoe said...

Parshas Yisro
ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים ואביא אתכם אלי
R’ M. Solomon explains that not only is an eagle unique in how it carries its young, (Rashi) the eagle also has a special routine in how the young get its back in the first place. While other birds just pick up their young when transporting them, the eagle crouches down and the young need to hop on, on their own. Similarly when it comes to Avodas Hashem and even physical/material success, Hashem will only create the situation and he leaves it up to us as to whether or not we will hop on board.

Perhaps we can take this further. There’s a well known saying that during Kibbutz Galuyos, Hashem will bring Klal Yisroel to Eretz Yisroel on the wings of an eagle. As in the previously mentioned passuk, the eagle is used as a metaphor to shed light on how an Kibbutz Galuyos will take place. First of all, a new method of transportation will be invented that will make traveling across the world much easier, quicker and more comfortable, “on the wings of an eagle” and secondly, an important lesson is being imparted e.g. that like with the eagle, Hashem will present the opportunity to make the move and be a part of Jewish destiny, however the choice will remain ours alone. Hop on board!!