Mythological creatures are generally shrugged off today as figments of overactive imaginations. Nevertheless, a fair number of these fantasy creatures are noted by the sages of the Talmud.

Take the phoenix, which describes as: “A mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 or 600 years in the Arabian wilderness [and said] to burn itself on a funeral pyre and rise from its ashes in the freshness of youth and live through another cycle of years.”

The Midrash describes this very creature and gives two separate, though not exclusionary, sources for the phoenix’s immortality:

Eve “gave the cattle, beasts, and birds to eat of it [the fruit]. All obeyed her and ate thereof, except a certain bird named hoi (phoenix), as it is written (Job 29:18), ‘Then I said : I shall die with my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the hoi’… The School of Rabbi Jannai maintained: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which a fire issues forth from its nest and burns it up, yet a small piece the size of an egg is left, and it grows new limbs and lives again.’ Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Simeon said: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which its body is consumed and its wings drop off, yet a small piece the size of an egg is left, whereupon it grows new limbs and lives again’” (Genesis Rabbah 19:5).

In another Midrash, Shem, the son of Noah, is reputed to have said “Regarding the avarshinah (phoenix), Father [Noah] found it lying in its niche inside the ark. Father said to it: ‘Don’t you need food?’ The avarshinah said to Noah: ‘I saw that you were busy, so I said to myself: I will not bother you with feeding me, too.’ Hearing this, Noah exclaimed: ‘May it be the will of God that you never die!’” (Sanhedrin 108b).

This Treat was last posted on October 5, 2010.

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