This is the final part of a series of three posts on the gigantic mythical beasts of Jewish mythology. The previous posts were about Leviathan and Behemoth, creatures which the non-Jewish reader of the Old Testament is probably familiar with even without the help of this blog. Like them, the hero of this post is mentioned in the Bible, but if you don’t read Hebrew, there’s simply no chance that you’ll encounter it. Enter the giant Bird, Ziz Shadai.
Like its fellow megabeasts, Ziz Shadai is also first mentioned in the Bible, only it’s not really mentioned. In Psalm 50, verse 10 – “the cattle [or beasts] upon a thousand hills” might be read as “Behemoth, who dwells upon a thousand hills“. Similarly, the next verse – “and the wild beasts of the field are mine” (lit. “everything that moves in the field is with me“) can be read as “and Ziz Shadai is with me“. Since the beginning of the verse mentions birds, the Sages found it glaringly obvious that Ziz Shadai must mean a giant bird, brother to Behemoth.
The Midrash Rabba casts Ziz Shadai in a rather peculiar role of a gigantic creator-bird:
R. Judah bar Simon said, Ziz is a kosher fowl, and while it spreads its wings, it hides the sun. And Adam was created in the end to rule over everything that was created before him, and he ate Ziz so that it would not create any more worlds. (Bereshit Rabba).
Most depictions of the Ziz, however, are based on a very different text from the Talmud:
Once we travelled on board a ship and we saw a bird standing up to its ankles in the water while its head reached the sky. We thought the water was not deep and wished to go down to cool ourselves, but a voice called out: ‘Do not go down here for a carpenter’s axe was dropped [into this water] seven years ago and it has not [yet] reached the bottom. And this, not [only] because the water is deep but [also] because it is rapid. R. Ashi said: That [bird] was Ziz-Sadai.
(Baba Bathra, 73b)
In the Midrash Conen, Ziz is described as the counterpart of Leviathan: just like Leviathan holds the world on its fins, Ziz holds the skies on the its wings:
On the fifth day, the Lord… mixed mud and water and created Ziz Shadai and all the fowls; and he hinged the legs of Ziz Shadai on the fins of Leviathan, and its head in front of the Throne of God.
Comes the apocalypse, Ziz Shadai will be eaten along with Leviathan and Behemoth at the Feast of the Righteous. Midrash Leviticus Rabba even promises the reader that the flesh of the Ziz will hold all the flavors in the world.
Some commentators equate Ziz with other strange birds mentioned in the Jewish sources: the Bar Yochane, a giant bird whose rotten egg can smash sixty cities, and Renanim, the bird who pulls the Chariot of the Sun. Other than that, mentions of the Ziz are pretty scarce compared to its two better-known counterparts. I managed to find a couple of interesting references in later sources.
First, the Ten Articles of 16th century Kabbalist Menahem Azariel de Fano compare the Ziz favorably to Leviathan and Behemoth, claiming it is a more pious beast, and therefore more deserving of being slaughtered and consumed:
Ziz Shadai is prepared for that feast for they who will remain and will be called by God. It requires no cooling and no castration; moreover, its legs are in the sea and its head is in the sky, and its body and wings fly in the air. This is comparable to the virtue of Enuch and Elijah [who are mortals yet] are represented by two Cherubs in Heaven, Matatron and Sandalphon.
Second, the 19th century Hassidic cult-leader Nachman of Breslau has a rather long passage on Ziz Shadai, which is a bit too long for me to quote here and too complicated for me to translate. The gist is that Ziz is a symbol of the conversation between Man below and God above; and that conversation, like the head of Ziz, can reach the Holy Throne itself.
The three beasts – Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz, were popular motifs in medieval Jewish art, and they still have some significance in the Jewish imagination. I end this post with an excerpt from a sermon I found online that was given last summer to children in a religious elementary school by Rabbi Isaac Ginsburg of Chabad:
(The children sang the song about Leviathan, and how we wait for him at the Feast of Leviathan). What else are we going to eat at the Feast of Leviathan? We’ll drink wine preserved since the Six Days of Creation, and we’ll eat from Shor HaBar [Behemoth]. And there’s one more thing, that not everybody knows about. Shor HaBar is a beast, that’s beef. Leviathan is fish. What else do we eat on the Sabbath? (Children: “Bread”). We eat chicken. And just like there’s a very large beast, that is Shor HaBar, and a very large fish, that is Leviathan, there’s also a very large chicken called Ziz Shadai. But not everybody knows it about. We’ll eat that too.”