The Swift in History and the Bible

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Besides the word deror, which is acknowledged to signify the Swallow, in the Christian Bible, there is another word which, by a curious transposition, has been translated as crane whereas there is little doubt that it signifies one of the Swallow tribe, and most probably represents the Swift. The word is sis, and occurs in two passages. The first occurs in Isaiah. 38: 13 to 14, in the well-known prayer of Hezekiah during his sickness: 'From day even to night wilt Thou make an end of me. Like a crane [sis], or a swallow, so did I chatter; I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward.' The Jewish Bible reads the words, 'Like a chattering swallow,' affixing the mark of doubt; while the Septuagint translates the word sis as 'Chelidon,' or Swallow, and this is probably the correct rendering of the word.

Accepting this as the true interpretation, we find that the word sis is very expressive of the perpetual chattering of the Swift.   There is a wailing, melancholy sound about the bird's cry which makes Hezekiah's image exceedingly appropriate, and he could hardly have selected a more forcible metaphor.

The second passage occurs in Jer. viii. 7: 'Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle, and the crane [sis], and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but My people know not the  judgment of the Lord.'  Allusion is here made to the migratory habits of the Swift.  With regard to this passage, the Jewish Bible renders the word sis as Swallow, though with the mark of doubt.

Several species of Swift inhabit Palestine. The common Swift, with which we are so familiar, is very plentiful, and so is the Alpine Swift.  Another species, the Galilean Swift lives all the year in the Jordan valley.  It is possible that this may be the Sis mentioned by Hezekiah, its soft wailing cry being used as the metaphor to express his own complaining.

As might be expected, the Talmudical writers have much to say on this bird.  For example, the offering which a leper made at the cleansing of his infirmity might be the Tzippor-deror, the rather quaint reason being that it was a bird with sharp scratching claws, and was therefore very appropriately offered in connection with a disease of the skin.  Here we have rather a complication of terms, the word tzippor being used, to signify the sparrow in particular, or any little bird in general. The particular species, therefore, which is signified by the combination of the two words tzippor-deror is rather obscure, and  Talmudists themselves are rather uncertain apout it. The interpretation of this compound word seems, however, to have been a difficulty, and the various renderings which have been suggested seem at last to have varied between the wild pigeon, or rock-dove, and the Swallow. An account of the various arguments is given by Lewysohn in' his' Zoologie des Talmuds,' page 206, and may be briefly summarised, as follows, in favour of the Swallow, or, as we shall soon see, the Swift.

In Talmudic history and legend, in the story of the death of Titus, a gnat made its way through his nostril into his brain, and there grew and kept him in constant torture until he died, when, according to some writers, it had reached the size of a Tzippor-deror, and weighed two selaim. Others enlarged upon this story, and said that it grew as large as a wild pigeon and weighed two pounds. Now, as twenty-five selaim are equal to one pound, it follows that the Tzippor-deror must have been very much less than the wild pigeon, and that therefore the two birds could not have been identical.

Another reason for believing the Tzippor-deror to be a much smaller bird than the pigeon is found in a curious rule respecting the eating of certain meats. The Jews were forbidden to eat date-shells with the heathen, unless they were cooked in a vessel with an opening so small that a Tzippor-deror could not have been introduced into the pot. The reason of this curious proviso was, that if any unclean flesh, such as that of the swine,or of any animal which had been offered to idols, had been cooked in that vessel, even the date-shells would become unclean. But if the mouth of the pot were too small for a Tzippor-deror to be passed through it, such a vessel could not have been used in cooking meat, and might therefore be assumed to be clean. Here, then, we have another proof of the small size of the bird. With regard to this argument, the 'date-shells' are a little perplexing.  Dates have no shells, and need no cooking, while the stones are too hard and woody to be rendered edible by any amount of cooking. Still, the word employed by Lewysohn is 'dattelschalen'.

The leper's offering was not laid on the altar, but was submitted to a peculiar manipulation on the part of the priest.  Among other points of ritual, the blood had to be mixed with a certain quantity of water, which it barely discoloured, staining it of a very pale red. As the amount of water was the fourth part of a ' log,' and is defined to be equal to the contents of six hen's eggs, it was evident that the bird whose blood would only discolour so small a volume of water must be a little one.

After giving all these details, Lewysohn sums up his arguments by saying that he believes the Tzippor-deror to be the White Swallow, which is small, and has claws so sharp that by means of them it can cling to the wall. Now this action is one of the characteristics of the Swifts, who often cling to walls for a time, and then resume their flight. They do so in preference to sitting on the ground after the fashion of the Swallow, because the great length of the wings causes the Swift to have a bit of difficulty in rising from a level surface. After weighing all the various arguments that have been urged on the subject, we may conclude that the Tzippor-deror was the White, or Alpine Swift.
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