In Christopher Hitchens's memoir Hitch 22, this passage caught my eye:

In her preface to his collection of essays The Non-Jewish Jew Tamara Deutscher, widow of the great Isaac, relates the story of how her husband, future biographer of Leon Trotsky, studied for his bar mitzvah.[6] Considered the brightest boy in any yeshivah for years gone by or for miles around, he was set to speak to the following question: somewhere in the looped intestines of Jewish lore there is mention of a miraculous bird which visits the world only at intervals of several decades and then only very briefly. On its periodic landings it delivers and leaves behind a beakful of bird-spit. This avian drool, if you can seize hold of even a drop of it, has wonder-working properties. Now comes the crucial question (surely you saw it coming?): Is the bird-spit to be reckoned as kosher or as treyfe? The boy Isaac spoke for several hours on the rival theories of this dispute, and on the competing commentaries on those rival theories, and of course on the commentaries on those commentaries.

This bird appears to be known as the "kikiyon"here, which quotes a claim that the Deutscher passage is conflating the term referring to a West African crypted with קיקיון, a plant which appears in the book of Jonah.

Now I've been unable to get my hands on a copy of The Non-Jewish Jew, and googling "magical bird+Judaism" hasn't gotten me anywhere. What exactly is this bird, what sources do we have for it, and is its spit kosher? (Or is this passage inaccurate about the magical spitting bird's existence?)

EDIT: I did manage to get my hands on The Non-Jewish Jew, and here is the passage which started it all:

Dressed in a new kapota of pure silk made especially for the occasion, little Iciu—as he was affectionately called' stood straight, collected his thoughts' and started on a two hour discourse on the theme of Kikiyon:

Once in seventy years a bird appears over the world. The bird is big and beautiful and unlike all other birds. Its name is Kikiyon. This curious name, probably Greek in origin, has never been explained. When the bird makes its flight once in seventy years-it spits on the earth, and it spits only once. This saliva is extremely precious; it has miraculous qualities, for it can cure any illness or deformity. What Isaac had to debate and give his most considered opinion on was this: Is the bird's saliva kosher or treyfe? In other words,. does it fulfil the requirements of the Jewish ritual with regard to food or not? Isaac quoted at length all that had been written on the subject before-all the commentaries, all the learned discussions that had been going on for millennia among the wisest of the wise. He showed command of his sources and a capacity to deal with the most abstruse details. His audience sat enthralled and in complete silence.They nodded their heads admiringly. Then, after a short consultation, they pronounced him, inevitably, fit and worthy to become a rabbi.

  • 1
    More context: books.google.com/…. (And in that context, fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kikiyaon is interesting.)
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 20:58
  • @msh210 Very interesting... edited the question to reflect this.
    – user5540
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:27
  • 2
    ולא בשמן קיק וכו': מאי שמן קיק אמר שמואל שאילתינהו לכל נחותי ימא ואמרו לי עוף אחד יש בכרכי הים וקיק שמו Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:48
  • Probably confusing the Chilazon, a shell fish or snail which hardly surfaces, and is needed to color the Tzitzis, and is sought after in general for its dye.
    – HaLeiVi
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 15:10

1 Answer 1


This is an example of how a little information can generate a great deal of confusion. It appears to be the blending of several different elements from the Torah into a single story.

As Wasserstein states in the article you linked to, the "kikayon" (קיקיון) is not a bird at all. Rather, it is a desert plant that is mentioned in the book of Yonah, chapter 4. It is most likely related to a type of agave plant which is also commonly called the century plant. That is because depending upon the amount of light and heat it is exposed to this plant blooms once in every 70 to 100 years. When it reaches the stage of blossoming it grows a single thick stalk much like a tree trunk. This is like the tree that sprouted overnight in the book of Yonah to provide him shade from the sun during the day. It has been reported that at this blooming stage the stalk can grow at an incredible rate of 6 inches to a foot per day. And then it blossoms and the stalk dies very rapidly. Here are a few links for examples:




This plant produces a kind of oil or sap that is sweet, like agave syrup. It has also been highly prized for its medicinal properties. See the following link.


It is worth pointing out that during biblical times, sweet seasonings were quite prized and valued commodities throughout the ancient world. So if there was a native agave to Israel it would have been highly prized as an export item.

This is mentioned because there is another desert plant, that was native to Israel and was known for its oil that was essentially made extinct by the Romans when they attempted to remove it from Israel and introduce it to Italy. That is the "Afarsimon Tree". Today many speculate based upon linguistics that it may have been some kind of persimmon. Persimmon sounds like "Afarsimon". In fact, the Japanese variety of persimmon is called "Kaki" which sounds like "Kikayon". Keep in mind that according to Midrash, at the end of his life Avraham sent his children born from Keturah to the lands of the east with gifts. Those gifts or at least language elements could have included this "Kaki". But persimmon trees grow very slowly, requires a decent amount of water, a more temperate climate and would not do well in a desert climate. The Afarsimon Tree was native to Israel in particular around Ein Gedi, an extremely arid area near the Dead Sea.

The Afarsimon Tree was also used in the making of perfumes and was part of the holy anointing oil. See the following link for details.


"Afarsimon" can also be translated as "Oil from the Dust" which alludes to it being native to desert conditions.

This oil that comes from the "Kikayon" is also referred to in Mishna Shabbat, chapter 2, mishnah 1 as "Shemen Kik", oil of kik. It is also discussed in the Talmud on the same Mishna, Shabbat 21a which refers to the oil as "Kik d'Yonah". And this would introduce the mistranslation by the young Isaac Deutcher.

"Kik d'Yonah" which actually means "the oil of Yonah", the oil of the kikayon mentioned in the book of Jonah, can be mis-read "Oil of the Dove". "Yonah" means dove. And this "oil" or mucus (called "ki'ach") or saliva (called "rok"), would be the source of his confusion.

Once set upon the mythical bird element from the mistranslation, it would be easy to look at the special birds mentioned in Torah. There are essentially two.

The first is the "Bird of the Field" (זיז שדי) mentioned in many places within the Torah. Here are a few citations: Tehillim 50:11, Bava Batra 73b, Yalkut Shimoni Bereshit 27, Yalkut Shimoni Pinchas 776, Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel 94, Yalkut Shimoni Iyov 926, and Yalkut Shimoni Esther 1054.

This "Ziz Sadai" is the paradigm or archetype for all birds and is discussed extensively in both Midrash and kabbalistic literature. It is associated with the famous Moshiach's seudah for the righteous destined to take place literally in the future. So the concept of whether this bird is kosher would be relevant.

This feast will also include Leviathan (paradigm for fish), Shor HaBor (paradigm for domesticated animals) and the ancient wine stored away from the beginning of the creation.

These three creatures comprise three different types of flesh, white, red and pink. This corresponds to the kabbalistic concept of the three general paths within Torah found in all of creation, namely the two extremes of "Chesed" (kindness), and "Gevurah" (strength or overpowering as in domination), and the intermediate, "Rachamim or Tiferet" (mercy or beauty). According to the Midrash, the Ziz Sadai has eternal life and is mentioned as being "tahor", meaning fit for kosher consumption.

The second mythical bird mentioned in the Torah is what in English is referred to as the Phoenix. In Hebrew it is called the "Chol" (חול). It is also called the "Avarashna" (אוורשנא) in Aramaic. A few citations are:

Iyov 29:18, Sanhedrin 108a, Bereshit Rabbah 19, Yalkut Shimoni Iyov 915, and Midrash Shmuel 12.

This bird lives for 1000 years and the offspring arises from ashes or carcass of the expired parent. This is also discussed extensively in both midrashic and kabbalistic literature.

  • there is also the בר יוכני cited in מסכת סוכה
    – juanora
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 5:55

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