The Liberated Bird: Let’s Talk Turkey

Shemini By :  Anne Lapidus Lerner Assistant Professor Emerita of Jewish Literature Posted On Apr 17, 2015 / 5775 | Torah Commentary

The main course at my Thanksgiving dinner—and perhaps at yours as well—is determined by a few verses in this week’s parashahShemini. After all, Leviticus 11 defines which living things are fit for kosher consumption, granting it a major impact on the Thanksgiving menu of kosher aviavores.

According to Leviticus 11 and the parallel text in Deuteronomy 14:3–21, when considered as food, living things are divided into four categories: land animals, fish, birds, and “winged, swarming things that walk on fours.” Each category is treated separately, reflecting the Israelite and, later, the Jewish emphasis on making distinctions. Within each category are kosher and non-kosher creatures. How do we know which are which?

Clarity is obviously key to making these rules work. Both what is acceptable and what is not acceptable have to be defined in a way that will be clear not only to the original readers or hearers of the text, but also to generations to come. Indeed, the rules for three of these groupings are presented in a fairly clear fashion. For mammals, fish, and swarming things, criteria are provided. There are some cases that are a bit ambiguous. An example is swordfish, which do have the requisite fins and scales at some point in their lives, but lose the scales later. For mammals, there are even examples of animals which are not kosher despite having one of the two requisite criteria—chewing the cud and cloven hooves. A camel chews its cud, but does not have cloven hooves; a pig has cloven hooves but does not chew its cud. Neither is kosher.

But what of the birds? Instead of criteria for kosher birds, there is a list of about 20 birds that may not be eaten. But can we really know for sure what all of them are? We do know some, but the identification of others is less than definitive. Why no rules? Today, the State of Israel is a major flyway for bird migration. In all probability that was also true when the Torah was written so maybe there were just too many birds to deal with. Apparently the birds in the forbidden list hold down their prey with their claws, tearing at it, and have an extra toe. By the time of the Mishnah, about the middle of the 3rd-century CE, these two characteristics had become criteria of non-kosher birds. Over centuries rabbinic authorities continued to disagree about the definition of these traits, but they became markers for non-kosher birds. However, they are not in the Torah. Further, there are many birds that were unknown in the ancient Middle East. Does their absence mean that they are kosher or that they were unknown, irrelevant, or, perhaps, non-kosher?

While the rabbinic arguments about both these rules for non-kosher birds and another set of indications for kosher birds that also developed would fill many volumes and have been ably summarized in an article by Ari Z. Zivotofsky, the bottom line is that the only way to know for sure whether a type of bird is kosher is that there is a mesorah, a tradition that it has been eaten by observant Jews.  

That brings us back to Thanksgiving. As is well known, turkeys are a species native to North America, and further, there were certainly no Jews in North America before 1492. Thus, there could be no tradition of turkey as kosher. Turkeys were first imported to England from Mexico by Spanish explorers in the early 16th century. There they were domesticated and, by the late 16th century, had become, for example, a popular Christmas dish. Turkeys rapidly spread across Europe and became a fairly common food source. Ironically, the Pilgrims brought turkeys back to the Americas with them when they set out for the New World.

So how could turkeys possibly be kosher? Part of the answer may lie in their obscure provenance. When first imported to England the birds became known as “turkeys” because the merchants who brought it were from the Turkish Empire, that is, from the eastern Mediterranean. In many other languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish, the name comes from India. Was there a tradition of eating this bird among Jews in India? It seems unlikely, despite some claims to the contrary. How would this North American bird possibly have made it to India before Columbus?

What likely happened was that Jews started eating it without asking many questions. Perhaps they relied on its (dubious) similarity to a chicken. It is possible that its consumption by observant Jews was so widespread that it could not be stopped, particularly in light of the ambiguities of the sources. But a number of rabbis, particularly in the 17th century, did rule that turkey was not kosher because there was no tradition of it being that way.

One rabbi who apparently so ruled was Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579–1654). Heller was a leading rabbinic figure of the period when turkey was rapidly advancing across Europe. He was, for example, the author of the Mishnah commentary Tosefot Yom Tov and is commonly referred to by its name. Although Joseph M. Davis states in his recent study of Heller, Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Rabbi, that he found no extant written evidence of Heller’s decision that turkey is not kosher, it is a well-known tradition attested—and even followed— by some of Heller’s many descendants.

As a Heller descendant, I observe his legendary ruling that because turkey is not kosher his descendants may not eat it. Do I really think that turkey is kosher? By the book, probably not kosher; by the culture, I have to concede that it is widely accepted and has been for more than half a millennium. (Is that “a tradition?”).

Thus, I will, for example, eat off plates that have had hot turkey on them. I don’t rail against the practice of considering turkey kosher, but I maintain the custom that it is not, as do my sister, my daughter, and my nephew. It’s a challenge in Israel, which has the highest per capita turkey consumption in the world, and annoying in November when people ask me about my menu.

But there are reasons to maintain it. First, it reminds me of a special heritage. Because unlike the special Heller Purim (for another time), it is a burden so it testifies to the authenticity of the lineage. Second, in my family it has come through a female line that goes back to my great-grandmother before she inherited it from her father. In talking to Zivotofsky a few years ago, I realized how unusual it is for a minhag (custom) to be passed down through women. Women, he maintained, take on their husband’s minhag. In addition, it reminds me that the greatest halakhic minds of any era may be wrong—I’m just not sure which ones. Besides, given the trend toward increasing prohibitions in a significant faction of contemporary Orthodoxy, turkey may yet become unkosher, liberating it from the threat of the shoḥet the ritual slaughterer. If that should happen, my family may find itself unexpectedly in the vanguard.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).