Parashat Re'eh

Traditions and Counter-Traditions

Dealing with disagreements in interpretation of the law

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This particular presentation of the law leaves many open questions. Does that mean that all other birds are to be considered kosher? Given the vagaries of the biblical language and ancient ornithology, how can we be absolutely sure that a particular bird is not in fact a member of one of the non-kosher families?

The sages of the Mishnah (M. Hullin 3:6), presented with new birds that were unfamiliar to their ancestors, listed four criteria for making these determinations. To confirm kosher status, birds must have certain physiological features: an extra toe, a crop and a gizzard which is easy to peel. There is also a behavioral criterion, namely that kosher birds may not be dores (display certain types of predatory behavior).

Some sages, like Rashi, were concerned that these criteria were insufficient. There had been incidents, even going back to the days of the Talmud (B. Hullin 62b) where people had encountered a new type of bird, and assumed it was kosher based on the first three criteria. It was only after some time had passed that they realized that the bird was a predator and therefore not kosher. Rashi and others who followed him therefore decreed that only birds for which there was a masoret (an unbroken, reliable tradition) could be considered kosher, and any new birds subsequently discovered would be considered off limits.

Turkey in Europe

Fast-forward to the 1500s, as the turkey, which was native to the Americas, was first brought back to Europe by the early explorers of the New World. Would this new bird, never before seen by Europeans, be accepted as kosher? Eventually, the majority of European Jews did accept it, but the process by which this acceptance came about is unclear.

For indeed, while many sages of that era used the four signs enumerated by the sages of the Mishnah, some of the most prominent rabbis of the period, including Rabbi Moses Isserles, (Mapah on Shulhan Arukh YD82:3) were firmly in Rashi's camp, and rejected the possibility of any new birds being kosher. And yet, neither he nor his contemporaries mentioned this particular new bird by name.

By the time the turkey appeared in Jewish legal literature, in the 1700s, the issue had more-or-less been decided, with only a few vociferous holdouts. In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's 2001 statistics, Israelis now eat more turkey per capita than residents of any other country in the world!

The question is of personal interest for me as well. Rabbi Yom-Tov Lippman Heller (1579-1654), was a prominent sage in the generation after Isserles. He is best-known for his commentary on the Mishnah called the Tosafot Yom-Tov, and is often referred to by the name of his book, rather than his given name. Many of his descendants hold fast to a family tradition that he was among the early sages who declared the turkey to be non-kosher. Indeed, I have distant cousins who to this day satisfy their Thanksgiving obligations with a brisket and a chocolate turkey.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.