Which Birds Are Kosher?

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan

The STAR-K would like to thank the Jewish Observer (42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004) for permission to reprint this article. NOTE: The STAR-K Rabbinic authorities have not investigated the halachic correctness of information presented in this article. However, we wish to thank the authors, Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan for a most interesting discussion on the subject of the kashruth of birds.

Investigating the Pheasant

Over twenty years ago, the two of us came to Israel right after high school to study in yeshiva. As part of our studies, we decided to learn the practical laws of ritual slaughter and become certified shochtim. After we completed the nearly year-long course of study, a friend asked is we could slaughter pheasants for her. Not yet very experienced, we started with the basic question: Is pheasant indeed a kosher bird? We began to investigate.

How do we know which animals and birds are kosher? Regarding animals, the Torah provides two physical indicia. Any animal that has split hooves and chews its cud is kosher. All others are not. Thus, sheep, goat, cow, deer, buffalo, gazelle, and giraffe are kosher; pig, camel and llama are not.

Regarding birds, the situation is much more complex. The Torah lists twenty-four species that are non-kosher. All others are acceptable. Thus, in theory, if a person knew the precise identity of all twenty-four listed birds, all others are acceptable. Today we no longer know what those birds are. This is the reason that both Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Artscroll chose to transliterate rather than attempt to translate the names of the birds in their Torah translations. Because of this, for close to one thousand years, the overriding principle is “Tradition!” The only birds that are treated as kosher are those for which a reliable tradition exists that in the previous generation it was treated as kosher.

Having clarified the principle, we realized that we needed to find out if such a tradition exists for pheasant. We found an impressively comprehensive article by Professor Yehuda Felix, then at Bar Ilan University, in which he traced the halachic history of the pasyon (the Hebrew word for pheasant) for nearly 1500 years, and shows that it was always treated as a kosher bird. But names are insufficient – there is no way of knowing that the bird called “pasyon” 500 years ago is the same bird called “pasyon” today. And Felix’s trail went cold about seventy-five years ago.

We had all but given up hope of providing our friend with kosher pheasant when a talmid in the yeshiva happened to mention in passing that his rebbi, Rabbi Yosef Kafich, a leading Yemenite rav and posek, had just that week mentioned that he had a tradition attesting to the kashrus of the pheasant. Rabbi Kafich insisted that in order to properly transmit the tradition, a name is not enough. We needed to bring to him two live pheasants. He would then verify that this was indeed the bird he knew, and then we would slaughter it in his presence. No easy task, we managed to find two birds, brought them to Rabbi Kafich, slaughtered the birds and received a letter attesting to the fact that we had the tradition and could pass it on.

The Hunt Begins

That was the beginning of our hunt. But it was a hunt for traditions, not animals. We realized that traditions only can be lost, never created. Fifty years ago there were Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, etc., and each community had a local shochet. Jews in each locale had traditions regarding which birds in their area were kosher. Today, food production is centralized, and most of those communities are destroyed. If action is not taken soon, traditions will be lost.

A stark example of this can be seen in a book written less than 200 years ago by an Italian shochet. He presents diagrams of 30(!) birds that he recognized as kosher. Today we have trouble finding 13 such birds. In order to stem the loss of traditions, we decided to organize a dinner in which we would serve all known kosher birds and as many types of animals as possible. The magnitude of the undertaking did not occur to us. First was the central task of actually finding traditions.

In Search of the Guinea Fowls Yichus

As an example, we suspected that the guinea fowl was kosher. So we purchased two guinea fowl, put them in a cage on top of the car, and headed out to look for old shochtim and rabbanim who may have slaughtered or supervised its slaughter in the old country. Being a bird native to North Africa, we tried North Africans and Yemenites.

We started with the Yemenite shochet who had taught us. No luck. He directed us to several others. Still no one recognized it. At least we were impressed with their honesty. After several attempts around Jerusalem, we were ready to give up. The following day we took the guinea fowl to an old distinguished rabbi in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem. With a faint glimmer of recognition, the rabbi asked that one be removed from the cage so he could better examine it. Nope, he did not recognize the bird.

But that clever guinea took the opportunity and bolted from the room. The scene that followed, with the old rabbi in his long caftan chasing the bird, could have been out of any comedy movie. If anyone should happen to find a stray, odd-looking, lost bird in Jerusalem, it just might be our missing guinea.

Our perseverance finally paid off. While returning from shechting a deer in Tzefas we still had (one) guinea as a traveling partner. We stopped in to see Rabbi Elbaz, an old Algerian shochet. We had struck gold. He unquestionably recognized the bird and attested to the fact that he had slaughtered it in Algeria close to fifty years ago.

Our next subject was the partridge, another bird we suspected was kosher. Here we were having even greater difficulty. Finally I recalled that once, while researching the small Aramaic-speaking community in Israel, their chief rabbi had told me that he had slaughtered a bird named “keklik” in Turkish. Some quick reserach revealed he was talking about the partridge. Pay dirt again. We brought him the bird, he ID’ed it, and we were on our way with another tradition.

Filling the Menu

In order to bring this dinner to fruition, we also needed birds to serve. Finding quail today in Israel is relatively easy, but finding guinea fowl is another matter. A technician in the Israeli Veterinary school eventually led us to his friend Rafi, but failed to inform us that Rafi calls himself “Jungle Boy.” The two deer, emu, and other assorted creatures in his backyard were interesting but immaterial to us; he had guineas he was willing to sell us.

Pheasant were less difficult. It should be obvious that the place to buy pheasant is a large ostrich farm in the south of the country. We bought eight to start with, packed two in a box. We brought them to one of the leading shochtim, Rabbi Shlomo Machfud, to slaughter. He took one out of a box. I grabbed the other, and before I realized it, he was high up in the sky. If anyone finds a pheasant flying around Kiryat Malachi, that is our other missing bird!

The purpose of this dinner was to transmit the traditions. To accomplish that we needed participants. Who would come? It turned out that was not a problem. We were over-subscribed before we realized it. We also succeeded in persuading some of the most important rabbis and researchers involved in the field to join us. They came from New York, Basle, and all over Israel. At the end, nearly one hundred people, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Teimanim, jammed the restaurant to hear two hours of shiurim and partiake of thirteen courses. The shiurim covered the relevant topics of the evening; kashrus of birds in general and game birds in particular, kashrus of waterfowl, need for a mesora for animals, anatomic signs of animals, and kashrus of locusts.

Left to our own devices, we may have cooked all thirteen types of birds in one big stew. But our master chef, Moshe Basson, prepared each one differently. For example, rather than starting with chicken soup, we had “shiluach hakein” soup (pigeon and dove soup with a nest of pasta and a fleishig egg). To be complete, we did serve chicken, but it was prepared with tamrini sauce and stuffed into a large fig.

Sparrow-sized Legal Loophole

Legal issues arose as well. It never would have occurred to us that the sparrow is a protected species in Israel. But it is. Thankfully, Minister Rabbi Yitzchak Levi procured for us a one-time dispensation to slaughter several of them. Unfortunately, he was unable to do the same for ibex, or antelope.

After hunting for traditions, searching for birds, and clearing the legal hurdles, the dinner eventually included: chicken, turkey, duck, goose, muscovy duck, mallard, pigeon, dove, pheasant, partridge, quail, guinea fowl, sparrow, cow udder, lamb, bison, water buffalo and deer. And of course there was a need for a special dessert.

The Torah states that certain chagavim (grasshoppers) are kosher. But just like birds, there is a need for a tradition regarding the identity of the kosher species. Dr. Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University is an expert on the subject. Jews from Morocco and Yemen still eat them to this day, and Amar has interviewed hundreds of these Jews. We procured several hundred of the kosher species, and the day before the big dinner visited several Yemenite Jews in Kiryat Ekron who had moved to Israel only seven years ago. Dressed in traditional garb and using a traditional over, they roasted and boiled the grasshoppers for us the way they did in Yemen. And then they actually ate them! The chef prepared several more, and at the meal there were more than enough for everyone to partake. Surprisingly, many more of the participants actually tried them than we expected.

Of Elusive, Hoping Precedents

This course presented an interesting halachic question. Regarding birds, it is clear from the Shach and Aruch Hashulchan that one can rely on the Mesora from another community. But does the same halacha apply to chagavim? There was no uniform answer on this. Many of the Ashkenazi participants asked their own poskim and received divergent answers. While many rabbis ruled against eating, some of the leading poskim in Yerushalaim gave the green light to rely on the Yemenite tradition and eat chagavim.

Originally, the Mashgiach of the restaurant was hesitant about serving grasshoppers for fear it would jeopardize his kosher certification. After we received a letter from former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that stated that even for those Jews who do not treat them as kosher, they do not make the dishes non-kosher, the chef was so excited that he now wants to add them to his regular menu.

The main purpose of this dinner was the preservation and transmission of mesoros. As Rabbi Kafich had explained all those years ago, that cannot be done via a name or something on a dinner plate. For that purpose, we needed to find real animals again. Present at the dinner were live grasshoppers, a pair of quails, a guinea fowl, muscovy duck and several sparrows. A taxidermied pheasant and partridge were also present. Each of these was displayed, described, and discussed. Those birds participated in the historic process of transmitting the traditions to a room full of people, satiated both physically and spiritually.