The Braekel Controversy: A Bird’s-Eye View

Feathers are flying in Eretz Yisroel, as the Poskim debate the kosher status of the Braekel chicken. Rav Moshe Shaul Klein, shlit”a, a leading member of the Beis Din of Rav Shmuel Wosner, zt”l, feels that its kashrus is superior to that of other chickens. However, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, feels that its kashrus is inferior. The rest of us are left confused. How can a chicken be “more kosher” or “less kosher”, and how could respected Poskim take such contradictory positions? In order to answer these questions, we need to familiarize ourselves with the halachos of kosher birds.
The Torah1 lists the various species of non-kosher birds. The Gemara2 states that the Torah chose to list the non-kosher species, rather than the kosher ones, because the non-kosher list is shorter. In other words, there are a greater number of kosher than non-kosher species. However, the Gemara3 also tells us that the ayoh, a non-kosher species of bird, has one hundred sub-species. Tosefos4 states that the various other non-kosher species of birds also have many sub-species and, in fact, the total number of non-kosher birds is greater than the number of kosher birds. Other Rishonim5 disagree and conclude that there are a greater number of kosher birds. The Rivash6 states that even if one accepts the position that there are more kosher than non-kosher birds, the Torah does not allow a person to rely on the majority and obligates us to ascertain with certainty that a bird is kosher before eating it.
Although the Torah lists the non-kosher birds, we no longer know exactly to which species of birds the Torah is referring. The Gemara7, therefore, provides alternative ways of ascertaining whether a bird is kosher. As codified in the Shulchan Aruch8, all birds of prey are non-kosher. There is discussion amongst the Poskim9 as to how to halachically define a “bird of prey”. One of the defining characteristics of a bird of prey is that when perched on a string, it will place two toes on one side of the string and another two toes on the other side. Another distinguishing feature is that it will grab its food in the air without allowing it to reach the ground.10
A bird which is not known to be a bird of prey needs to exhibit three other qualities in order to be considered kosher: it must have a crop, its gizzard must have a membrane which can be peeled off by hand; and it must have an “additional toe”.11 The Poskim discuss what may constitute an “additional toe”.12
Most people know little about the crop, gizzard and toes of birds. How then, do we know which birds are kosher? The Gemara tells us that one may consider as kosher any bird for which there is a mesorah, a tradition that this species of bird is eaten by frum people.13 Rashi adds that we no longer have the expertise to decide whether or not a bird is a bird of prey. Therefore, we should not rely on our own analysis to determine if a bird is kosher and eat only birds for which we have a mesorah;14 the Shulchan Aruch and Rema pasken this way.15 Although no two birds look exactly the same, a mesorah will cover all birds which look similar without significant differences among them.16 Practically speaking, we have a mesorah on the more prevalent varieties of chickens, as well as the Pekin duck.
It would seem to be impossible to have a mesorah on turkey, as the bird was unknown to frum people before the discovery of America. However, when turkey was first introduced to Europe it was claimed that there was a mesorah so frum people began eating it. The Netziv writes that since turkey has all the characteristics of a kosher bird and has been eaten for many years, it may be consumed.17 Although some have the custom to be stringent and not eat turkey, most people have the custom to accept it as kosher.18
In America, the production and sale of poultry is a multi-billion dollar business. Companies have invested millions of dollars in order to produce chickens with characteristics that are optimal for the industry. The “ideal” chicken is one that grows fast, eats little, has few feathers, produces a lot of meat, and is easy to process. A chicken such as this is cultivated through sustained programs involving cross-breeding of chickens which have the desired traits, as well as possible transplantation of specific genes. The industry is highly competitive, and information regarding these programs is generally proprietary. Nowadays, the birds which are raised for poultry are products of this research and are all hybrids of unknown varieties of chicken.
In 1998, Rav Shmuel Wosner wrote a letter19 in which he expressed concern about this phenomenon. He stated that our birds are the result of the breeding of different varieties of chickens and genetic manipulation. He asserted that it has been verified that some of the species used in the breeding programs do not have any mesorah. Rav Wosner closed his letter with a call to reverse this development and only shecht chickens from breeds with a clear mesorah.
Other Poskim and experts disagree with both the factual information and the halachic implications. They argue that what takes place in the lab is merely an acceleration of a process which takes place constantly in the natural world. The claim that the industry employs genetic engineering has also been called into question, and any addition of microscopic genes may well be halachically insignificant.
Some talmidim of Rav Wosner, as well as others who shared his concern, formed a group dedicated to the reintroduction of purebred chickens. However, they discovered that such birds hardly exist any more since the industry has replaced them with more economically productive varieties. They have great difficulty locating any birds with unquestionable pedigrees that could be proven to be unadulterated descendants of the chickens that were eaten in pre-war Europe. Fortunately, there are some people who breed heirloom chickens. After considerable effort and expense, they located a farmer living in Belgium who raised heirloom chickens. The specific breed that he was raising is known as the Braekel chicken.20 The farmer had kept detailed records of the pedigree of his chickens for many years, proving that his birds were purebred.21
Eggs were brought to Israel and the Braekel chicken was raised. The bird takes a longer time to mature than contemporary chickens used in the industry, does not taste as good, and looks different from other chickens. Advocates of the Braekel bird contend that the difference in appearance is due to the fact that the Braekel is the original species of chicken for which we have a mesorah, whereas birds used in the poultry industry are hybrids. However, when Rav Moshe Sternbuch saw the Braekel bird he argued that the opposite is true. The birds that are eaten every day are the ones for which we have an unbroken mesorah, and the Braekel is the species without a mesorah! Furthermore, some Poskim contend that the Braekel chicken positions its toes on a string in a manner which indicates that it is a non-kosher species; others dispute this assertion. This has developed into a heated debate, which has spilled over into the public arena due to the significant financial considerations at stake. This is the halachic reasoning behind the debate, and we will leave it to others to report on the various claims and counterclaims that have been proffered.22 Some time ago, a breeder of a variety of heirloom chickens asked STAR-K for a list of breeds that could be deemed kosher. One of the breeds that he wanted to shecht was the Braekel chicken. Rabbi Heinemann, shlit”a, declined to do so due to his concerns regarding the mesorah of these birds.

1. ויקרא פי”א ודברים פ”י
2.חולין דף סג ע”ב
4.תוס’ שם ד”ה ודילמא
5. עי’ ברמב”ן ור”ן שם
6.שו”ת ריב”ש סי’ קצב
7.חולין דף נט ע”א ודף סא ואילך
8. שו”ע יו”ד סי’ פב סעי’ ה
9. עי’ בפמ”ג משב”ז שם ס”ק א שסיכם השיטות בזה
10. שו”ע שם וט”ז שם ס”ק ב
11.שו”ע שם, ועי’ בש”ך שם ס”ק ד שא”צ ג’ סימנים הללו אלא בעוף שהוא ספק דורס אבל בעוף שודאי אינו דורס די אם יש לו הסימן שהקורקבן נקלף
12.עי’ ש”ך שם ס”ק ה
13.חולין דף סג ע”ב
14.שם דף סב ע”ב רש”י ד”ה היינו גירותא
15.שו”ע שם סעי’ ב ורמ”א שם סעי’ ג
16.עי’ שו”ת חתם סופר יו”ד סי’ עד
17.שו”ת משיב דבר ח”ב סי’ כב
18.האחרונים האריכו בזה, עי’ מש”כ הגר”ש קלוגר לאסור בשו”ת האלף לך שלמה יו”ד סי’ קיב ושו”ת טוב טעם ודעת תליתאי ח”א סי’ קה וסי’ קנב, ועי’ בדרכי תשובה סי’ פב ס”ק כו שהביא מכמה אחרונים להתיר בסברות שונות (והביא שם משו”ת מי באר להתיר בשם הריב”ש, והדרכ”ת תמה שלא נמצא דבר מזה בשו”ת ריב”ש, וכבר העירו שאין הכוונה לריב”ש הקדמון אלא לר’ ישראל בעל שם טוב)
19.שו”ת שבט הלוי ח”י סי’ קיג
20.קונטרס מסורת טהרת עופות יו”ל ע”י אגודת מסורת טהרת עופות עמ’ כב
21.עי’ ש”ך סי’ פב ס”ק ו שאם נמצא שהעוף חולק את רגליו אין לסמוך על המסורת והוי מסורת בטעות
22. See,,