Friday, August 10, 2018

I Can't Believe It's Not Treife!

Here is an article that I published this week in the Jewish Link of New Jersey

Notwithstanding the vast range of kosher foods available today, keeping kosher sometimes seems limiting in terms of the actual species that we can eat. I remember staying at a lodge in Zimbabwe, where the other guests were eating ostrich burgers, crocodile steaks and grilled warthog, whereas the participants in my group had to settle for chicken and beef. And while the species that are available to the kosher consumer are strictly of the mammalian, avian or piscine variety, if you go to the market in Bangkok, you’ll see people munching on all kinds of grub—literally.

Still, the truth is that there are many more kosher species than is commonly assumed. A few years ago, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we decided to prepare banquets that were not only delicious, but also educational, and very special from a kashrut standpoint. Inspired by the trailblazing work of our colleague Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan, we decided to see how far we could take this idea. These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are unique educational and cultural experiences!

Our first banquet at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna. This featured species that we see in the Torah were consumed, but that are not normally eaten nowadays. Thus, there was no chicken—chickens are not mentioned anywhere in Tanach, since they were domesticated from Indian jungle fowl, which had not yet reached the land of Israel in the Biblical period. Instead, we served species such as doves, quails, geese, goa and deer—which was served daily at King Solomon’s table, but which is almost impossible to obtain (under kosher certification) today.

Dessert was, of course, chocolate-covered locusts. The Torah states that certain locusts are kosher, and various North African and Yemenite Jewish communities retained the tradition as to which species is kosher—namely, the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Eating locusts is not a relic of a primitive era; locusts are considered by food nutritionists to be the super-food of the future. They are high in protein and very nutritious, although that benefit is lost somewhat when they are coated in chocolate. The Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna will be repeated in Teaneck in October, though there is not yet any guarantee as to exactly which species will be served, since the shechitah of unusual species can be even more complicated in the US than in Israel.

The next year, we wanted to do something different at the museum, and so we held a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey animelles, Asian water buffalo and more. Yet perhaps most controversial were the breeds of chicken; after all, last year was the summer in which controversies raged in Israel as to whether conventional supermarket Cornish Cross chickens are a treife breed and only a rare breed called the Braekel is kosher, or whether Braekel is treife and only Cornish Cross are kosher. We made a soup out of both of them together! (Contrary to widespread misconception, all these breeds are simply varieties of chickens—they are not new halachic categories that require a separate mesorah.)

This year at the museum, we have decided to do something different yet again: A Feast of Legends From the Sea. This includes several different types of dishes. First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve—there are two unusual fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of “Legends From the Sea.” And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two “Legends From the Sea” that are fleishig? That’s a riddle that can be answered with knowledge of some commentaries on a certain verse in the Torah. It would be a pity to spoil the riddle, so we will publicly reveal the answer after the event.

A second type of dish relates to species that are popularly believed to be unequivocally non-kosher, but that are actually kosher—at least according to certain significant halachic opinions. There are a number of species that fall into this category, some (but not all) of which we shall be serving, including sturgeon, swordfish and piranha!

Then are the dishes that are based on the Gemara’s fascinating statements that there is nothing inherently unappetizing about non-kosher food, and that for every non-kosher food, there is a kosher equivalent. Kosher “crab” has been available in supermarkets for a while already. But we are taking things to the next level, with foods that not only visually look like the more exotic seafoods—complete with shells and tentacles—but that are even made with them!

Now, how is that possible? Well, let us first consider our planned dish of Cephalopod Salad. Cephalopods are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. They are surely all non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, there are actually theoretically not one but two ways of serving a kosher tentacled dish that is actually made with real cephalopod!

One involves a unique species of cephalopod called the Grimaldi squid. Contrary to popular belief, the Torah does not say that a sea creature has to be a fish in order to be kosher. It only speaks of “anything that has fins and scales.” And, uniquely among cephalopods, the Grimaldi squid actually has fins and scales.

However, this is not the way that we are serving cephalopod. First of all, while some authorities are of the view that any scaled and finned aquatic creature is kosher, Rambam and others maintain that it must be a fish. Second, in any case, Grimaldi squid are impossible to obtain—only a few individuals have ever been discovered.

And so we have devised a different way of serving cephalopod. Without giving away too much in advance, the halachos of kashrut include some fascinating concepts, including that not every part of every non-kosher creature is itself non-kosher. Certain parts of some unusual non-kosher creatures are simply not considered to be the “meat” of the creature, and thus may be eaten. And so, with the aid of an obscure halachic ruling in this vein, the knowledge of a particular unusual species, together with a specialized item from Japan, we plan to serve something that not only looks like cephalopod—tentacles and all—but is even made with cephalopod!

The world houses an astonishingly diverse range of marvelous creatures, and halacha encompasses a remarkably wide variety of kashrut scenarios. The combination of the two is enlightening—and delicious.

By Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. For extensive discussion about kosher locusts, see For more details about the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck, and the Feast of Legends From the Sea in Israel, see

Monday, August 6, 2018

Missing The Point About Corbyn

There have been some excellent critiques of Jeremy Corbyn's latest essay about how he is opposed to antisemitism. People have pointed out how the antisemitic acts for which he accepts and criticizes others of being guilty are actually things of which he himself is guilty. But there's one very important point that seems to be missed, which to my mind is the most egregious problem with his position, and the one that bodes greatest danger, in the unthinkable possibility that he would become leader of Great Britain.

Corbyn's article includes a single statement about Israel, which says, in its entirety, as follows:
This has been a difficult year in the Middle East, with the killing of many unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, and Israel’s new nation-state law relegating Palestinian citizens of Israel to second-class status.

Those are the only two reasons why it has been a difficult year in the Middle East?!

How about the intentional stabbings of various civilians in Israel?

How about the oppressive nature of the Hamas regime in Gaza, in which people who dare to criticize the leadership run the risk of being hauled out to the town square and having their knees shot off?

How about the hundreds of rockets launched into Israel, aimed at civilian populations?!

How about the attempt to storm the border with mobs of people armed with butcher knives and firebombs, explicitly stating that their goal is to massacre as many civilians as possible?

And if we're talking about the Middle East, how about the hundreds of thousands of people massacred in Syria?

Even in an article specifically aimed at reassuring people about him not being antisemitic, Jeremy Corbyn cannot find anything to criticize about the Arab terrorist dictatorships, and cannot show any support or sympathy for Israel, the only free country in the Middle East, constantly facing terrible threats. Whether or not you label this antisemitism, it is this attitude which makes him so loathsome and so dangerous to the free world.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Wonders of the California Coastline

"Here is the great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great" (Tehillim 104). I was fortunate to take some incredible walks along the California coastline this week. Check out these pictures of a heron fishing amidst a spectacular sunrise, mating crabs, the carapace of a king spider crab that I found, and a goose-neck barnacle, which was once thought to actually be a baby goose, growing on the shoreline! (It's worth enlarging the pictures of the crabs, to make out the fabulous detail of their coloration and design.)

I was with a large family group, and many of them said to me, "How on earth does it happen that you always find these amazing things?" The answer is that I keep my eyes open!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Mishpacha's Godless Universe

In this week's Mishpacha magazine, Jonathan Rosenblum bemoans how Ofsted - the British governmental Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills - is attempting to teach atheism to all schoolchildren:
We live in a world in which Hashem’s sovereignty is denied. The British government today insists that every child, even those in Torah schools, be taught that naturalistic — i.e., godless, explanations for the Creation of the universe and the inception of life are perfectly adequate (which is, inter alia, scientific nonsense).
This sentence is very badly wrong, from both a scientific and theological perspective.

Let's get the science part out of the way first. Ofsted is not trying to teach about the actual point of creation of the universe - i.e. the cause of the Big Bang - which is beyond the scope of modern science. Nor does modern science present any kind of definitive explanation for the moment of inception of life, though there are various speculations about it. Rather, what Ofsted is trying to teach is the development of the universe over billions of years, and the evolution of life from simple life-forms into more complex ones. Neither of these are "scientific nonsense," and it's rather amusing that Jonathan Rosenblum - a lawyer turned journalist - thinks he can dismiss them that way.

More bizarre and disturbing, however, is Rosenblum's describing such naturalistic explanations as "godless." This is very strange indeed. After all, we have naturalistic explanations for lots and lots of things. We have naturalistic explanations for how medicine works, and for how Israel won the Six-Day War, and for how the planets and stars move, and for how we have children, and for lots and lots of phenomena. I am pretty sure that Rosenblum does not deny the truth of any of these explanations. So does this mean that he is living in a godless universe?

As explained at great length in my book The Challenge Of Creation, scientific explanations for phenomena are not seen as ruling out a role for God in any other branch of science. So why should they be seen as doing so with regard to the development of the universe and the evolution of life? To quote Ramchal:
"It is undoubtedly true that The Holy One could have created His universe in an all-powerful way, in such a way that we could not have understood cause or effect in His deeds... But because the Higher Will desired that people should be able to understand some of His ways and actions—and indeed He wanted that people should engage in this and pursue it—therefore He chose the contrary, to act in the way of man; that is to say, in an intelligible and comprehensible fashion." (Da’as Tevunos 40) 
And, directly with regard to evolution, to quote Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch:
"Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures." (“The Educational Value of Judaism,” Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)
Naturalistic explanations for the evolution of life are no more "godless" than naturalistic explanations for anything else. There's no reason for the British Jewish community to challenge Ofsted's requirement to teach modern science. There are enough very real threats that Jews in England have to deal with. It's a pity to fabricate one which doesn't actually exist.

On another note - for details about the Biblical Museum of Natural History's forthcoming feasts in Israel and Teaneck, see

Sunday, July 22, 2018

There They Blow!

Iyov is my favorite book of Tanach (and I am grateful that it may be studied in Tisha B'Av). It is fascinating, disturbing, challenging, subversive, profound, and it includes the most extensive discussion of wild animals of any book in Tanach!

This past Shabbos, in Netanya, I gave a shiur on Iyov vs. Moby Dick, which I will also be speaking about this coming Shabbos at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. Now, you might be thinking, what does Iyov have to with Moby Dick? In fact, God's speech to Iyov from the whirlwind culminates in an extensive discussion about whales, and Melville actually wrote Moby Dick as a modern repackaging of the Book of Job.

Curiously, this morning I received an email which directly related to one of the themes of my shiur. A reader wrote to tell me about an unfortunate illness from which they are suffering, which has seriously harmed one of their senses. Even more upsettingly, friends are telling him that it must surely be a Divine sign for his having sinned with that sense. The person wanted my help in knowing what to respond.

The answer is that this persons "friends" are doing exactly what Iyov's friends did - and it is something for which God castigates them.

When Iyov's friends first heard of his terrible suffering and went to visit him, they first sat in silence with him for a week. That was the right thing to do, the correct way to show empathy, and they are praised for it.

After that, they went horribly wrong.

When Iyov starts wailing that he is a good person, and he didn't do anything to deserve such suffering, his friends switch from empathizing to making firm theological declarations. They say that he must have sinned, and that's why these things happened to him. God is Just; hence, Iyov must have deserved this suffering.

Sounds like a very pious speech. And yet when God finally speaks from out of the whirlwind, he declares that Iyov's friends were spouting a lot of hot air, and He is furious with them. It's not just that it's utterly insensitive. It's that it's actually theologically incorrect. Iyov had not sinned. Bad things really do happen to good people. It's not that they have secretly sinned, or (as Yosef Mizrachi would say) because they sinned in a previous incarnation. When God appears to Iyov, he does not present any such justifications.

It is true in Jewish theology that suffering might be inflicted as a result of sin. And there might be people - prophets - who can pinpoint which sins caused it. But there is also suffering that takes place without the person having done anything to deserve it. Since that is the case, then to suggest to a suffering person that his sins brought it on is wrong and a sin of ona'as devarim. The Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b explicitly makes that point, stating that when dealing with a suffering person, it is wrong to adopt the approach that Iyov's friends took.

But if suffering does not necessarily happen as a result of sin, then what is the reason for it? The unfortunate answer is that we don't know. Even Moshe Rabbeinu didn't find out the answer. God's speech to Iyov does not give the answer - instead, it is about how to relate to a universe in which the answer is unknowable. But better no answer than the wrong answer, even (and perhaps especially) if it is one inspired by religious zeal.

Captain Ahab was also a man who was obsessed with his spiritual certainties and his holy crusade. He did not care about the price that it would exact on his crew. Ultimately, in his sacred zeal, he ended destroying everyone around him - including himself.

It is not our place to understand the great mysteries of the universe. And when dealing with those who suffer from the turbulent storms that the universe - and God - sometimes throw at us, it is wrong, sinful, and heretical to claim to know God's reasons. Our job is to simply reflect upon how the universe is too vast and grand an existence for us to ever fathom, and to show friendship and support to those sailing through life with us.

See too this post: Theodicy and Idiocy

On another note - for details about the Biblical Museum of Natural History's forthcoming feasts in Israel and Teaneck, see

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Edible Legends from the Sea

Among the long list of things at which I am superbly incompetent is the preparation of any kind of food. If you're looking for someone with the ability to make anything more complicated than a tuna melt, you won't find it with me. But what I do have are a particular set of skills, acquired over many years of researching arcane rabbinic sources about animals along with the more unusual aspects of zoology. And so, notwithstanding my utter uselessness in the kitchen, it turns out that these skills make me uniquely suited to devising novel dishes for the exotic halachic feasts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History.

These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are spectacular. Our first feast at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna (which we are also running in Teaneck this October). The next year, we wanted to do something different, so we had a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, Braekel, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey testicles, Asian water buffalo, and more!

This year, we wanted to do something different yet again. But what? I came up with the idea of "Legends from the Sea." Now, I'm not going to tell you everything on the menu, because it's a surprise. But I will tell give you some broad hints about some of the planned dishes of which I am particularly proud.

First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve - there are two fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of "Legends from the Sea." And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two "Legends From the Sea" that are fleishig? There's one riddle for you!

One of the other planned dishes is something of which I am particularly proud (and praying that we can actually pull off!) It's going to be called Salade C├ęphalopode, which is the fancy French way of saying "Cephalopod Salad."

Cephalopods, in case you don't know, are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. Needless to say, they are all entirely non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, God willing, we will be serving something that looks like a cephalopod (complete with tentacles), that will have the texture of cephalopod, that will (hopefully) taste like a cephalopod, and - here's the clincher - that is actually made with real cephalopod!

How on earth is this possible? Well, it certainly isn't easy! Devising it involved three things - tracking down a specialized item in Japan (which I'm praying will arrive in time), discovering an obscure halachic ruling (which, while not accepted by everyone, is accepted by a major kashrus organization), and the knowledge of a certain very obscure piece of zoological information. And the result is something which will not only be kosher according to the letter of the law, but even according to the spirit of law (although I will acknowledge that not everybody will necessarily agree with that).

Both the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck and the Feast of Legends from the Sea in Israel are primarily aimed at those who are (or who become) patrons of the museum, supporting our mission of inspiring and educating people about the relationship between Torah and the natural world. Once the patron seats are filled, we will sell tickets to non-patrons. To find out more details, see

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to say that (a) it is very upsetting how many people in the Beit Shemesh city administration seem to have no desire to improve the city, and (b) my family are refusing to go into my car because something that I transported made it smell so bad.

Anyway, this afternoon, even though I was totally not in the mood for it, I decided to switch with the guide at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and take over leading the tour. It was a large and diverse mixture of religious Jewish tourists from the US and Australia, secular Jewish students from South Africa, and a Hindu family from India. Leading the tour lifted me right out of my bleak mood; it's always immensely rewarding to see people so excited and happy as they learn so much about Torah and nature.

Pictured: Not my elephant idol
As they left, one of the men from the Hindu family approached me to thank me. He said that they had heard a lot about the museum (in India?!) and they were so happy that they were able to come. As a token of their gratitude, he pushed a gift into my hand: a keychain with a gold-painted replica of an elephant's head. He told me that it was a Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and that it would protect the museum.

I was very touched, and thanked him as he left. But I was left in a quandary. It was a bona fide idol! I asked my Rav and he said that while he's not a specialist in the halachos of idolatry - it doesn't tend to come up on a regular basis - it would appear to be problematic to keep it.

This was disappointing. After all, it's not as though I am ever going to be worshiping an elephant-headed deity. Idolatry is so not a concern in our society. And it had really symbolic value to me, as representing the happy conclusion to a day that had started so badly. Still, halacha is halacha.

Yet it occurred to me that actually, I can understand the halachic problem. I was on the verge of considering this idol to be a good-luck charm. And the idea that a physical object would have the metaphysical ability to help me goes against the very essence of monotheistic Judaism.

My only remaining question is, how is a hamsa, or a silver segulah ring, any different?

I Can't Believe It's Not Treife!

Here is an article that I published this week in the Jewish Link of New Jersey Notwithstanding the vast range of kosher foods available to...