Thursday, September 7, 2017

Chicken Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back


The ongoing chicken wars are astonishing in their intensity. The pashkevillim are plastered everywhere. This morning I saw one screaming that Jews everywhere are eating [the equivalent of] rats!

To briefly sum up the situation: Twenty years ago, Rav Shmuel Wosner expressed concern that the chickens being eaten by Jews everywhere were not the same as the traditionally eaten variety, but rather had been hybridized with birds of unknown heritage and thus potentially non-kosher. Following this, a certain group of people secretly raised huge numbers of a chicken called a Braekel, which they recently announced as being The One True Pure Chicken with no skeletons in the closet. It has received the endorsement of Rav Nissim Karelitz's Beis Din. This was accompanied with the claim that all the other chickens in the market are not properly kosher should no longer be eaten.

The anti-Braekel team, on the other hand, which includes Rav Landa of Bnei Brak, claims just the opposite. They say that the existing chickens on the market are perfectly fine, whereas the Braekel has come out of nowhere, with no clear mesorah, and certain problematic aspects, and it may not be eaten. Thus, each group is claiming that their chickens are the only kosher chickens.

But what is the underlying source of this dispute? If you're skeptically inclined, it's hard to ignore the massive amounts of money at stake here. The Braekel Alliance is trying to bring down the entire poultry empire, including Empire. And the poultry empire is responding in kind, striking back with the claim that not only is the Braekel not the only kosher chicken - it isn't a kosher chicken at all. With so much money involved, it's hard not to have a bad feeling about this.

Still, there are definitely some halachic arguments being voiced. But they do not reflect a proper understanding of this topic. I was speaking this week with some major experts in kashrus who had some very harsh words to say about both sides, and their lack of understanding of chickens. I would like to explain why there are some fundamental mistakes being made.

Before doing so, a preface: I do acknowledge that halachic reality does not always concord with scientific reality. Rav Herzog and others were of the view that one may kill lice on Shabbos even though Chazal permitted this based upon the mistaken belief that they spontaneously generate. We define hilchos bishul in scientifically inaccurate terms of kli rishon and kli sheni rather than in terms of temperature and specific heat capacity. The halachos of mar’os for a niddah are determined by poskim and mesorah rather than chemical testing.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that none of that is relevant here. The prevalence of poskim prohibiting different breeds of chickens is due to a combination of a non-rationalist outlook with a lack of knowledge of ornithology in general and Biblical ornithology in particular. I find their arguments to be vague and unconvincing. There are two particular types of mistakes being made.

1. Chazal's Zoological Rules

(A) Chazal were familiar with the creatures in their part of the world, but not with species from other locales or from later times in history. Hence, rules such as “any animal without upper teeth is kosher, any animal with upper teeth is not kosher,” and “any fish with scales has fins,” and “any bird which spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher,” and "kosher eggs are pointed at one end and rounded at the other, non-kosher eggs are symmetrical," were merely based on examining the species in their time and place. (See Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah, Niddah 6:9, Kapach translation)

(B) Many poskim do not appear to have realized/appreciated/agreed with this point. They believed that Chazal’s statements were based upon Divine inspiration, or a tradition from Noach, and that they hold absolutely true for every species in the world.

(C) Thus, while many poskim say that a chicken that spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher, because the Gemara says that “any bird which spreads its toes in a two-two formation is not kosher,” this is based on a non-rationalist perspective. The Gemara never meant to disqualify a breed of chicken. It was talking about owls, which spread their toes in such a manner.

2. The Variability of Species and Minim

(A) Animals and birds of the same species can look very, very different. A chihuahua and a great Dane are both the same species. Often, tremendous variety can be produced in a few generations of selective breeding. Genetic mutations can easily trigger even features such as extra digits.

(B) The zoological definition of “species” is much, much narrower than the Torah definition of “min.” There are only 24 minim of treif birds, but many, many more species of treif birds—over 400 species of raptors and owls alone! 

(C) It is possible to prove that birds are of the same or very similar species (which would be the same min – as above), even if they look very different, via hybridization, genetic studies, and other such techniques.

(D) In general, it seems that halachic authorities did and do not appreciate the aforementioned three points.

Putting all the above together, and reading the various responsa literature in light of it, it seems that many halachic authorities prohibited certain breeds of chicken because that they attributed too much significance to superficial differences, and not enough to more fundamental matters such as hybridization, genetic similarity, the history of the variety, and so on. Many people agree with me on this analysis. Unfortunately, they will not publicly say so; they are reticent to argue with famous rabbis, in case others find their lack of faith disturbing. I guess they are too... chicken.

31 comments:

  1. So getting to a more fundamental question:

    The poster mentions cockfighting. As you point out, you can breed various characteristics into animals. Dogs are wolves bred to live peaceably with humans. There are apparently roosters that have been bred for fighting. Suppose you had such a rooster. What would you say:

    1) Cockfighting doesn't mean that the animal is a Doreis.

    2) Doreis is a generalization of the species, not individual members, so even though these are Doreis, others are not.

    3) Roosters bred for cockfighting are tameh.

    Others have asked about how we handle the distinction between domesticated and wild versions of the same species.

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    1. Of Dores has nothing to do with cockfighting. It has to do with grabbing prey with the feet and pinning it down. Or grabbing prey in the air with the foot, like a falcon. It's true that roosters attack each other with feet and wings. Doves attack each other as well with wings and feet. But beating each other up has nothing to do with the siman of kashrut.

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    2. That makes sense, but I know nothing here. Are there sources to support this interpretation?

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  2. What breed of chicken is used in Israel before all this started? Your article is not clear at all. Ditto US.

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  3. I agree with you and I am saying so publicly.

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  4. Are there any fish with scales but no fins?

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    1. Chaim - To me RDNS was sounding here more like a Daatemet blog than a Rambam-based blog with that list of chazal's 'ignorance'. I could be wrong and maybe there are fish with scales and no fins. But, I suspect RDNS was referring to the famous monopterus issue. While the current scientific classification includes swamp "eels" under the superclass of Osteichthyes (bony fish) they could well be considered not a fish by the casual observer. They can breathe through lungs and live out of water for long periods of time. Some also include tetropoda under Osteichthyes and surely they are not fish to the observer. The rationalist Rambam in Maachalos asuros 2:16 is very clear that the rule applies only to fish and not to other sea creatures. All sea creatures are prohibited as sheretz hamayim. Kashrus of fish, and only fish, is based on the presence of scales. The Aruch Hashulchan YD 83 elaborates on this at length.

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    2. Actually, I never claimed in this post that there actually are exceptions to the fins/scale rule; just that *in theory* there could be.

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  5. Oy! Just when Jews needed something new to fight about. Jews accept Chabad kashrut despite many being messianic (and thus possibly not Jewish). Now among those left they can split into differing camps and not accept the meat kashrut of the other? This means no mixed marriages? No chicken at large events? Or does this disappear like the Kosher phone business a few years ago?

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  6. You have in quotes "any animal with upper teeth is not kosher" but I don't think that can be found in chazal (talmud). Can you please reference it.

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    1. chulin 59a

      גמ' תנו רבנן אלו הן סימני בהמה כל בהמה מפרסת פרסה וגו' כל בהמה שמעלת גרה בידוע שאין לה שינים למעלה וטהורה וכללא הוא והרי גמל דמעלה גרה הוא ואין לו שינים למעלה וטמא גמל ניבי אית ליה והרי בן גמל דניבי נמי לית ליה ותו הרי שפן וארנבת דמעלת גרה הן ויש להן שינים למעלה וטמאין ועוד שינים מי כתיבי באורייתא אלא הכי קאמר כל בהמה שאין לה שינים למעלה בידוע שהיא מעלת גרה ומפרסת פרסה וטהורה וליבדוק בפרסותיה כגון שהיו פרסותיה חתוכות וכדרב חסדא דאמר רב חסדא היה מהלך במדבר ומצא בהמה שפרסותיה חתוכות בודק בפיה אם אין לה שינים למעלה בידוע שהיא טהורה אם לאו בידוע שהיא טמאה ובלבד שיכיר גמל גמל ניבי אית ליה אלא ובלבד שיכיר בן גמל לאו אמרת איכא בן גמל איכא נמי מינא אחרינא דדמי לבן גמל לא ס"ד דתני דבי ר' ישמעאל ואת הגמל כי מעלה גרה הוא שליט בעולמו יודע שאין לך דבר מעלה גרה וטמא אלא גמל לפיכך פרט בו הכתוב הוא ואמר רב חסדא היה מהלך בדרך ומצא בהמה שפיה גמום בודק בפרסותיה אם פרסותיה סדוקות בידוע שהיא טהורה אם לאו בידוע שהיא טמאה ובלבד שיכיר חזיר לאו אמרת איכא חזיר איכא נמי מינא אחרינא דדמיא לחזיר לא ס"ד דתנא דבי ר' ישמעאל ואת החזיר כי מפריס פרסה הוא שליט בעולמו יודע שאין לך דבר שמפריס פרסה וטמא אלא חזיר לפיכך פרט בו הכתוב הוא ואמר רב חסדא היה מהלך במדבר ומצא בהמה שפיה גמום ופרסותיה חתוכות בודק בבשרה אם מהלך שתי וערב בידוע שהיא טהורה ואם לאו בידוע שהיא טמאה ובלבד שיכיר ערוד לאו אמרת איכא ערוד איכא נמי מינא אחרינא דדמיא לערוד גמירי דליכא והיכא בודק אמר אביי ואיתימא רב חסדא בכנפי העוקץ: סימני חיה:

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    2. What you wrote is the hava amina, in the first line above. On the fourth line the gemara 'corrects' itself and says that the rule is actually that if it lacks teeth we know it ruminates (but not the contrapositive that if it has teeth it does not ruminate)

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  7. I suspect that the original story about the regular chickens not being kosher was spread about by... the regular chickens!

    Clever fellows.

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  8. In this your second missive on the subject you finally realize that this is more about money and politics and not science or halacha. In summary, a group invested money and more in a possible chumra to only eat Braekel. If the bird is considered a kosher bird and they eat it (despite the significantly increased cost due to its not being a great layer and a being a very poor meat producer), then peace be upon them. But, over time the possibly/probably inappropriate/unnecessary chumra could lead to many considering the common chickens unacceptable and therefore creating an unnecessary schism amongst the Jews as well as financial burden for many trying to keep as kosher as possible. One who judges others (especially rabbinic decisors) with the benefit of doubt might have suspected that preventing that problem was at the heart of a decision of some to prohibit Braekel rather than the assumption you make that the halachic authorities were too superficial, unknowledgeable and not smart enough to come to, what to you and those 'who agree..,but are chicken', came to. I find it disturbing that a common thread in too many of the blog posts here, and the comments they generate, is denigration of Torah scholars along the lines of ""we" are worldly and understand so much more than they, in their cloistered worlds ever could."

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    1. Those scholars wrote that the Braekel is a certainly non-kosher bird. They attempted to buttress that claim with problematic and flawed arguments. They did not write that the chumra is unnecessary.

      It is not R Slifkin's fault that he cited their questionable and superficial arguments governing this obviously incorrect conclusion, rather than assume they had some hidden motive.

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    2. I really doubt Rav Nissim Karelitz and Rav Shmuel Wosner's opinion on the subject was driven by money . . .

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    3. If their justification is as you say (which is plausible), then why didn't they say so? What is gained by lying, other than undermining their own authority when the lie comes to light?

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    4. Can someone please explain the whole rationale here? There are seemingly well intentioned people who want to stop us from eating treif. So why is it that until or unless they can find a replacement we should continue to eat the 'common' chicken? (Whichever side your on no one is saying to stop eating chicken.)

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    5. Elon Weintaub "...buttress that claim with problematic and flawed arguments" "their questionable and superficial arguments governing this obviously incorrect conclusion" I have been following this since the outset. I have not seen a written responsa. Have you or RDNS seen one? Can you post it or a link so we can read their arguments? If not how do you two qualify their arguments (in the very negative and demeaning way that you do) ?

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    6. Yes, I've seen them. You can find the various documents linked in various comments on this thread: https://forum.otzar.org/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=35791&sid=47b2a40cb26a4a14ace5cf670cbb91b5&start=200

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    7. I don't see a teshuva written by a posek. I see snips and tails in an online discussion of hearsay. Whose teshuva are you referring to?

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    8. You can write to the organizations in the paskevilim, and they will be happy to send you teshuvot of their posqim and of posqim they think agree with them.

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  9. If turkey is kosher (though there was some dispute about that in the past) how can there be a big controversy over a breed of chicken?
    (BTW, I highly doubt we have any idea of the species of chicken extant during the time of the Mishna, so the whole "mesorah" criterion strikes me as a bit odd.)

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  10. Since the kashrut of birds is pretty much entirely based on traditions and not "signs" (as is the case for animals and fish), and we have been eating "normal" chickens for centuries, doesn't that therefore prove that we have a tradition for eating chicken?

    Does every tradition have to be 2000 years old in order to be considered acceptable? And if someone wants to argue that point, then would they want to do away with universally held traditions that only got started in the 18th century?

    Where does this nonsense end? Do we have to completely excommunicate every Jew whose customs aren't 100% identical to our own? Because that's where all this is leading to.

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  11. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Are you saying that chazzal tried to describe the criteria for what animals are or are not halachically kosher based on what was for them a sort of early biological categorization, or the other way around: that they tried to merely describe non-scientific halachic categories using observable biological phenomenon?

    I'm just trying to follow your argument and need help understanding.

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    1. It's not criteria for kashrus. It's shortcuts to figuring out which species possess the criteria.

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  12. So you are saying that they are giving biological markers for halachic criteria.
    I don't see how you can argue that chazzal were thinking in terms of our modern concept / classification system of 'species'.

    Isn't it more likely that they might have had their own less well developed (but still developing) classification system (or perhaps even more than one over the time of chazzal) and that they used that. But it was a 'proto-scientific' one, and they presumably assumed that the Torah describing the halachic categories in human terms that would then line up with their particular proto-scientific classification scheme?

    Which all then leaves us a bit screwed, because we now have a different but better classification scheme?

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  13. "There are only 24 minim of treif birds" -- I'm not sure how you count 24, since in Leviticus I count 20. But in any case, the Torah itself acknowledges that, at least for some of the birds, there are several species of the same bird: The Torah writes "lemina" or "leminehu" or "lemino" for some of them. Thus there are several "minim" of ravens etc, and the Torah's total number of nonkosher "minim" is larger than 24.

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  14. What do you mean by "more fundamental matters such as hybridization"?

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  15. Dear Natan,
    What is your argument from hybridization?

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