Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Locust Mistake, and the Locust-o-Matic


We have a new machine at the Biblical Museum of Natural History: a Locust-o-Matic (TM). We acquired it to prepare our locusts for some special museum events taking place - a parlor meeting next Sunday in the Five Towns, and the Feast of Exotic Curiosities the following Sunday in Beverly Hills. In advance of these events, I want to clarify something about the kashrut of locusts.

In any disagreement, it's not adequate to know that your disputants are wrong. You have to know exactly where they are going wrong, and why they are making this mistake. I've finally managed to do this with the topic of eating locusts.

I came across an old article on the OU website explaining the policy with regard to accepting a mesorah for a new species. Bear in mind that the OU is not a halachic decisor for individuals of a particular community - rather, they are a kashrus organization servicing many different communities. Accordingly, any policies that they adopt have to be compatible with a broad variety of different communities.

Now, what do you do if one community has a mesorah for a particular species, but other communities do not have such a mesorah? On the OU website, at https://oukosher.org/blog/consumer-kosher/ou-position-on-certifying-specific-animals-and-birds/, it says as follows:
"Regarding cases where some communities have a clear mesorah permitting other animals, and other communities avoided it, the OU will not give certification... This is not because the OU relies only on an Ashkenazic mesorah, but because OU certification means that the item may be eaten by everyone according to halacha. If the animal was avoided in certain communities, that may indicate that those communities had a mesorah that it was not kosher... However, if a particular animal did not exist in a particular community, the fact that the community has no mesorah to eat it is not considered evidence that it has a mesorah not to eat it.... if certain species of bird did not exist at all in Germany, for example, and existed only in Iraq, testimony from an authoritative source from Iraq that that specific bird was shechted and eaten in Iraq would suffice to permit the bird." 

This is all perfectly logical and reasonable. In fact, it reflects an awareness of biogeography that was entirely lacking for most of history until about two centuries ago, and is still lacking by many people today. Until the thorough studies of the Americas and especially Australia, people just didn't realize that different parts of the world have very different animals. This is the foundational principle of biblical natural history, and the explanation as to why Rashi identified the animals of the Torah very differently from Rav Saadiah Gaon. As the OU points out, if a particular community had no mesorah to eat a certain creature, it doesn't mean that they had anything against it - they may have simply never encountered it! Guineafowl, for example, are African birds. It is of no significance to find that many communities in Europe had no mesorah that guineafowl are kosher - they had never encountered them.

But then take a look at how the OU applies this policy to locusts: 
"In the case of grasshoppers, it is clear from Rashi that many species of grasshoppers existed in Europe in his time and were known by the Jews, but the Ashkenaz communities did not eat any of them. This is considered a mesorah that they are not eaten, and so the OU would not certify them, even though Teimanim have a mesorah and can rely on their mesorah."
This is incorrect. Yes, Rashi was familiar with many species of grasshoppers, but not with locusts. Certain types of grasshoppers form destructive swarms, under specific conditions - these are the ones known as locusts. In the order Orthoptera, which contains grasshoppers (including locusts) and crickets, there are over twenty thousand species. But less than twenty of these are locusts. And all of the locust species are only found in tropical or desert climates. Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust, for which there is a mesorah among many Jewish communities from Yemen and North Africa, never appears in France or central Europe. (Locusta migratoria, the migratory locust, for which there is a more limited mesorah, rarely appears in the south of France and never in the north.)

So there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts. They just didn't have them, the same as in the OU's example of the bird that only lives in Iraq and not Germany.

(I've been in touch with the OU to follow up on this, but as I pointed out to them, I am not claiming that there are no other reasons for the OU not to certify locusts. There are very good reasons for them not to certify locusts. It would be a disastrous decision that would ruin their business and all the good work that they do.)

The interesting point that differentiates locusts from, say, guineafowl, is that while nobody ever had a reason to believe that European communities were necessarily familiar with guineafowl, people did have a reason to believe that they were familiar with locusts. After all, Rashi and other European authorities seemed to discuss them. Thus, the position of these authorities that locusts were not eaten was therefore significant. What people didn't (and don't) realize is that while every locust is a grasshopper, not every grasshopper is a locust. Rashi and other European authorities may have thought that the kosher species were living around them, mixed in with the non-kosher types, but they weren't.

In Ashkenaz, there was never a tradition to eat locusts. They just didn't have any. Accepting the tradition from those who did have them is no different to accepting a tradition for guineafowl, quail, sparrow, pheasant, or anything else. Bon appetit!

30 comments:

  1. What did non-Teimanim Poskim say about locusts, the ones in countries, which have them. The Rambam, The Ben Ish Chai, the Ari, tha Baba Sali...
    There are lots of them. Does anyone of them shares the opinion of RS?
    My personal feeling is that RS crossed here the fine line between leaning-far-out-of-the-window and just falling down...

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    1. North Africans- Moroccans and Tunisians- ate, and continue to eat, locusts.

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    2. Not all of them. And a lot of their Poskim said that it should not be done.
      http://www.kosherveyosher.com/locusts-1078.html

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  2. "There are very good reasons for them not to certify locusts. It would be a disastrous decision that would ruin their business and all the good work that they do."

    Are you able to expand on this, R' Slifkin?

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    1. I can’t pretend to know what RNS was thinking when he wrote that, but when I read it i thought of all of the non-Jewish shoppers who make up the bulk of the consumer pool of goods bearing the OU mark. It is my understanding that many of them prefer goods with the mark because of a perception of health benefits/cleanliness of some sort. Perhaps many of them will lose their respect for the OU mark when they become aware that insects are included as “Kosher”. The nuances that some small subset of locusts could be kosher while other insects will still be kept out of food could be lost on many people who make it profitable for major corporations (at least in the US) to want to be under an OU or similar hashgacha. We know that so many corporations choose to pay for a hashgacha in order to sell to more than just a million or so frum Jews in NY, NJ, across the country and around the world. Without the perception at least that OU would not certify things that may nauseate many westerners, providIng a hasgacha could prove to be cost prohibitive.

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    2. The problem is that if the OU certifies something as Kosher that many people won't eat, then people will stop trusting the mark. For the same reason, they will not certify peanut oil for Pesach, even though many poskim, including R Moshe are of the opinion that Peanuts are not kitniyos.

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  3. Clearly it makes halachic sense to allow locusts and to forbid turkey. However I can't see the OU doing either...

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  4. "And all of the locust species are only found in tropical or desert climates."
    Really?
    Wikipedia:
    The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) is an extinct species of locust that ranged through the western half of the United States and some western portions of Canada until the end of the 19th century. Sightings often placed their swarms in numbers far larger than any other locust species, with one famous sighting in 1875 estimated at 198,000 square miles (510,000 km2) in size (greater than the area of California), weighing 27.5 million tons and consisting of some 12.5 trillion insects, the greatest concentration of animals ever speculatively guessed, according to Guinness World Records.[2]

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    1. Rashi didn't live in North America.

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    2. Natan has a history with this mistake. Since he finds no current evidence or archeological evidence of a species he erroneously concludes that they never existed in that geographical location. Case in point the Llama and Alpaca. Which are supposedly only native to South America.

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    3. Well given that llamas and alpacas are only native to South America I wouldn't exactly classify that as a mistake.

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    4. I wasn't talking about Rashi - I was talking about NS making factually incorrect and misleading statements about science/history. And this from the "expert" in the field, no less.
      The point from Rocky Mountain Locust is that obviously some species can survive colder climates. Also, there are historical records of locust plagues in Europe and Asia. See:https://livingwithinsects.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/locust-plagues/
      https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-642-22872-8_11

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    5. why on earth did they become extinct?

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    6. Oh, come on. There were never any llamas in the Old World, and never any in North America alongside humans. R' Slifkin always means that the animal didn't exist at the time a particular text was written. Are you implying that because there were llamas in North America tens of thousands of years ago, there were also llamas in the Middle East 3,500 years ago? Again, come on.

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    7. Europe is a big place. It's *extraordinarily* rare for there to be plagues of locusts in the Ashkenaz areas. Did it ever happen over history? Yes. Does this mean that people there were familiar with these species, such that the fact of Jews not eating them means that there is something questionable about them? Absolutely not.

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    8. According to Wikipedia, the Rocky Mountain Locust bred in sandy areas and thrived in hot and dry places. Basically, desert.

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    9. How can you say "Absolutely not"? You can say maybe not but maybe yes. It certainly is possible that that their presence was common enough that the refrain was due to a doubt.

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  5. Guinea-fowl, for example : you're right but as you pointed in a other post, the allowance of turkeys was based probably on the masores on guinea-fowl, which were then erroneously identified as one species.

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  6. Here is a lengthy article about the subject:
    http://www.kosherveyosher.com/locusts-1078.html
    It is far from being as simple as RS writes in this article...

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    1. Um, there's nothing in that article which contradicts anything that I wrote.

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    2. In the article you claim: "So there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts."

      In the article it says:
      "R. Menachem ben Shelomoh ha-Meiri (1249–1316), one of the greatest Talmudic commentators in Provence, noted the absence of a tradition of locust eating in his day and contrasts the Sefardi tradition of eating locusts with the practice in Provence [Beis ha-Bechirah, Chullin 65]:
      There are those who permit eating them according to the four signs, even though they are not known by the name of “hagav,” and in many places in Spain, they are eaten on the basis of the four signs according to what the acharonim testified, and not necessarily by the tradition that they were known as “hagav.” And in these countries we have seen that the sages, the acharonim, testified that they checked them and found them to possess the four signs; however, it is not the custom to allow them to be eaten since we have not been informed that they are included under the name of “hagav.”"

      And:

      "R. David Shemuel ha-Levi (1588–1667) wrote in his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh [Turei Zahav, Yoreh De‘ah 85:1]: “And now the custom is not to eat any locust even when it is known that its name is ‘hagav,’ because we are not knowledgeable about their names.”"

      And:
      "This is what emerges from the writing of R. Yehiel Epstein [Arukh ha- Shulchan, Yoreh De‘ah 85: 5. 1835–1905]: And today we do not eat any kind of locust, even those that possess all of the signs, and even those that are known by the name of “hagav.” In fact, we have never even heard of places where locusts are eaten."

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    3. Elazar, some of Natan Slifkin's points can be disputed, but here it's clear you simply misunderstood one of them.

      When NS writes that "there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts," what he means is that the locust species eaten by teimanim et al were not present in Ashkenazic lands. So the Ashkenazim cannot be said to have a *negative* mesorah regarding those particular species, i.e. a mesorah that those species are *not* kosher.

      NS doesn't dispute that certain authorities ruled that we shouldn't ever eat locusts. He's just providing an argument to be machria like the authorities who are meikel. Get it now?

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  7. The way I learned it as a kid was subtly different: that only the Yemenites preserved the masorah which positively identified the kosher types, and therefore only they could eat it. Everyone else, having lost the masorah, had to refrain.
    I will admit that having never had a real inclination to eat them I never investigated the topic further.

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  8. Willingness to eat locust that have some kind of mesorah is small potatoes. Let's raise the stakes a little bit.
    Is Rabbi SLifkin willing to eat cooked oats on Pesach and ignore the risk of a chiyuv kores based on his conviction that Rashi lacked awareness of biogeography?

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    1. Oats may be subject to chometz even if they aren't one of the five grains. Blumenkrantz identifies a chemical process they undergo that they share with undoubted chometz grains.

      Shmooli

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  9. Sorry, I’m not a specialist in these issues, so the question may be stupid. Can you please explain why, having Yemenites with mesorah, everybody else bans locusts instead of learning from Yemenites or at least importing kosher locusts from them?

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  10. So there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts.

    Of course there is. Ashkenazim don't eat locusts because we don't have a mesorah that tells what grasshoppers are kosher. We would not eat locust even if they had an otherwise reliable Sephardic hechsher.

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    1. Lazar, as I wrote above:

      When NS writes that "there is no Ashkenaz mesorah not to eat kosher locusts," what he means is that the locust species eaten by teimanim et al were not present in Ashkenazic lands. So the Ashkenazim cannot be said to have a *negative* mesorah regarding those particular species, i.e. a mesorah that those species are *not* kosher.

      NS doesn't dispute that certain authorities ruled that we shouldn't ever eat locusts because we lack a *positive* mesorah for them. He's just providing an argument to be machria like the authorities who say we can rely on the sephardic mesorah.

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  11. Also, even if the grasshoppers are kosher, according to R. Yerucham Perlow, according to R. Saadyah Gaon, they require nechirah:
    מעתה עפ"ז נראה ברור אצלי דזהו באמת טעמו של רבינו הגאון ז"ל ומקורו במה שפסק דחגבים מתים אסורין, שלא יכלו הבאים אחריו לירד לסוף דעתו בזה. אבל ע"פ מה שביארנו טעמו ברור ונכון ודלה מים מבורות עמוקים, דס"ל ג"כ דנבלה בכל בעלי חיים נאסרה לבני נח, וכדדריש בפסיקתא זוטרתא מדכתיב כל רמש אשר הוא חי לכם יהיה לאכלה פרט לנבלה, וא"כ לא הותרה להם אכילתן אלא ע"י נחירה בסימנים. ועפ"ז ממילא מתבאר דחגבים אפילו לדידן אחר שניתנה תורה ונצטוינו על הלכות שחיטה בבהמה חיה ועוף והותרו דגים בלא שום הכשר ותקון כלל כמו שהם, מכל מקום כיון דמאי דאמרינן דחגבים לא צריכי שחיטה היינו רק משום דלא אשכחן אצלם בקרא שחיטה בשום דוכתא, וכמו שביאר הרשב"א ז"ל שהבאתי, א"כ אין לנו עפ"ז אלא לומר שאין צריכין שחיטה, והלכות שחיטה הוא שאינן נוהגות בהן, אבל מכל מקום לענין איסור נבלה שהיה נוהג בהם מקודם מתן תורה ודאי אית לן למימר דבאיסורייהו דמעיקרא קיימי, כל כמה דלא אשכחן בהדיא גילוי בקרא שיצאו בסיני מכלל איסור זה להיתר, וא"כ כי היכי דשחיטה לא צריכי מטעם שלא גילה לנו הכתיב שהם בכלל תורת שחיטה, הכי נמי איסור נבלה נוהג בהם מהאי טעמא גופא שלא גילה לנו הכתוב שיצאו מכלל איסור דמעיקרא להיתר כדגים, ואין לנו להתירן אלא כשמצאן חיים והמיתן בנחירה כהלכתן אבל מתים אסורין.

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  12. And I laoghed over all their 'past' and its decayed expiring glory. Truly, like Lenten preachers and fools did I cry anger and shame over
    all their great and small things -- their best is so very small! Their worst is so very small! -- thus I laughed.

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