Thursday, May 21, 2020

Are Penguins Kosher?

After giving a live online tour of the Hall Of Kashrut at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this week, for Kushner Hebrew Academy, I received the following feedback and question from the Director of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Yaacov Feit:
Thank you so much for this morning's exceptional and enjoyable presentation. Beyond your expertise in the field combined with your sense of humor and ability to present I really appreciated how you worked the chat so well to allow for participation even remotely. This was an opportunity to really capitalize on our unfortunate situation and bring their Torah study to life. Tizkeh Lemitzvos! My students asked me why penguins aren't kosher. Any thoughts?

I've been asked this question a few times over the years, and I've given it a lot of thought. Initially, it would appear that penguins should be kosher. After all, the only birds that are not kosher are the two dozen types of birds listed in the Torah as being not kosher. Now, while there is some dispute as to the identities of these birds, nobody suggests that one of them is a penguin! True, the Torah's list of "types" (minim) is not a list of zoological species, and one type could include many similar species (such as the atalef, which includes one thousand species of bats). But penguins are extremely dissimilar from all the birds in the Torah's list and would not be included in the same "type." Thus, it would initially appear that a penguin would be kosher (albeit that the lack of mesorah would prevent people from eating it).

However, in fact, matters are not so straightforward at all.

First of all, one must ask whether the penguin is a bird, in the Torah system of classification. As I discuss at length in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the system of taxonomy used in the Torah is very different from that of modern zoology. "Ohf" includes bats, which are mammals, because it does not refer to "birds," per se. One might then argue that the penguin is not an ohf, because it does not fly! Accordingly, there would be no basis to permit it.

However, according to the Gemara (albeit disputed by Yehudah Feliks), one of the other birds in the Torah's list is an ostrich, which does not fly either. And in any case, it would not be correct to say that ohf means "flying creature." The Torah's classification is a "folk taxonomy" (this is not an insulting or heretical term; it is an academic term with a specific meaning described in my encyclopedia). There aren't specific criteria to be an "ohf." Rather, it means something "birdish." Things can be birdish in different ways. Bats are birdish because they fly. Ostriches are birdish because they have beaks and two legs and feathers. Accordingly, penguins would also be in the category of ohf. (Though perhaps a case could be made that the kiwi bird is a sheretz rather than an ohf.)

So, given that the penguin is a "bird" in the Torah classification, and it is not mentioned in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds, does that mean that it is kosher? I would strongly argue that it is not kosher. But in order to explain why, we'll have to first discuss a different bird: the secretary bird.

The secretary bird, as those who have joined my Africa trips (or remember the old Disney film Bedknobs & Broomsticks) will know, is a very unusual bird. Its basic body (and beak) shape is that of a bird of prey, but it has a long tail, and exceptionally long legs, like a flamingo. It also has a remarkable crest of feathers sprouting from its head, like a writing-quill stuck behind the ears, which earns its name. The secretary bird lives only in sub-Saharan Africa, and is definitely not in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds. Nor could it reasonably be described as being included in the same min as one of the birds in the Torah's list, since it looks so utterly different from all of them.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no way that a secretary bird can be kosher. It's a bird of prey! It eats snakes and mongooses and hares and even young gazelles. Ramban states that the fundamental reason for non-kosher birds being non-kosher is that they are predatory. And while it seems to be a difficult overreach to say that it's the only reason for birds being non-kosher (since it would not account for certain non-kosher birds such as hoopoes and bats), it would seem clear that it is a sufficient reason. And the Mishnah in Chullin states explicitly that all predatory birds are not kosher.

There's just no way, conceptually or halachically, that a secretary bird could be kosher. And yet it's not one of the birds in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds!

The only possible answer is that the Torah's list of non-kosher birds is not comprehensive. Rather, following the Talmudic-based principles that I developed in my encyclopedia and in my book The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax, we can say as follows. The animals of the Torah are the animals of Biblical lands. The four animals listed as possessing only one of the three kosher signs are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world. The ten types of mammals listed in Parashas Re'ay as being the kosher mammals are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world - the moose, chevrotain and okapi are also kosher. Likewise, the two dozen birds listed as being non-kosher are the non-kosher birds of that region, not of the entire world.

Now, this is the kind of thing that immediately gets the Kefira Cops revving up and ready to slam me as a heretic. But, after I came up with this approach, I then discovered that it's actually a Tosafos!

The Gemara in Chullin states that the Torah gives the most concise way of telling us which creatures we may and may not eat. Since there are more kosher birds than non-kosher birds, the Torah lists only the non-kosher birds. Now, Rashi explains this to mean that there are no non-kosher birds in the entire world other than the two dozen listed (which can only include other birds of the same type/min). But Tosafos (Chullin 61a) says that this does not have to be what the Gemara is saying. Rather, the Gemara could mean that listing the two dozen non-kosher birds gives us a way to identify which types of birds in general are not kosher, i.e. those which have similar characteristics to the birds listed! Baruch shekivanti.

Accordingly, since the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah include predatory birds, we can extrapolate and conclude that the secretary bird is not kosher. And since the list also includes "aberrant" birds such as ostriches and bats, kiwis would likewise not be kosher. And since it also includes fishing birds such as cormorants and gulls, penguins would likewise not be kosher!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to join our live online tours of the Biblical Museum of Natural History - or perhaps sponsor a program for your local shul or school - please see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live for details. As Rabbi Feit attested, this is an exceptional way to really capitalize on the world's unfortunate situation and bring Torah study to life!

41 comments:

  1. Very good article. I own and enjoyed reading the Encyclopedia. What will the next volume cover, and when do you think we can expect it?

    (There are actually many statements in Tosfos, and actually many in the Gemara itself, that sound like things Bible critics or academic professors of Talmud would say. They key is not what is said, but how it is said, the frequency in which it is said, and the surrounding details of the person who said it.)

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    1. So you don't actually accept the truth whoever it comes from....?
      #justasking

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    2. Fozziebear - I was speaking of the general attitude, not necessarily myself. Regardless, since its not always easy to know what the truth is, the factors I mentioned (among others) must still be taken into account.

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  2. One could argue that the penguin should be kosher since it is not a bird of prey and the rest of the 24 are birds of prey

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    1. @Proud Puffin

      I agree that the secretary bird, the kiwis and ostriches birds, as well as the penguins, are not kosher in comparison to kosher birds. But I wonder about Puffins. Are Puffins kosher? I used to know a lot about these cute birds but I can no longer remember. Would you know?

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    2. "Are puffins kosher?"
      It says it right here on my cereal box. "Enjoy Puffins as a wholesome breakfast"

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    3. Although they are not "raptors" like hawks or falcons penguins and yes puffins are birds of prey. They are both highly efficient fish catchers which certainly makes them carnivorous and at least in scientific circles birds of prey.

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  3. No such Tosafos on Chulin 60B. Please provide correct source.

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  4. I don't understand your logic, since you are saying that a secretary bird can't be kosher since it is a bird of prey, ergo a non bird of prey should be kosher. So why do you lean towards saying that the penguin is prohibited?

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    1. Because it's not *only* birds of prey that are prohibited. It also includes fishing birds such as cormorants and gulls.

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  5. Great analysis. Thanks much.

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  6. How about kosher birds like chickens eating worms? Is that not deemed predatory?

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    1. Chickens will even eat mice, but they are not "predatory" birds, they are game birds. Vultures exclusively eat meat. I haven't got a precise definition of predatory, but I can easily see how it would include all raptors, along with storks, etc.

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    2. Doesn't "predatory" mean chasing and hunting after prey? Picking at worm that just happens to be on the ground below seems to be distinct from cunningly chasing after prey that puts up a fight or flees.

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    3. Why is "Dores" specifically defined as "predatory"?
      There are several opinions in the rishonim for "dores" for example a bird that lifts its food to its mouth. Also if "dores" meant "predetor" wouldn't that include ducks and gease who mostly subsist on fish?
      Nice article.
      Thanks

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    4. +1 on this question. How does your logic of "fishing birds" not exclude ducks from being kosher?

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    5. I'm aware (of course) of the different views in the Rishonim regarding the definition of dores. It's futile to try to pinpoint a specific biological criterion. Rather, it's the "general impression."
      Ducks, by the way, are not fishing birds.

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  7. Understanding Torah as best knowledge of the birds available at the time (and the translations lost long long before Mishna came to redefine and reform). Talmudic time is a refinement to state that which they already knew to be true. Refinement goes along with realignment. (I've probably lost most of you already; so be it.)

    In each epochal generation, there was a recording of what one could eat and not eat, based on their understanding of the ancient customs.




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  8. Question: If Satan chewed his cud, would he be kosher?

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  9. Thank you for demonstrating that turkeys are kosher even without a masoret.

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  10. Thank you, such an interesting article!

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  11. Chickens are omnivorous. They eat worms, slugs, snails and insects. They aren't mentioned at all in bible. A priori, I would have thought that chicken soup should be treif.

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    1. Likewise geese. Maybe only obligate carnivores?

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    2. Chickens must be in the bible somewhere. After all, the Torah says we're supposed to do kapparas before Yom Kippor, so it says chickens right there.

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  12. How do you understand Chulin 59A "Shalit B'Olamo Yodea" implying strongly that the master of world knows about everything in his world - hence all species should be mentioned?

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    1. See my book The Camel, The Hare and the Hyrax.

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    2. Can't. The Great Eagles have banned it. :-)

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  13. Since Hashem knows that the Jewish People will be scattered one day throughout the diaspora, why wouldn't he need to prohibit birds from other lands?

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  14. There are approximately 1,240 species of bats, the number with novel corona viruses that are transmissible to humans is unknown..

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  15. what about robins and other small worm eating birds such as warblers etc.. are they kosher? I always was curious to try Robin, I'd avoid the Bat(man),,,

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  16. Ducks eat fish as a normal part of their diet. They accordingly hunt for fish.

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  17. Bird brain,

    Sure, GOD knows the Jewish People will be scattered one day. But the jews don't. And they certainly don't know how to describe animals that they've never seen. So we're given a list of birds that has long ago been rendered useless, with even our commentators bantering uselessly about it (that's the whole "need a tradition" thing). But the 'eternal' torah doesn't give us actual tools to use for the animals WE'VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. Would have been just as easy for the torah to say the stuff that the Misha Generation was making up. It was even insufficient for THAT generation.

    Gosh. The imperial stupidity of jews is just ghastly; the steps people go through to thread needles that don't even really exist, and to explain things that have much simpler explanations.

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    1. I suppose the 'traditionalists' believers would argue well that is how the all knowing Hashem wanted it, so there. Maybe he like it when Jews discuss and nitpick over this sort of stuff. Why ? how do I know the mind of the Hashem - he is this big mystery, or invent your own speculations. Their exists culture and tribalism which override rationality, logic and evidence which resists the much simpler explanations. ACJA

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    2. hey, maybe if you are a bigot don't go announcing it online. It could be bad for your reputation!

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  18. RNS, you state: " After all, the only birds that are not kosher are the two dozen types of birds listed in the Torah as being not kosher."

    True but the Torah's folk taxonomy also really includes the Passeriformes as bit being kosher. The Passeriformes is the largest and most diverse commonly recognized clade of birds. The Passeriformes (or ‘passerine’ birds) are synonymous with what are commonly known as "perching birds"; this group also contains within it a major radiation commonly known as songbirds (oscine Passerines or Passeri). Of the 10,000 or so extant species of birds, over half (~5,300) are perching birds. (Those are those finches, robins, nuthatches etc. etc. that you hear every day outside your window).

    So really more than half the known birds are not Kosher straight from the folk taxonomy in the Torah.

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    1. Where do you get the idea that Passeriformes are not kosher?

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    2. Jews have a long tradition of eating song / perching birds? Granted they aren't part of the written list in Parshat Re'eh but I have never read of any sanction for them. So where is the evidence that they ARE kosher?

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  19. Please explain why an all-knowing G-d would not prohibit birds in other lands that Jews would one day live...

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