Monday, March 22, 2021

Can We Eat Locusts?

Today, after much demand, we started selling locusts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! (They are currently available only for pickup from the museum or at pickup points in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Elazar). There's no better way to liven up your Pesach seder!

But how do we know that which are the kosher types of grasshoppers mentioned in the Torah? In an article that appears on the museum website (which I just updated to incorporate the material in this post), I explain how the traditions held by Jews from Yemen, Morocco and Algeria are reliable. I also explain that there is no Ashkenaz tradition against eating locusts; rather, there is simply the lack of any tradition, since there were no locust plagues in Ashkenaz lands. Accordingly, it is legitimate to rely on those who do have a tradition, just as we are allowed to accept traditions from communities regarding the kosher status of various birds, provided that we have no tradition against them.

The type of locust which has the most widespread tradition is the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Although we raise those at the museum, we do not breed them in sufficient numbers to be able to sell them. Instead, the species that we are selling is the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria. According to Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi, the leading Yemenite halachic authority from Bnei Brak, the Yemenite tradition for the locust also includes this species, which itself was not found in Yemen, but which is identified by many Yemenites today as being the same as the one for which they possess a tradition. Still, as my colleague Professor Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh B'Mesorat Chazal, mentioned to me, it is potentially disturbing that the tradition for the migratory locust is weaker. Does this mean that there is reason to be suspicious of the migratory locust? While there is room for differing views here, I believe that the answer is no, for a variety of reasons.

Let's begin with the Torah itself, which states as follows:

"All flying creeping creatures, going upon all four, shall be an abomination to you. Yet these may you eat of every flying creeping thing that goes upon all four, those which have legs above their (other) legs, to leap with upon the earth. These you may eat: the arbeh after its kind, and the sela’am after its kind, and the chargol after his kind, and the chagav after its kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:20-23)

It's difficult to definitively translate the four names which appear here. But, consider the following. Although there are over ten thousand species of grasshoppers, only a few dozen are locusts - i.e., grasshoppers that form swarms. And of the few dozen species of locusts, only four occur in Biblical lands! And of these four, by far the most common swarming locust is the desert locust, with second place being taken by the migratory locust, and the Egyptian locust and Moroccan locust coming in a very distant third and fourth place. It's unreasonable to the point of absurdity to claim that the desert locust and migratory locust are not in this list.

There's another point to be made here. Lo nitna Torah lemalachei hasharet, the Torah was not given to angels. And it certainly wasn't given for expert entomologists practicing a particular 21st-century taxonomical system developed by Linnaeus. As I explained in the introduction to The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom and in even greater detail in Chicken Wars, the Torah's system of taxonomy is completely different from that of modern zoology. In general, it is a much broader system of classification; the term atalef in the list of non-kosher winged creatures undoubtedly includes all 1400 species of bats, from tiny insect-eating pipistrelles to gigantic fruit-eating flying foxes (otherwise, it would mean that the non-listed bats are kosher!). The differences between the desert locust and the migratory locust are extremely subtle; the overall appearance is virtually identical. There is no way that one is in the Torah's list and one is not; in fact, they are undoubtedly the same min in the Torah. (Which also means that since there are four listed kosher types in the Torah, this must even include certain grasshoppers that are not locusts.)

This argument is made explicitly by Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi. He gives these and other reasons to forcefully argue that the reason why many Yemenite immigrants see no significant difference between the desert locust and the migratory locust (and are happy to eat both kinds) is that there is indeed no significant difference. They are both the same min of locust.

So, there are excellent reasons to be certain that both the desert locust and the migratory locust are in the Torah's list. Now let us turn to the Mishnah, which states as follows: 

“With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and jumping legs, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav.” (Mishnah, Chullin 3:7)

The Mishnah has changed from the Torah in not bothering to specify any particular names of types. Instead, it just gives various physical characteristics (which are presumably extrapolated from the common characteristics of the locusts that the Torah permits). Now, these characteristics are actually fulfilled by many, many types of grasshoppers (including all locusts). Rabbi Yosi's addition, that its name must be chagav, appears to mean that it must be identified as a locust rather than, say, a cricket (which also matches the physical characteristics given in the Mishnah), and perhaps this is also ruling out various grasshoppers that are not locusts. It should be noted that Rabbi Yosi's addition is accepted by many but by no means all Rishonim; the Rif, and other unnamed authorities cited by Rashba and Meiri, do not require it. Rambam only requires it in a case where the insect is unusual in appearance.

But perhaps Rabbi Yosi is referring to there being some particular tradition regarding the locust's identity? There are certainly those (such as Tur) who interpret it that way, and this is the basis for those who require a tradition to eat locusts. 

However, there are arguments against this interpretation of R. Yosi's words, and it seems that certain other Rishonim did not understand him this way. First of all, why would it be necessary? Second, if R. Yosi was requiring such a tradition regarding the locust's identity, then this would be replacing the view of the Tana Kama, not supplementing it. Third, when the Shulchan Aruch records this ruling, it gives the option of there either being a tradition that it is called chagav, or that there is simply the fact of it being called chagav (though in the Beis Yosef he seems to only present the option of mesorah). Finally, as Rav Chaim Kanievsky observes, Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains R. Yosi's view to mean that it is called chagav or the equivalent in other languages. It simply means that it possess the common name of locust.

According to this approach, like with mammals and fish, all that is required is that the insect fulfills the stated requirements - one of which, the requirement of being called chagav, can be supplied either by tradition or by other means. (Even with birds, the Mishnah gives physical characteristics which suffice; the requirement for a tradition is a later stringency, which arose due to particular concerns relating to whether birds might be predatory. In addition, since the kashrus of birds is given in the Torah only by name, and these types are difficult to identify exactly, the Talmud mentions the concept of eating a bird for which there is a tradition. But the Talmud makes no mention of the requirement of a tradition for locusts.)

So how did it happen that it is widely considered obvious and unequivocal that one requires a tradition to eat locusts? It seems to me that what happened was as follows. It so happened that certain Jewish communities had a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in parts of the world that had locust plagues), whereas other communities did not have a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in regions of Europe where there were no such regular plagues). Gradually, the fact that some Jews had a tradition and others lacked it was transformed into the halachic reason why some Jews ate it and others didn't. In addition, there was the requirement of the name chagav, which some Rishonim (such as Tur and Rashba) describe as being satisfied by way of tradition, but this is not necessarily the only way to satisfy it; as noted, Rambam explained it as being a simple description of its common name.

But matters are more complicated than this. Because the Yemenite community itself did not eat all grasshoppers. They only ate those for which they had a mesorah. To quote Rav Kappach:

“The Jews of Yemen would collect grasshoppers and eat them. But not all of them; only the certain known types that they possessed a tradition from their ancestors, person to person, that they were kosher. And there were also known types with which the tradition from their ancestors was that they were non-kosher, even though they possessed all the signs of being kosher that are explained in the Torah and in halachah.” (Halichot Teiman)

So why did the Yemenites require a mesorah? This is especially puzzling in light of the fact that the Yemenites generally follow Rambam, and as we saw above, Rambam explained the requirement of the name chagav not in terms of a mesorah but rather as a factual description of its common name. I do not know the answer to this question, but when Rav Kappach and others mention types that were not eaten, this is referring to grasshoppers that are not locusts (since they ate the only locust that exists in Yemen). Accordingly, it's probably simply a matter of the requirement of it being a chagav evolving into a tradition of whether it is called chagav.

However, it's fortunate that the Yemenites did require a mesorah, because they actually have a mesorah (clearly for the desert locust, and as Rav Ratzabi forcefully argues, this includes the migratory locust), and that is helpful for people today who follow those Rishonim who do require a mesorah!

This is a complex topic, and there are legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of Orthodoxy and tradition (similar to the reasons why I do not wear techelet, even though there is little doubt that the chilazon is the Murex trunculus). To put it in other words: Keeping kashrut as an Orthodox Jew does not just mean eating the kosher creatures as specified in the Torah according to academic investigation; rather, it means eating the kosher creatures as specified by the historical halachic process, and also considering the practices and social norms of one's own halachic community. 

But there is no doubt that the desert and migratory locusts are the locusts described in the Torah as being kosher. And, according to several Rishonim, there is no halachic requirement of a tradition in the Mishnah or Gemara. The existence of traditions identifying certain locusts as kosher is one way to know which grasshoppers are kosher - and it is sufficient to identify both the desert and also the migratory locust as being kosher - but it is not necessarily the only way.

 

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41 comments:

  1. Having eaten a locust myself, I'm not arguing with you, but I have one question: If there are only four species in Biblical lands, why would the Torah have to list them? It could just say, "Locusts are kosher."

    The best I can think of offhand is that they *knew* there were other locusts, even if they didn't see them that often (or at all).

    I recently had the discussion about "lack of mesorah" in relation to Pesach when someone said that "according to some" Ashkenazim shouldn't have soft matzah. I said that not only is there a consensus that they *can*, Ashkenazim did, in fact, have soft matzah up until a couple of hundred years ago. I compared it to the back of an animal- up until World War II, Ashkenazim ate the backs of animals. The response was, "Some say Ashkenazim shouldn't eat the backs of animals either." OK then...

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  2. Come to think of it, locusts may actually provide a fantastic solution to the kitniyot dilemma! See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cricket_flour

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  3. Finally, as Rav Chaim Kanievsky observes, Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains R. Yosi's view to mean that it is called chagav or the equivalent in other languages.

    It is now my life's goal to find a near-dead language that is spoken by very few people and convince them to start using their word for "locust" to refer to pigs as well.

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  4. Is there a tradition for best locust recipes? 🤤

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  5. This topic gets to the heart of the reason for forbidden foods. Does anyone have a non-rationalist answer why one species of locust would be bad for your neshama, but another is just fine?

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    Replies
    1. I think that's a better question for the upper middle class Calvinistic Yekkes of Rationalism. Those of us who recognise within religion an important element of the irrational, sociological, experiential will not struggle to answer the question. Tradition becones an affirmation of meaningful identity.

      Delete
    2. Excellent discussion:
      Podcast: Meir Soloveichik on the Meaning of Kashrut
      https://tikvahfund.org/library/podcast-meir-soloveichik-on-the-meaning-of-kashrut/
      Short answer: Among every "kind" of fauna, there are Kosher kinds (including among insects). Why? Merely the principle of separation. What determines this? It's arbitrary.

      Delete
    3. Eh, I was always OK with the "You are what you eat" explanation, that we should strive to behave like certain animals rather than others. How this applies to insects though, I admit to lack of understanding.

      We would have to fall back on the second explanation I like, often the one I tell to questioning non-Jews who ask what the purpose is: to train us to understand that sometimes the answer is NO. Sure, I can have some animals, but not all of them; some fish, but not all of them; and now some insects, but not all of them, in order to train my inclination to accept that I can have money, but not all money (such as that which belongs to another), some possessions, but not all possessions; some women but not all women etc.

      But yeah, I agree that the latter explanation, as broad as it is, does not explain the details of why this animal/fish/locust and not that one.

      Delete
  6. Despite what the Rishonim say, the Poskim; first and foremost the Taz, do not allow the eating of ANY locusts. So to, the Orach Chaim (as you are probably aware) forbids it in no uncertain terms not just for the Bena Ashkenaz but even for those whose Minhag is yes to eat them. (Although the OC"H's view is not being universally accepted, among the Ashkenazim the custom is like the Taz).

    Your post therefore, is (intentionally?) misleading. Despite claiming legitimate grounds not to eat locusts, you sound like trying to imply that you're happy to permit those that want to eat them, to do so. (correct me if I'm wrong!)


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    1. You're not wrong, I'm happy to support the view that they are permitted. And the Taz is not taking the definitive position that you think. See the linked article.

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  7. Why is this not a ספק דאוריתה?

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  8. They say in 30 years we may only be eating locust. So they better be kosher.

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  9. Replies
    1. Locusts, cicadas, and grasshoppers, they're all very cute.

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  10. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside.

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  11. Does this mean that O can buynlocust on web site like these :
    https://www.shop-barf-food-france.com/criquets-pelerin/2266-boite-de-25-criquet-pélerin-schistocerca-gregaria-2cm-3701008102938.html
    ?

    It would be great !

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  12. I ate a few, several years ago. Thought they tasted like potato chips.

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  13. RDNS, I cannot understand how a serious researcher chronically fails to cite their sources (this is the case with most of your posts).
    If you could please provide the sources for these items in this post and your article on the museum website:

    ” since there were no locust plagues in Ashkenaz lands.”
    “Now, these characteristics are actually fulfilled by many, many types of grasshoppers (including all locusts).”
    "Therefore, according to many authorities, such as the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, it is possible to rely upon the Yemenite tradition regarding kosher varieties."


    .

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    Replies
    1. Do neither of you get that this is a blog post and not a piece of research?
      Do your own homework and if you find something that says something different post about it. Or just take the blog with a pinch of salt.

      For goodness sake. It's a blog not a peer-reivewed article in a journal.

      Delete
    2. and... if you want sourced material read RNS's monographs or books.

      Delete
    3. @Fozziebear. You seem to have missed what Richmond wrote about the lack of sources presented being a problem not just in the blog post but also in the article presented on the museums website.

      "not a peer-reviewed article in a journal" - your right its not a peer-reviewed journal! - its actually a heck of a lot more serious than that. Its a Halachic Pesak presented by someone without Hetter Hoiroeh and against what is the generally accepted custom of the day. In that case, lack of sources is not just a lack of professionalism, its extremely irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.

      As it happens I don't know very much on the subject of locusts, however in a Monograph written by the same author on a different topic that I do happen to be familiar with, the more important points mentioned in the article have no source attached and the instances where I have been able to ascertain the authors intent, I have found them to be in many cases erroneous at worst, debatable at best.

      Again, the author can claim that he referenced some other source that I am unfamiliar with. Well if that's the case tell him not to hold the cards that close to his chest and show us what he basis himself on, so that his opinions may actually be debated honestly.

      Delete
    4. My habit of fact checking factual assertions I make in *comments* on this blog against reliable sources has more than once prevented me from promulgating exaggerated claims. The quality of any meaningful non fiction writing is vastly improved by the discipline of sourcing.

      Delete
    5. Hmmm,
      I seem to recall there's an author out there who wrote a magnum opus of halachic rulings without including any sources. Who is it...it's on the tip of my tongue...and I wonder if he had a "hetter hoiroeh?"

      Delete
  14. So... you eat locusts but don't wear techeilet even though there is a mitzvah to wear techeilet and no mitzvahs to eat locusts?

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    Replies
    1. What is hard to understand? One has a halachic tradition as to its validity and the other does not.

      Delete
  15. Can you please offer the one with a mesorah? I don't mind paying more, and my rov says I can eat those.

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  16. What happened to the post about How Rav Chaim votes?

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  17. I find it entertaining that mesorah is deemed to be the determinant of halachically permissible foods.
    How about chicken? Certain breeds of chicken are problematical depending on the mesorah upon which one wishes to rely. Whose mesorah is reliable? Why is one more reliable than another?
    It seems the rabbit hole gets deeper every year and is a bottomless pit of unfalsifiability.

    https://www.google.com/amp/www.5tjt.com/it-clucks-like-a-chicken-but-is-it-kosher/amp/

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  18. 'This is a complex topic, and there are legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of Orthodoxy and tradition (similar to the reasons why I do not wear techelet, even though there is little doubt that the chilazon is the Murex trunculus). To put it in other words: Keeping kashrut as an Orthodox Jew does not just mean eating the kosher creatures as specified in the Torah according to academic investigation; rather, it means eating the kosher creatures as specified by the historical halachic process, and also considering the practices and social norms of one's own halachic community.'

    None of the above sounds very rational.

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    Replies
    1. Anarchist Chossid, "None of the above sounds very rational."

      It need not be. The rationalist approach comes with a crucial caveat. Namely, that if a non-rationalist Halachah somehow becomes accepted, it remains legitimate and even binding where stringent, and even permitted where lenient. The classic example of this is the allowance to kill lice on Shabbos. The reason given for this in the Talmud does not seem to meet the rationalist standard. But for Halachah this is irrelevant once it has been 'canonized' in the Talmud. The rationale for this has been discussed previously on this blog.

      By extension, not only does this pertain to what the Talmud itself canonized, but also to what has been 'canonized' by the post-Talmudic tradition.

      Delete
  19. Off-topic:

    Here's an essay about Hasidic education in New York City, and its problems. The author says, that if current trends continue, in ten years the number of Hasidic students, graduating with severe lack of job skills, is going to adversely affect the New York City economy:

    https://www.jewishideas.org/article/why-no-one-ensuring-hasidic-kids-get-real-education

    This seemed to be the best place to post the URL, to grab R. Slifkin's attention.

    Happy Pesach --

    . CHarles

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    Replies
    1. Unimpressed.This doesn't account for the business opportunities that hassidim are prese ted with that your typical nyc ethnic drop it don't have available. If you know you know.

      Delete
  20. RNS Pest post posted post The Charedi Exterminator Pest post. Very cute RNS. ACJA

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  21. When are you posting the annunal kzayis post

    ReplyDelete
  22. Why did you delete the election day post?

    ReplyDelete
  23. There is plenty to eat, why would one get involved with eating controversial locusts? Or breeding them? Weird.

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    Replies
    1. Why eat cows and chickens? Why eat eggplants or unbiblical things like potatoes, lox, peanuts, chocolate, tea, and vanilla? Tastes and available foods change.

      Delete
  24. I put it to you that if there are enough locusts to be a significant part of your diet you are already short on good because they have eaten it

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  25. Rabbi, do you agree with my response to Anarchist Chossid above (defending a part of your post)? Are there sources for it? The 'daattorah' blog discussed this but I don't remember it being conclusive.

    Also I believe that while there is no evolving away from non-rationalist Talmudic law—it's set in stone, as it were—in the case of non-rationalist post-Talmudic law, evolution away may occur if certain conditions are met.

    (I realize that this is too dangerously close to other 'branches' of Judaism and will never become popular.)

    And would it apply to an individual embedded in a community with non rationalist customs? Are your regular critiques of Chareidism aimed at the whole, asking it to correct itself, but not at the individuals within, who are being dictated by, to use your words, “the historical (^even recently historical) halachic process”, and “the practices and social norms of one's own halachic community”?

    For example, you believe that Israeli Chareidim should participate in Tzahal. Are you implicating only Chareidism as a whole, while exonerating those individuals within for whom participating in Tzahal is against the recent Halachic process as expressed by their Gedolim during the early years of the state and even now, and the practices and social norms of their own halachic community?

    Best, chaim.

    ReplyDelete

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