Thursday, November 25, 2021

Turkey, the Traditionless Kosher Bird

The turkey’s status as a kosher bird is one of the most fascinating enigmas in the history of kashrut. It has long and widely been ruled that birds can only be eaten if they possess a mesorah. Turkeys, as birds native only to America, did not and could not have a mesorah. Yet it immediately gained near-universal acceptance as being kosher, and the discussion about its kosher status only began around three centuries later! Even then, the discussion revolved around a post-facto explanation of why it is kosher, rather than an evaluation of whether it is kosher. In order to understand all this, let us begin by reviewing the laws regarding kosher birds.

The Laws of Kosher Birds

Unlike the case with mammals and fish, where the Torah gives identifying characteristics by which kosher and non-kosher types can be discerned, the Torah gives no such signs for birds. Instead, the Torah lists various types of non-kosher birds. Since these are the ones specified as being non-kosher, all the ones not listed are ipso facto kosher. That sounds straightforward enough, but there are two complications.

First is that these listed types are not species in the scientific zoological sense of the term, but rather general types that include many species—yet the precise definition of “type,” and the number of species that it can include, is unclear.

The second complication is that we cannot "be certain as to the identities of the birds in this list. With some of them, we can be 99% certain—there is overwhelming evidence and/or powerful traditions that the nesher is the griffin vulture, the orev is the crow, the chasidah is the stork and the atalef is the bat. With some of them, we can offer a likely candidate—such as that the bat ha-yaanah is the ostrich, and the duchifat is the hoopoe. But many others are nothing more than an educated guess, based on factors such as the etymology of the word or cognate languages.

The difficulty of identifying the non-kosher birds in the Torah’s list (and the resultant difficulty of knowing which birds may be eaten) led the Sages of the Mishnah to give signs by which kosher and non-kosher birds can be distinguished:

"The signs of domestic and wild animals were stated in the Torah, and the signs for birds were not stated. However, the Sages stated: Every clawing bird is non-kosher, every bird that has an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard is kosher. Rabbi Eleazar b. Rabbi Tzadok says: Every bird that splits its feet is non-kosher." (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)

According to Rashi, in order for a bird to be kosher, it must possess all three positive signs (an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard), and it must also be known to be non-predatory. That is because, in Rashi's understanding of the Talmud, most of the non-kosher birds in the Torah's list possess the three positive signs; the reason why they are not kosher is that they are predatory. Since it is difficult to ever be certain that a bird is non-predatory, Rashi says, there must be a tradition that the bird is kosher. Rashi's view is adopted by Rosh.

But according to Rav Moshe bar Yosef, on the other hand, none of the non-kosher birds in the Torah's list possess all three signs. If a bird possesses all three positive signs, then this ipso facto means that the bird is non-predatory.

Rav Moshe bar Yosef's view, that the presence of the three signs alone suffices, finds most support amongst the Rishonim, including Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Rif. However, the stringent view of Rashi, that the presence of the three signs does not prove anything and a tradition is always required that the bird is non-predatory and kosher, is cited by Shulchan Aruch and Rema and was widely accepted. Yet, since this was not the majority view among the Rishonim, and was only accepted as a stringency, this has significant ramifications.

The Discovery of the Turkey

The very name of the turkey, called tarnegol hodu (“Indian chicken”) in Hebrew, attests to the fact that there was initially much confusion about the origins of this bird.

In the early 16th century, a mysterious new bird reached England. it had been brought by “Turkey merchants” trading in the eastern Mediterranean, which was part of the Turkish Empire, and thus received the name “Turkey bird.” Meanwhile, many people thought that the bird came from India, due to the default assumption that new and strange things came from the East. In fact; there was even a common misconception that India and the New World were one and the same. Thus, in many languages the bird received the name “India bird.”

But this bird may not have been that which we today know as a turkey! In the 16th century, there were two new birds introduced to consumers in Europe: the American wild turkey and the African guineafowl. Both were variously called “Indian hen,” “Turkish hen” and also meleagris, Greek for guineafowl. Today, the name meleagris is also shared in the scientific names of the two species – the guineafowl is Numida meleagris, while the turkey is Meleagris gallopavo.

To complicate matters even further, turkeys were often simply referred to as large chickens. And in the 19th century, there were many new large breeds of chicken being imported from Asia, such as Cochins and Brahmas. Thus, in halachic responsa literature from that period, it is often impossible to determine whether they are discussing turkeys, guineafowl, or chickens.

The Halachic Discussion of Turkey

Concerns about the kosher status of the turkey were first raised in the 19th century, long after the turkey had already gained universal acceptance as a kosher bird. There were those halachic authorities, such as R. Yitzchak Isaac Schorr (Responsa Mei Be’er 19) and Kaf HaChaim (Yoreh De’ah 82:21), who justified eating turkey on the grounds that there must be an ancient tradition from India. However, for those who realized that the turkey was an American bird and could not possibly have a tradition, matters were more complicated.

It must be appreciated that at this point, declaring the turkey to be non-kosher would have denigrated pious Jews around the world who had eaten it for generations as being sinners. There is very strong rabbinic opposition to such a thing; first, due to the Talmud’s statement that God does not allow the righteous to unwittingly sin, and second, due to the principled position of not casting aspersions on earlier generations. Thus, there was strong motivation to find a justification for the common practice.

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explicitly uses such a meta-halachic justification (Meshiv Davar, Yoreh De’ah 22). He states that since turkey has gained widespread acceptance, no objections should be raised to its consumption, in the absence of overwhelming evidence that it is actually a non-kosher bird. Otherwise, one would be incriminating earlier generations who have eaten turkey.

Others presented internal halachic arguments as to why eating turkey could be justified. R. Aryeh Lebush Bolchiver, in Arugot HaBosem, argues that the Ramo’s requirement of a tradition is only for birds about which there is doubt if they are predatory. But if a bird has been observed over a long period of time and has never shown signs of being predatory, then as long as it also possesses the three characteristics of kosher bids (i.e. an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard) then it may be eaten even without a mesorah.

R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1810-1875) argued that the acceptance of turkey itself proves that the Ramo’s requirement of a mesorah is not to be followed. As long as a bird possesses the signs of a kosher bird it may be eaten (Responsa Sho’el u’Meshiv 5:1:69).

Another possibility is that the initial acceptance of the turkey occurred before the Ramo’s view was promulgated and accepted. The scenario could well have unfolded as follows: First, turkey was eaten by Jews in eastern lands, who were the first to receive it from the Turkish merchants. They may have eaten it because they followed the majority view of the Rishonim that as long as it displays the kosher signs and is not predatory, it may be eaten. Subsequently, Jews in Europe became aware that eastern Jews were eating it. They may have assumed that this meant that there was an ancient tradition of eating it. This mistaken belief would have been enhanced by the fact that the turkey was not known to be an American bird, and further that it was confused with the guineafowl.

Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: If turkey was discovered today, there is not a kashrut organization in the world that would permit it. Turkey became accepted because there was a window of opportunity in which new species were discovered at a time when there was much less clarity about their origins and much less stringency in halachic practice. 


Meanwhile, on another note:

We are building up a collection of model Noah's Arks for a new exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. There are rare models that we need to obtain from far-flung locations in the US. If anyone is able to pick one up from Sycamore (just west of Chicago), or South Milwaukee, please be in touch! Also, if you are traveling to Israel and are able to bring some of the models that we have already obtained and are sitting in NY and NJ, that would be very helpful!


  1. Why not argue (now) that since the turkey was exclusive to North America, it could not be part of the Torah's list of non-kosher birds and there was no need to demand it have a mesorrah.

    1. I have always thought that that was a good point.

    2. Because by that logic, for example, bald eagles would be kosher, even though they're birds of prey. (Borrowed from Ari Zivotovsky's article, "Is Turkey Kosher?")

  2. Some families are known not to eat turkey. (My father's own rebbe did not, but told his children they may.) Is it possible that said "traditions" are really no more than, say, 120 years old or so?

    To be clear, I think it is, I just want to see if there are any claims that they are older.

  3. Brilliant piece! Kudos Rabbi Dr. Slifkin! I enjoyed this immensely.

  4. Are only chareidim in the kashrut business?November 26, 2021 at 11:17 AM

    "Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: If turkey was discovered today, there is not a kashrut organization in the world that would permit it."

    Let's not exaggerate. Only mehadrin hechsherim would refuse to permit it. There are plenty of sub-standard kashrut organizations "in the world" that would permit it.

    1. On your planet, is there anything between mehadrin and "sub-standard kashrut"? If so, why do they call it mehadrin and not just kosher?

    2. Sub-standard kashrut organisation cations? Which organisations do you label as sub-standard? I think the organisations that prohibits eating turkey are sub-standard and their hashkafa needs to be scrutinized to assure us that we’re not eating trayf.

    3. Are only chareidim in the kashrut business?November 29, 2021 at 2:48 PM

      All those who know the various kashrut orgs from the inside tell me the non-mehadrin organizations are substandard. I'm not naming names. Everyone knows who they are. Rely on them at your own risk.
      Or better yet, become an educated kosher consumer and actually learn about the differences. It isn't just politics (although I agree that some of it is).

  5. It's almost like religion has a strong social dimension.

  6. Does the now extinct Heath Hen complicate this discussion? It was a native species to North America, It was very commonly eaten, and as a Gallinaceous would certainly be perceived as Kosher. If there was a means of transpoerting it or its meat, traders would likely have done so.

  7. Descendants of the Shloh haKodosh (Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham haLevi Horowitz; 1565 - 1630), have a tradition that the Shloh left instructions that they should not eat turkey.
    There is also a tradition among the family descendants of the Tosfot Yom Tov not to eat Turkey (1579-1654).
    Rav Shlomo Kluger forbids Turkey see Beit Shlomo Yoreh Deah 1:144.

    1. What is the earliest recorded evidence of the first two traditions? I imagine neither supposed original source left an actual record like the third (1785-1869) did.

    2. Decedents of Rav Horowitz have a tradition based upon his instructions that he left. We’re those instructions codified in any one of his publications? And all these prohibitive traditions are unfalsifiable opinions. Why stop with turkey? Let’s prohibit eating chicken also.

  8. "Rav Moshe bar Yosef's view, that the presence of the three signs alone suffices, finds most support amongst the Rishonim, including Rambam"
    But does Rambam not say a mesorah is required (Forbidden Foods 1:15)?

  9. I did not know Turkeys were non-kosher birds.

    1. That's an interesting take away from this post.
      How did you draw that conclusion from what you read?


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Tech Tzorress

It has come to my attention that there is a problem with the mailing system for my blog posts. A number of people have been spontaneously de...