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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