Fowl Play: Is Turkey Kosher?

The Torah, in Parshas Shmini, when informing us of the kashrus status of animals, lists specific types of birds that are not kosher. Ultimately, through derivation of the various “l’mineihu” words found in that section, Chazal (Chullin 63b, Rambam, Ma’achalos Assuros 1:14) identify 24 classes of birds that are not kosher, each one with many species. Any bird that is not from one of these 24 classes is kosher (Rashi, Chullin 61a d”h oaf, Shulchan Aruch YD 82:1). The problem is, however, that we can no longer identify the non-kosher birds that are mentioned.

The Simanim

Unlike animals and fish, the Torah does not give us any identifying simanim, or signs, for determining if a bird is kosher. The Mishna (Chullin 59a), however, does inform us that Chazal derived four rules for declaring a bird kosher, but each one needs explanation:

  1. The bird is not a doreis.
  2. It has an etzba yeseira.
  3. It has a zekef.
  4. It has a korkebon which can easily be peeled off.

The bird is not a doreis: There is a four-way machlokes in the Rishonim about what this term means. Literally, “doreis” means “to trample.” Rashi (ibid., d”h ha-doreis) says it means the bird feeds itself from its talons. Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos, Chullin 61a, d”h ha-doreis) feels that it means that bird eats its prey while still alive. Rambam (MA, 1:16) holds it means that the bird holds its feed with its claws and tears it apart with its beak. And finally, Ramban (Chullin 60a, d”h masnei) posits that it means that the bird kills its prey with its claws.

It has an etzba yeseira: Rashi (ibid., d”h etzba) says this means that the bird has one finger that is longer than the others. Others maintain it means that the bird has an extra finger (See Ramban ibid, Beis Yosef, YD 82).

It has a zekef: This is classically known as a crop, or sack-like organ for storing food.

It has a korkebon which can easily be peeled off: This is classified as the gizzard, which aids in digestion.

How Many Simanim Are Required?

The next question in the Rishonim is whether a bird needs all four of the simanim to be kosher, or if less than that suffice. What if it’s a doreis but it has the simanei kashrus? Rashi (Chullin 61a d”h nesher) seems to say that the bird needs all four signs to be kosher — i.e. not a doreis, and all the other three. Tosafos (ibid., d”h kol), on the other hand, says that once the bird is not a doreis, it will automatically have the other three simanim — and vice versa: once you know it has all three simanei kashrus, it will not be a doreis. Rambam (ibid.) paskins that so long as it’s not a doreis, any of the simanim will be enough to declare it kosher.

Rashi’s Wrench: Mesorah

Before arriving at the final psak, there is a wrench that Rashi throws into this discussion that needs to be mentioned first. The Gemara (Chullin 62a) tells of a story in which the people of a certain town ate a bird thinking that it was kosher, but in fact, it was a doreis, and thereby not kosher. Rashi (63b d”h mesores, also cited by Rosh 3:59) states that since it’s too difficult to know which birds are kosher and which are not, we need a mesorah (tradition) passed down to know if the bird can be eaten to not. Regarding this mesorah, Rosh (Shu”t 20:20) says it must be an authentic mesorah, affirmed by a baki, or “expert”, in the matter.

This opinion of Rashi throws out much of what we learned above, since everything is now simply dependent upon the mesorah of the bird. This would be both a kulah and chumrah: if a bird has simanei kashrus, but there is no mesorah that Jews eat it, it would be forbidden to eat; Similarly, if a bird does not have simanei kashrus, or it is a doreis, but we have a mesorah, it would be permissible to eat!

Indeed, this Rashi is cited by Ramah (YD 82:3) who writes that the minhag is only to eat birds that have a mesorah as being kosher, and we should not desist from this practice. In fact, Shach (6) adds that this psak is strong enough that once there is a mesorah on a certain bird to be kosher, it need not even be checked for simanei kashrus.

If a city does not have a mesorah on a certain bird, but someone travels to another city that does eat such a bird, one may eat the bird in that city. Similarly, if one’s city does have a mesorah for a bird, and he or she travels to a city which does not have a mesorah, Aruch HaShulchan (82:29-32) holds that the bird may be eaten there so long as he or she plans on returning to his or her city of origin, while Taz (82:7) is more machmir. The custom is to be lenient.

What About Turkey?

The mesorah on turkey has some unique twists. Turkey is indigenous to America, and was brought to Europe as a product of trade with the new land. It was at first thought to be the larger American version of the European chicken. Since Columbus thought he had landed in India, the bird was called oaf hodu in Hebrew, and indik in Yiddish, both of which mean “Indian chicken.”

So, how can we consume turkey if it apparently does not have a mesorah? We know that Jews today eat turkey, but why? The poskim offer various reasons to permit turkey. A partial list is below:

  1. Meishiv Davar, YD 22 (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) says that when the turkey (indik) was brought from India there were questions regarding its kosher status, and therefore some people refrained from eating it. However, since the majority of people accepted it as kosher, unless there is evidence that it is not kosher, we are not going to say that it is prohibited post facto (especially not to tell people who were eating it for many years that they were doing so in error). Also, perhaps Ramah only requires a mesorah on a bird that was not eaten by Jews in the past. However, a bird that was eaten for many years and has all three simanim of a kosher bird is permitted even according to Ramah. There is no reason to say that all the people who ate turkey did so in error.

  2. Arugas Habosem (pp. 16) says that the mesorah is only required to prove that it is not a doreis. If the bird is monitored for at least twelve months, one may rely on the kosher status of the bird even without having a mesorah on it, as it is obviously not a doreis.

  3. Kaf Hachaim (82:21) says that the mesorah originated from the Jews in India and is thus permitted. Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann (Star-K, Baltimore) feels that since it’s called oaf hodu, it came from Hodu (India), and the Jews there had a mesorah on it.

  4. Tzemach Tzedek (YD 60) says the fact that a specific bird is eaten is a form of mesorah.

  5. Shoel U’Meishiv (5:1:69) posits that turkey has all three simanim and is not a doreis, end of story. And what of the Ramah about needing a mesorah? There is no mesorah for a turkey, and it must be that klal yisrael did not fully accept this Ramah. In other words, we do not hold like Ramah’s opinion, and if a bird has the simanim which indicate a kosher status we may eat it even without a mesorah.

  6. Rabbi Hershel Schachter: Columbus was from Spain, and so when he returned from America back to Spain, he brought the turkeys back with him. Thus, the mesorah we have today comes from the Jews of Spain, who have a long and rich history. Or, Columbus discovered America 1492, some 48 years before Ramah was born (in 1540). Thus, it seems that a sound sevara would be that Jews began eating turkey based on its kosher simanim alone, without a requirement for mesorah, as Ramah didn’t write his opinion yet!

Some of the practices of our gedolim from the previous generation:

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik held that turkey was kosher and there was no problem of lack of mesorah (although didn’t offer an explanation, Nefesh HaRav pp. 231). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, by virtue of him not mentioning turkey’s kashrus as an issue of celebrating Thanksgiving (see Igros Moshe YD 1:34), seemingly also held that turkey was kosher. It is reported that R. Yaakov Kamenetsky did not eat turkey (this was based on his wife’s family minhag, though). Members of the family of the Sheloh (R. Yeshaya Horowitz) do not eat turkey.

Based on one or more of the aforementioned heterim, most major kashrus agencies, both in America and in Israel, give hashgachas on turkey (BH!).

A Word of Thanks

Even though Thanksgiving was last week, as Jews, it does not make a difference when an official secular holiday demands that for one day we offer appreciation to those people and things we are indebted to. Instead, for us, (yes, I know it sounds cliché) every day is “Thanksgiving.”

We have built into our tefillos, three times daily, a small paragraph with a rather potent message for us. It’s called Modim. Isn’t it interesting that the only part of the repetition of shemoneh esrei that the tzibbur repeats along with the chazzan is Modim (see Sotah 40a)? It is as if to say that we cannot offer enough of our thanks to Hashem for what He does for us “b’chol erev, vavoker, v’tzohorayim.” Pause for a moment when you’re saying Modim and try to think about something you’re appreciative for that you’ve never thought about before. Even the smallest of things works for this — from the wonder of your five senses, to not getting caught in the rain at your favorite musician’s new album release.

The Torah (Bereishis 24:52) relates that when Eliezer was told he can take Rivka home to Yitzchak he bowed down to Hashem. Rashi comments (citing Midrash Rabbah) that from this episode we learn that a person should offer thanks upon good things happening. In other words, part of our nature should be that whenever we can offer our gratitude, it is upon us to do so.

Speaking of our nature, our name, Yehudim, is rooted in Yehuda, who was named by Leah because “hapa’am odeh es Hashem,” or “this time I will thank (odeh) God.” The Gemara (Berachos 7b) tells us, based on this pasuk, that Leah was the first one ever to thank Hashem. Indeed, this is a rather puzzling statement, as is it really true that nobody else ever offered thanks to Hashem prior to her? Avraham, Yitzchak, or Yaakov never offered thanks to God?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (Me’ein Beis HaSho’eva pp. 76) offers a beautiful explanation by pointing to Leah’s previous births, where the children are named as part of a hope for the future: “ki atah yehevani ishi” (“for now my husband will love me), and “hapa’am yilaveh ishi elai” (“this time the husband will accompany me”). These “requests” of Leah, however, do not get answered. Thus, when she finally has Yehuda, she exclaims “hapa’am odeh es Hashem,” meaning, she stopped praying and asking for things through the naming of her children. Instead, she just says “this time I will thank God” no matter what the situation is. Whether Hashem would fulfill her requests or not, Leah decided to simply just say “thank you.”

It was this type of thanksgiving — a full-hearted hakaras hatov to Hashem for what He has given, and for what He has not given — which had not been in existence until Leah came and taught it to all of us to live by for years to come.

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