TURKEY, THE TRADITIONLESS BIRD

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

The turkey’s status as a kosher bird is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of kashrut. The Torah lists 24 types of birds that are not kosher; whatever is not in that list, is kosher. Due to the difficulty of identifying the birds in the Torah’s list, the Mishnah gives three characteristics via which kosher birds can be identified – a peelable gizzard, the presence of a crop, and an extra (i.e. hind) toe – and it adds that all predatory birds are not kosher. According to R. Moshe bar Yosef, one of the great medieval Torah authorities, the Mishnah means that if a bird possesses these three characteristics, then it is ipso facto not predatory and it is kosher. But according to Rashi, on the other hand, even if a bird possesses these three characteristics, it still might be predatory; thus, the Mishnah means that the bird is only kosher if it possesses these three signs and in addition it is not predatory. Since it is difficult to ever be certain that a bird does not exhibit predatory behavior, we can only eat a bird if there is a mesorah (tradition) that it is kosher.

Rashi’s view was adopted by Shulchan Aruch and Ramo and is now widely accepted. But this raises a problem with turkey.  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 indeed kosher.[1]

In order to understand how this happened, we have to trace the history of turkey. The first thing to realize is that the very name of the bird—“turkey” in English and tarnegol hodu (“Indian chicken”) in Hebrew—attest to the fact that there was initially much confusion about its origins. 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. Thus, in halachic responsa literature from that period, it is often impossible to determine whether they are discussing turkeys, guineafowl, or chickens.

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[2] and Kaf HaChaim,[3] 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. 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.[4] 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. Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1810-1875) argues that the primary and empirically correct halachic view follows Rav Moshe bar Yosef rather than Rashi; accordingly, as long as a bird possesses the three signs of a kosher bird (given in the Mishnah) it may be eaten, and no mesorah is required. He notes that the acceptance of turkey itself proves that this is the accepted ruling, and that Rashi’s stringency is not to be followed.[5]

R. Aryeh Lebush Bolchiver argues that the 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 birds (i.e. an extra toe, a crop, and a peelable gizzard) then it may be eaten even without a mesorah.[6]

Others suggest that the initial acceptance of the turkey occurred before the requirement for a mesorah was widely accepted. This seems a plausible scenario. 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 view of R. Moshe bar Yosef 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—a bird for which there was a tradition to eat it amongst North African and Yemenite Jews, albeit this tradition was not widely known or accepted in Europe.

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 more flexibility in halachic practice. Some will see this as merely fortuitous; otherwise will describe it as Divine providence.

NOTES

[1] For extensive discussion, see Zohar Amar, Lesugyat Kashruto Shel Tarnagol Hodu, BaDaD 13 (5763) pp. 69-89, revised version in Mesorat Ha-Ohf (Amar 2004); Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “Is Turkey Kosher?” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 35 (1998) pp. 79-110.

[2] Responsa Mei Be’er 19.

[3] Yoreh De’ah 82:21.

[4] Meshiv Davar, Yoreh De’ah 22.

[5] Responsa Sho’el u’Meshiv 5:1:69.

[6] Arugot HaBosem (Vilna 1870) responsa 16 at end of work.