Plagues of Locusts

Locusts most famously appear in the Torah as one of the ten plagues that befell Egypt. For many people today, the idea of a locust plague sounds more comical than threatening. But for people living in tropical countries, especially before modern techniques of fumigation, plagues of locusts are a threat of almost unimaginable proportions.

When grasshoppers of certain species find themselves in crowded conditions (due to environmental conditions enabling them to breed in large numbers), they change their behavior and physiology. They develop bright colors and form huge swarms in which they fly long distances to new pastures.

The number of locusts in such swarms beggars belief. They may cover hundreds of square miles at a time, with tens of millions of locusts in each square mile. A swarm in a 1954 plague in Kenya contained ten billion locusts, and it was one of only fifty swarms in the country at that time. And in the Rocky Mountain locust plague of 1875 in Nebraska, one swarm was 200,000 square miles in size, and was estimated to contain over twelve trillion locusts – the greatest concentration of creatures in recorded history – with a total weight of 27 million tons!

The Only Kosher Insect

Locusts are the only invertebrates listed in the Torah as being kosher:

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, which have legs above their (other) legs, to leap with upon the earth; These you may eat: the arbeh-locust after its kind, and the sela’am-locust after its kind, and the chargol-locust after his kind, and the chagav-locust after its kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination to you. (Leviticus 11:20-23)

Eating locusts is very easy. No ritual slaughter is required; there is a dispute as to whether they must be killed before eating them, but in any case this can easily be done either by freezing them or cooking them. Like fish, they are parve.

While the Torah does not specify the rationale for locusts being kosher, it may well be a practical matter; when your crops are wiped out by locusts, at least you’re not left with nothing to eat. In the terrible locust plague of 1915, many people in the Land of Israel starved to death as a result of the ensuing famine-but not those who ate locusts. In addition, the prevalence of locusts as a food item in many cultures (for the above reason) may mean that the locust is not considered a repulsive food item.

In modern Western society, most people find the notion of eating bugs to be repulsive. Many probably see the Torah’s laws of kosher locusts as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. Yet an article in the New Yorker magazine noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environ¬mentally friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits:

From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘food¬print’; being cold-blooded, they are about four times as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much – and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions.

As the global population increases, insects are likely to become an ever more common source of protein. It is fortuitous that the Torah permits locusts to be eaten.

Identifying the Kosher Species

Identifying the kosher locusts mentioned in the Torah is a complex task, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Although the Torah lists the kosher locusts by name, the Mishnah gives signs by which they can be identified:

“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)

It seems that these signs are extrapolated from the common characteristics of the locusts that the Torah permits. The additional requirement of Rabbi Yosi that its name be “chagav” appears to mean that it must be identified as a locust rather than, say, a cricket.

The expert on identifying kosher species today is Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b’Mesoret Yisrael. He has identified the species for which there is the most widespread tradition amongst North African and Yemenite Jews as Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. This is by far the most common species of locust, which occasionally appears in swarms in Egypt and Israel even today (but far less so than in the past, due to advances in pest control). Less widespread traditions also exist for Locusta migratoria, the migratory locust.

The Opposition to Eating Locusts

Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar of Morocco is the most prominent opponent to eating locusts. He brings several objections, not all of which can be addressed here, but his main objection relates to the description of locusts given by Rashi. This occurs in the context of the following ruling in the Mishnah:

“With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and kartsulin, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav.” (Mishnah, Chullin 59a)

Rashi explains the word kartsulin as follows:

“ ‘and kartsulin’ – they are the two long legs, aside from the other four, that are close to its neck, above its legs, to jump with them when it wishes to leap.” (Rashi to Chullin 59a)

The problem is that, in contrast to the description given by Rashi, the locusts that are eaten by North African Jewish tradition have their leaping legs located further away from their necks than are their four walking legs. It is for this reason that Rabbi Chaim ben Ittur insists that the locusts claimed to be kosher cannot be the kosher locusts described in the Torah. He notes that some respond that there is no locust which matches the description given by Rashi, and therefore Rashi must be reinterpreted; however, he points out that there may well be many varieties of locust unknown to us, and the kosher types of locust are thus presumably of those types.

Now, in eighteenth-century Morocco, that might not have been an unreasonable position to take. However, in the 21st century, matters are very different. Zoologists have described over eleven thousand species of grasshoppers and locusts, amongst many hundreds of thousands more insect species. They all share the same basic body plan, in which the long jumping legs are the hindmost legs, further from its neck than the four walking legs. It is unreasonable to propose that the kosher types of locusts mentioned in the Torah are fundamentally anatomically different from all other locusts known to science and have completely disappeared without trace.

Another point to bear in mind is that the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, for which there is a widespread mesorah, is far and away the most common and destructive locust in this part of the world. It is hard to imagine that the various references to locusts in the Torah do not refer to this species. It is thus most reasonable to conclude that the kosher locusts are indeed those familiar to entomologists, described by various Torah scholars over the ages, and traditionally eaten by many different Jewish communities.

This is a complex topic, and there are other, more legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of tradition. But there is no reason to doubt that Schistocerca gregaria is the locust described in the Torah as being kosher, while at the same time it can certainly be understood that earlier authorities were in doubt, for reasons that are no longer applicable.

With regard to Rashi’s explanation, many others cast doubts upon its applicability. Some note that Rashi is explaining the words of the verses and cannot be used as a basis for halachah. Others note that Rashi is a lone opinion against the description of the Geonim and without any support from other Talmudic authorities and Rishonim.

Others point out that Rashi cannot possibly have intended to describe leaping legs placed next to the neck, in front of the walking legs. In his commentary to the Torah, he states:

“…and there are many of them in our place, such as those that are called languste.” (Commentary to Leviticus 11:21)

Rashi himself gives the Old French name langusta, which is the general term for locusts. Furthermore, he states that many of these creatures were found in his time and locale. Every single one of the hundreds of species of locusts and grasshoppers known to science has its leaping legs situated further from its head than its walking legs. It seems clear that Rashi must have been referring to the locusts that we know, and there have been several attempts to interpret Rashi’s words accordingly.

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that given by Rabbi Amitai ben-David in Sichas Chullin. He suggests that since even the locust’s back legs extend from its abdomen, and not from the rearmost part of its body (as with vertebrates), they are described by Rashi as being close to its neck.

Relying on the Yemenite Tradition

Assuming that the Yemenite tradition is reliable at least as far as Yemenite Jews are concerned, does it suffice for a person from a different community to eat them?

According to many authorities in Jewish law, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the Yemenite tradition. This is because it is different from a situation such as that which existed with the stork, where certain communities had a tradition that it was a kosher bird, while others had a tradition that it was a non-kosher bird. With locusts, there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; Ashkenazim simply lack a tradition either way. 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.

In the 1915 locust plague in Palestine, Rabbi Yosef Yedid HaLevi, Av Beis Din of the Bucharim neighborhood of Jerusalem, was asked if the general community could rely on the Yemenite community’s tradition as to which were kosher. In his response, Rabbi HaLevi cited a dispute amongst the medieval rabbinic authorities regarding a community that wishes to adopt the tradition of a different community regarding the status of a bird. The Shulchan Aruch brings this dispute and suggests that one should act stringently and not adopt the others’ tradition. However, Rabbi HaLevi sees grounds for being lenient in this case. First, in the case of a locust, there was no tradition not to eat them, merely a lack of tradition as to which are kosher, due to the scarcity of locusts in Europe (whereas the Shulchan Aruch was referring to where a negative tradition exists, as the commentaries there note). Second, this was not reliance on an individual, but rather upon an entire community.

Nevertheless, Rabbi HaLevi cites a different problem with relying upon the Yemenite tradition. It could be that they follow the position of Rambam (as the Yemenite scholars traditionally did) and Rif, who only required that the locusts possess all four signs, whereas we follow the Shulchan Aruch, who has the added requirement that there be a tradition that its name is chagav.

However, Rabbi Chananel Sari and Dr. Zohar Amar note that the Yemenite community itself appeared to have followed the stringent view. For the rabbinic judges of Yemen described their tradition as follows:

“We are familiar with the locusts that are eaten through a tradition from our ancestors that they are kosher. There are also types that possess all the signs of being kosher and yet we conduct ourselves with them as being prohibited.” (Yavne’eli, Masa LeTeiman, p. 185)

Rabbi Yosef Kappach provides similar testimony:

“The Jews of Yemen would collect locusts 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)

It seems therefore that the Yemenite community did not just follow the requirement that the locusts possess the four signs. Presumably, the reason for this was that only if it came under the category of chagav was it permitted. Therefore, it seems that even according to Rabbi Yosef Yedid HaLevi, it would be permitted for others to follow the Yemenite tradition, as Rav Kappach himself reasoned:

“It is clear to me that the lack of a tradition amongst the Ashkenazim and Sephardim as to their kashrus is not because they had a tradition to prohibit them, but rather that they were not found in their countries, and therefore they lacked this delicacy and did not taste it. It appears to me that they can absolutely rely upon the testimony of the Yemenite community… for according to the halachah, it suffices that there be a tradition that it is kosher and that its name is chagav… it appears to me that everything I have written on this topic suffices for every Jew.” (Letter to Dr. Zohar Amar, Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5758.)

Rabbi Shlomo Korach, Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak and himself a Yemenite, wrote as follows:

Since, according to the basic law, locusts are permitted in a case where they possess the signs, if so then in a place where they were prohibited, it was not because they knew that it was prohibited, but rather due to the lack of tradition… I have written all this to create a kal v’chomer regarding locusts for one who wishes to rely upon our tradition, which was preserved for us from generation to generation from the days of the prophets until today. And even though it is not a delicacy, and those that were poorer used them more, let us grant them that due to this, the Torah was preserved for Israel through their hands. And it is possible that today, when there is so much investigation, it will be found that they have health benefits and similar, and they will have a source to rely upon, and this will be our reward. (Rabbi Shlomo Korach, Arichat HaShulchan III, p. 139)

In practice, many Ashkenazi halachic authorities today consider it permissible to rely on the Yemenite tradition, though some are wary of saying so in public.

 

Purchase a kosher locust at The Biblical Museum of Natural History! Call the office at 073-213-1662 and place your order; cost per locust – 25 NIS. Limited quantities available! Pickup from the museum; no delivery available.