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You can buy kosher locusts, ready to eat, from The Biblical Museum of Natural History at this link!

Plagues of Locust

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. These types of grasshoppers are called locusts.

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

Grasshoppers (of the kosher kind) 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 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)

Eating grasshoppers is very easy. No shechitah (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 painlessly by freezing them. Like fish, they are parve.

While the Torah does not specify the rationale for grasshoppers 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 grasshoppers as a food item in many cultures (for the above reason) may mean that the grasshopper 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 grasshoppers 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 environmentally friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits:

“From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; 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 Types

As noted above, the Torah lists four types of kosher grasshoppers (and adds “according to its kind” after each, which the Talmud explains to include four further kinds). 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, Schistocercia gregaria, 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). Second place is taken by the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria, while the Egyptian locust and Moroccan locust come in a distant third and fourth place. Accordingly, it is clear that the grasshoppers being described here include, at the very least, the desert locust and migratory locust.

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 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.)

The Mishnah’s Rules

Although the Torah lists the kosher locusts by name, the Mishnah gives signs by which they can be identified:

“With grasshoppers, 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 difficulties with this approach. 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. In fact, it seems that there are other interpretations of R. Yosi’s requirement. Although R. Yosef Karo in Beis Yosef explains R. Yosi as requiring a mesorah that it is called chagav, in the Shulchan Aruch he 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. And, 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 possesses the common name of locust, rather than being a cricket or some other kind of grasshopper.

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 if there are different views as to whether one requires a tradition to eat locusts, how did it happen that it is widely considered obvious and unequivocal that this is the case? It seems 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) and thus stated that they did not know which grasshoppers are kosher. 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.

The Yemenite Tradition

As discussed, many Rishonim accept R. Yosi’s qualification as essential, and further understand it as requiring a tradition of it being called chagav. This is the approach taken by the Yemenite community, which did not eat all grasshoppers. They only ate those for which they had a mesorah, as we see from their description:

“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)

We see therefore that the Yemenite community did not just follow the requirement that the locusts possess the four signs, and not even just that it was commonly referred to as chagav. Rather, they maintained and relied upon a tradition that certain locusts were kosher.

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, as noted above, there are only four species of locusts in this part of the world. It is impossible that the various references to locusts in the Torah do not refer to these species. It is thus clear 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, 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 grasshoppers. 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 grasshoppers 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 grasshopper’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

According to the view that a tradition is required for identifying kosher grasshoppers, can someone who is not part of the Yemenite community rely on their tradition? The conventional view, supported by many rabbis, is that they cannot, and people often quote authorities such as Taz, who states that we no longer have any reliable tradition as to which grasshoppers are kosher.

Yet there are many authorities in Jewish law who state that even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the Yemenite tradition. 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 (such as with the stork, which most communities regard as being one of the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah, but which certain communities possessed a tradition to eat). The Shulchan Aruch brings this dispute and suggests that one should act stringently and not adopt the others’ tradition. However, Rabbi HaLevi sees two reasons 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. Rav Kappach reasoned similarly:

“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. (People who consulted the late Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg received such a permissive ruling, and Rabbi Hershel Shechter likewise permits it). The reasons for considering them permissible are very powerful, although simultaneously there is certainly legitimate basis for those who refrain from eating locusts. 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.

Does the Yemenite Tradition include the Migratory Locust?

The type of locust which has the most widespread tradition from Yemenite Jews and North African Jews 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 very similar migratory locust, Locusta migratoria, which are farm-raised. Many of those who accept the permissibility of eating the desert locust are wary of permitting the migratory locust. However, in accordance with the ruling of Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi, the leading Yemenite halachic authority from Bnei Brak who is a particular specialist in this topic, we believe that there are powerful reasons to rate the migratory locust as equally permissible to the desert locust.

Like the desert locust, the migratory locust possesses all the physical characteristics that the Mishnah requires. With regard to there being a tradition of it being called chagav, according to Rav Ratzabi, the Yemenite tradition for the locust also includes this species, even though this species itself was rarely found in Yemen. He explains that when he showed this type to immigrants from Yemen, they identified it as being part of their tradition as to which grasshoppers are kosher, no different from the desert locust; this is because the two species are almost identical in appearance.

As noted above, the Torah’s system of taxonomy is very different from that of modern zoology and much broader; one min in the Torah can include many thousands of zoological species. The atalef of the Torah, a single min, includes over a thousand species of bats that are vastly more diverse than different species of locusts. The Torah’s list of kosher grasshoppers includes four different minim; these undoubtedly include both the desert and migratory locust. And these two species are not only included among the four minim – they are included in the same min. Rav Ratzabi forcefully and convincingly argues 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 and are equally permissible.

There is an entirely separate reason to permit the migratory locust. As Rav Chaim Kanievsky points out in his work Karnei Chagavim, even according to the view that R. Yosi requires there to be a tradition, it is not described as a tradition that a particular type is kosher, and it is also not referring to a tradition that it has a specific Hebrew name. Rather, it is referring to a tradition that this insect falls into the general category that is named chagav (which includes the four types mentioned in the Torah, explained by Chazal to include four further types), based on its overall appearance. Accordingly, even without the fact that the migratory locust is the same min as the desert locust, its overall near-complete similarity with the desert locust means that it is certainly in the general category of chagav, and thereby fulfills R. Yosi’s requirement.

Purchase kosher locusts at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, at this link. Limited quantities available! Shipping available in the US.

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