Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

389 Parashat Shmini 5762/ April 6, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

389 Parashat Shmini 5762/ April 6, 2002

Tradition, Tradition!

Dr. Zohar Amar
Land of Israel Studies

The Torah permits us to eat a wide variety of animals, according to certain signs of purity. Among these animals are mammals, fish, fowl, and various grasshoppers. The list includes wild as well as domesticated animals (Lev. 11; Deut. 14). The Torah's way of speaking is to list the exceptions, thus "countless birds" remain permissible for eating,[1] save for the twenty-four impure birds expressly forbidden. Moreover, the phrase "of every variety" (Lev.11:22) indicates that we are not dealing with specific varieties, rather with broad categories of animals that have certain similarities in their form or behavior.[2] Thus the stock of kosher animals available to our ancestors was rich and varied.

What happened since then? Over the years the tradition of identifying most of these varieties was lost and the identification of many animals became doubtful, so that the choice of meat available to us has become far more limited than that available to our ancestors.

The Tradition of Identification

Several of the names and indications of kosher as opposed to non-kosher animals are explicitly mentioned in the Torah. What was clear to the Israelites, however, when they received the Torah, was not completely obvious to later generations. Even when the Torah was given, it was necessary to identify unequivocally the animals mentioned, since not everyone could identify these animals or know them by name. The Sages, interpreting from the precise words of Scripture, "These are the creatures that you may eat" (Lev. 11:2), understood that the Holy One, blessed be He, conveyed the tradition to Moses tangibly:

We learn from this that the Holy One, blessed be He, grabbed hold of each and every variety and showed Moses, saying to him, 'This you may eat, and this you may not eat.'[3] Moses passed the tradition on to the Israelites in like fashion: 'These are the creatures that you may eat.' From this we learn that Moses grabbed hold of the creature and showed it to the Israelites, saying to them, 'This you may eat, and this you may not eat. The following you shall abominate among the birds. These you shall abominate, and these you shall not abominate. The following shall make you unclean; these are unclean, and these are clean.'[4]

Later, identifying the names of the animals became problematic because of the absence of a continuous and reliable tradition of identification, due to events that befell the Jewish people: the exile from their land and dispersion throughout the world, and the long time that elapsed between antiquity and the present. This is compounded with the fact that some Jews came to regions where certain animals that had been common in the "lands of the Bible" (the Fertile Crescent) were not part of the local fauna or were not generally eaten there for cultural reasons.[5] Furthermore, one cannot rely on identification of animals merely by how they are called, since names change from place to place.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to identifying the animals and plants mentioned in ancient sources. The first is the traditional approach generally accepted in the world of Jewish halakhah and traditional exegesis. In time several exegetical schools emerged, such as those of R. Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, and Maimonides, that served as models to later commentators. These commentators generally derived their interpretations from the traditions of Jewish study current in their time and place, and sometimes from independent analysis and deductions that gave rise to original interpretations.

The second approach to identification is the "scientific approach," developed in recent generations in accordance with scientific method. This approach, of course, is based on analysis of the sources themselves, but also incorporates research from a number of other areas: linguistics, comparison with sources from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, archaeology, zoology, and others.[6]

The suggested identifications for animals that appear in both approaches, whether Jewish writings on the one hand, or in scientific journals on the other, do not suffice to make animals kosher for eating, even when the identification is most certain. Rather, other fundamental conditions must be satisfied as well, namely recognizing the animals, their names, and indications as determined by the Sages.[7] Another necessary condition is the existence of a "tradition." According to most halakhic authorities, this is essential in the case of birds; as Rabbi Isaac said, "Birds are eaten by tradition."[8] As for beasts and animals, it follows from Maimonides that recognizing them suffices.[9] However some Ashkenazi halakhic authorities have ruled that these animals, as well, require a tradition.[10]

Halakhic Tradition

As we have said, in order to give binding halakhic force to a suggested identification, an additional fundamental requirement must be satisfied, namely that which we call "tradition." This is not a marginal folkloristic matter, rather an important halakhic principle. "Tradition" in our sense of the word requires at least two essential conditions. The first is an ancient, reliable and authorized source for the tradition. The second is a preserving force that knows how to safeguard tradition. These two conditions do not always coincide, and sometimes certain traditions (as important as they may be) ceased to exist in certain communities for various reasons, such as losing contact with an important ancient center of Jewish study, or because of cultural and geographical circumstances. A halakhically acceptable tradition can only be received from reliable sources: that means G-d-fearing people who are in possession of a living and active tradition according to the Talmudic principle: "A hunter may be relied upon to say, 'This bird is kosher, my Rabbi has informed me.'"[11]

Later generations relied primarily upon Rabbis and ritual slaughterers (shohet) who had a tradition that had been passed on to them, from one person to the next over the generations, and that had been maintained through actual practice. They had authentic, precise and reliable information, since by its very nature halakhic tradition cannot rely on surmise, but rather must be based on unequivocal identification, passed down through an unbroken chain and maintained for centuries without any changes. The reliability of this tradition is absolute, since Jews throughout the Diaspora were known for their strict adherence to the dietary laws of kashrut. In fact, precisely this extreme strictness in certain cases caused traditions that had become no longer active to lose their validity.

The importance of preserving the tradition in our day

An active tradition regarding the kashrut of a wide variety of animals existed from antiquity until recent times. Generally speaking, the standard of living in a traditional society was low and characterized by economy and maximal utilization of potential benefits that could be derived from the world of nature. Therefore, it is not the least surprising that in many countries, especially in times of drought or famine, Jews used to eat locusts, small song birds, or wild animals that were still readily available, such as gazelles. It actually the relative prosperity in which we live and the impact of Western culture that have led certain traditions to be cancelled and many others to be in danger of disappearing totally. Therefore, it is our duty to document these traditions and preserve them for the sake of later generations. These traditions can be received only from "the older generation," who still are in possession of an ancient and living heritage, an "Oral Law." The order of the day is to commit these traditions to writing, formulating them as clearly as possible according to scientific criteria and documenting them visually. This will assist preservation of the tradition and thus also enable later generations to have a continuous tradition of kashrut for various animals.

The list of animals in the "Project for Preservation of the Tradition"

As we have said, in the past a tradition of kashrut existed for a large number of animals. The tradition regarding many of these animals was lost, according to some posekim beyond retrieval. For example, there is no active tradition of eating giraffes (according to some commentators, thought to be the biblical zemer), and therefore it is difficult to document.[12] Hence, one of our goals in preserving the tradition is to establish a preliminary list of animals that clearly display the indicators of kashrut, that have many sources attesting an active tradition of eating in recent times, and that have reliable informants to confirm and transmit the tradition.

The list includes animals at "high risk," meaning animals that in our opinion are in great danger of losing their kashrut tradition. Although the list includes domesticated animals such as the guinea hen, naturally we decided to focus on non-domesticated animals like the sparrow, partridge and gazelle. Another category includes animals that people have attempted to raise in captivity and market with kashrut certification, but for which the certification is still in question, such as quail, pheasant and deer.
In preparing the list we availed ourselves of later halakhic literature containing information about various species of kosher animals,[13] the important work by Y. M. Loewinger,[14] and additional primary sources culled thus far from various informants and likely to be decisive in determining the kashrut of animals according to Jewish tradition.

As the model for this project we used the comprehensive interdisciplinary study recently made for the tradition among Yemenite Jews and some North-African Jews to eat locusts - a study that included gathering testimony from hundreds of informants. Among those interviewed were Jews who had immigrated from Yemen to Israel several years ago and who identified with great certainty live locusts that were shown them and even reenacted how these creatures had been eaten.[15]
Some Names of Specific Animals

* Only common names of species are listed

Hebrew name today
Scientific name
Tzvi Gazella
A'zal, T'bi
Ayal Cervus, Capreolus
Deer, Roedeer
Ayyal, Yahmor
Yahmor Dama Dama
Fallow Deer
Yahmor, Ayal, Adam
Dror Passer
Hoglah Alectoris
Slav Coturnix
Slawi, Smani
Peniniyah Numida
Djaj Habshi, Harziyyah, Bar Elabid
Pasyon Phasianus
Tedraj, Deraj

An Appeal

We would like to take this opportunity to appeal to all those who can contribute information on kashrut traditions regarding the animals in this list, or other animals that have a less-well-known tradition of being eaten today (such as the ibex or swan). Please transmit any such information to the author in written form, or to Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Please include the source of your information (the person from whom you received it, the date and place), as detailed a description of the animal as possible, and its names. Any reliable information, both written references and orally transmitted testimony, will be gladly received.


In the final analysis, the validity of the tradition that we shall obtain depends on posekim confirming the kashrut. This may differ from one animal to another, in accordance with the source of the tradition (land of origin) and its quality (degree of reliability, notability of the transmitter and the halakhic circle to which he belongs). In addition, it must be remembered that the system of kashrut in Israel and the Diaspora is not monolithic, but lies in the hands of a variety of groups and authorities. In actual practice even the governmental institution of the Israel Rabbinate has many local authorities that operate under its umbrella, with no uniformity in the level of kashrut, the differences depending first and foremost on the nature of the local kashrut authorities

Since we are aware of this complexity, for the first stage we would like to document existing traditions before they disappear and to provide a data base for those wishing to preserve them. If this project succeeds, it might be possible to set up an authorized body, accepted by most religious circles, that will be able to coordinate between the various kashrut authorities and set standards and a system of agreed rules and codes, so that everyone will be able to eat the animals permitted by his or her tradition.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 63b.
[2] Maimonides, Hilkhot Ma'akhalot Asurot 1.8. Also see the research work of M. Kislev, "Ekronot ha-Miyun le-Kevutzot shel Baalei Hayyim ba-Torah ve-Hadgamatam be-Shemonah ha-Sheratzim," Halamish, 7 (1989), pp. 27-40; ibid., "Behinat ha-Zihuyyim shel Aseret Minei Maalei-ha-Gerah ha-Tehorim al-pi ha-Taxonomia," Sinai, 125 (2000), pp. 216-225.
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 42a.
[4] Sifra, Shemini, 2.
[5] On the absence of a tradition of eating grasshoppers in Europe, see Z. Amar, "Ha-Arbeh ve-Akhilato be-Mesoret Yisrael," Proceedings of the conference held at Bar Ilan University, 14/4/99, pp. 11-12.
[6] The principles of the various methods of identification are illustrated in my article, "Zihui Minei Sheretz ha-Of Be-Re'i ha-Mesoret ve-ha-Mada," B.D.D. 11.
[7] Maimonides, Hilkhot Ma'akhalot Asurot 1.15; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 82.2.
[8] Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 63b.
[9] Ma'akhalot Asurot 1.8.
[10] Especially Hazon-Ish, in his explanation of the Shakh (Sifte Kohen). See the discussion of this subject in the article by Rabbi A. Hamami, "Ha-Giraffa - Kashruto le-Akhilah," Tehumin, 20 (2000), pp. 91-92; A. Z. Zivotofsky, "Kashrut of Exotic Animals: The Buffalo," The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, 38 (1999), pp. 117-128.
[11] Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 63b.
[12] See A. Hamami's article, loc. sit., note 10. Incidentally, Rabbi Joseph Kafih ruled that the giraffe is kosher from the outset and that no tradition of eating it is required. See my article, "Several Principles of R. J. Kafih's System to Identify Plants and Realia", Rabbi Yosef Kafih Memorial Volume, TelAviv, 2001, pp. 68-73; A. Zivotofsky, A. Greenspan, "On the Kashrut of Pheasants", ibid., pp. 107-116.
[13] For example, Hida, Mahazik Berakhah le-Yoreh De'ah; Y. M. Cohen, Zivhei Cohen, Leghorn 1832; A. Ben-David, Sihat Hullin, Jerusalem 1997. Many other collections of responsa, especially by posekim from Northern Africa, contain information that has not yet been fully appreciated.
[14] Y. M. Loewinger, Mazon Kasher min he-Hai, Jerusalem 1980.
[15] H. Seri and Z. Amar, "The Kashrut of Locusts," Tehumin 19 (1999), pp. 283-299. The complete study will be published by Bar Ilan University.