Parashat Shemini 5766/ April 22, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“These You May Eat”
Prof. Mordechai Kislev
Faculty of Life Sciences
The system of kashruth laws pertaining to animals and
birds, given us at
“These are the creatures that you may eat” (Lev. 11:2) – this indicates that Moses would hold the creature up and show it to the Israelites, saying to them: This you may eat, and this you may not eat. “These you may eat of all that live in water” (Lev. 11:9) – these you may eat and these you may not eat. “The following you shall abominate among the birds” (Lev. ) – these you shall abominate and these you shall not abominate. “The following shall be unclean for you” (Lev. ) – this is unclean and this is not unclean.
In other words, Moses showed all the Israelites the prototype of each of the animals, these permissible to eat and these unclean. The same is done today in science text books, both in botanics and zoology. In addition to specifying the signs of kashruth in animals, the Torah gives a detailed list of the names of the kosher animals and beasts: “These are the animals that you may eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat; the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, the mountain sheep” (Deut. 14:4-5). It also lists all the unclean birds (Lev. 11:13-19; Deut. 14:12-18).
The Sages used systematic principles to organize related
species into genera, and related genera into families.
This classification was based on several
principles: 1) the prototype, 2)
the signs and characteristics by which other species were included in the same
group, 3) the number of species included in the group belonging to this prototype.
For example, “It has been taught:
The Tradition of Kashruth
An answer is given by the Sages:
“Rabbi Isaac said:
clean birds are eaten according to the
tradition; a hunter may be trusted to say:
this bird is clean, as relayed to me by my rabbi” (Hullin
63b). If there is no tradition,
then the case is doubtful: “Rav
The tradition of associating every clean animal with one of
ten categories of clean species also began to become less well-defined in the
time of the Sages. They no longer
knew, for example, whether the Lebanese goat (or forest goat) belongs to the
species of goats or ibexes. This
distinction is significant in determining whether the animal is kosher for
offering on the altar. The Sages
held a comprehensive discussion of the characteristics that distinguish between
a beast and an animal with respect to what they called jamus, or koi
in Hebrew. This animal, similar to
a cow, was apparently brought to the country from
Today we know of kosher cloven-hoofed creatures which do not fit clearly into the category of animals or beasts, such as the muflon sheep – an animal of the Mediterranean region that became wild, or the northern deer – a semi-domesticated animal, and others. Is it obligatory to cover their blood when they are slaughtered, and may one eat their fat parts (helev)? Perhaps the case of the jamus needs to be re-investigated, since in the intervening years it has become more domesticated. Incidentally, it is difficult for us to return to the former tradition and call the jamus a koi, since this word has come to symbolize an animal that is in doubt, even though we know what the jamus – koi is today.
Nature of Language
One of the answers for the lacunae in the tradition also has to do with the nature of the language. Hebrew, like most spoken languages, is a living, breathing language and the meaning of words and names expands and contracts, and sometimes a word even disappears or appears in new garb in different contexts, from one era to another. The Sages noted the dynamic quality of the language and accordingly defined several relevant terms. For example: “Rabbi Yashia said: wherever it is written tzippor [bird], it refers to a clean bird. Rabbi Isaac said: a clean bird may be denoted by the words off and tzippor, but unclean birds are denoted only by the word off (Sifre Deuteronomy, Re’eh, pisqa 100). In other words, according to the Sages, off and tzippor are two terms with partial overlap in meaning when it comes to kashruth. However, in time the distinction between tzippor, which is clean, and off, which is unclean, became blurred because various cases of doubt arose and controversies emerged regarding the definition of the determining characteristics, especially which ones are necessary in order to establish that a given bird is not a bird of prey and may be declared kosher. In contrast to spoken languages, Latin, which is used today as the language for taxonomical descriptions in science, is known to be a fossilized language, with fixed syntax, with a fixed and consistent interpretation for each and every word, and with a lexicon that hardly expands.
The cases of doubt regarding birds are more serious than those regarding cloven-hoofed animals because the Torah did not establish signs for them. Indeed, the Sages supplied some guidelines for determining which birds belong to the category of the eagle, which is unclean, and which belong to the category of the turtledoves and pigeons, which are fit for offering on the altar (Sifra, Shemini, Chapter 5.4-6; parallel variants: Sifre Deuteronomy, Re’eh, pisqa 103; Hullin 60b-61a).
The turkey is a strange
bird which we eat even though it has no clear and well-proven continuous
tradition passed down from
A similar problem arises with regard to the bison or buffalo, both American species. It seems the bison was considered kosher because the traits of the jamus were transferred to it. Perhaps in the future, due to such things as the mad cow disease, or for other good reasons, we shall have need of additional ‘strange birds’ such as these.