As distinct from the laws that govern fish, cattle and insects, the Torah does not provide us with a set of physical criteria through which to distinguish the birds that are permissible as food. Instead, it lists several species that are forbidden--twenty-four, according to the traditional reckoning. The rabbis understood that, by implication, any fowl that does not appear on the prohibited list may be eaten.
Unfortunately, there was no consensus about the meanings of the rare Hebrew names that designate the birds in the Torah. Although the rabbis compiled a set of biological features that must be found in kosher fowl, these were not considered sufficient by themselves to render the birds permitted, especially by Ashkenazic authorities. In practice, the policy that was adopted was that all birds should be presumed to be unclean unless there was a solid local tradition that they were kosher.
All this works quite well as long as we are dealing with a finite selection of birds, and with established communities who maintain some continuity in their practices. However, problems arise when the frontiers of travel expand, introducing Jews to previously unfamiliar species. The frequent wanderings and migrations that characterized much of our history also contributed towards diminishing the force of local custom.
Such were the challenges that confronted observant Jews with the opening up of the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among the delicacies that were first encountered in the Age of Exploration was the turkey (meleagris gallapavo).
When Europeans made their first acquaintance with the tasty gobblers, some assumed that they were cousins of the familiar chickens from back home, and therefore need not be treated as an unknown species.
Several European languages, still under the impression that Columbus had sailed to the orient, began to refer to them simply as Indian chickens. Some rabbis took these names literally and presumed that the birds actually originated from India. If that were the case, then they might well have been known to Jews of earlier generations, who had contacts with India, and might well have possessed an old tradition about the kosher status of the bird.
At the time when turkey was first introduced into Jewish communities in Europe, a number of authorities felt that it was not appropriate to eat this bird. In part, this was a function of their habitual conservatism. There were, however, some specific questions about whether the turkeys possessed all the distinguishing signs of kosher fowl. For example, one of the conditions was that the permitted birds could not be birds of prey, and since certain non-domesticated turkeys were known to be meat-eaters, some authorities concluded that the entire species had to be prohibited.
Many of the halakhic discussions on this question came to revolve around issues of nomenclature, since neither Yiddish nor Hebrew had a clear vocabulary for designating the various types of fowl, and a single term might carry different connotations in different localities.
If it could be demonstrated that turkeys were mentioned by name in classic Jewish texts, then that fact could be used to refute the argument that they were previously unknown and had never been allowed by any local tradition. On the other hand, if the turkeys were equated with a type of bird that was explicitly named as non-kosher, then this would defeat their chances of acceptance.
Some communities referred to the turkey by the name perlhuhn, and noted that a prominent German rabbi had prohibited that species. On closer inspection, however, it turns out that the rabbi was not referring to our turkey, but to the guinea fowl, a creature that was generally regarded as non-kosher. A similar situation surrounds a certain American hen or kibitzer hen that is discussed by several authorities, which possesses many features in common with the turkey, but is apparently a different species. In an influential responsum, Rabbi Solomon Kluger adamantly forbade the kibitzer hens, arguing that no authentic tradition could conceivably exist with respect to a creature that originated in the New World.
The commentators' determination to find references to turkeys in old sources could lead at time to some ingenious interpretations.
For example, a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud enumerates various unpleasant or foul-smelling substances that people should distance themselves from during prayer. The list includes chicken droppings. This rule is further qualified to apply only to red [or perhaps: Edomite] ones.
An intriguing interpretation of this passage was proposed by Rabbi Hezekiah Silva of Jerusalem, the eighteenth-century author of the P'ri Hadash commentary to the Shulhan Arukh.
Rabbi Silva speculated that the Talmud's red hens were to be identified with those large chickens that are imported from England. It seems clear that he was alluding to turkeys, which, though they originated in America, reached the consumers through English suppliers.
If his explanation were true, then we would have a solid confirmation that turkeys were known to the ancient Jewish sages of the Land of Israel. Accordingly, it would be possible to argue that there could exist venerable tradition that they are kosher. Indeed, several subsequent writers cited the P'ri Hadash to justify the eating of turkey.
Whether they were persuaded by this argument or by other considerations, the undeniable fact is that American turkeys have received almost universal acceptance as a kosher bird. Although there are reportedly a handful of rabbis who personally refrain from eating them, I am aware of no kosher certifying agency that refuses in principle to authorize turkey or who would deny certification to a catered affair at which turkey was served.
The receptiveness to turkey might be correlated to the widespread Jewish acceptance of the American Thanksgiving, where the bird, of course, occupies a place of honour at the table. Thanksgiving is a rarity among non-Jewish holidays that has not been forbidden for Jews by Orthodox halakhic authorities, and is even actively celebrated by many.
In fact, Jews have a unique reason to associate turkey with this particular celebration. Standard modern Hebrew has adopted the convention of calling the turkey an Indian chicken, tarnegol hodu. By a convenient coincidence, hodu (India) is also a Hebrew homonym for give thanks.
That is better. I suppose, than having to devise a holiday for eating kibitzer hen.
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