This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Fowl Play *

In recent months, our local city council has been wrestling with the urgent issue of urban chicken-farming.

In order as to permit the raising of fowl in residential backyards, a contingent of homeowners petitioned the municipality seeking to emend the existing bylaws that forbid keeping livestock in the city. The request was dismissed by a subcommittee at City Hall who voiced concerns related to hygiene, noise, malodorous smells and potential conflicts with the feline populace. The urban poultry farmers were notified that their existing operations will be closed down. However, the petitioners are planning to appeal the decision, and are expected to plead that the current laws amount to a violation of their human rights.

This episode awakens a certain nostalgia for those quaint days when our frontier towns had not yet completed the process of urbanization, and farm animals were still considered a commonplace feature of the cityscape. Indeed, it was not so long ago in our own Jewish community (in those primitive decades before meat materialized spontaneously in sterile shrink-wrapped packaging) that the authorities would have to be summoned periodically to deal with complaints stemming from the local rabbi's slaughtering kosher chickens in his garage.

The chicken occupies a rather ambivalent place in Jewish social history. The species is not mentioned by name in the Bible--apart from an obscure word in the book of Job (sekhvi) that later generations understood to refer to a rooster. And yet, chickens and roosters range freely through the pages of the Mishnah and Talmud, whether as alarm clocks, as food or as a source of eggs. The tractate in the Babylonian Talmud that discusses the laws of religious festivals came to be known as Besah, "eggâ" because it deals with the intricate legal technicalities that arise when a chicken lays or hatches an egg on a holy day. The egg of a chicken also serves as the standard unit of volume in connection with innumerable topics in rabbinic law.

And yet, in spite of the chickens privileged status in ancient Jewish society, not everyone was favourably disposed toward them. A midrashic homily counts the rooster as the most stubborn and stiff-necked of birds, a dubious distinction that is deemed comparable to that of Israel among the nations of the world.

As for breeding them in urban settings, a rabbinic tradition declared that chickens could not be reared within the city of Jerusalem. The Talmud ascribed this restriction to the city's special status as the site of the holy Temple and the centre of sacrificial worship, implying that the presence of chickens was incompatible with the sanctity of the milieu.

Rashi explained the problem in greater detail, noting that chickens are accustomed to pecking about indiscriminately in dung-heaps where their beaks are likely to pull out all sorts of creepy-crawlers, including species that generate ritual impurity. Much of the food in Jerusalem was devoted to sacred use and had to be offered or consumed under strict conditions of purity. Therefore it was considered safer to ban the fowl from the city in order to prevent them from causing defilement to the holy foodstuffs and to the priests or pilgrims who needed to maintain their pure states.

Evidently, purity and hygiene were not the only factors that militated against urban chicken-farming. The birds can also be downright dangerous, capable of inflicting damage on property. The rabbis noted for example, that in the course of hopping from one location to another, a rooster could cause either direct damage with its body (for which full compensation would be demanded) or indirect damage by stirring up wind with his wings (for which its owner would be required to pay half-damages).

Furthermore, the harm that could be inflicted by chickens was not restricted to the destruction of property. Their behaviour could at times prove deadly.

The Talmud preserved a testimony about a rooster in Jerusalem that was stoned to death because it killed a person. The Jerusalem Talmud adds some clinical detail to the account of the crime: the innocent victim was an infant whose fontanel had not yet closed, leaving a soft spot in its skull that the evil rooster could not resist pecking at.

Evidently, it was necessary to record this gruesome fact because we might otherwise have reasoned that the biblical laws requiring the execution of beasts who kill humans were only meant to apply to those nasty goring oxen that are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. The rabbis therefore informed us that even the lowly chicken can be subject to the death penalty.

At any rate, this gives us yet another reason for keeping roosters at a safe distance outside city limits.

In light of these pernicious associations, it might not be so surprising that according to a talmudic tale, a hen and rooster became the inadvertent cause for a dreadful catastrophe during the Jewish war against the Romans. At a wedding that was being celebrated in Tur Malka ("Mount Royal") in Judea, the participants observed the popular custom of releasing a pair of fowl in front of the happy couple as a symbol of fertility. When a patrol of Roman soldiers tried to snatch the birds, the townsfolk attacked them and subjected them to a beating. The hostilities escalated until the Romans called in a large military force to unleash a bloody massacre against the Jews of Tur Malka.

If normal garden-variety chickens can be hazardous, then what are we to do with a mythic Super-Chicken? This creature was well-known to ancient Jewish legend as the "wild rooster" (tarnegol bara)--though it is likely that the reference was originally to the hoopoe bird. The tarnegol bara was, on the whole, of a noble constitution. He makes appearances in the Aramaic translations of biblical books, sometimes in contexts that have no literal connection to the original Hebrew text. In those passages the wild rooster is depicted as being imbued with the wisdom to sing the praises of the Lord or to deliver sensitive diplomatic correspondence.

A famous Talmudic legend tells of the tarnegol bara who was enlisted to guard the marvellous shamir (according to Rashi, a kind of rock-eating worm) that King Solomon needed to hew the stones for the Temple he was erecting. The super-rooster was faithful to his oath not to release the shamir, even to the king of Israel. In the meantime, the worm was being employed at splitting the rocks of craggy mountains in order to facilitate their cultivation. After being tricked by the wily Solomon into letting go of the worm, the dutiful super-rooster chose to commit harakiri because of his humiliation for betraying his trust.

Clearly, then, not all chickens are to be profiled as menaces to human society. Nevertheless, there are some good reasons for concern about allowing them unrestricted movement in urban environments. Further research is necessary before we may arrive at the definitive answer to the age-old question "Why should the chickens cross the road?"

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 25, 2010, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Bar-Ilan, Meir. "Fabulous Creatures in Ancient Jewish Traditions." Mahanayim 7 (1994): 103-113.
    • Bodenheimer, F. S. Animal and Man in Bible Lands. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Edited by Paul Radin. Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
    • Nathan ben Jehiel. Aruch Completum ['Arukh Ha-Shalem]. Edited by Alexander Kohut and Samuel Krauss. Jerusalem: Makor, 1969.