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Is Turkey Kosher?

By: Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky,** Ph.D.







The common assumption is to associate turkey with chicken despite the fact that turkey is really more closely related to pheasants and partridge. However, chicken and turkey are in the same Order (Galliformes), and according to some authorities, in the same family (Phasianidae) as well. A good starting point to this section would therefore be a short discussion of the chicken, which is universally accepted as kosher.

Records indicate that chickens were domesticated and eaten in Israel as early as the seventh century BCE, although following the fall of the Roman Empire chickens predominantly reverted to the role of indigenous scavengers until the agriculture renaissance of the 19th century.

There is little question that a chicken is a kosher bird regardless of its breed (see Darkei T'shuva YD 82:24). Just like scientifically they are all chickens, so too halachically. This includes breeds that look quite different and are relatively new, such as the popular leghorn. Divrei Aharon (beginning of #27) proves that small differences do not create a new halachic species. Rabbi Yitzchak Isacc Liebes (author of Shuts Beit Avi; mesorah, 1990, 3:60-65) in discussing Rock Cornish Hens essentially says "if it looks like a chicken, walks like a chicken and quacks like a chicken, it is a chicken," and since Rock Cornish Hens are [just like] the common chicken, they fall under the chicken mesorah43

Historically there have been several major fights over what was included as a chicken. In the last century a "chicken" that was slightly larger than the usual, had feathers on its legs, and made deeper sounds arrived in Europe from India, Africa or some island in the Middle East. It had a laundry list of different names by which it was called, with the most common being something like "kibbitzer hen."

In some responsa it is called the "Americanisha hen" and Rav Yaakov Etlinger claims that they came to Europe from India but originated in America. This might lead some people to erroneously assume that, for example, Divrei Chaim YD 2:45-48 and Maharam Shick YD 98-100, were discussing turkey. They are almost definitely NOT discussing the turkey. Many of the responsa discuss the offspring of this kibbitzer hen and regular chickens and assert that in some locales the hybrid was now the majority of chickens. This could not possibly happen with turkeys and chickens. Many responsa, and even whole monographs, sometimes with extremely strong language and personal attacks, 44 were written about this bird. 45

There are two types of wild turkey, 46 both of which are strong fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and among the fastest runners (15-30 mph). One type is originally from Yucatan and Guatemala (Agriocharis ocellata; 47 family - Phasianidae) and the other is from Mexico and the US (Meleagris gallopavo; family -Phasianidae). Currently there are seven main varieties (subspecies) of domesticated turkey, all of which are flightless and descend from the Mexican and US wild turkey. Only the kosher status of Meleagris gallopavo will be discussed; Agriocharis ocellata has never been domesticated and its kosher status is undetermined.

The terminus ante quem for the discovery of domesticated turkeys by Europeans is the Cortez expedition of 1519. The Spanish Conquistadors brought turkeys back to Europe where they were savored as a delicacy at state dinners. 48 They were eventually acquired by other European countries, probably reaching England in 1524, and being raised domestically in Italy, France, and England by 1530. When the Pilgrims came to settle the New World in 1620 they brought turkey back to its native land, indicative of its wide-spread general acceptance in Europe. 49

As the turkey's acceptance spread through Europe, somehow, Jews also started eating it, and eventually the question of its kosher status was posed to various rabbis, who usually permitted it. 50

A major problem in analyzing the responsa is the confusion surrounding the turkey's name, which relates to the confusion of where Columbus had landed and where this new bird came from. About 1530 when this new dish started appearing on English tables, it had been brought to England by merchants trading in the eastern Mediterranean. These merchants were called "Turkey merchants" because the whole area was then part of the Turkish empire and the bird was called "Turkey bird" or "Turkey cock". It became so popular so rapidly that only sixty years later Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 5) was able to refer to it and assume his audience knew what it was.

The English are among the few who related this bird to Turkey. Nearly everyone else thought it came from India, whereas in reality it came from Mexico, which was then known as The Spanish Indies or the New Indies. Thus, in most European languages, Arabic, and Hebrew it is called something like the "bird of India". Even in Turkey they call it hindi, as though it came from hindistan, which is Turkish for India. The modern Hebrew (tarnagol hodu) and Yiddish (hendika hen) names both mean "Indian chicken".

Many Rabbis believed that turkey came from India, and as will be seen, included this as part of their discussion of its kosher status. The confusion of the name has led to there being responsa that talk about perlahener, indika hen, anglisher hen, or even tavas. Many of these deal with the turkey, but some discuss pheasant, guinea fowl or peacock.

The wild turkey has a crop, its gizzard is peelable, it has an "extra" toe, and its eggs have the indicators of kosher eggs, all signs indicating the turkey may be kosher.

It is possible that not everyone permitted the turkey. No less an authority than Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785-1869; Ha'elef Lecha Shlomo 1:YD:111) was asked about birds that come from America. He responded that we only eat birds with a mesorah, there were no Jews in America before 100 or so years ago, ergo there cannot be a mesorah and all American birds are prohibited. He concludes with the warning that whoever fails to heed him will in the future have to answer for his actions. Based on specifics in the responsa, it is most likely that Rabbi Shlomo Kluger was addressing the issue of the kibbitzer hen that some people thought came to Europe from America via India, and that he did not have turkey in mind. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see why his logic should be any different for turkey than for the generic American bird that he discusses.

A diametrically opposite attitude towards American birds that would explain why turkey is permitted has also been suggested. Chazal were able to identify all 24 of the non-kosher birds found in the biblical list. Since they did not know about turkey, it could not have been in the list. But this is clearly a fallacious argument because there are New World birds that are obviously non-kosher. Examples include the following raptors: Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus; family - accipitridae), 51 peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus; family - falconidae), and osprey (Pandion haliaetus; family - pandionidae). Even though the osprey is a New World bird Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that one of those listed in the Torah, the azniyah, might be the osprey. Thus, the Torah's list may actually include New World birds. Even if it does not, presumably what is meant by the fact that Chazal could identify the non-kosher birds is that if they were to be shown any bird, even a New World bird, they would be able to determine whether it belonged to one of the 24 categories of prohibited birds.

The Netziv (Meshiv Davar YD:22) posits that when the indik (turkey?) was brought from India there were questions about its status, and for some people those questions still remain. However, the vast majority of the Jews have accepted it as kosher. Once that has happened, unless there is overwhelmingly compelling evidence to declare it nonkosher, such as that it is found to be truly dores, it cannot now be declared nonkosher. 53 The rule that birds are eaten only if a mesorah exists coupled with the fact that the origins of a particular mesorah are unknown, is insufficient reason to declare an accepted bird unacceptable. Rather, we treat it as if we now have a mesorah 54 and follow the rule that when a reliable mesorah exists there is no need for further investigation and the bird may be eaten (Shach, YD 82:9) unless it is found to be truly a dores, in which case it would be assumed that the mesorah was in error and must be rejected (Shach, YD 82:6). That has not happened with turkeys. This attitude is interesting in light of the strong insistence of the Rosh (Shut Rabbenu Asher, Clal 20, #20 - cited above) on knowing the origins of a mesorah.

Shut Mei Be'er (Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Schur, Bucharest, d. 1897; siman 19) opines that we eat turkey (indik) relying on the Jews of India, the place of origin of the turkey, who had a clear tradition dating back to Moses that the turkey was kosher. As far as he was concerned, the only question that ever existed with regard to turkey was whether Europeans could rely on the Indian mesorah and this, he claims, was settled in the affirmative by the Rivash.

The Kaf Hachaim (YD 82:21) also permitted the turkey (tarnagol inglishi henner) based on the fact that it was eaten in India. Zivchei Zedek (82:17) in an apparent reference to turkey notes that in Iraq it was permitted and it originated in India, but he does not link the two statements. Nachal Eshkol (On Sefer ha'Eshkol, hilchot behama chaya v'of, 22:10) believed that 300 years before his time turkey came from India to England and then Germany and was now consumed without any hesitation. He permitted it based on the fact that in Russia and England it was eaten. He seems unconcerned about the origin of the tradition.

The Arugot Habosem (Rabbi Aryeh Lebush Bolchiver, author of Shem Aryeh, Russia, published 1870; kuntras ha'tshuvot in the back, siman 16) very neatly presents the quandary: Birds require a tradition to be kosher and turkey (indik) is a bird that comes from America, a place that was not discovered until the year 5254 (1494) and so no tradition is possible. 55 Yet, he notes, all Jews, except for one well-known family in Russia, the Frankels, eat it. He therefore reaches the very important conclusion that when the Ramo requires a tradition, it is only when there is uncertainty about the bird's dores status. He posits that if a bird is no longer "new" but has been observed for a long period of time, i.e. 12 months, and observed to be non-dores it is possible to say with certainty that it is not a dores. Furthermore, he rejects the Avnei Nezer's (YD 1:76:13-14) contention that domestication and living among "friends" may be the reason for the non-dores behavior. Arugot Habosem therefore posits that even according to Rashi and the Ramo, a bird, like the turkey, that is raised in thousands of houses for hundreds of years and is clearly not a dores does not require a mesorah if it also has the three other indicia of a kosher bird; which the turkey does. 56

The Shoel u'Meshiv (Rabbi Joseph Shaul ha-Levi Nathanson of Lemberg; 1810-1875) in a strongly worded responsa (5 pt.1 no 69) used the acceptability of the turkey to prove that a mesorah was not always necessary. He was convinced that Rashi was wrong in his approach to this topic and that Rambi was correct. He wrote that had Rashi seen the questions, he too would have changed his opinion, and concludes that any bird with the 3 physical signs is certainly kosher. He proves that such is the prevailing interpretation as far as practical halacha by noting that we all eat turkey (indik). There was clearly no mesorah on it since it comes from America, and yet all Jews eat it. It must be that the Ashkenazic community did not fully accept the Ramo in this regard but reinterpreted him to hold that a mesorah is not necessary if the bird has all three physical signs. 57 Interestingly, an American at around the same time made a similar argument. Writing in Occident (Vol. 10:10:491, Jan. 1853) Rev. J. Rosenfeld noted that "the turkey, being an American bird, ... was considered kosher without a mesorah, as the Indians could not have given any."

The Lubliner Rav, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Rav Naftali Hertz Klatzkin (1852-1932) in Dvar Halacha (1921; siman 53, page 74) disagrees with the Shoel u'Meshiv and holds that the Ramo should be taken at face value and that a mesorah is always required. 58 He permitted the turkey because he understood that the Ramo required a mesorah only for a new category of birds and that turkey falls within the same general category as chickens! 59 He does not offer a definition of "category", and because chickens are quite different from turkeys, this line of reasoning opens a Pandora's box of potential problems and abuses.

A possible explanation as to how the turkey came to be accepted despite the Ramo's position is that it came via Sephardic lands. The Spanish and Turks were the first to bring it to Europe, and Sephardim, who were not constrained by the Ramo, 60 accepted it as kosher. When turkey then made its way to eastern Europe the knowledge that there was a mesorah traveled with it. The origin of this mesorah was jumbled, and hence the references to mesorahs from India and the like.

Two additional possibilities are offered in the Otzer Yisrael61 He discussed the controversy that existed in his time surrounding turkey, a bird that was brought from America to Europe, possibly having been brought first from India to America. He expresses bewilderment how the authorities at that time permitted it. He offers two rationales. One is that at that time the decisors did not hold like the Ramo and hence relied on the physical signs. Alternatively, he calculates that the Ramo was born in 1540, 46 years after the discovery of America. Hence, it could be that the turkey issue was decided before the Ramo established his position, and at that time there were those who followed Rambi, although today we must follow the Ramo. 62

A method to prove that turkey is kosher is the hybridization test. Turkey-chicken hybrids do not seem to occur naturally. 63 However, viable hybrids have been successfully produced and are used in scientific research. 64 Furthermore, intergeneric crosses between ring-neck pheasants and chickens and between ring-neck pheasants and turkeys are well documented (Crawford, pp. 376-377) and may provide yet another avenue to permit turkeys. If hybridization between species is a legitimate test of kosher status, and many authorities accepted that it is, these crosses verify the acceptability of pheasant, 65 and then confirm the status of turkey.

To the best of my knowledge, all of the major kashrut organizations (O-U, Star-K, Vineland (CRC-Hisachdus Horabonim-Satmar), Margareten, Breuer's, and all Israeli Rabbinates and Badatzs) treat the turkey as a kosher bird, and it is consumed by all segments< SUP>66 of the Jewish world. 67

Most of the responsa cited seem to have been post-facto and were not intened to rule on the turkey's status. Rather, their purpose was to either unravel the apparent inconsistency of accepting the Ramo and of eating turkey or to use the universal acceptance of turkey as part of an answer to another question.

Many rabbinic authorities have attested to the acceptability of the turkey derech agav - in a passing manner.

The Mishnah B'rurah (79:26) (citing the Magen Avraham and Ateres Zkanim who in turn are quoting the Bach) on the Shulchan Aruch's statement that the excrement of a "red chicken" is more foul than the excrement of most animals, 68 identifies the "red chicken" as an "inglish hen" or "indik" - a turkey - and implies that it is kosher. The fact that the "red chicken" law is a quote from the Palestinian Talmud, a work codified in Palestine circa 350 C.E, when turkeys were unknown in Palestine, is irrelevant. 69 The fact remains that the Chafetz Chaim (the author of the Mishna B'rurah) appears to be accepting the turkey as a kosher species.

Rabbi Herzog (1888-1959; YD;1:25) was asked about a particular bird and responded that there were reports that it was really the offspring of two kosher species, one of them being the turkey. So he too, without any discussion, accepts the turkey as kosher.

Contemporary authorities have likewise indicated its acceptability. In a discussion on the propriety of celebrating Thanksgiving, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde (Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Fall 1995, 30:42-65) quotes numerous halachic authorities who parenthetically permit the eating of turkey. For example, Rav Moshe Feinstein is quoted as saying "halacha sees no prohibition ... with eating turkey" (ibid, p. 51). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's opinion is quoted by Rabbi Hershel Schachter in Nefesh HaRav (p.231): "in his [Rabbi Soloveitchik's] opinion there was no question that turkey did not lack a tradition of kashrut." In the course of offering their opinions about the observance of Thanksgiving, Rabbi David Cohen (of Gvul Yavetz), Rabbi Eliezar Silver, and Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt note that the turkey is a kosher bird.

Conclusion: The near universal acceptance of turkey as a kosher species, given the halachic quandary it presents, would indicate that the Jewish people have either accepted the possibility of originating mesorahs where none existed before or of accepting birds without the need for a mesorah. It is very possible that had the turkey question been posed when it was first introduced in the early 16th century, Jewish gastronomic history might have been different. It seems that many authorities may have initially come out against turkey because of its obvious lack of a mesorah. For some reason "bird controversies" erupted in the 18th and 19th centuries and when the turkey question was posed it often took the form of "why is it eaten?" rather than "may it be eaten?".

As has been shown, despite the fundamental difficulty with permitting turkey virtually all of the responsa are permissive, and it is unlikely that that will (or should) change in the future. It seems that unless one has a specific family custom to refrain from turkey, to adopt such a behavior is morally wrong. The turkey is no longer new and its kosher status has been addressed by both the great and not-so-great Jewish minds over the during 250 years and has received near-universal endorsement. To call it into question now is to impugn the dozens of responsa, and more so, the millions of honorable Jews, who have eaten turkey for almost half a millennium. That is not the Jewish way.

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