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Kashrut of Exotic Animals: The Buffalo

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

reprinted with permission from  The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society,  Fall 1999/Sukkot 5760, Number XXXVIII, published by The Rabbi Jacob Joseph (RJJ) School of Staten Island.
** Rabbi Zivotofsky, a certified shochet u'bodek, is a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, MD. 

The author would like to thank Rabbi Reuven Halpern, Avi Pollak, Dr. Doni Zivotofsky, D.V.M., and Dr. Bernard Zivotofsky, Ph.D. for assistance in various aspects of this work. A special debt of gratitude is owed to Stanley Searles, Curator of Birds at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and Dr. Rob Lofstedt, Professor of Theriogenology at the Atlantic Veterinary College, Prince Edward Island, Canada for help with the scientific information in this article.


The kosher food industry in the U.S. is booming, amounting to around 4 billion dollars a year1. The modern affluent kosher consumer is forever looking for new and varied cuisine to tantalize his palate, making it not only intellectually stimulating but financially significant to investigate the kashrut of uncommon animals and the criteria for such a determination. In recent years goose, deer, and buffalo have been added to the menus of several kosher N.Y. restaurants and/or butcher shops2. While the kosher status of the first two items is relatively non-controversial, the status of buffalo raises an interesting question.

For the purpose of identifying kosher animals, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 79, 80, 82-85), based on Leviticus 11:1-27 and Deuteronomy 14:3-20, divides the animal kingdom into five categories, four of which have kosher members. The categories with kosher members are: terrestrial mammalian quadrupeds, fish, birds, and invertebrates. The fifth category - bugs - has no kosher members. In addition, all creatures that do not fit into one of the above categories, such as all reptiles and amphibians, are not kosher. For each of the four categories with kosher members, the Torah specifies a means to indicate whether a particular species is kosher, and in many cases the rabbis clarified, elaborated, embellished, and added to the indicators.


Within the mammalian quadruped category, which includes both b'hayma ("domesticated" animals) and chaya ("wild" animals), an animal is defined by the Torah as kosher if it chews its cud3 (ma'alay gayra) and has hooves that are fully split (mafreset parsah v'shosa'at shesa prasot).

In addition to the physical indicia, the Bible (Deuteronomy 14:4-5) lists ten kosher "species". According to the Talmud (Chullin 80a) these ten (and their subcategories) are the only species in the world that have both kosher requirements.4 Either method is sufficient: One may conclude that an animal is kosher upon either observing the physical indicia, or by recognizing it as one of the ten kosher species (Rambam, Ma'achalot Asurot 1:8; Aruch Hashulchan 79:4).

The Torah further enumerates four non-kosher animals which have only one kosher sign. Among these are the pig, which has split hooves but does not chew its cud, and the camel, which chews its cud but does not have split hooves.5

Based on a pleonasm, Chazal concluded that the Torah's list of single indicator animals is exhaustive rather than paradigmatic, and hence they felt comfortable establishing corollary indicators (Chullin 59a; Shulchan Aruch, YD 79:1). They asserted that any animals that chews its cud is kosher if it is not one of the three biblical exceptions. They also stated that all animals that do not have upper incisors, canines, or soft front tooth-like structures are ruminants and are kosher, with the singular exception of the young camel.6 This dental property is considered sufficient evidence to establish that an animal is kosher. Thus, if one were to come across an unknown animal that was not a young camel and found it to have no upper incisors, he may eat it.

The rabbis further stated that every animal that has completely split hooves also chews its cud and is therefore kosher, with the singular notable biblical exception - the pig. Thus, any unknown species that has split hooves and is not a pig7 is permissible.

Chazal boldly added an additional identifying feature of kosher animals that seemingly has no basis in the written Torah and is based solely on an oral tradition received by Moses at Mount Sinai. Other than the wild donkey,8 no non-kosher species has meat under the tail (?Musculus obturator internus?) with grain that runs both warp and woof. Therefore, if one slaughters an unknown animal and finds that the grain of its meat runs both ways, and knows that it is not a wild donkey, the meat is permitted.

Finally, the Mishna (Niddah 51b), at least according to Rashi's understanding, states that horns alone are enough to declare an animal kosher, since all horned animals are kosher.9

The kosher animals within the mammalian quadruped category would seem to include not only the animals commonly thought of as kosher such as cows (Bos taurus), sheep (Ovis aries), goats (Capra hircus), and deer, but such exotic animals as the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), moose (Alces alces), the 6-foot, 1500 pound Giant Eland (Taurotragus derbianus), giraffe (giraffa cameloparbalis), and the Bongo (Boocerus eurycerus). If so, what could conceivably be a problem with respect to buffalo?


Despite the apparent simplicity of the kashrut rules, buffalo poses an interesting question for a variety of reasons: there are various types of "buffalo" that exist; it is mentioned in rabbinic literature; and there is a uniquely American Bison, often mistakenly referred to as buffalo.

There are four types of animal that can legitimately be called buffalo.10 The European bison (Bison bonasus), also known as a wisent, is the most closely related to the American bison. The Asiatic water buffalo (Bubalus arnee or Bubalus bubalis) of which there are four subspecies and is native to South Asia, India, Nepal, sri Lanka, and Borneo was probably well-known to ancient rabbinic Jewish authorities. The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) has three subspecies and, as its name applies, is native to Africa, in general sub-Saharan.

The species of particular interest, the American "buffalo," is technically really a bison. It is either classified as Bos bison,11 grouping it in the same genus as true cattle, or as Bison bison, putting it in a family distinct from true cattle, but together with the European Bison.

If it could be determined what the buffalo was called in days of yore, it would greatly simplify matters: The kosher indicia would be superfluous and the biblical list of ten kosher species could be utilized. According to Professor Yehuda Felix12 the water buffalo, at one time found in large numbers in the Chula Valley in Israel and raised by the bedouin there until the 1940's, was known as the meri, an animal that was sacrificed and eaten in biblical times (see II Samuel 6:13; I Kings 1:9,19). Other authorities identify t'oh, found in the list of kosher animals in Deuteronomy 14:5, with the water buffalo. This seems questionable since t'oh is a non-domesticated animal (chaya) and the water buffalo is domesticated. Yet others have identified the water buffalo with the biblical re'em (e.g. Numbers 23:22, 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17), an animal that seems to have been accepted as kosher. Again, the problem is that the water buffalo is highly domesticated and the re'em seems to have been a quintessentially undomesticatable animal (see Job 39:9-12).13

The European bison is also sometimes identified with the t'oh, although the Talmud (Chullin 80a), Targum Yonatan, and Rashi all imply that t'oh is a wild ox. Another candidate for the buffalo from the list in Deuteronomy is the yachmar. Although usually translated as an antelope or a type of deer, the Abarbanel (I Kings 5:13) identifies it as a buffalo.

Attempting to identify the water buffalo with a biblical animal is problematic because Bubalus bubalis is native to India, and was probably not introduced to western Asia, i.e. the biblical lands, until shortly before the Common Era, near the very end of the biblical period.

By the post-talmudic period it is possible to identify the water buffalo with almost certainty. "Buffalo" appears as a transliterated word in the sixteenth-century Shulchan Aruch (YD 28:4). The Be'ar Hagola tracks the source of that halacha to the Agur (Rabbi Yaakov Landau, 15th century) who was quoting Rabbi Yishaya Ha'achron of 13th century Trani, Italy.14 In contemporary Italian the word buffalo is still used to refer to water buffalo, an animal that is raised domestically as cattle in parts of Italy. It is from the milk of water buffalo that mozzarella cheese was originally made near Naples, Italy, and in southern Italy it is still used to make "authentic" mozzarella cheese. This would lead one to suspect that Rabbi Yishaya Ha'achron, and hence also the Shulchan Aruch, were referring to water buffalo, and they had no doubt that it is a kosher behamah (domesticated animal).15


The American "buffalo" can obviously not be found in any of the earlier literature and hence presents its own dilemma. It would seem that according to the Shulchan Aruch (YD 79:1) no mesorah (tradition)16 is required to establish that a specific mammalian quadruped is kosher - it simply needs to possess the requisite physical characteristics of chewing its cud and having fully split hooves - characteristics which all four "buffalos", including the American bison, possess. The Pri Maggadim (Siftei Da'at, YD 80:1), Kaf haChaim (80:5), and Pitchei T'shuva (YD:80:1) all state explicitly that the physical indicia are sufficient to establish a species as kosher.

Commenting on the section of the Shulchan Aruch (YD 80) that discusses whether a particular kosher animal is a ba'hama or a chaya, the Shach (YD 80:1) mentions the notion of traditions regarding terrestrial mammalian quadrupeds. The Pri Maggadim writes that he is baffled by the suggestion that this Shach should be relevant to the question of the kosher status of an animal, and that a tradition should be needed to establish its permissibility. The identifying features are biblical and clear, and there should be no need for a mesorah. Furthermore, this Shach is not in YD 79 where the kosher animals are identified.

Nonetheless, and despite the cogency of the Pri Maggadim's argument, the Chachmat Adam (36:1) and Beit Yaakov (41; cited by Pitchei T'shuva) add a puzzling twist to this Shach, and assume he was addressing the kosher status of an animal. Hence, they require a mesorah, an oral tradition, in order to declare a species of animal kosher. The Beit Yaakov says that the two biblical signs would suffice to identify a kosher bahama, but are not sufficient to identify a kosher chaya, and either the "horn signs" detailed in YD 80 or a mesorah is also required.

To further complicate matters, the Chazon Ish (Hilchos ba'hama v'chaya tahora:11:letters 4 & 5) writes that the Chachmat Adam is correct in his analysis. Furthermore, "we" (meaning Jews from Lita - Lithuania) have accepted the Chachmat Adam in general and therefore have no choice but to accept that a mesorah is needed and no new animal species may be permitted.17

Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzchak haLevi Herzog (YD:1:20 - Kuntrus P'nei Shur) dealt with the need for mesorah for animals when he was asked by the French rabbinate about the zebu (Bos indicus - sometimes called brahman or humped cattle in the US; family - Bovidae), a type of humped cow originally from India that spread to Sri Lanka, China and north Africa and then world-wide. Rabbi Herzog was vehemently opposed to those who argued that a mesorah is required, and suggested that they are violating the biblical prohibition of ba'al tosif - not adding commandments.18

There is an additional factor that in my opinion renders the debate between those who require a tradition and those who don't of little relevance to either the zebu or bison (American "buffalo") questions. With regard to quadrupeds, the Talmud offers an irrefutable, undisputed test of the kashrut of an animal that cannot be the challenged on subjective grounds. Bechorot 7a declares that kosher and non-kosher species cannot cross-breed. Thus, if two species can hybridize, and one is known to be kosher it is proof positive that the other is kosher as well. This is cited (Rambam, Ma'achalot Assurot 1:13) as an halachikally valid means of distinguishing between kosher and non-kosher animals, and should obviate any need for a mesorah, when it can be applied.

The zebu not only passes this "hybridization test", but produces live, fertile offspring with other domesticated cattle (Bos taurus; family - Bovidae). The American Bison and a wide variety of cattle have been interbred regularly since 1957 to produce fertile19 "beefalo" offspring, a product that has gained in popularity in the last several decades due to its ease of handling and the lower fat content of its meat.20 European bison appear to have a chromosome compliment that is very similar to that of domesticated cattle. They breed with relative ease and both direct and reciprocal crosses produce fertile females, although the male offspring are usually infertile or sterile. Because of their ability to inter-breed with known kosher species, and the not-insignificant fact that they possess both biblical indicia, the zebu and European and American bison should all be viewed as kosher beyond doubt.21


The debate about a need for a mesorah does not seem applicable to the buffalo question, and for a variety of reasons it appears that all four "buffalos," and most certainly the water buffalo and the American bison, are kosher. There is not yet a stampede for kosher buffalo, but based on my informal survey of several cities it certainly appears that there is some desire for it. I do not know how the major kashrut organizations would rule in a case where there was truly a need for a mesorah according to the Chazon Ish and none existed. To my knowledge there are no other recent responsa that address this Pri Maggadim vs. Chazon Ish dispute.

Although the debate was not relevant here, there are certainly species where it would have ramifications. For example in 1993 a new species of animal was discovered in Vietnam.22 The wild saola (Psudoryx nghetinhensi, also known as the Vu Quang bovid) is the first large land vertebrate discovered in more than 50 years. Despite its being Old World there is clearly no tradition regarding its kosher status. It seems to be an unusual antelope with long, straight horns. Scientists are unsure even how to classify it. Originally it was put in a new genus in the bovine group together with oxen and elands. Now some people are grouping it with goats.23 Either way, this odd, elusive creature that is possibly on the verge of extinction exhibits both kosher indicia and yet lacks a mesorah - a perfect test case for this debate.24

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