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Who Permitted Eating Turkey?
‘Geese And Wild Geese Are Forbidden Together’
(Bava Kamma 55a)

 

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Whenever an unknown type of bird was discovered or brought from another continent, the question always arose whether the bird was kosher or tamei (ritually impure). Over the years, the study of the daf yomi has enhanced the familiarity of greater numbers of our people with the sources of many of our halachos. An example are the laws relating to kosher and non-kosher fowl. We see a related halachic discussion based on our daf.

 

The Halacha Regarding a Wild Goose

The first bird to appear in the writings of the early poskim is the wild goose mentioned in our sugya relating to the halachos of kilaiyim (forbidden admixtures). The Gemara discusses why according to Shmuel, the wild goose and the domestic goose are considered two different species.

The Tzemach Tzedek (29) sought to prove from our daf that the wild goose is kosher. If it were not kosher, he asked, why did the Gemara search for differences between wild and domestic geese? Would not the best proof be that – since the wild goose is tamei and the domestic goose is tahor (ritually pure) – they are obviously two different species? Since the Gemara does not present this proof, apparently both are tahor (see Responsa Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 74, who refutes his proof).

 

The Signs of a Kosher Bird

In principle, three indications determine whether or not a bird is from a kosher species. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 82:2) rules, “There are three signs of tahara: an extra finger, a crop, and a gizzard that can be peeled by hand.” Nonetheless, the custom is not to rely only on these signs of tahara unless there is a tradition handed down from our forefathers, indicating that they used to eat a particular species (Rema, Yoreh Deah 82:3).

 

The Source for This Custom

Rashi (Chullin 62b s.v. chazyuha) writes that during Talmudic times, Jews ate a certain kind of bird, relying on the signs of tahara. When they later noticed that the bird claws its food just like tamei birds, it became clear to them that they had checked the signs of tahara incorrectly. Ever since then, the accepted custom has been to eat only birds for which there is a tradition.

From that point on, whenever the Sages needed to decide whether a particular species was kosher, it was not sufficient to just check for physical signs of tahara. They also needed to determine whether it was traditionally eaten by our forefathers. If not, it was ruled a forbidden species.

 

One Tradition Is Not Like the Next

Approximately one hundred years ago, when a new species of goose from deep in the Russian interior was brought to Warsaw, the Avnei Nezer (Responsa Yoreh Deah 75) ruled that it should not be eaten. Although Jews who lived near the bird’s natural habitat had been eating it, a tradition is only considered reliable if it evolved in a place where talmidei chachamim (learned scholars) lived.

 

Is There a Tradition To Eat Turkeys?

Turkey was brought to Europe from North America before the first Jewish communities were established in North America. The poskim point out that it is not clear how the custom of eating turkey spread, but since this is the reality, they discuss whether the custom should be allowed to continue. The Netziv (Responsa Meishiv Davar 2:22) writes that although our custom is not to eat birds that have no tradition of being eaten, this custom applies only to newly-discovered species being presented. Now that Jews almost universally eat turkey, we need not stop eating it for lack of an earlier tradition.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.