What about turkey? – Re’eh 5774

During my recent vacation, my wife and I spent a lot of time going through photographs from both sides of our families.  Technology allows us to scan and restore old pictures.  So as we went through hundreds of faded images from the past, we asked questions and heard stories from our parents about earlier generations.  Even though many of the stories occurred decades ago, and were about people whom we never met, learning about my family’s past contributes to my own personal story and gives me a greater sense of rootedness.

Something else that connects us to family, tradition, and community, is food.  Family recipes are treasures that are passed from one generation to the next.  Also passed down are types of food that are eaten, and those that are avoided.  Indeed, what we eat and do not eat creates a strong sense of belonging among families and cultures who share those traditions.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, includes one of the two presentations of the laws of kashrut.  It presents specific criteria that indicate whether an animal is permitted for Jews to eat or not.  If it walks around on the ground, it must chew its cud and have split hooves.  If it swims in the water, it must have fins and scaled.

When it comes to flying creatures, however, the Torah does not present us with general criteria to determine kosher status.  Instead, it tells us that we may eat any pure bird without telling us what that means.  Then it gives us a list of twenty unkosher bird species, plus the bat.  Three of the twenty forbidden birds are expanded with the word l’minah, “and its variety.”  Thus, we are left with a total of twenty four forbidden species.

Scientists of today have identified approximately ten thousand individual species of birds in the world, so the Torah’s list would seem to be a little short.

The Rabbis of two thousand years ago looked at the Torah’s list, noticed that the two other major categories of living creatures both came with clear criteria, and concluded that they needed to come up with a better system for determining the status of a given bird.  The rabbis proceeded to extrapolate criteria for what makes a kosher bird.  This is what they came up with:

1.  Kosher birds have an extra toe behind the leg, above the foot.

2.  Kosher birds have a crop, which is a pouch for storing food near the throat.

3.  Kosher birds have a gizzard which is easy to peel.  A gizzard is a part of a bird’s stomach where food is ground up by small stones that the bird has swallowed.

4.  Kosher birds are not dores, which means that they do not hold down their prey with their talons while they eat it.

This last criterion is a problem, since it is not a physical characteristic, but rather a behavioral one.  To be certain, one would have to spend all day long observing a particular species to make sure that it never held down its prey while eating.  And so, the Talmud relates that as long as it had the first three criteria, a bird species could be considered kosher.

The medieval commentator Rashi expresses his doubts, however.  It would be too risky to accept a bird as kosher and then have it, a year later, demonstrate this unacceptable behavior.  So Rashi declares that with regard to bird species, there must also be a masorah, a tradition inherited from our ancestors about a particular bird being kosher.  Any bird that does not have a masorah of being kosher is not to be eaten.

This brings us to the bird known as meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey.  The 1519 conquistador expedition of Hernan Cortes first brought turkeys to Europe.  The meaty bird became an overnight sensation on the continent, and was often served as a delicacy at state dinners.  Its popularity quickly spread, and by 1530, turkey was being raised domestically in England, France, and Italy.

When it arrived in England, it was brought by traders from the Eastern Mediterranean, who were referred to as “Turkey Merchants,” as the area was then part of the Ottoman Empire.  The English thus began to call it “Turkey Bird.”

Almost everyone else in Europe got the bird confused with a species of large chicken that had come from India, and subsequently referred to it with a name that meant something along the lines of “bird of India” in local dialects.  To this day, turkey in Hebrew is called tarn’gol hodu, which literally means “Indian chicken.”

When the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, they brought the turkey with them, unknowingly returning it to its continent of origin.

Jews were presented with a difficult question.  Is a turkey a kosher bird?  For centuries, there was a lot of confusion about the matter.

A turkey clearly meets the first three criteria of the Sages.  It has the extra toe, the crop, and the peelable gizzard.  As for holding its prey down while it eats, who is going to spend all that time watching a turkey?

The sixteenth century Ashkenazi legal authority, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, included Rashi’s requirement that there be a masorah, an established tradition for a bird to be considered kosher, in addition to the physical characteristics.  In subsequent centuries, some rabbinic figures argued that Isserles was correct, some said he was incorrect, and others suggested that he was just misunderstood.

A few rabbis claimed that a turkey was basically a big chicken, and therefore kosher.  (In reality, a turkey is more closely related to a pheasant or a partridge.)

Others, thinking that the bird was from India, claimed that there in fact was an established tradition as to its acceptability, since Jews had been living in India for thousands of years.  One Rabbi even claimed that the tradition extended all the way back to the time of Moses!

Numerous creative justifications were presented over the next several centuries, many based upon completely faulty understandings of the history and taxonomy of the bird.

What is undistputed, however, is that Jews loved eating turkey, so it was a foregone conclusion that it would end up being kosher.

Today, Israel has by far the highest per-capita rate of turkey consumption in the world.  The average Israeli eats 20 kg of turkey meat per year.  Next in line is the United States, at 8 kg per year.

We Jews like our turkey.  Except for one family.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman ben Natan haLevi Heller, known more popularly by the title of his book Tosafot Yom Tov, lived from 1579 to 1654.  Although it does not appear in any of his writings, he allegedly rejected the kashrut of turkey as it did not have a clear masorah.  Not only that, the legend goes, The Tosafot Yom Tov left instructions that his descendants should refrain from eating turkey.

Even though he knew that the rest of the Jewish world would be eating it, he thought he was right, and he wanted his family to maintain a higher standard.

When I was in Rabbinical School, I had a classmate and a teacher who were descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They, along with their families, do not eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  It has become a source of pride, and family identity.

Ironically, the Tosafot Yom Tov has created a masorah for his offspring due to the absence of a masorah about turkey.

While I do like eating turkey on Thanksgiving, there is a part of me that is jealous of those descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They can point to a masorah, a family tradition, that goes back three hundred years.  That is pretty special.  In my family, we have records of some relatives going back into the mid-nineteenth century, but we do not know much about their lives, and we certainly do not have any family traditions that have been passed down,

This is one of the unfortunate losses that we have experienced in modern times.  The Holocaust dislocated many Jews from their origins.  The incredible amount of movement, which leads many of us to live in different cities from our family members, also has led to the loss of family traditions.

I think that there are a lot of people today who feel dislocated from their past, and are seeking to reesatablish connections to ancestors whose memories they have lost.

People sometimes come to meet with me who have discovered that they might have Jewish ancestry.  Sometimes it is the result of a DNA test.  Other times it emerges in conversations with older family members.  These conversations seem to be part of a larger trend of people in our detached, often lonely world seeking to connect with their past.

It is the same loneliness that inspired me to start scanning all of those old family photographs.

I suspect that for most of us, any family traditions we have only go back two or three generations.

As the Jewish people, however, we share the masorah of an extended family that goes back thousands of years.  We still read the central text of our family.  Many of our mitzvot and traditions are rooted in the stories of our biblical ancestors.  These are stories that we know and share.  The personalities of our forebears, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, have become part of our story.

Some might say that there is much in Jewish tradition that is simply a burden.  But often, it is those traditions that do not make much sense, that require a little bit of work, that give us the strongest sense of who we are.  I imagine that it is kind of a pain for the descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov to pass the plate of turkey to the next person without taking any, but I bet it is also something of a badge of pride.