Why turkey gave some rabbis a headache

The big bird will appear on Thanksgiving tables later this month but its kosher status was not always cut and dried


The story is told that, after the tough winter of 1622-23, the pilgrim fathers of what became the United States of America, celebrated their survival with a feast of wild fowl. By 1790 the day had been enshrined by Congress as one of “public Thanksgiving and prayer”.

It took a while for the celebration to fully engage the vast, and varied, country but by the time I arrived in America as a rabbinic student in 1999, it totally dominated the last week of November. Offices closed, airports clogged up and everyone went home to eat turkey and watch “the football”. We have a number of American members, at the synagogue I now serve, and we thought it might be fun to host a dinner for those too far away to get back for this most American celebration. Now what to serve ...

Turkey is a challenge to a halachic system that came into being thousands of miles away from the New World. It is well known that fish are kosher if they have fins and scales, and animals if they chew the cud and have a split hoof, but the Torah lists no simanim, identifying markers, when it comes to birds.

There is a list of birds known in the ancient Near East which are forbidden, but what of a bird unknown to the world of the Torah and Talmud? Rabbinic argument has split between those, such as the Rosh, who consider that there are simanim that, if they can be observed on a newly discovered bird, would allow that bird to be deemed kosher; and those, such as the Shach, who insist a bird can only be considered kosher if there is a clear tradition, or masorah, that such birds were always considered kosher — which would seem to render the turkey forbidden.

At issue is the very nature of the halachic system; to what extent is Jewish practice a system dropped down from the heavens, as opposed to being a reflection of the lived experience of Jews in different communities over time.

The tale was made more complicated by the initial, erroneous, assumption that turkeys were nothing more than larger (and “Indian”, hence the Hebrew term hodu for turkey) versions of the European chicken. By the time this zoological confusion had been clarified, Jews had been eating turkey for some time and, in a coup of legal realpolitik, virtually all halachic authorities deemed turkey acceptable since it had both the simanim and, by this time at least, a demonstrated masorah.

But there was one turkey refusenik; the 17th-century scholar Yom Tov Lipman Heller. While in seminary I learnt with (now Rabbi) Josh Heller. He was descended from Yom Tov Lipman and I couldn’t help blurting out, “Do you eat turkey?”— “No,” he told me, “no-one in my family does.” “What about eating in homes that do cook turkey?” I wanted to know. — “That’s OK, we’re not that strict.” Realpolitik penetrates even the most ideological halachic positions.

But there is another, potential, problem with Thanksgiving; it might fall into a category forbidden in the Torah — that of chukkot hagoi — the customs, particularly the religious, customs of the non-Jew. This year Thanksgiving and Chanucah coincide.

Chanucah, especially as reported in the Books of the Maccabees, emerges as a battle not between Jew and non-Jew, but between Jew enticed by non-Jewish customs such as use of the gymnasium and certain hairstyles and zealots who protested against what they felt was heretical acculturation. It’s a Jewish festival which specifically celebrates the defeat of those who wanted to follow the customs of the non-Jew.

Avoiding chukkot hagoi could drive a vast range of Jewish practice if the sense of what is a forbidden non-Jewish practice is interpreted broadly. Some halachic authorities (such as the Taz) even suggest the reason Jews pray with a kippah is because non-Jews don’t and Tosafot suggest that any non-Jewish shtut, irrational practice, should be prohibited.

It’s hard to overestimate the way Thanksgiving dominates American society and there is certainly a certain amount of irrationality in commemorating surviving the cold winter in November. But most authorities suggest that even if the pious should limit their commemoration of this non-Jewish festival, it’s neither religious nor immoral and therefore permitted.

That said, the desire to avoid what might be seen as chukkot hagoi drives one of my all-time favourite legal responses. The great America 20th-century authority Rav Moshe Feinstein, suggested a particularly fine distinction recorded in the book Bnei Banim. If one felt, he wrote, an obligation to serve turkey on Thanksgiving, such a choice of meal would be forbidden — it would count as chukkot hagoi — but if a host needed a roast big enough for all the guests coming round, then turkey would be perfectly acceptable.

We’ll be serving turkey at our synagogue’s dinner on the first night of Chanucah, thankfully cranberry sauce presents no halachic complexity.

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