Is duck kosher? It’s complicated


I was chatting with a friend of mine about the upcoming Thanksgiving and the December holiday season and I said that I was not a big fan of turkey and preferred duck. She said that while she has never heard about duck being explicitly forbidden as not being kosher, she has never seen it for sale in any of the kosher butcher shops where she gets her meat, nor are there any recipes for it in her Jewish cookbooks. We both became intrigued about the kosher status of duck and so I looked it up and, as is often the case with religious dietary rules, it is complicated.

The Torah apparently simply lists those birds that are forbidden to eat. But the problem is that the list was compiled way back by people living in one small part of the world and it is not clear what animals some of the names even refer to and what to do now that one has to deal with animals all over the world that were not known to the compilers of the lists.

The Torah doesn’t even bother setting out guidelines; it simply lists a bunch of birds that are forbidden, and says you can eat any other bird. Because the Torah was written thousands of years ago in an archaic form of Hebrew, we can’t necessarily translate and identify all these species definitively. One of the forbidden species would transliterate as atalef. In modern Hebrew, that’s… a bat. Which is not a bird. Most people interpret it that way, assuming that the bat was thought to be some kind of bizarre bird at the time, but not everybody does. Nobody is quite sure if atalef had the same meaning then as it does now, and some early Rabbinic discussion of the Torah described the atalef as laying eggs, but also raising its young. This has led some scholars to believe that the atalef is actually some variety of screech owl, or even—this is a serious argument that was seriously made—a platypus.

There are two separate lists of birds that are forbidden, one in Leviticus and one in Deuteronomy. There are some overlaps, but there are 24 different Hebrew names for birds in these lists. Those are confidently translated by various sources into modern English and typically include the following species: Eagle, vulture (the bearded vulture, white vulture, and black vulture are listed individually), kite, osprey, kestrel, raven, ostrich, jay, sparrowhawk, goshawk, owl, gull, little owl, starling, magpie, heron, cormorant, pelican, stork, hoopoe, and atalef. Sometimes you’ll see discrepancies, like one species listed in Leviticus as “heron” and in Deuteronomy as “ibis,” despite being the same Hebrew word. Sometimes you’ll see archaic English terms, like “sea-mew” for gull and “ossifrage” for bearded vulture.

I left one out of that list, because it’s very fun. One, in the Leviticus list, would transliterate to tinshemet. What, you might ask, is a tinshemet? Nobody knows. Sometimes it’s translated as a swan, some other type of owl, or (again!) as a bat. The same word shows up again a little bit later, under a list of forbidden animals that move along the ground, grouped in with lizards and weasels. There is a minor conspiracy theory that because it referred to both a bird and a lizard, that this word was the name of a flying dinosaur that never went extinct.

Anyway, that list of birds is, obviously, total trash if you’re trying to expand it outwards and figure out what you can and cannot eat. We don’t know whether those words were referring to specific species or whole categories of birds, and certainly many more species have been discovered since the Torah was set down. Scholars, to make up for this, have tried to see the patterns in the banned birds, and then use those patterns to create rules that could apply to species new to Jews, like, say, an unusual duck native to the Americas. This is obviously a fraught endeavor if you subscribe to the belief that the laws of kashrut are chukim—totally senseless.

Figuring out arcane dietary laws are the kind of puzzles that some rabbinical scholars relish and devote their lives to addressing. Trying to figure out what the commonalities are between those animals that are kosher and those that are not to come up with general rules is an exercise fraught with imprecision and ducks seem to fall into the large gray area. So while they are not explicitly forbidden, they are not given a seal of approval either.

Deciding what is proper to eat based on the decrees of the religious leaders of sects that lived several thousand years ago in one small part of the world seems so bizarre to me, as is listening to religious leaders anytime and anywhere on what one should wear or how one should behave. But many people do.

Comments

  1. says

    Mano,

    “It’s complicated” doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

    As one of my rabbis once joked” “Two Jews, three opinions.”

    They’re probably a paper on Turduckens being written somewhere.

    Of course, such discussions are not limited to food, as the debate over whether or not Pluto was/is a planet or whether or not there’s such a thing as a fish.

    Jeff

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I especially love the conservative religious types who KNOW that “God hates fags” because of two obscure passages in the Old Testament (which we all must agree with because Every Word Of The Bible Is True!!!) while gnawing barbecued pork ribs with a side of shrimp etouffee.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Deciding what is proper to eat based on the decrees of the religious leaders of sects that lived several thousand years ago in one small part of the world seems so bizarre to me

    What seems bizarre to me is giving a shit what the imaginary friend of the observant minority of a group that represents less than 0.2% of the world thinks about what’s not good to eat.

    It seems bizarre to me that any normal person knows something like this is even an issue. There are more people in Burkina Faso than there are Jews in all the world -- what do they like to eat there? Don’t Google it. Can you name even one person from Burkina Faso? Name the capital? Point to it on a map? Have ANY idea what colour the people there are, what language(s) they speak? What god(s) they worship?

    Meanwhile, I could probably name fifty Jews from various walks of life that you’ve heard of off the top of my head. I know what treyf and kosher and Bar Mitzvah and sitting shiva are. I know they avoid ham and lobster. I know most Jews live in Israel and most of those that don’t live in New York or Los Angeles. I know the capital of their country is Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, possibly. I know it’s at the shitty end of the Mediterranean. I know the people there speak Hebrew -- the Jewish ones, that is -- or Yiddish or English or Russian or a bunch of other things. I know all these things because this knowledge permeates my culture, and I don’t know why. Why, for instance, are we talking about kosher food here… again?

    What is it that is so endlessly fascinating about this one specific middle-eastern death cult, to the exclusion of so many others?

  4. anat says

    Back when I was following soc.culture.jewish there was a discussion of how and whether US Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. Conservative, Reform, and Humanistic Jews generally celebrated a ‘traditional’ US Thanksgiving, with one of the groups (can’t remember which) also having a set of Psalms they read on this day (likely the Psalms of praise, 113-118 that are read on Jewish holidays and other special occasions).

    Orthodox Jews, however, have much diversity of opinions and customs: Some celebrate it, some celebrate a more modest version of it (foodwise) because they don’t want to overshadow the celebration of Shabbat (starting Friday at sundown, to early Saturday night, when stars become visible). Some refuse to celebrate it because it is a gentile custom, or because it is too demanding of the ‘housewife’ to prepare a feast for Thursday and then start preparing the Shabbat feasts, or because there is no need for a special day for giving thanks since they give thanks every day. More modern Yeshivas give students a day off on Thanksgiving, and many Modern Orthodox Jews enjoy having a holiday where the travel restrictions of Jewish holidays do not apply, but the Haredi yeshivas hold classes on Thanksgiving and require students to attend. And at least some hassidic sects (Szatmar Hassids at the very least) don’t consider turkey to be kosher. OTOH in Israel turkey is a very common meat and there is nothing particularly festive about eating it.

  5. anat says

    sonofrojblake @3:

    I know most Jews live in Israel

    -- only a plurality, and even that is rather recent. For quite a while the plurality of Jews lived in the US. That might have something to do with why you know about them.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    Global population something less than 15 million. Israel, something over 6 million. I had thought those numbers more like 14 and 7.(something), so yeah my information was wrong or out of date. Not ludicrously out though and the point stands.

    the plurality of Jews lived in the US. That might have something to do with why you know about them

    Rather more than a plurality of Native Americans live in the US, and I know practically nothing I’d trust to be accurate about any of them that I didn’t get from historically dubious films, oddly mostly starring Jews. (e.g. “Little Big Man”.)

  7. says

    What is it that is so endlessly fascinating about this one specific middle-eastern death cult, to the exclusion of so many others?

    Its derivatives took over and ruled the world. So I guess it’s not a far stretch to wonder if perhaps they’re interested in ruling too. I don’t think that Burkina Faso has been claiming to have the ear of the creator of the universe. People know the things about those three religions because they say, up-front, that they are violent and expansionists. If the folks in Burkina Faso were telling me stories about massacring Philistines I might be worried how big their army is.

  8. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    “As one of my rabbis once joked” “Two Jews, three opinions.””

    I heard this as “Three Jews, five views.” The speaker was one of our two Israeli team leaders.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t think that Burkina Faso has been claiming to have the ear of the creator of the universe

    Interesting point.

    On the one hand -- hasn’t it? Don’t most religions at least suggest that they might have some answers? Presumably Burkina Faso isn’t some beacon of atheism, in that I’m guessing (and I refuse to Google it on principle at this point until after I’ve typed this and possibly made a fool of myself) many/most of its people hew to at least some form of religion (depressingly probably one of the ones derived from Judaism, thanks colonisers…).

    Then again, if Burkina Faso as a whole did announce it had the ear of the creator of the universe, would you or I even have heard about it, at all? Maybe, possibly, at the end of the news report as an “and finally, look at what these crazy foreigners are saying…”. Nobody gives a monkey’s what those people think. You certainly wouldn’t get suspended from the UK Labour party for not being sufficiently keen on keeping people from there in particular on your side (despite 90% of them reliably voting for the Tories every time in any case), for instance.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    … the ever-expanding Eruv…

    Germ of an sf story -- Jewish space engineer involved in construction of space elevator realises he can take the unobtainium they use to make the main cable and spin a single fibre long enough to completely encircle the earth. Doesn’t need to support weight -- it’s a closed loop, waaaay out, spun up to maintain shape and maybe some ion engines or solar sails here and there for station-keeping. Either way -- he puts an eruv around the earth, rendering all Shabbat observances non-required…. with hilarious consequences!

    Sitting here, it seems so obvious an idea that I expect the next post to be a link to Amazon where I can buy a second hand copy of the out-of-print anthology where the story is reprinted from when it was in Galaxy in about 1968…

  11. anat says

    Either way — he puts an eruv around the earth, rendering all Shabbat observances non-required…. with hilarious consequences!

    Only one of the Shabbat observances is affected by having or not having an eruv -- carrying stuff outside of ‘private’ spaces. Everything else applies, both inside the eruv and out.

  12. cafebabe says

    Interesting that the set of forbidden birds is defined by enumeration. As far as I remember, in the case of animals the classification depends on morphological details … cloven feet and so on.

    Of course for ancient religions there is always the question of what to do with new technology. In Melbourne, Australia, in certain suburbs the cross-walk signs go onto a time cycle on Saturday due to the local ultra-orthodox deciding that pushing the “push-to-walk” buttons belonged to a category of forbidden activity. Sadly, the holy book does not mention light-controlled intersections.

  13. John Morales says

    I can’t see how it’s in any sense complicated.

    The Torah doesn’t even bother setting out guidelines; it simply lists a bunch of birds that are forbidden, and says you can eat any other bird.

    If it’s a bird and it’s not on the list, it’s edible. Couldn’t be simpler.

  14. Ichthyic says

    “For quite a while the plurality of Jews lived in the US. That might have something to do with why you know about them.”

    anat is entirely correct. chances are, most americans know more about random native american tribes than they do about random tibetan ones as well.

    the implication that there is some sort of conspiracy to it, is inane. SonnyboyBlake is indeed making a fool of himself.

    but, that appears to be how most Americans communicate any more.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    @Icthyic, 15:
    re: making a fool of oneself --
    1. Opinion: I’d be prepared to bet folding money “most Americans” know exactly as much accurate info about Native Americans as they do Tibetans.
    2. Fact: the inane “implication that there’s some sort of conspiracy” came from your, certainly not mine. And that’s not an opinion.
    3. Fact: I’m not American, I’m English, and live, and have only ever lived, in England. (A country, incidentally, where Jews are (per the 2001 census) outnumbered three to two by Jedi.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    Odin never banned any specific food sources. Neither did Zeus. Methinks the polytheists are more clever than assumed.

  17. anat says

    sonofrojblake @11:

    Moreover, for an eruv to be valid it has to be visually inspected for intactness on the eve of the Sabbath, so in your proposed story we might run into issues of time zones and the international dateline. I say ‘we might’, because I know there is a Halakhic solution for determining the time of Shabbat in space, as well as beyond the arctic/antarctic circle, so this case could work in a similar fashion.

  18. xohjoh2n says

    @18 though surely the lack of posts would also be problematic. And attempting to extend the eruv beyond 2000 cubits from any given city’s limits (or your food…) And the usual denominational arguments about whether eruvin are valid at all (or indeed, needed at all), what rules a valid eruv has to conform to, and whether a specific eruv does or does not conform to those rules…

    (I suspect though, that the major sticking point would be a visceral rejection of its lack of even potential visibility.)

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