Is Turkey Kosher?
11/18/11
Jewish Week Online Columnist

Q:  I’ve heard that turkey may actually not be kosher. Is that true?

A:   From a halachic/ethical standpoint, it is 100% kosher.  Or not. 

The halachic problem, dealt with in excruciating detail in this article from The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, is that, for birds, the Torah offers no identifying features to distinguish kosher from the non-kosher species.  It just lists some examples of non kosher birds and expects us to figure out the common denominators, but the list is incomplete.  And back in biblical times, the turkey was not yet known. 

The Mishnah specifies four ways of determining the kashrut of a bird, including that it not be a bird of prey.  A principle behind kosher laws is that “you are what you eat,” and we prefer not to be violent scavengers.  On all counts, this resilient but peace loving bird would seem to pass that test.  But as a relatively new face on the scene, the turkey has caused confusion and controversy; in the Middle Ages, some major authorities expressed reluctance to add any new birds to their “permitted” list, absent an ancient tradition (mesorah) legitimizing it.

While almost all authorities now consider the turkey kosher, some families have maintained a tradition of refraining from eating it.  As Rabbi Joshua Heller puts it, his old family custom presents him with a November Dilemma:  

Do I follow a more general family tradition, which is at variance with conventional Jewish practice, or follow instead the counter-tradition passed down from my own branch of the Heller clan, which is to disregard that restriction? Perhaps, in addition to meat, milk and Passover dishes, I need to purchase a fifth set just for Thanksgiving? Or do I just give up and go to my in-laws?”

But beyond the halachic question, there is an ethical question as to whether turkeys should be eaten at all.  Full disclosure:  I’m a vegetarian.   I don’t even eat Tofurkey, which looks like turkey (and if PETA gets its way will soon become the new name of “Turkey, Texas,”).   For me on Thanksgiving, “Pass the kugel and green beans!” is just fine – as long as I also get to see the Packers devour the Lions.

Rabbi Marc Soloway writes, “As delicious as that turkey dinner is on Thanksgiving, it is an increasingly ironic way to celebrate freedom and gratitude,” given the fact that almost all of the 45 million turkeys eaten by Americans each Thanksgiving have lived horrible, painful lives.

Jonathan Safran Foer elaborates in “Eating Animals,” his scathing critique of factory farms:

“Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet… Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model. So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animals. Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans. In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”

My sympathies were stoked this week when watching the PBS “Nature” program, “My Life as a Turkey,” describing Joe Hutto’s year of parenting a gaggle of wild turkeys he’d raised from birth.  He literally learned to talk turkey, and they taught him much more than he taught them. 

Turkeys evidently have much to teach all of us about being thankful.  They are smarter than many think and, like other animals, they have a complex emotional life, including expressions of joy, sadness and playfulness. “We do not have a privileged access to reality,” Hutto says, “So many of us live either in the past or the future and betray the moment and in some sense we forget to live our lives.  These wild turkeys were reminding me to live my life.”

At my Thanksgiving table this week, where turkey will be consumed, I just might speak of how these tough birds teach us to appreciate each meal, each caring touch and each moment of life, long before the make their acquaintance with the shochet.  It’s time for all of us to thank that the “Bird of Courage” that Ben Franklin preferred over the eagle.  When President Obama pardons that lucky turkey at the White House this year, we should demand that he pardon them all.  Why should the 99% suffer!  It’s time to Occupy the Hen House!

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more moving nature documentary than “My Life as a Turkey.”  Watch it and you might just be inclined to change your own family’s mesorah – about turkey, and about ethical eating too.

 

 

Last Update:

12/03/2013 - 19:14

Comments

As caring people we need to move away from dining on other animal species in favor of truly compassionate, healthy and environmentally sound diets. Terms like organic, free range and the like may please our fantasies but do not tell the real story of how animals raised for food are actually treated. For example surgical mutilations of animals' bodies without anesthetic is routine regardless of the label. All turkeys endure the degrading and revolting atrocity of artificial insemination and masturbation. Animal farming is not a benign, kind enterprise. It never was. There are so many wonderful vegan foods on the market today. Purchasing and supporting these products is what we can and should do to bring more peace and justice to the world.

Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.
Author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

It may be true that there are plenty of vegan foods out there, but human beings are omnivores. I am not going to personify animals yet I am not going to abuse them either. Animals have been and should continue to be a food source. That being said, there's no reason we have to gorge ourselves on animal meat either. There's a balance that should be struck. I have engaged in a diet that for the most part restricts my eating of meat to about 1/4 to 1/2 at a time when I have it that day, which is about 5 of 7 days (one meal a day). I usually eat lean poultry and fish plus eggs. I have more or less my red meat consumption to maybe to less than a 1/4 lb of it a week. The balance is nuts, fruits, raw & cooked vegetables for the most part with whole grains to round things out. That's a sensible approach rather than a cold turkey approach of dropping meat altogether. I think Mr. Zuckerberg was certainly onto something about only eating what you personally kill. Certainly, it would create more sensitivity. A combination of eating less meat and minimizing our national dependency on industrial production of meats would create more sensitivity and health benefits. I would also point out that our food bills have lowered and our trips to the grocery store have halved. Refined sugar, corn syrup, etc. in itself would be a great thing for each person to make a point to consume less of on their own. It might be more harmful than meat itself.

Hodu l'Hashem ki tov.

Anthropomorphizing animals is treyf thinking.

A most, delightful, informative, enlightening story. I, too, don't 'do' turkey for holiday fare. They are over-rated. As noted, full of additives/chemicals of all sorts as is common in today's mass production food processes. The processed foods of today cause the majority of health/medical/allergy problems.

i totally agree--'..A principle behind kosher laws is that “you are what you eat,” ;0)

And considering further, '... For me on Thanksgiving, “Pass the kugel and green beans!” ;0)

M.

To me, due to issues of health, compassion, and the environment, all meat is trayf, as the production of meat violates many of the major teachings and values of Judaism.

We shouldn't contribute to the torture and genocide of animals to satisfy our unnecessary blood lust.

For more, please visit The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg

All meat is not treyf. Blanket statements such as this one serve no purpose for a meaningful discussion., and further there is no support for such a conclusion. It might be preferable not to eat so much of it, but it is certainly not treyf. The would be a gross misunderstanding of Jewish halacha. I am sure you can find a kosher slaughterhouse that performs ritual slaughter within the spirit versus ones that are more industrial.

Kudos to Rabbi Hammerman for his comassionate and eloquent commentary on turkeys. I hope many people watch "My Life as a Turkey." Imagine how much more peaceful this world would be if people eliminated the violence on their plates.
Rina Deych, RN
Vegan Nurse

As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I commend Rabbi Hammerman for his thoughtful analysis. I hope it will make Jews think twice before having turkey at their Thanksgiving meal. And, it is important to consider that it is not only turkeys that are mistreated on modern factory farms, but almost all animals raised for food in the US .

More generally, we should also consider that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products violate basic Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people and that animal -based diets and agriculture are causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities, and contributing significantly to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all of humanity. I believe it is essential that the Jewish community address these issues and consider shifts to plant-based diets to help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

For further information about Jewish teachings on vegetarianism, please see my 150 articles and 25 podcasts and complete text of my book "Judaism and Vegetarianism" at JewishVeg.com/schwartz and please see our acclaimed documentary "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World" at ASacedDuty.com.

I see no real difference between eating chicken on Friday night and turkey on thanksgiving.
PS Turkey is now eaten far more often than on just thanksgiving.

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