For that matter, what about a venison (deer meat) roast!
Reb Yehudah, a respected Israeli talmid chacham, calls me with the following question: His grandparents have retired and moved to Israel. Now they have invited the entire family over for a Chanukas HaBayis where Zeide is proudly planning to serve barbecued “buffalo steaks” that he brought from America. Reb Yehudah cannot figure out how his grandfather can serve buffalo, or more accurately, bison meat, and Zeide, a frum man all his life, cannot figure out what the problem is — after all, he specially purchased meat with the finest hechsher. I was called upon to mediate.
Before discussing the halachic issues regarding giraffe burgers and buffalo steaks, we will need some background information:
SOME BASIC ANIMAL FACTS
The Torah writes: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon saying to them.’Speak to the children of Israel saying, these are the beasts from which you may eat. From the animals that are upon the ground: Whatever has a split hoof that is separated completely and ruminates (chews its cud) among the animals: Those you may eat’” (Vayikra 11:1-3). Thus the Torah defines any land animal with a totally split hoof that chews its cud as kosher. These two signs, or simanim, indicating that their proud owner is kosher, are possessed by sheep, goats, the many varieties of deer and antelope, as well as the entire bovine family, including Western domesticated cattle, Indian zebu cattle, Asian water buffalo, African cape buffalo, European bison (also called the wisent), American bison (colloquially and inaccurately referred to in North America as buffalo), and Himalayan yak. On the other hand, although a camel chews its cud and has a split hoof, since its hoof is only partially split and not fully separated it is not kosher (Vayikra 11:4). Although I have read articles claiming otherwise, visual inspection of giraffe feet shows that they have fully split hooves.
ANIMALS VERSUS BIRDS
There is a major halachic difference between land animals and birds in determining whether it is a kosher species. Unlike kosher animals, which are identified by the above two simanim, birds are determined to be kosher if they are omitted from the Torah’s list of 24 non-Kosher birds. Since so many thousands of bird species exist, it is obvious that most are kosher. The question is how does one identify the non-kosher varieties?
SIMANIM VERSUS MESORAH
The Gemara (Chullin 61b) specifies four indicating features (simanim); any bird species that contains all four features is kosher. However, many Rishonim contend that we do not rely on our understanding of these simanim and only eat fowl for which we have an oral tradition, a mesorah, that they are kosher (Rashi, Chullin 62b s.v. Chazyuha). The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 82:2) rules that one may rely on simanim, while the Rama (82:3) cites the custom not to eat any species of bird without a mesorah.
In addition to our basic background about identifying kosher species of land animals and of birds, we need to distinguish between two categories of kosher animal.
BEHEIMAH VERSUS CHAYAH
Kosher land animals are divided into two categories, beheimah and chayah. Although beheimah (pl., beheimos) is often translated as domesticated species and chayah (pl., chayos) as wild species, these definitions are halachically inaccurate, as we will see.
There are three halachic differences between a beheimah and a chayah.
CHEILEV — FORBIDDEN FAT
1. The Torah forbade consuming certain fats called cheilev, most of which protect the stomachs and kidneys (Chullin 93a). Eating cheilev is a very serious halachic prohibition, similar in severity to eating on Yom Kippur (Mishnah Kereisus 2a)!
The prohibition of cheilev applies to all species of beheimah, but does not apply to chayos (Mishnah Chullin 89b). Thus, someone eating the fat protecting the kidney of a properly slaughtered kosher sheep or calf has violated a prohibition similar to eating on Yom Kippur for consuming cheilev, whereas the greatest tzadik may eat the cheilev of a deer, which is a chayah. Thus one may enjoy a sumptuous venison roast without concern that he is eating any forbidden fat!
KISUY HADAM — COVERING THE BLOOD
2. Another mitzvah that is affected by whether a species is a chayah or a beheimah is the mitzvah of kisuy hadam, covering the blood immediately after shechitah. This mitzvah applies to chayah species (and to fowl), but not to beheimos (Mishnah Chullin 83b). Prior to covering this blood, a bracha is recited, as we do when fulfilling most mitzvos.
Thus, if a species is a chayah, one is required to cover the blood spilled during shechitah, and one may eat its cheilev fat. If it is a beheimah, there is no requirement to cover the blood, but eating its cheilev is strictly forbidden. So, after performing shechitah on our deer, one recites a bracha and then covers the blood with dirt or sawdust.
KOY — AN ANIMAL WITHOUT A SENSE OF IDENTITY
The Mishnah (Bikkurim 2:8- 11) discusses a species called koy (sometimes pronounced kvee), whose status is unclear. Although it is certainly a kosher species, we do not know whether it is a beheimah or a chayah. Due to this uncertainty, it has the stringencies of both categories: its fat is forbidden and one must cover its shechitah blood, but without a bracha. We omit the bracha because we are uncertain whether the Torah required covering its blood. If there is indeed no mitzvah, reciting a bracha before covering its blood would be a bracha livatalah, a bracha recited in vain. As a result, we cover the blood, which may be a mitzvah, but do not recite a bracha, since perhaps it is not.
3. A third mitzvah affected by whether a species is a chayah or a beheimah is korbanos. One may not offer chayos on the mizbeiach in the Beis HaMikdash; only beheimos are kosher for this purpose (Zevachim 34a; Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Mizbeiach 5:6). Thus, although deer are kosher, we may not use them as korbanos.
We have established that one can have kosher venison roast and need not be concerned about its cheilev and that, as a self-respecting chayah, it is not acceptable as a korban. Serving venison on Pesach will be a welcome change of pace and a conversation piece, although one may not eat roast venison at the Seder since the custom is not to eat any roast meat then (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 476:2).
Since there are several halachic differences between beheimah and chayah, we need to define which species are beheimah and which are chayah. After all, no one wants to eat kidney fat of a beheimah thinking that it was a chayah!
WHAT IS A CHAYAH?
The Written Torah did not indicate the defining characteristics distinguishing beheimos from chayos, leaving these rules to the Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah. The Gemara (Chullin 59b) mentions several characteristics, mostly dependent on the animal’s horns: A branched horn defines its species as chayah, whereas non-branched horns may indicate either a chayah or a beheimah depending on whether they grow in layers, are grooved, and whether their tips are curved or straight (Rashi ad loc.; cf. Rabbeinu Chananel). Therefore, any species possessing branched horns or antlers like those found on most deer is a chayah, whereas those with straight horns may be either chayah or beheimah depending on the other criteria. Since all antelope (a general category that includes several dozen species) have un-branched horns, one would need to examine the horns of each species to determine whether it is a beheimah or a chayah. (Technically speaking, the difference between deer and antelope is that deer have antlers that shed and re-grow annually, whereas antelope have permanent un-branched horns.) (There is one halachic opinion [Shu”t Beis Yaakov #41, quoted by Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 80:1] who contends that a chayah without horns is not kosher at all, but this approach is rejected by other halachic authorities [Pischei Teshuvah].)
Note that whether a species is categorized as a beheimah or as a chayah has no bearing on whether it is domesticated or not. Reindeer, although domesticated, are clearly a chayah since they have branched antlers, whereas there are non-domesticated species that are almost certainly beheimah according to halacha.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 28:4) rules that one does not perform kisuy hadam for a buffalo; this determines it to be definitely a beheimah. (He is presumably referring to the Asian water buffalo, which was domesticated in Southern Europe hundreds of years before the Shulchan Aruch. He is certainly not referring to the American bison.) If there was any uncertainty regarding its status as a beheimah, the Shulchan Aruch would require kisuy hadam without a bracha – after all we would not ignore this mitzvah, particularly since it is easy to perform. However, the Rama (ad loc.) rules that the status of the buffalo is uncertain and contends that one should cover its blood but without a bracha. According to both opinions, the cheilev is forbidden — according to the Shulchan Aruch, definitely, as the cheilev of a beheimah, and according to the Rama, because of doubt.
A SECOND INTRODUCTION
According to everything that we have so far explained, the North American bison, which ruminates and has clearly split hooves, is clearly a kosher species. Referring back to our opening question: What made Reb Yehudah, our Israeli talmid chacham, think that bison is non-kosher?
The controversy that erupted in Reb Yehudah’s family originated in how to interpret the words of the major halacha authority, the Shach. Commenting on Shulchan Aruch’s definition of the differences between a beheimah and a chayah, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 80:1) writes “I did not elaborate… since today we only use what we have received with a mesorah.” He then concludes with a reference to the laws of kosher birds. The Shach’s comparison of the laws of animals to that of birds implies that accepted practice is to eat only land animal species that have a mesorah that they were eaten, and not to rely on the simanim that they are kosher, even when these simanim are obvious! This seems to run counter to the Gemara’s ruling that simanim are adequate to determine their kashrus.
The Pri Megadim, the major commentary on the Shach, discusses this difficulty and concludes that the Shach meant something else: since the defining distinctions between chayah and beheimah are sometimes unclear, we do not eat the cheilev of any species unless we have a mesorah that it is indeed a chayah. In practical terms, this means that the only land animals whose cheilev we permit are deer, since they are the only chayah species for which we have a definite mesorah. Therefore, according to the Pri Megadim, if someone moves to an area where he encounters a new species that has branched antlers like a deer, has split hooves and chews its cud, he may eat the meat of this animal (after properly shechting it) but he may not eat the cheilev even though it is certainly a chayah.
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION OF THE SHACH
Not all halachic authorities interpret the Shach as the Pri Megadim does. The Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 11:4, 5) explains the Shach literally and also understands the rulings of other authorities (Chochmas Odom; Aruch HaShulchan) as agreeing with his interpretation. In his opinion, Shach is referring to a minhag, established in his generation or earlier, to not eat any animal species for which there was no mesorah. Chazon Ish suggests several reasons why such a minhag may have begun, including the possibility that people would not know how to check whether this unfamiliar animal is a tereifah (has some flaw that renders it non-kosher) or that they may assume that it is a chayah and permit its cheilev when it is not.
On the other hand, several other prominent poskim (Kaf HaChayim 80:5;
Darkei Teshuvah 80:3) were unaware of such a minhag, and, in addition, many authorities question why early poskim never clearly mention such a practice.
CONTROVERSIAL RESULTS – 1950 IN MADAGASCAR
In 1950, there was an attempt to import Madagascar beef from a variety of cattle called zebu into the new State of Israel. The zebu, the common cattle of India, has some noticeable differences from the common European beef cattle, including a large hump between its shoulders, and a very large hanging fold of skin under its throat called a dewlap. It definitely ruminates and has fully split hooves.
A dispute developed between the Chazon Ish and Rav Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, regarding whether this meat could be considered kosher and imported into Eretz Yisroel, Rav Herzog contending that there is no need to have a mesorah that a species of beef is kosher, and the Chazon Ish objecting. To avoid a major dispute within the fledgling country, Rav Herzog did not allow the beef into the country.
1990’S IN SOUTH AMERICA
A few years ago, a major controversy developed in Eretz Yisroel regarding the origin of the kosher beef raised in South America. Land in Israel is scarce, whereas much of South America is perfect for raising beef cattle. In recent years, even the hechsherim with the highest standards have arranged for shechitah in South America, significantly lowering the price of beef.
A question arose regarding the common breeds of South American beef cattle because they include animals crossbred from different varieties, including the zebu. Rav Elyashiv, who usually rules according to the Chazon Ish, contended that one should not slaughter these cattle for kosher use without verifying that they are not descended from zebu cattle. Other Eretz Yisroel poskim were not concerned about this possibility, contending that even if a minhag exists not to eat zebu, the practice does not include beef varieties that look like European cattle, even if their ancestral background may include zebu.
Certainly the Chazon Ish would not approve of giraffe meat, even though giraffe has fully split hooves and ruminates. Contrary to a common misconception, a giraffe has perfectly split hooves, and also chews its cud. Other than the Chazon Ish’s concern about mesorah, there is only one halachic reason to ban giraffe meat – the opinion of the Beis Yaakov, quoted above, that a chayah must have horns. Although a giraffe has boney protrusions on the top of its head, some might argue that these are not true horns, thus concluding that a giraffe is non-kosher according to this opinion of the Beis Yaakov. However, since most authorities reject this approach, the giraffe can safely be regarded as a kosher species because of its simanim.
Actually, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever shechted a giraffe because of several practical concerns. Giraffe meat is so tough that even non-Jews are not tempted to eat its meat. Also, giraffes are very expensive zoo animals, and are extremely powerful creatures difficult to convince that they should cooperate with the shocheit. However, there is no truth to the persistent rumor that no one knows where to shecht a giraffe. The area of its neck appropriate for shechitah may run up to seven feet long, certainly many times the length of the corresponding shechitah area of a dove.
At this point, we will return to our original discussion. Reb Yehudah, an Israeli avreich, has been invited to a bison barbecue hosted by his grandfather. Reb Yehudah follows all of Rav Elyashiv’s rulings, and certainly those of the Chazon Ish, to the letter. Someone like him may not eat from a species such as bison, which obviously cannot have a long-standing mesorah since it is a native American. Reb Yehudah could not comprehend how someone could provide a hechsher to a product that the Chazon Ish would prohibit.
On the other hand, not all chareidi Eretz Yisroel poskim accept the Chazon Ish’s ruling in this matter. Rav Vozner (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 10:114), in a responsum addressed to some chassidic poskim, ruled that one may slaughter and eat species that do not have a mesorah. He was uncertain whether the Chochmas Odom and the Shach ever meant that land animal species require a mesorah. However, Rav Vozner ruled this way only for chutz la’aretz and alluded to the possibility that one should be stringent in Eretz Yisroel out of deference to the Chazon Ish.
With this background, I will explain how I mediated the family feud that had developed between Zeidi and Reb Yehudah. Reb Yehudah called me first. I explained to him that although Rav Elyashiv and the Chazon Ish would clearly prohibit bison because of minhag, many prominent poskim dispute that such a minhag exists, contending that one may eat a species identifiably kosher. Thus, someone who follows Rav Elyashiv or the Chazon Ish in halachic decisions should indeed not eat a species that has no mesorah. On the other hand, one who follows other poskim is entitled to rely on those opinions who consider these species to be kosher based on simanim.
I then spoke to Zeidi, who was perturbed that his grandson did not consider him kosher enough and that “Yehudala” was going off the deep end with his chumros. I explained that although American poskim rule bison to be kosher, once the Chazon Ish holds that a minhag exists to eat animals only with a mesorah, the people that Yehudah lives among will not be lenient against the Chazon Ish’s position. I assured Zeidi that Yehudah was not hunting (no pun intended) for chumros, but that in his circle this was accepted halacha. Although Zeidi was disappointed that Yehudah would never enjoy “buffalo,” he accepted my explanation and served beef steak, presumably not zebu, in addition to his buffalo burgers.