Let’s Talk Turkey – …and Prairie Chicken and Muscovy Duck

clip_image002Last week I presented two questions that I did not answer:

Question #1: “While camping in Western Canada, we saw thousands of wild, roaming birds called “prairie chicken.” They were clearly different from the familiar, common chicken, but appeared so similar that I was tempted to bring one to a shocheit to prepare for us. Halachically, could I have done this?”

Question #2: “Someone told me that a variety of duck, called the Muscovy duck, is raised in Israel for its kosher meat and liver although the American rabbonim prohibit eating this bird. How could this be?”

Last week’s discussion prompts us to ask the following:

Question #3: According to the popular story or legend, Benjamin Franklin advocated that the United States choose the turkey, which is also native American, as its national bird, rather than the bald eagle. He preferred the turkey’s midos and felt that it better reflects American values. However, if turkey is indeed indigenous only to North America, how can it have a Jewish tradition that it is kosher?


We learned last week that whereas the Torah identified kosher animal and fish through specific attributes called simanim, it specifically listed the bird species that are non-kosher, implying that all other birds are kosher. Indeed, the Gemara records that someone familiar with all the avian non-kosher varieties may identify all other fowl, even those unfamiliar to him, as kosher, and teach this to others. Since it is not always practical to find someone familiar with all 24 varieties of non-kosher birds, the Mishnah provided four simanim. A bird with all four simanim is definitely kosher, whereas one with some of these simanim may or may not be kosher. Any bird without any of the simanim is certainly non-kosher.


The Mishnah reports that any bird that is doreis is not kosher. There are several different ways to explain the meaning of the word doreis, most meaning that the bird uses its claws in a distinctive way when it preys or eats. The other three simanim describe physical characteristics of the bird, not feeding habits. They are:

(1)  The bird has a crop, an expandable food pouch for storing undigested food.

(2)  The inner lining of its gizzard (the pupek) can be peeled.

(3)  It possesses an “extra claw,” a term that is interpreted by different Rishonim in diverse ways.


We find three distinctive features that demonstrate whether a bird is doreis. The first, recorded by the Mishnah, is that any bird that when sitting on a rope or stick, places two of its claws on one side of the rope or stick, and the other two on the opposite side, is definitely doreis and non-kosher. The second is that a bird that swallows its food in mid-flight is not kosher (Chullin 65a). The third is that any bird that has webbed feet and a wide beak is certainly not doreis (Baal HaMaor). Since this information will become significant as we proceed, allow me to explain these avian characteristics.


The Mishnah teaches, “Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Tzadok says, ‘Any bird that separates its legs is non-kosher’” (Chullin 59a). The Gemara explains that you stretch a length of rope for the bird to walk or rest on: A bird that places two claws of its leg on one side of the rope and two on the opposite side is non-kosher because this indicates that it is doreis. If it places three claws on one side of the rope and one on the other, it is probably kosher (Chullin 65a).

The morning I wrote these words, I visited someone who owns a pet cockatiel, a small Australian parrot, and noted that the bird clenched the sticks it stood on in the classic doreis position of two claws fore and two aft. I found this surprising since the cockatiel’s diet of seeds combined with its owner’s observations of its docile behavior make it difficult to imagine that this bird is doreis. However, one could explain this Mishnah in the following fashion:

The Mishnah does not clarify how often a bird needs to be doreis to be non-kosher. The Gemara describes a variety of bird called a “marsh chicken” that was assumed to be kosher until the Amora, Mareimar, noticed it being doreis (Chullin 62b). Rashi notes that we could observe a bird for quite some time without seeing it doreis and only catch it being dories after a while! Thus indeed, the marsh chicken was non-kosher the entire time although they did not know. For this reason, Rashi concludes that we do not rely on our observation that a bird is not doreis; instead, we do not consume fowl unless we have a mesorah that this variety does not doreis.

Thus, one approach to explain why the cockatiel spreads its foot across a rope or branch non-kosher style is that although the cockatiel is doreis, it does this so rarely that we may never notice.


As I mentioned earlier, many Rishonim cite a tradition that a bird with webbed feet and/or a wide beak is definitely not doreis. Following this approach, someone discovering a bird that possesses all of the following body simanim: it has a crop, a gizzard that can be peeled, an “extra claw,” webbed feet, and a wide beak, can assume that this bird is kosher.

It is noteworthy that while many early authorities quote Rashi’s opinion that we do not rely on our observation to determine that a bird is not doreis, they also quote the tradition that a bird with webbed feet and a wide beak is not doreis (Rosh, Chullin 3:59 and 60; Issur VaHeter 56:18; Shulchan Aruch 82:2, 3). Obviously, they understood that a bird possessing webbed feet and a wide beak has a mesorah that it is not doreis, and is kosher if it has the other body simanim — even though no one recalls a specific mesorah on this bird. In other words, Rashi did not declare that no birds can be eaten without a mesorah — he only contended that we do not rely on our observation that a bird is not doreis. This is indeed the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling on this subject, as well as many later halachic authorities, both Ashkenazic and Sefardic (Yam shel Shelomoh; Pri Chodosh; Pleisi, Kuntros Pnei Nesher, located after his commentary to Yoreh Deah 82; Shu”t Sho’eil Umeishiv 5:1:69).


I am unaware of any authority who disagrees with the above conclusion prior to the time of the Rama (Yoreh Deah 82:3). The Rama, however, records an accepted minhag prohibiting consumption of any bird without a known mesorah that it is kosher. Most authorities assume that as a result of this ruling Ashkenazim do not consume any fowl lacking a known mesorah to be kosher, although some contend that no such minhag exists (Yam shel Shelomoh, Chullin 3:115; Pleisi; Shu”t Sho’eil Umeishiv 5:1:69). (It should be noted that the Taz cites Rashi as the source for the Rama’s minhag. Although the obvious interpretation of the Taz’s comment is that he feels that Rashi rejects the approach that webbed feet and wide beak are valid proof that the bird is not doreis [Minchas Yitzchak 2:85], his comments can be interpreted in a different way.)


By definition, a non-migratory bird native to the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand cannot have an ancient mesorah ascertaining that it is a kosher species since no one resides there who could possess such a mesorah. Does this mean that according to the Rama, any bird native to the Americas cannot be eaten? Some poskim indeed held this position regarding the Muscovy duck, a bird that, notwithstanding its name, is a Mexican native. (No one is certain why this duck is named after frigid Moscow, when it is indigenous to a much warmer climate.)

A rav in Civil War era New Orleans, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Illowy, who was extensively involved in kiruv rechokim over a hundred years before the field became popular, discovered that members of his community were raising this duck for food and that the local shochatim were shechting it. Rav Illowy notes that the Muscovy appears to have all the simanim of any common duck, including the webbed feet and wide beak that indicate it is not doreis. Nevertheless, he maintained that since this bird has no mesorah, it cannot be eaten as kosher. He then sent the shaylah to Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch and to Rav Nosson Adler, both of whom agreed with Rav Illowy’s decision.

Notwithstanding this psak, the Muscovy apparently became a popular food in many kosher communities, both in the Union and the Confederacy, and eventually in Europe also. Later its liver became popular when prepared as foie gras, a delicacy once made exclusively from goose liver. (Nowadays foie gras is commonly produced from the liver of the mullard, a crossbreed of the Muscovy with the pekin, an established kosher variety of duck.) Indeed several prominent later authorities, including the Netziv, Rav Shmuel Salant, and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank ruled that the Muscovy duck is indeed kosher since observant Jews had been consuming it (Shu”t Har Tzvi, Yoreh Deah #75). How could they permit a bird that clearly has no mesorah?

The Netziv ruled that, since observant Jews were already consuming Muscovy, they can be considered kosher for three reasons:

1. They are fairly similar to varieties of duck that possess a mesorah that they are kosher and could perhaps be considered the same min as far as halacha is concerned. One should note that the halachic definition of a min is highly unclear, although one matter is certain: It has little relationship to any scientific definition of what is considered a species.

2. They will freely breed in the wild with varieties known to be kosher ducks, even when other Muscovies are readily available. This factor is significant because the Gemara rules that two species, one kosher and the other non-kosher, will not reproduce together (Bechoros 7a). Although there is debate over whether this rule applies also to birds or only to land animals, several authorities contend that it also applies to birds (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #74; Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Yoreh Deah #75:4 and many others). According to this approach, since a Muscovy readily mates with varieties of known kosher duck, one may assume it to be kosher.

3. The Rama’s minhag prohibiting consumption of fowl without a mesorah applies only to a newly discovered bird and not to a variety that observant Jews are already eating (Shu”t Meishiv Davar 2:22).


Of course, this leads to our discussion of the turkey, also a native American that appears to have found its way to the Jewish pot since its introduction to Europe in the Sixteenth Century. The Kenesses HaGedolah, authored in the Seventeenth Century, is the earliest source I found discussing the kashrus of the turkey, and it is apparent from his comments that Jews were already eating it. Although one would imagine much discussion on the kashrus issues of this bird, every other teshuvah I have seen discusses not whether the turkey is kosher, but why, and each is written hundreds of years after turkey consumption became commonplace in the kosher world.

For those who question whether the turkey was commonly eaten in this earlier era, I refer them to the comments of the Magen Avraham (79:14), who assumes that a passing reference to a “red chicken” by the Shulchan Aruch refers to the turkey, providing us with fairly clear evidence that in his day the turkey was commonly found in Jewish domiciles. The Magen Avraham makes no reference to any controversy regarding the kashrus of this bird, which was already a well established member of Jewish households.


From a strictly anatomical perspective, the Muscovy duck can rally better proof to its kosher status than can a turkey. Whereas the Muscovy duck needs to contend only with the ruling of the Rama that it bears no mesorah, it certainly has the wide beak and webbed feet that the Rishonim accept as proof that it is not doreis. Thus, according to all authorities prior to the Rama, one could consume Muscovy based on its possessing kosher simanim. Rav Hirsch and the others who prohibit it did so because they accepted the minhag recorded by Rama not to rely on simanim.

On the other hand, the turkey is faced with more of an uphill battle anatomically.

It does not have webbed feet or a wide beak – thus, to permit it because of simanim we must ascertain that it is not doreis — and Rashi rules that we do not rely on observation to determine that a bird is not doreis. Yet, the common practice of hundreds of years is to consider it kosher!


I have seen numerous attempts to explain why indeed we consume turkey, of which I will share only some. Many authorities thought that the turkey had a mesorah from India as a kosher bird (see Kenesses HaGedolah 82:31 and several others quoted by Darchei Teshuvah 82:26). Of course, this was based on a factual error — the Yiddish and Modern Hebrew name for turkey is “Indian chicken,” and it is so named in many other languages, based on the same confusion that resulted in the islands of the Caribbean being called the “West Indies.” Notwithstanding that these names merely reflect Columbus’s impression that he had discovered an area near India, the confusion led some to conclude that the Indian Jews possess an ancient mesorah that the turkey is kosher.

Others contend that the practice of eating turkey predates the Rama’s ruling that we consume only birds that have a mesorah. Thus, one could say that it was grandfathered into kosher cuisine.

Still others contend that although we usually do not rely on our observation that a bird is not doreis, since thousands of Jews have raised turkeys and never seen them doreis, we can be absolutely certain that they do not and we can therefore assume them to be kosher because of simanim (Darchei Teshuvah 82:26 quoting Arugos HaBosem).

A different approach is that although the Rama required mesorah to permit the consumption of fowl, once observant Jews have accepted to eat a certain variety of bird, one may continue this practice (if it is not definitely non-kosher). Once Klal Yisroel has accepted a bird that appears to be kosher, we assume that it is kosher even if we do not, and cannot, have a mesorah on its kashrus (see Taz 82:4). The Netziv justifies the consumption of the Muscovy duck because of the fact that turkey is accepted to be kosher even though it has no mesorah either!

To answer our original questions, the Muscovy duck has not escaped contemporary controversy, some rabbonim and hechsherim, particularly in Eretz Yisroel, permitting it; others forbidding; while still others will consider it kosher but not mehadrin. I have been told that the North American hechsherim do not treat it as kosher.

Regarding the prairie chicken, it is assumed to be non-kosher, or more accurately, without either mesorah or acceptance that it is kosher, and therefore I am unaware of anywhere that it is slaughtered as a kosher bird.


Did Benjamin Franklin really want the turkey to be the symbol of the United States of America?

In a letter to his daughter, Ben wrote:

“For my own part I wish the eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly… He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest… The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… He is… a bird of courage and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat.”

To reinforce good old Ben’s argument, we note that whereas the turkey seems to have all four simanim of a kosher bird, the eagle has none (according to Rashi’s opinion). The Ramban explains that the Torah forbade the non-kosher birds because the Torah wants us to avoid the bad midos that they exhibit. One could assume that the kosher species may exhibit admirable traits that the Torah wants us to emulate. Certainly, the courage to observe mitzvos in times of adversity is a virtue worth emulating that we should contemplate the next time we eat turkey.


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