Yes, I know--this page is more than a week behind schedule. The fact of the matter is that I was in search of a way to jumpstart this article. I found it last Friday morning . . . in the supermarket. Lois and I ran into a good friend of ours--who must remain anonymou--who recounted with some nostalgia that the only American holiday she missed celebrating was Thanksgiving Day. I dryly commented that nowadays in Israel, unlike when we made aliyah twenty-five years ago, getting a hold of a whole turkey posed no problem. Many of us purchase a whole gobbler for use during our own holidays, especially when we are expecting company for one festive meal or another. My good friend replied that, yes, we can, but it's not quite the same atmosphere as Thanksgiving Day afforded us back in the U.S. I suppose that she's right--after all, when our Jewish pilgrims made the first successful aliyah to Palestine in the 1880s, they didn't mark the occasion with a turkey dinner--I seriously doubt whether there was one turkey to be found in the entire country in those days! Yet we do link certain foods with our own festive days: challah on Shabbat, honey and first fruits on Rosh Hashannah, "hamantaschen" on Purim, potato pancakes (yes, I remember that we called them "latkes" in the old country) and jelly rolls on Chanukah, and a dairy meal on Shavuot, etc. Also, every year, as a former teacher from New York who had been a member of the UFT, I receive an annual invitation from the UFT retirees organization here in Israel to a turkey lunch in Jerusalem on Thanksgiving Day. So, what's the big deal about this time of the year when Americans travel to their friends, gather around the table, and engage in an orgy of stuffing, (and stuffing themselves with) turkey, and cranberry sauce?
There was a time when, in America, "turkey" was slang for a failure, dud, bomb, washout, and fiasco.
It's It's funny--in a way--because the origin of the word "Jew" is linked to the Hebrew for the word "turkey". And that word is linked to giving thanks to our Creator. Does this sound a bit off the wall? Well, before you suggest I try on a straightjacket, hear me out.
Give thanks to the Lord for He is good . . . Does the above phrase from our prayerbook look familiar? "This time let me gratefully praise the Lord . . . therefore she called his name Judah. . . ." äôòí àåãä àú ä´ òì ëï ÷øàä ùîå éäåãä Does the above phrase from Genesis look familiar? "Therefore I will give thanks [äåãå] to you, O Lord, among the nations . . ." (Samuel 2, 22:50) By the way, just as Judah is derived from "Hō-dū," the word "Jew" (Yehudi) is derived from Judah. When only the tribe of Judah (with a few fragments from Levi) survived the Assyrian conquest, we were no longer called Israelites or Hebrews.
Where and when did this love affair between Jews and the gobbler begin? When European settlers arrived on the American shores in the 15th century they found a whole new world of flora and fauna that was cultivated and domesticated by the Native Americans.
Benjamin Franklin wanted this to be America's symbol. . .
. . instead of this.
Some of these plants and animals immediately found favor in their eyes as sources of food. They too began raising them and in many cases brought them back to Europe. The Jews, who rapidly followed on the heels of the other Europeans to American shores, were also greeted by this new display of nature. They not only needed to learn to cultivate, prepare, and enjoy these new delicacies, but they were also confronted with halachic questions. The many questions they faced ranged in degree of severity and difficulty of resolution. For example, the question of the kosher status of the American bison was relatively easy. Whether New World produce is considered kitniyot (and prohibited to Ashkenazim on Pesach) was debated years ago regarding the potato and is currently under discussion about quinoa. The answer seems to be negative for both. What blessing to make on the New World treat chocolate was also decided relatively quickly.
Questions regarding the kashrut of previously unknown species of birds proved to be much more challenging, and some have remained unresolved to this day. The kosher status of birds is a much more complex issue than that of animals and fish. The Torah (Lev. 11:1-27 and Deut. 14:3-20) specifies identifying features to indicate whether a particular animal species is kosher. Within the mammalian quadruped category, an animal is defined as kosher if it both chews its cud and has fully split hooves. A sea creature is deemed kosher if it is a fish (Aruch Hashulchan 83:5-11) and has at least one fin and one scale (Lev. 11:9-10; Deut. 14:9-10) that are visible to the naked eye.
Birds are categorically different. The Torah offers no identifying features to distinguish kosher from non-kosher species. It simply provides a listing (Lev. 11:13-19 and Deut. 14:11-18) of the 24 species of birds that are not kosher (Chullin 63b). By inference, the vast number of other bird species are kosher. Today, when the 24 non-kosher species can no longer be accurately identified, things are quite a bit more complicated.
Although the Torah did not provide physical indicators by which to identify kosher fowl, the rabbis provided four identifying features to help categorize birds. The Mishnah (Chullin 3:6 [59a]) states: "every bird that is 1) dores ("a predator") is not kosher. Every bird that has 2) an extra toe, 3) a zefek (crop, the biblical more'eh , e.g. Lev. 1:16), and 4) a korkuvan (gizzard, "pupik" in Yiddish) whose inner lining can be peeled, is kosher."
These seemingly simple rules were the source of ongoing and rancorous debate throughout the ages, to the point that a 19th century authority wrote: "In order to fully explain the identification of kosher birds would take a small booklet of its own" (Minchat Chinuch , mitzvah 157). And some poskim (decisors) did precisely that. Following responsum YD:74, Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer; 1762-1839) wrote several pages of explanation of the subject, followed by a note that the rest of his thoughts on this topic are in a separate monograph. The Beit Yitzchak at the beginning of YD 1:106 refers to three monographs that others had written on the subject. Similarly, Rabbi Yonatan Eibschitz wrote a monograph, P'nei Nesher , on the kashrut of birds.
With all the disagreement and confusion, the final halacha follows Rashi (Chullin 62a), who, based on the incident of the tarnegulsa d'agma in which people ate a non-kosher bird as a consequence of applying physical characteristics as a criterion, ruled that birds may only be eaten based on a mesorah -- oral tradition. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 82:3), and even more definitively, the Ramo (ibid), ruled that the only applicable principle is that "no bird should be eaten unless there is a mesorah that it is a kosher species." And this is where the problem for New World birds arises -- there simply cannot be an ancient continuous unbroken tradition regarding a New World bird. Now let's get back to our turkey. The turkey has gained near universal kosher acceptance. According to the National Turkey Federation, ISRAEL LEADS THE WORLD IN TURKEY CONSUMPTION. At a whopping 28.8 pounds per capita annual consumption in 2001, Israelis consumed considerably more turkey than the second largest consumers, Americans, who consumed approximately 17.5 pounds per capita annually. There is no question today that turkey, the quintessential New World species which Benjamin Franklin (an anti-Semite, unfortunately--but that's another story for another article) proposed as the national bird of the United States because it is "a true original native of America" and does not have the "bad moral character" of the bald eagle, has been universally accepted as a kosher species.
What is even more interesting and surprising is that there were apparently no questions raised about the turkey in the period immediately following its introduction into Europe. This bird arrived from the New World sans a mesorah and yet seems to have made a flawless entry into the kosher kitchen. When the question was finally discussed, most of the responsa seem to have been post-facto. They were not coming to determine the turkey's status, but rather they were attempting to unravel the seeming inconsistency of accepting the requirement for a mesorah on the one hand and the fact that turkey was well-accepted as kosher on the other hand. In other instances, the accepted kosher status of turkey was used as part of an analysis of another bird question.
Jews have probably been eating turkey for as long as their non-Jewish neighbors, since the early 16th century. Yet the reason for its acceptability does not seem to have been discussed until the late 18th century, at which time it became a controversial issue. Even at that time the issue may only have been raised because of the controversy that was then brewing in Europe regarding the status of several other birds.
When finally questioned, the vast majority of halachic authorities accepted the turkey as kosher. However, a plethora of different reasons, most not fully satisfactory, were ultimately suggested. These include: There was an Indian mesorah--remember that India was called "Hodu" from Biblical times; there is also a mesorah of unknown origin; there is no need for a mesorah since it has 3 physical signs and we reject the Ramo's view on this issue; there is no need for a mesorah because it has all four signs and its dores (predator) status can be ascertained because it has been observed longer than 12 months; it is in the same broad category as the chicken; there is a Sephardic mesorah; it was accepted pre-Ramo; and, finally, it hybridizes with known kosher species.
So, in a strange way, partaking of the turkey--äåãå--is a most suitable way of giving thanks to the Omnipresent. Is it, however, proper to set aside one special day of thanksgiving to our Father in Heaven when, in truth, as Jews, we praise Him/Her daily in our prayers and grace after meals? Yet, although we do repentance year round, we do have a special day--Yom Kippur--in which we approach our Maker to seek forgiveness. We have our special days for mourning, fasting, and feasting. There should be nothing wrong with a Thanksgiving Day, so long as we don't lose sight of our constant relationship with the Holy One, Blessed be He/Her.
If, however, you want an icon for this day, please don't latch on to one of those ugly (but delicious) birds! We, the descendants of Judah, should give thanks regularly, but as descendants of Judah, let's get over this turkey symbol. If you want an icon, then as an heir of Judah I suggest the one to the left.