Is the Chicken a Kasher Bird?
Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi
During the "Golden Age" of Karaite learning (9th-12th centuries), some of the Karaite Hakhamim refrained from the consumption of chicken since they were uncertain as to whether or not to classify this bird as kasher.
We know that those mammals, aquatic creatures, and grasshoppers that are kasher are known by their marks. Mammals are known to be kasher if they chew the cud and have cloven hooves, aquatic creatures by their fins and scales and grasshoppers by their legs above their feet. Birds on the other hand are not recognised as kasher by any marks but solely by their names. The Tora does not state that kasher birds have such and such a mark, but simply gives a list of birds that one is not permitted to eat.
Now, the problem where birds are concerned is that the Hebrew language ceased to be spoken as the daily language of the Children of Yisrael during the Babylonian Exile. Therefore most of the birds listed in Leviticus 11:13-19 cannot be identified with any certainty and any translation of their names is only conjecture. Some of them can be identified with some certainty such as those that are mentioned elsewhere in the Mikra, but the overwhelming majority cannot be identified. Therefore we are to assume that any given species of bird belongs to the list of non-kasher birds, but once a particular species has been proved to be kasher it is then permissible, therefore we must only eat birds that we know are definitely kasher.
The Mikra mentions only five of the kasher birds, these being 1) Tor 2) Yona 3) Selaw, 4) Barbur, and 5) Kore. Now, we know that the tor and yona are the dove and pigeon respectively and that they were used for sacrifices in the Temple. The selaw is the quail, which was fed to us by YHWH in the wilderness. The barbur and kore present a problem for barbur is mentioned only once in the whole of the Mikra and that being in 1 Kings 5:3 and kore is mentioned twice 1 Samuel 26:20 and Jeremiah 17:11. The barbur has been translated by various commentators to mean swan, goose, or aquatic birds in general i.e. any bird belonging to the order of Anseriformes, and the kore has been translated as partridge, but these translations are only pure conjecture and no reliability should be given to them.
We must now bear in mind that the list of impure birds found in Leviticus 11:13-19 is not a complete list, but that each bird mentioned is a representative of its kind as written, “And the kite? and the vulture? according to its kind.” (Lev. 11:14) Therefore every species of kite? vulture? and of the other birds mentioned in Leviticus 11:13-19 are also not kasher. Logic would dictate that if this is true for non-kasher birds then in the same vein it must also be true for every kasher bird. In fact when the Tora speaks of the pure insects that we can eat i.e. those members of the group Orthoptera it uses the formula "according to its kind", as can be seen by the very verse, "These from them you may eat; the locust according to its kind, and the bald locust according to its kind, and the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind. And all swarming creatures (of) the fowl that have four legs, a detestable thing it is to you." (Lev. 11:22) Therefore just as the formula "according to its kind" has been applied by the Tora to pure insects then surely it can also be applied to the pure birds. This realisation can be backed up by the fact that the Tora states, "She shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons," (Lev. 12:8) and not "two turtledoves and two young pigeons." In other words if she cannot find one she can use the other; the Tora is therefore stating that doves and pigeons are interchangeable and therefore the whole of the Columbae family is permissible. Therefore every species of quail, dove, pigeon, and "barbur?" and "kore?" are kasher and can be eaten.
The logic behind this is that the Tora in a lot of circumstances states the outlying principle of the halakha which can be then applied to other miswoth of a similar ilk, in other words from the rule governing the particular we learn the rule governing the general. For instance "You shall not plough with an ox and with a donkey together." (Deut. 22:10) and "and you shall make a parapet for your roof, and you shall not put blood-(guilt) on your house, if someone falling will fall from it." (Deut. 22:8) are the underlying principles of the halakha i.e. mixing to forms of beasts together for labour (Deut. 22:10) and preventing accidental injury (Deut. 22:8). For example the Tora does not mention making a rail for a stair-way to stop someone falling and injuring themselves but the underlying principle is there in Deut. 22:8. Therefore just because the Tora does not state after each impure bird "according to its kind" it does not mean that this formula is not applicable to those impure birds that do not contain this formula after their names. From the context of the passage in question it can be inferred that it does. Apart from this form of Hekkesh [analogy] that we have applied to the pure birds another form of Hekkesh known as comparative analogy or analogy of equal nature can also be applied. An example of comparative analogy is, "The nakedness of your father's brother you shall not uncover, to his wife you shall not approach, she is your aunt." (Lev. 18:14) from which we learn that the same prohibition applies to the mother's brother's wife.
If the formula "according to its kind" as pointed out above can be applied to pure birds as well as to impure birds what does this entail for the dove and the pigeon? Modern taxonomy of birds is a phylogenetic classification; this means that the classification of birds is one that reflects the natural relationships between species. The order of Columbiformes has three families, one containing the dodo is now extinct, the other two are Pterocletes, which contains every species of sandgrouse, and Columbae, which contains every species of dove and pigeon. The Tora is therefore saying that all the members of the family of Columbae are kasher seeing that every species of dove and pigeon are kasher, as mentioned above.
Now let us apply the same logic to the quail. The order of Galliformes has three families 1) Megapodiae 2) Cracidae and 3) Phasianidae. The quail belongs to the family Phasianidae and if the quail is a kasher bird then surely every bird that is closely genetically related to the quail must also be kasher. Therefore every member of the family of Phasianidae is kasher as is every member of the family of Columbae as mentioned above.
Members of the family of Phasianidae are the Quail, Common Turkey, Grouse, Partridge, Pheasant, Peafowl, and the Jungle-Fowl (Gallus gallus) commonly known as the chicken. Therefore in my opinion by the above process of logic chicken is a kasher bird.
There are some individuals who labour under the assumption that the quail is not a kasher bird and if the quail is not a kasher bird then surely all those birds related to it i.e. those members of the family of Phasianidae, will also not be kasher. Those who hold this opinion base themselves upon a misconception of Numbers chapter 11 where they see the death of some of the Yisreelim after eating the quail as a punishment for not observing the Tora by eating a non-kasher bird.
The fact is that those individuals who hold this view have only partially understood Numbers chapter 11. The chapter starts off with YHWH sending fire against the people because of their grumbling against him, this whole section in fact stinks of rebellion against YHWH. After the fire that YHWH had sent abated, another revolt broke out. This revolt was initiated by the mixed multitude as can be seen from verse 4 where they are called "asafsuf" asaf from the root to gather and suf from the Hebrew reed i.e. the Sea of Reeds, in other words those who had gathered themselves to Yisrael at the Sea of Reeds during the Exodus. The pretext for the revolt was a gluttonous craving for meat, and this rebellion soon spread to the Yisreelim. It is also implied in this chapter that they ate the meat raw, they were so lustful for meat that as soon as they slaughtered the birds they gorged themselves on the raw flesh, in other words they ate like wild animals.
We notice that YHWH sent enough quail for the whole nation and the whole nation gathered the quails and partook of them, but the plague, verse 33, obviously did not strike the whole of the people because not all the people died. If the plague were sent to the people because the quails were not kasher then surely the whole of the nation would have been struck down, because the entire nation ate the quails, but they weren't. The answer to why this plague was sent lies in verses 19 and 20 where it says, "You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days but a whole month, until it comes out from your nostrils, and it becomes loathsome to you; because you have despised YHWH who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why did we come out of Misrayim?" It was because the people still doubted YHWH and their cravings were greater than their trust in him. The plague was sent because of YHWH's revulsion towards the people due to their lack of trust in him that materialised in the form of a rebellion and their obscene and animal like craving for flesh, hence the reason why the place was called "Graves of Craving." Besides if it were a test to see who would give in to their desires and eat a non-kasher bird why did YHWH state that the people would eat the quail for a whole month?
This understanding of Numbers chapter 11 can be verified by Psalm 78: 20-32.
"Behold, he struck the rock, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? Can he provide meat for his people? Therefore YHWH heard this, and was angry; so a fire was kindled against Ya'akcov, and anger also came up against Yisrael. Because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in his salvation. Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven. And rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the grain of heaven. Man ate the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance. He caused an east wind to blow in the sky; and by his power he brought on the south wind. And he rained meat upon them like dust, and feathered birds like the sand of the sea. And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, around their habitations. So they ate, and were well filled; for he gave them their own desire. They were not yet sated with their lust. But while their food was still in their mouths. The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and struck down the young men of Yisrael. For all this they still sinned, and did not believe in his wondrous works."
In fact there is other evidence in the Mikra that the quail is a permitted bird for example Psalm 105:38-42.
"Misrayim was glad when they departed; for the fear of them had fallen upon them. He spread a cloud for a covering; and fire to give light in the night. They asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with bread from heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; it ran in the dry places like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Avraham his servant."
Plus there is the fact that quail was eaten by the Children of Yisrael before the incident that is mentioned in Numbers chapter 11 as can be seen in Exodus 16:12-13, "I have heard the complaints of the Children of Yisrael speak to them, saying, At twilight you shall eat meat and in the morning you shall be satisfied with bread and you shall know that I am YHWH your God. And it came to pass, in the evening that the quails came up and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of the dew around the camp."
When it comes to such fowl as duck I apply the same logic as I do with chicken. The order of Anseriformes (Waterfowl) has two families 1) Anhimae, and 2) Anseres. Anseres contains every species of duck, goose, and swan.
Now, if one of three members of the family Anseres is kasher then the other two members will also be kasher and of course the reverse applies also, and that being if one of three members of the family Anseres is not kasher then the other two members are also not kasher.
If we look at the list of forbidden birds in Leviticus chapter 11 we will notice that in verse 18 there is a bird called Tinshemeth. Various commentators have translated the Tinshemeth as swan, if they are correct then the whole family of Anseres is not kasher. As noted above in 1 Kings 5:3 we will notice a permitted bird called the Barbur. The Barbur is mentioned only once in the whole of the Mikra, and therefore it is hard to determine exactly which bird this is referring to. The Barbur has been translated by various commentators to mean swan, goose, or aquatic birds in general i.e. any bird belonging to the family Anseres of the order Anseriformes; if the commentators are correct in this instance then the whole family of Anseres is kasher. We therefore have a contradiction between the commentators, this is because both of these translations are only pure conjecture and no reliability can be given to them.
I personally refrain from eating duck or goose because I cannot find any hard evidence for them being kasher or for them not being kasher. For me this is a matter of "in case of doubt follow the stricter alternative".
 See for example, Daniel al-Qumisi, Sefer Hammiswoth, Harkavy ed. pp.188-189