Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Is Turkey Kosher?


Of course, today is Thanksgiving, and it's also the first full day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. This has not happened since the 1800s, and by some accounts, the start of Hanukkah won't coincide with Thanksgiving again for nearly 80,000 years.

Given this rare moment, we decided to explore an admittedly esoteric question. Is turkey kosher? Turns out it's a question that Rabbi Joshua Heller of B'nai Torah synagogue in Atlanta has explored in depth. To help us understand the debate, he started by explaining what Jewish dietary laws say about birds.

RABBI JOSHUA HELLER: The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy both give a list of non-kosher birds. These are the birds which one may not eat, which are impure.

SHAPIRO: It's a literal list by name.

HELLER: It's a literal list of 20 kinds of birds listed in Hebrew. Some of them are technically not birds. For example, the bat is included.


HELLER: And I don't think they were trying to be ornithologists. I think they simply - it flies, we're going to call it a bird.


HELLER: The challenge that emerged as Jews were interpreting these laws was, as they encountered a new bird, could you be confident that this bird was, in fact, a kosher-fit bird to eat? Or was there a chance that it was a previously unknown relative of one of the non-kosher birds listed in the Bible?

SHAPIRO: So I take it turkey was not on the biblical list.

HELLER: No. Turkey was not covered in the Bible. Turkey is, as I understand it, a New World bird and was not known to Jews until it was brought back to Europe in the period of Exploration, 15, 1600s, and it really wasn't known to Jews until even later than that.

SHAPIRO: I grew up in a kosher home. My family kept kosher. I never heard that turkey might not be kosher. Is this a serious debate?

HELLER: I think the battle is more or less over in the Jewish world. But at one time, there was some discussion about it.

SHAPIRO: What was the question?

HELLER: Well, so the question really goes back to debates about previously unknown birds. There are prominent rabbinic scholars lined up on both sides of the debate. And this is actually of particular interest to my family. We are descendants of a sage who lived in the late-1500s to early-1600s, named Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller. He actually was known to be on the side of that one could not eat a bird if it had not previously been known to be kosher. And there are, in fact, relatives of mine - cousins - who, to this day, do not eat turkey. I have one cousin...

SHAPIRO: Really?

HELLER: ...who, every year, they have a chocolate turkey on the Thanksgiving table and just get the largest chicken they can find.

SHAPIRO: Because chickens were in the Bible.

HELLER: Chickens were in the Bible and were certainly known in the early rabbinic era to be kosher.

SHAPIRO: Just to make things really confusing, we should clarify that people may have heard of kosher chickens and un-kosher chickens, kosher turkeys and un-kosher turkeys. But that has to do with the way the animal is slaughtered and prepared, not with whether the species of bird itself is inherently edible under Jewish dietary laws.

HELLER: Correct.

SHAPIRO: You know, there are religions where a question like this about whether something is legitimate or not would be definitively answered from an authority on high. What does it say about Judaism that over hundreds of years, this question just sort of gets debated and debated and people disagree about it and there's no firm resolution?

HELLER: Well, I think that's actually part of the genius of Judaism, that often you will find there are people on both sides of a question that, while there may be wrong answers, there may also be more than one right answer. And that's one of the things that I really appreciate about our Jewish traditions. We have actually been able to survive having variations in liturgy and variations in observance and somehow been able to still see ourselves as part of a greater whole.

And I think that may actually be a lesson if we're thinking about Thanksgiving in America. I think one of the reasons why Jews have thrived in America is America, I think, is a country that really treasures that as well.

SHAPIRO: Given that turkey was not in the Bible, what's the Hebrew word for it?

HELLER: So in Hebrew, turkey is called a tarnegol hodu. Tarnegol is a chicken and hodu is the word for India. Literally, it is the India chicken because the first Jews who encountered the turkey were told it came from the Indies. What's funny about that is the word hodu in Hebrew also can mean praise or gratitude or Thanksgiving. So though it was originally the India chicken, you can also translate it as the Thanksgiving chicken.

SHAPIRO: Rabbi Joshua Heller of B'nai Torah Congregation in Atlanta, happy Thanksgiving and happy Hanukkah.

HELLER: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving and happy Hanukkah to all of our listeners out there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.