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Easton, PA 18042
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Thursday, 7:25 am
Minyan

Friday, 8:00 pm
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BAS Rabbi's Message

Message from Rabbi Daniel Stein

November, 2010

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, the time is upon us to consider what have become increasingly important questions regarding the preparation of the fowl Benjamin Franklin suggested as our national bird. To brine or not to brine, to smoke, or—dare we in this age of trans-fats—perhaps to fry our turkeys in the back yard. To be honest, these questions, as hypothetically interesting as they are, are not so relevant to my life. In our house, because of my Dena's vegetarianism and my preference for dairy desserts, we will be preparing a Tofurkey, complete with vegetarian giblet gravy, for our festive meal. That being said, however, the turkey remains for me a fascinating bird, and, more than that, a uniquely instructive case for understanding the evolution of Jewish law. In fact, my favorite piece of Jewish trivia has to do with turkeys and their status in the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut.

Most observant Jews know that for a land animal to be kosher, it must chew its cud and have cleft feet; these laws are listed explicitly in the Torah. Many people also know that for fish to be kosher, it must have fins and scales. Again, these rules are listed in the text of the Torah. When it comes to birds, though, the question is much more complicated. Never does the Torah provide a list of qualities or traits that define a bird as kosher. Instead the Torah contains lists of clean and unclean birds, species by species.

In the middle ages, Rabbinic authorities were were divided on the kashrut of birds absent from the Torah's lists. Sephardic Jews, following the ruling of Maimonides, studied the lists of birds and identified shared qualities among the species mentioned; if the birds had a crop, a gizzard, and an extra toe, it was kosher. If not, treyf. Ashkenazi rabbis were more particular. In addition to the rules followed by the Sephardic authorities, the Ashkenazim ruled that there must be a tradition of eating a particular species going back to the time of Moses. If a bird was known to be eaten by Jews in a certain country, it is kosher. But, lacking knowledge of such a tradition, Ashkenazim prohibit certain species of birds, even if they fulfill the traits above.

So, nu, what about turkey...?
 
For Sephardic Jews, the answer is simple. The turkey has all of the biological signs of a kosher bird, so it is kosher. But is there a tradition of eating turkeys that goes back to the time of Moses? For that we have to examine the history of turkeys in Europe. Until Columbus's voyage, turkeys were unknown in the Old World. As the shipping trade took off, however, turkeys were introduced into European markets, and, because of the turkey’s taste and its ability to grow larger than a chicken, farmers quickly began to raise them in large numbers to meet the demand. Almost universally, turkeys were known in Europe by their association to what was then known as East India, the area that would later be named America. So, in French, a turkey is called poulet d'indie, in Polish (and Yiddish) it is called an indik, in Russian indeyka, and in Turkish, a hindi. Growing up, I thought its Hebrew name, tarnegol hodu, was related to Thanksgiving; in Hebrew tarnegol means chicken, but hodu can mean either Thanksgiving or Indian. I assumed that the etymology had more to do with the former than the latter. I was wrong.

So, it seems, most of Europe thought that the new bird that arrived on their shores in the 16th century came from exotic India (except the British who, for some reason, associated the strange bird with Turkey). When ruling on the kashrut of turkeys, European rabbis had no reason to question the geographic knowledge of their day and accepted the conventional wisdom about turkeys and their origin. Even then, these rabbis knew that a Jewish community had existed in India since antiquity. The turkey, therefore, was not a new species to Jews, but one that had been eaten for thousands of years. A few rabbis disagreed; Yom Tov Lipman Heller, the famed sage of Krakow who wrote the standard commentary on the Mishna, ruled that Turkeys were a new and unknown bird, and therefore treyf. But his view represented a minority opinion. Most rabbis were powerless to fight the will of the people and their craving for comically large drumsticks. They ruled that the turkey was kosher. By the time, a few centuries later, that rabbis realized that East India was thousands of miles away from Southeast Asia, and that the Jewish community of America was entirely modern, it was too late. The turkey was out of the bag, so to speak, and, because generations of rabbinic authorities had allowed turkey, it would have been impossible to impose a new prohibition. In the twentieth century, no lesser sage than Joseph B. Soloveitchik permitted not only the eating of turkey, but even eating turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving day. And the modern State of Israel would likely enter national crisis if government-subsidized turkey was removed from the shelves of its grocery stores and shwarma spits.

I wish all of our community a joyous Thanksgiving holiday, and I pray that we are able to reflect on the goodness in our lives. Gratitude can be a challenging emotion, and one that does not always come easily. The prayer below, written by Rabbi Naomi Levy, helps us to take stock of the goodness around us at the Thanksgiving table. You might want to include it at your holiday meal.

A Thanksgiving Prayer
For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
without fear,
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. 
Amen.
 
Dena and I extend our best wishes for a good month and a restorative holiday.
 
Rabbi Daniel Stein

 

Rabbi Daniel Stein



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