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What are kosher animals?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. Kosher animals are creatures that meet the Torah's criteria for what's permissible for Jews to consume. Kosher means fit, and kosher animals are animals that are fit to eat.

B. Look at the kosher animal rules, and you'll notice something--there's no permissible predator: no shark steaks, no carnivore corned beef, no predatory poultry. You are what you eat.

C. Kosher and non-kosher animals are opposites. Kosher parallels tranquility, subtlety, and dignity, and non-kosher is the home of rough-and-tumble rudeness, ruthlessness, and a dog-eat-dog attitude. It's not surprising then that kosher animals are of the domesticated, docile variety-- sheep, cattle, goats, and most species of deer and antelope, while the non-kosher beasts are lions and tigers and bears and the like. Kosher animals are what you would have for lunch. Non-kosher animals would have you for lunch.

How do I know if an animal or living creature is kosher?

1. Cough It Up and Hoof It

Kosher animals are governed by the two rules of Positive Mitzvah #149: they must have completely split hooves, and they must be ruminants. What are split hooves, and what's a ruminant? Let's walk through this:

Kosher animals are what you would have for lunch. Non-kosher animals would have you for lunch.
Since most beasts don't have hooves in the first place, that leaves us with a limited selection, ruling out canines, felines, pachyderms, primates, simians and anything with claws or paws--basically, most animals. Now, of the remaining hoofed animals, many leave a flat, rounded footprint, indicating a one-surface hoof, like horses and zebras. Of the ones that have the requisite two-section hoof, some aren't completely two-sectioned--they're joined at one end, like the camel. What does that leave us with? Mostly cows, deer, or animals otherwise tame or timid, like sheep or antelopes. And of these split-hoofed animals, some are not ruminants--they don't bring their chow back up into their mouths for further chewing, such as the greater pig family. A hugely whittled-down representation of the animal kingdom is the result--the kosher animals.

2. Cruelty in the Air

For food that flaps or flies, the rules of Positive Mitzvah #150 are the same as with land-bound animals--if a bird kills other animals regularly for its own food, eats meat, or is known to be dangerous, it's not kosher.1 The grim taking of other lives makes a bird a predator, and kosher makes a predatory bird unfit to eat. So, rule out raptors, eagles, hawks, owls and other hunting birds, vultures and other carrion-eating birds, and storks, kingfishers, penguins and other fish-eating birds. Ostriches and other giant fowl, which are capable of killing you or otherwise ruining your day, are forbidden. Harmless little quacks like ducks, geese, turkeys, and, let's not forget, the immortally obsequious chicken, are perfectly fit for your plate.

3. Something Fishy's Going On

For aquatic creatures, the Torah lays down two simple laws in Positive Mitzvah #152: the creature must have fins, and the creature must have scales. Obviously, this cancels out crustaceans, shellfish, squid and octopi, which have neither. Less obvious are sharks, whales, and dolphins, which have fins but not scales. However, this includes most fish, so don't worry about your favorite salmon steak.

Footnotes

  • 1. Unlike with land creatures and fish, the Torah doesn't give signs for determining kosher birds; instead it gives a list of unkosher birds. The Talmud (tractate Chulin 59a and 61a) offers signs for determining whether a bird is kosher or not. Speak to your local Halachic authority if you are uncertain about a particular bird.

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COMMENTS

Halal meat

Posted by: Joseph M Coleman, Seattle, WA, USA on Jul 19, 2005

The Arab meat dealers in my neighborhood claim that Halal meat meet the same standard as kosher since they abide by the same rules.

Therefore can be substitued in recipes wich call for Kosher meat. Is this true

Editor's Comment

This is not correct -- see "Is Halal meat Kosher?" (http://www.askmoses.com/qa_detail.html?h=554&o=136400). I would hardly think that a Muslim vendor would be proficient in Kosher slaughtering laws!

RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Kosher » Kosher Creatures

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Kosher
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.