My children know that they can ask almost any question, but there is one topic that is absolutely off limits, because the enormity of the implications is so overwhelming: why is turkey kosher? Well, (אבות ה:כא) בן חמישים לעצה, so it’s probably time to face the awful truth head on.
The starting point for the discussion is Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky’s article (The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 1998, Vol. 35:79-110), Is Turkey Kosher?. This shiur is highly oversimplified and likely, completely wrong. As always, consult your LOR.
The problem starts with our parasha, which introduces the laws of כשרות. It includes lists of kosher and nonkosher animals, but, after 3500 years, we don’t know what those words refer to. For instance, the שפן is listed as a nonkosher terrestrial animal, but there is some discussion whether that is the hare or the hyrax (the consensus—meaning the Artscroll chumash—translates “hyrax”. The error seems to come from European ראשונים who simply used the name of the most similar animal they were familiar with, which ended up in the King James translation as “coney”, the older term for “rabbit”). But that doesn’t really matter, since the Torah gives the characteristics of a kosher animal, and we have a solid tradition of what that means. So both the hare and the hyrax are nonkosher להלכה; the question is only one of פירוש המילים.
But for birds, there are no characteristics given. There is just a long list of flying animals that are not kosher; anything else is fine.
And the gemara explains that this list is meant to be exclusive:
But we don’t know what the words mean! And even if you knew what all those words are, it’s not so simple, since they include “למינה”, implying that there are broader categories than what we now call “species”:
And some of the names are synonyms:
So how do we know what is kosher? The gemara adds that there are signs just as with animals and fish:
So now it’s easy: just determine what species meets these criteria and they are kosher. There are disagreements about some of those, but we have standard halachic ways of dealing with מחלוקת.
But it’s not that simple:
And that idea, that there needs to be a מסורת that a given bird is kosher, is brought להלכה:
(Note that the מחבר is not apparently disagreeing with the principle; he just has an exception for goose-like birds)
So we only eat birds that we know have been eaten since time immemorial; a מסורת that presumably goes back to משה רבינו, or at least to the time of חז״ל.
The problem with the turkey is obvious:
But everyone eats turkeys.
Why is the turkey acceptable? A number of reasons have been given:
The Netziv holds (and this seems to be the consensus) that we do follow Rashi and the Ramo, but we are misinterpreting “מסורת”. We need a מסורת that a given bird is kosher, but the very fact that it is eaten is a מסורת (he was asked about a kind of goose, but extends it to the turkey):
This represents an important principle in הלכה. The collective will of the Jewish people—call it כנסת ישראל—has real meaning. (תוספות, מנחות כ:ב) מנהג ישראל תורה הוא:
Part of that is practical; “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”:
But there is a theological side as well.
We believe that what we do in good faith (literally!) actually is רצון ה׳. Eating turkey becomes not just a culinary experience but a religious statement of connection with our past and a declaration that our actions represent the word of G-d.