Is Thanksgiving kosher?
This question may never have occurred to you but in more traditionalist Jewish communities it is a real issue.
For one thing, it may surprise you to know that there are some Jews who do not eat turkey because they do not believe that it is kosher. (This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that Israel is by far the largest per capita consumer of turkey in the world.) The argument against turkey being kosher is as follows:
While the Torah gives us signs by which we can determine if quadrupeds or fish are kosher, it gives a list of kosher and non-kosher birds, and many of the names are fairly obscure. So in practice the only way we know that a particular bird is kosher is by mesorah, a continual tradition passed down from generation to generation.
This being the case, it would seem at first glance that turkey cannot be kosher because it originates in Mexico and prior to European contact with the Americas there could not possibly have been a mesorah attesting that turkey is kosher.
When turkeys arrived in the Old World, people did not really know what they were or where they were from but it was generally assumed that it was some exotic sort of chicken. For whatever reason the English assumed they were from Turkey while in many other places it was assumed that they were from India (remember also that many still might have believed that Columbus had reached India rather than the then-unknown Americas). So in many languages the bird we call “turkey” is called by some word that references its assumed Indian origins: hindik or indik in Yiddish, dinde in French and tarnogol hodu (India rooster) or just hodu in Hebrew. So the kosher status of turkey is in fact based on the mistaken assumption that it is just some larger version of a chicken or rooster.
I have one Conservative rabbinic colleague who is descended from a well-known European rabbinic family which has the custom of not eating turkey and he follows his family’s custom. For most of us, we can rely on the fact that even if the original decision to allow turkey as kosher was based on a mistaken biological assumption, pious Jews have been eating it long enough that we can do so as well.
In a future “Rabbi’s Update” I’ll look at why some Jews believe that it is forbidden to observe Thanksgiving because it is a non-Jewish holiday. (I hasten to add that I do not share this belief.)
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian