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Leviticus 11:13-19 has a list of non-kosher birds that match a list in Deuteronomy 14:11-18 (NJPS):

You may eat any clean bird. The following you may not eat: the eagle, the vulture, and the black vulture; the kite, the falcon, and the buzzard of any variety; every variety of raven; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, and the hawk of any variety; the little owl, the great owl, and the white owl; the pelican, the bustard, and the cormorant; the stork, any variety of heron, the hoopoe, and the bat.

My casual reading of both passages is that any bird not listed in these passages is kosher. (Which means birds that weren't known to Moses such as turkey and emu would be considered clean.)

But the odd thing is that the other types of animals are divided based on certain physical characteristics. So verse 3: "any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat." Verse 9: "These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat." Verse 21: "But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground." So if you find a new species of land animal or fish or insect, you can apply the rules and get an answer about whether it's kosher.

What's going on with the list of birds that makes providing distinguishing characteristics unnecessary?

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@Richard: The JewFAQ says: "Other birds are permitted, such as chicken, geese, ducks and turkeys. However, some people avoid turkey, because it is was unknown at the time of the giving of the Torah, leaving room for doubt." The article you linked to suggests that there was confusion about where turkeys came from (some believed they were from Turkey or India and could therefore be known to Moses), but now the bird is permitted since so many Jews have eaten it in the past. It sounds complicated. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Dec 1 '11 at 22:50
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As you note, for the other categories the Tanakh gives rules but for birds it just gives a list. So if a bird wasn't known in the middle east at the time it was written, what do you do? The rabbis derived rules from the list, but the text alone does not tell us. –  Gone Quiet Dec 1 '11 at 22:53
    
Jon, it feels a little as though you have some underlying thoughts about how these rules were composed (and perhaps their purpose). Is this question deeper than "how did the rule-maker decide what was clean and unclean"? –  Dave Alger Dec 14 '11 at 16:59
    
@Dave: I can easily imagine a rule: "no carrion birds or birds of prey" that would fit many of the unclean birds and with work, I'm sure there's a distinction that covers all the birds listed and no others known to Moses. But is this the sort of generalization encouraged by the text? Is the point avoiding disease or honoring God or something else? So yeah. I think there's a deeper question, but I think nailing down the distinction between clean and unclean birds might be a good starting point. –  Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 20:24
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I think to start with we have to say that clean/unclean is not about avoiding disease if we accept Acts 10. I think an interesting question here would be whether this has the form of what I think they talk about as a "Suzerainty treaty" and how that informs our expectations of how rules are formulated. –  Dave Alger Dec 16 '11 at 8:20

2 Answers 2

As a practical matter, birds are harder to catch and distinguish from afar. Remember, you could corral a pig or cow, but domesticated fowl were far more rare. (I'm forgetting now if they had chickens in ancient Israel or not). Bird hunting with bow and arrow is also not something you did very often either. In short, you don't really get close up to birds, except for those you can eat.

As such, thinking in terms of species of birds is far easier rule. If you had said "birds with white feathers are clean but any color is out," that might have worked - but again, by that point, people would be thinking in a species anyway.

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They did have chickens according to what I've read. And of course they had pigeons and doves for sacrifice. But that's an interesting point that I hadn't heard before. Even with modern conveniences such as binoculars and bird-identification books, I can testify that determining species from afar is a tricky business. ("Off Bilbo had to go, before he could explain that he could not hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat."---The Hobbit) –  Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 21:14
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They wouldn't have hunted for food anyway, as doing so would render the food non-kosher. They could trap live birds, but then you wouldn't have the problem of not being able to distinguish until it's "too late" -- if you trap a non-permitted one just let it go. –  Gone Quiet Dec 14 '11 at 21:49

There is an obvious implied rule from the actual listed forbidden birds, that you can use to infer the rules: birds that eat seeds or insects are fine, birds that eat meat, fish, or carrion are not. It's basically an injunction against birds of prey, sea-birds, and carrion birds, and (I believe) this is how it is interpreted. So that if you ask is an emu ok, it probably is fine, because it is vegetarian. But an osprey would be forbidden, since it is a fish eating predator.

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Good answer. The real distinction among all species is between priestly animals (Israel - seed) and kingly animals (flesh). The animals that are unclean are also generally more glorious in appearance. The restriction of Israel's diet corresponds to the law forbidding the fruit of the "kingly" tree of knowledge (judicial wisdom) in Eden. Israel would gain wisdom through humble obedience. The diet of manna was also for the purpose of humbling. And we still fast to humble ourselves before God that we might have kingly authority. –  Mike Bull Feb 22 '13 at 23:40

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