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Quail, Locusts, Blue Eggs, and Shibuta

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

Locusts? Quail? Pheasant? Water buffalo? Of the hundreds of species of kosher animals Noach herded into the Ark, how many of them find their way onto our plates today? Mass food production, together with the disappearance of shochtim who remember the varied traditions, have eroded the mesorah that validates the kashrus of many animals. Behind the scenes of the most recent “Mesorah Dinner.”

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mesorah

The real story began long before the unusual meal. In fact, the idea of creating such a feast goes back to the time of the Shulchan Aruch, which discusses the kashrus status of various types of locusts. Their kashrus status depends on specific physical indicia mentioned in the Torah, in conjunction with a mesorah -- an oral tradition. According to Rashi, identifying birds as kosher is also dependent upon oral tradition, in addition to anatomic signs described in the Mishnah. We may only eat species for which we have a mesorah of kashrus. Where would we be able to find these preserved traditions?

After learning shechitah together almost thirty years ago, and then researching the question of the kashrus of the pheasant, we realized that with the introduction of modern commercial food production, the only birds slaughtered today are those commercially viable to raise. That has severely curtailed the number of mesoros, traditions, that exist. The old shochtim and rabbis who recognized the wild birds living near their communities in Germany, Yemen, Kurdistan, North Africa, and other far-flung Jewish communities of old were fast disappearing. So we started collecting their testimonies on video and in writing, in an attempt to preserve these traditions.

As a way to publicize these mesoros, in June 2002 we made what we termed a “mesorah seudah,” at which we served all of the birds for which we had found valid traditions. This past July we made our fourth such dinner. The goals of the event were a combination of exquisitely presented, tasteful food; and, more importantly, the transmission of the mesoros for each species for which we have collected a tradition, so they should not be lost.

Each of the eighteen courses was accompanied by a shiur or lecture on the halachic and historical aspects of the food we were eating. We served fish, birds, meat, and locusts, almost none of which are commercially available. So how does a Jew find kosher locusts or water buffalo, and arrange to shecht, kasher, and prepare the unusual fare so that it is appetizing? This is the story of our search, which took us to the top and bottom of the country, and way beyond — an education we’ll never forget. 

 

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