— by Hannah Lee
As we prepare for our national holiday of thanksgiving — whether by dieting beforehand, shopping and cooking, or doing chesed — Rabbi Meir Soloveichik has some interesting insights on the curious halachic history of the Thanksgiving turkey. He is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University (a great nephew of “The Rav,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) and recently nominated as one of the Forward’s 50 notable American Jews. He spoke on Sunday to an audience of about 40 people at the newly opened Citron and Rose restaurant as part of its yearlong series on the philosophy of Jewish eating.
More after the jump.
Jews have embraced the turkey as food. According to the National Turkey Association, Israel is the world leader in turkey consumption at 26.9 lbs per capita, according to its latest survey conducted in 1999. The United States is second, with 736 million pounds of turkey consumed during Thanksgiving in 2011.
For some Jewish fowl history: The hoopoe was chosen as the national bird of the State of Israel in May 2008 in conjunction with the country’s 60th anniversary (following a national survey of 155,000 citizens). Rabbi Meir cries foul, because the hoopoe (duhifat in Hebrew) is treife (listed amongst the Biblical list of 24 forbidden birds); appears only once in a midrash; and when threatened, does not fight back but excretes a stinky fluid.
Rabbi Meir votes for the yonah (dove), which is usually used to symbolize peace with an olive branch in its claws. Not so, says the Rabbi, quoting Kohelet that there is a time for war and a time for peace. Another historical anecdote: Harry Truman supposedly said to Winston Churchill that the American symbol is depicted with an eagle’s head tilted towards the olive branch, to symbolize the U.S.’s inclination towards peacemaking, but Churchill retorted that the eagle’s head should be on a swivel, to allow it to adjust for national security interests.
The Israeli national anthem has another stirring anecdote: when 30-year-old Moran Samuel won the gold in individual rowing (skulling) at the Paralympics Games in Italy this summer, the games organizers were not prepared with a tape of the Israeli anthem, so Samuel asked for the microphone and sang the anthem beautifully by herself. This was an athlete who’d already shown her fortitude when she had a rare spinal stroke. When she recovered, she trained to become a pediatric physical therapist and she switched from her sport of basketball to wheelchair basketball and rowing. Rowing, said Rabbi Meir, is the quintessential sport symbol of hope, with the individual pushing against the force of water towards dry land.
Another bird, the raven, also appeared in the Biblical account of Noah, but Jews have not adopted the raven, which is known as the symbol of despair and hopelessness. The American writer and literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe, agreed with this view in his 1845 poem, “The Raven,” with its refrain, “Nevermore.” The yonah, said Rabbi Meir, symbolizes hope for Jews, not peace.
Only the yonah and the tor (turtledove) are allowed on an altar in Biblical times. Both are archetypes of kosher birds, according to the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles): they have an extra toe in back; a crop and gizzard that peels easily; and they are not predators that grab their prey from the air in a cruel fashion. The Rema further teaches that Jews may not eat any unfamiliar birds, unless there is a mesorah (tradition) of it not being a predator. So, how did Jews come to enjoy the turkey, which was a New World bird that became popular in Europe after the Cortes expedition of 1519?
The turkey comes from a land of no Jews (notwithstanding the conceit of Blazing Saddles, joked the Rabbi). So, how did the Rabbis of the 17th and 18th century reconcile their halachic concerns? The bird must come from a land of Jews and its Hebrew name, tarnagol hodu (תרנגול הודו, Indian chicken), gives evidence that it was thought to originate from India (where there were known Jews). The English “turkey” derives from the merchants of the Turkish Empire and in Turkey, the bird is known as hindi. Notably, hodu also means thanks in modern Hebrew, sharing a syntactic root with the Hebrew word for “Jews,” yehudim.
Why did the poskim (jurists) change their position on turkey? First, the farmers (even the Ashkenazi ones) knew that the turkey is not a predator, and second, the Sephardim have a mesorah of eating turkey. They may not have known of Benjamin Franklin’s documented preference of the turkey over the bald eagle, because it is not predatory; it is unique to the Americas (while eagles are found elsewhere); and it is a bird of courage that would defend itself.
When the Jews first arrived in what is now the United States, from Brazil in 1654, they found a resting place, said Rabbi Meir, “the land of the turkey has fulfilled the hope of the dove.”
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik gives thanks for living in a country where Jews are welcome to the White House (as he was during the Bush administration) and where he davened maaariv (the evening prayers) there. He ended his talk with a reminiscence from the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who noted that the prized possession of his American Jewish friend is his citizenship papers. Only in America have the Jews experienced freedom fully and welcomed as equal citizens in the public square. It is especially poignant that on Thanksgiving we Jews have a national mandate to thank God for this country of religious freedom.
Citron and Rose, located at 368-370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion, is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday. For more information, please visit their website and follow them on Twitter @citronandrose; their phone number is 610-664-4919. To schedule an appointment with Citron and Rose Catering, please email [email protected]