On the Jewish food scene: Turkey and a Jewish Thanksgiving

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve never been a big fan of turkey. Yes, I’ve eaten it at Thanksgiving and on other occasions, but my preference is for dark meat, rather than white. White meat is generally too dry for me, so I need sauces or condiments to swallow it easily. That’s why turkey is one of the rare foods I eat mixed with other food. Normally, I eat each item on my plate separately (and have been teased for doing so). One exception is turkey: I usually eat it with mashed potatoes and gravy, or stuffing and gravy. (The latter sometimes give me heartburn, but I can deal with that once or twice a year.)

Most people take for granted that turkey is kosher. Wait, you ask, there’s a question about that? Yes, there is, or at least, there was. The problem is that unlike mammals (who have to have cloven hooves and chew their cud), the Torah lists the birds that we are permitted to eat, rather than giving the characteristics that make them kosher. Turkey is not listed in the Bible because it was originally found only in the Western Hemisphere. It, therefore, would have been unknown not only in biblical times, but when the rabbis in the Talmud were discussing kashrut. The ancient rabbis did try to discover the underlying rules that make birds kosher, but that wasn’t always a help when rabbis were faced with new species.

Before you worry about what you’re going to eat this Thanksgiving, note that the debate about turkey is long over and turkey is accepted as kosher by almost all Jews. (I did find one exception in my research, but that seems to be limited to the descendants of one specific rabbi’s family.) However, there also is a debate about how Jews came to accept turkey as kosher. One school of thought suggests that Jews began eating turkey from the time they arrived in the Western Hemisphere and, since they were already eating it, it became acceptable because it was now the tradition. Another school of thought believes that Jews began eating turkey once it became popular in Europe and that there was little debate about whether it was kosher. Both sides seem to agree that turkey was called Indian chicken and, since chicken was OK to eat, turkey was OK to eat.

Vegetarians who want to celebrate Thanksgiving without eating turkey can follow the path of the family that doesn’t consider turkey kosher: they have a turkey made of chocolate on the table. Although that family’s members do eat chicken for their meal, there are many other options that would suit just fine. There is really no requirement to eat turkey or any meat. The most important thing is remembering the true meaning of the holiday: being thankful and grateful for the food that appears on our table.