According to most ornithologists the chicken is the domesticated form of the jungle fowl. There is some disagreement in the scientific community as to which species of jungle fowl were used to develop the domestic chicken. The dominant view is that the red jungle fowl (Gallus Gallus) was the primary genetic donor; however, some have argued that the green jungle fowl (Gallus Varius), the grey jungle fowl (Gallus Sonneratii) and perhaps some now extinct species, also contributed to the development of the domestic chicken. All of the known species of jungle fowl are native to the Far East, and the domestic chicken is thought to have first been raised on the Indian subcontinent.
Although the Far East, was thousands of miles from Israel, the two civilizations did have contact with each other. While classical biblical trade routes were not known to reach the Far East, there were times of peace and prosperity when extensive expeditions were launched by the Judean kings. Biblical Israel extends from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Eilat. From the port of Eilat, Judean kings were able to launch naval expeditions via the Indian Ocean. The first successful expedition to the Far East was launched by King Solomon in the early years of the First Temple (Kings I: Ch. 10 v. 22; Chronicles II: Ch. 9 v. 21).
There were a number of failed attempts by other Judean kings (Kings I: Ch. 22 v. 49). The attempts by the Judean kings relied on the ship building skills of the Phoenicians (Chronicles II: Ch. 8 v. 18) and the Phoenician cities which bordered biblical Israel did successfully launch expeditions to the Far East without the participation of the Jews (Ezekiel Ch. 27 v. 15). As a result of these expeditions, many exotic items were imported into biblical lands from the Far East.
Along with the spices and woods, a menagerie of animals were brought back to the biblical lands. They include monkeys, elephants and peacocks, but no chickens. In fact the biblical word for peacock, tuki, is borrowed from ancient Tamil, who at that time dominated large areas of the Indian subcontinent. The first chickens were imported into Israel during the Mishnaic period, at the time of the Second Temple, almost one thousand years after the initial expeditions of King Solomon’s navy. It is unclear if the chickens were imported by Jews emigrating from Babylonia or by the armies of Alexander the Great returning from the conquests in the Far East. In any case, the chicken was immensely popular in Israel, as it was in the far reaches of the Greek and Roman empires.
In the biblical times, all domestic animals, pigeons, doves and numerous birds were used in the services of the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple which stood in Jerusalem. However, the chicken was not used in the Tabernacle nor in the services of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Quite to the contrary, its habit of digging through the trash heaps and removing remnants of food could have presented a unique problem for the biblical Israelites.
In the time of the first Temple, ritual purity was strictly adhered to. Not only was the chicken not used in the Temple, but its actions could cause ritual impurity which would prevent a person from being allowed to ascend the steps of the Temple or enter through its gate. Persons could become impure if they came into contact with dead animals or insects. Mice, rats, and roaches no doubt foraged in the garbage heaps of biblical Israel. Yet, as long as people avoided these garbage heaps, they would not accidentally come in contact with the impure creatures.
However, the chicken, because of its habit of scratching the earth, eating insects and such would likely go to the biblical garbage heaps and in course of scratching for food, would find these ritually impure animals and insects. They would then run with these animals and insects in their mouth to eat them in privacy. This action would cause the impurity of the garbage heaps to spread. People who dedicated their lives to maintaining a standard of ritual purity would find themselves barred from the steps of the Holy Temple.
In the Second Temple period, there was indeed legislation passed to limit the raising of chickens for this reason. However, for much of the Second Temple period there was too much foreign interference to really bar the chicken completely, as by that time, the chicken had become one of the most popular domesticated birds in that part of the Middle East.
While the chicken’s economic usefulness is indisputable, aesthetically it is not as impressive as the monkey, peacock and elephant. If the biblical expeditions to the Far East did return with the chicken, their economic potential was never explored because of the danger which they posed to the general population, which was trying to preserve their ritual purity. With the destruction of the Second Temple, ritual purity has become almost impossible. As such, the chicken is raised throughout modern day Israel and is certified kosher by all major kashrut agencies, including the Orthodox Union.
Now, in our times, the chicken has become a staple of the Jewish diet, serving as a favorite food for Sabbath and Festival meals. Kosher food stores offer their chicken specials (barbeque and fried), which are snapped up by customers. Thousands of years after the domestication of the chicken, it is a feather in a chef’s cap to come up with a new Sabbath recipe using our favorite fowl.
Rabbi Chaim Loike, the OU’s bird specialist, serves as OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator servicing egg, spice and chemical companies. His fascinating BTUS features on the pigeon, partridge, peacock, duck, Aracouna chickens, birds of the Bible and flamingo are always big hits with BTUS readers. Rabbi Loike frequently visits with schools and adult groups as part of OU Kosher’s educational outreach, teaching about “Kosher Birds: Who Are They.”