The Birds of the Bible, or, Solving the Mystery of Which of the Species are Kosher and Which are Not

In the books of Leviticus (Ch. 11) and Deuteronomy (Ch. 14), the Bible discusses the species of animals, fowl, and fish which are kosher and can therefore be consumed. The Bible identifies two characteristics through which kosher mammals can be identified: chewing the cud and having split hooves. The kosher species of fish are likewise identified by two characteristics; fins and scales. While the majority of mammalian species are not kosher, the majority of avian species are kosher. Instead of detailing characteristics through which the kosher avian species can be identified, the Bible lists 24 avian species which are not kosher, indicating that all the other avian species are kosher. Any bird that is not on the list of twenty-four forbidden species is considered kosher. Theoretically, if a person encountered a bird which could not be identified, but the person knew this bird was definitely not one of the forbidden avian species, it would be permissible to consume the bird.

According to the biblical legend, when Moses was explaining to the Jewish people the methodologies through which kosher and non-kosher birds could be identified, he presented each species and, pointing to the representation, told the people that the bird was permitted or forbidden. For thousands of years, since the time of Moses, there was what was known as the mesorah, oral guidelines passed from master to pupil through which the kosher birds could be identified. Over the millennia some of the features through which the kosher and non-kosher birds could be discerned were forgotten. In modern times, there is no one alive who can identify all of the twenty-four avian species identified in the Bible as non-kosher. As a result, when a new species of bird is encountered, it cannot always be declared kosher since there is the possibility that it might be one of these species forbidden in the Bible. All that remains of the mesorah, are the few birds which are known not be on the list of birds forbidden in the Bible.

The Orthodox Union has researched and documented many of the birds which have traditionally been accepted by the Jewish community as kosher. Symposia and conferences have been organized, and numerous articles have been published in this effort to establish which birds can be certified as kosher. Many birds have been certified kosher, at least in name, since ancient times. Goose and duck were probably consumed by the Jews of Egypt prior to the Exodus. Chicken was consumed since the time of the Second Temple. Pigeons, doves, sparrow and quail were consumed by the Jewish people while they sojourned in the Sinai Desert. There are other birds such as partridges and songbirds which have been consumed for thousands of years, their consumption originating in a time when people still recognized the forbidden birds listed in the bible.

It is sometimes difficult to identify the birds described in the bible. It is known that quail were accepted as kosher since ancient times, with two biblical narratives detailing the consumption of the quail in the time of Moses and the Exodus. Before the Orthodox Union was able to determine the identity of the biblical kosher quail, it was necessary to research much more than the name. There are nearly fifty avian species which are called quail; these species are extremely varied being divided among a dozen genus, including Old World quail (coturnix), tree quails (dendrortyx), mountain quail (oreortyx), crested quail (callipepla), banded quail (philortyx), bobwhite quail (colinus), wood quail (odontophorus), singing quail (dactylortyx), ocellated quail (cyrtonyx), tawny faced quail (rhyncortyx), quail plover (ortyxelos) and button quail (turnix).

Throughout the world a number of species of quail have been domesticated. However, the only North American quail which has historically been commercially raised for meat in the United States is the bobwhite quail (particularly Colinus virginianus). This quail is not a true quail, sharing little with the European quail other than size. From a scientific perspective there is no reason why genetically unrelated birds on both sides of the Atlantic should share the name quail. There are a number of theories as to why bobwhite quail and the other North American species of quail were designated as quail. Most likely it was the settlers who longed for memories of the Old World, who named species and lands after those they had left behind. The North American birds which were called quail were similar in size and habit to the quail the settlers had known in Europe. When the North American quail-like birds were first encountered they were called quail, and they have been called by this name ever since.

From a kosher perspective, since the bobwhite quail is known not to be a true quail and it was never certified as kosher, there was no way to classify the bird as kosher because it could be one of the twenty-four avian species specifically forbidden in the Bible. In recent years the coturnix quail began to gain in popularity, being raised by a number of hatcheries throughout the United States. For years it was rumored that the coturnix quail was the biblical quail, the very quail which had been consumed and certified kosher since the time of the bible. There were a number of Jewish communities, which had consumed quail prior to the Second World War. These communities could only consume the quail if they had been able to ascertain that this quail was not one of the forbidden avian species. Of all the rabbis who had ever learned the mesorah how to identify the biblical quail, one survived the Holocaust. This rabbi, Rabbi Zweigenhaft, had been well respected in Europe and considered an authority in Poland and Germany on the identification of numerous kosher species including kosher quail.

Along with Rabbis Protovin and Polachek, I went to visit Rabbi Zweigenhaft and to document which quail were accepted in Europe by the pre-war Jewish communities. More than a dozen breeds of coturnix quail were presented and Rabbi Zweigenhoft explained the methodologies through which the kosher and non-kosher quail could be identified. He also explained that the quail known as the Pharoah quail (coturnix coturnix) was the bird which was consumed by the Jewish people in the biblical narrative of the Exodus. The words of Rabbi Zweigenhaft were documented and then compared to the ornithological accounts of the distribution of coturnix quail in Europe. I visited the American Museum of Natural History, where the curator, Dr. Peter Capainolo, gave a guided tour of the thousands of specimens which the museum had collected (kept in vaults beneath the museum). The anatomy of the birds in the museum’s collection was compared to the information obtained from Rabbi Zweigenhaft. The actual quail shown to Rabbi Zweigenhaft were compared to those in the museum’s collection, with the utmost attention being paid to regional variations and similar species. The Orthodox Union needed to be certain that in addition to being able to identify the kosher quail, the kosher quail once identified would not be confused with any similar, yet non-kosher species.

The final piece of the puzzle was presented by Rabbis Ari Greenspan and Ari Zivotofsky, who discovered archeological evidence that the Pharaoh quail was the quail which the Jews consumed in the two narratives of the Bible. Although the wild populations of the Pharaoh quail have been much reduced, they still migrate from Africa to Europe through the Sinai, as they did in the biblical narrative. Some people refer to the Pharaoh quail as the migratory quail, since they are one of the few species of quail which are migratory. Remarkably well-preserved pictures were found in Egyptian pyramids of migrating quail being harvested by the Egyptians. The clarity of these images left no doubt that the birds were the quail described by Rabbi Zweigenhaft. Once the Orthodox Union was certain which of the coturnix quail species were consumed since biblical times, the bird was certified as kosher. Quail and quail eggs are now found on the menu of some of the finest OU certified restaurants.

The research into the identification of kosher birds is not yet complete. There are other birds which are not certified as kosher, but there is evidence that they were accepted as kosher by some Jewish communities at some point in time. Among the birds currently being researched by the Orthodox Union are species of pheasant, partridge, peacock and guinea fowl (also known as the African chicken). In all of these instances, rabbis in Israel and America are searching for people to conclusively identify the birds which were consumed in the recent past and accepted as kosher by the rabbinic authorities.

Bobwhite Quail

Pharoah Quail

Tibetan Quail

Valley Quail

White Cotumix

OU Kosher Staff