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Kosher animals are those that comply with the regulations of Jewish dietary law and are considered fit to eat. These food regulations ultimately derive from various passages in the Torah with various modifications, additions and clarifications added to these rules by traditional Jewish law.
Leviticus 11:3-8 and Deuteronomy 14:4-8 both give the same general set of rules for identifying which land animals (Hebrew: בהמות Behemoth) are ritually clean. According to these, anything that "chews the cud" and has a cloven hoof is ritually clean, but those animals that only chew the cud, or only have cloven hooves is unclean.
Both documents explicitly list four animals as being ritually impure:
Camels are actually both even-toed ungulates and ruminants, although their feet aren't hooves at all, instead being two toes with a pad. Similarly, although the bible portrays them as ruminants, the hyrax, hare, and coney, are all coprophages, and do not ruminate and lack a rumen. These obvious discrepancies, and the question of whether there is a way to resolve them, have been investigated by various authors, most recently by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, in a book, entitled The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax.
Unlike Leviticus 11:3-8, Deuteronomy 14:4-8 also explicitly names 10 animals considered ritually clean:
The Deuteronomic passages mention no further land beasts as being clean or unclean, seemingly suggesting that the status of the remaining land beasts can be extrapolated from the given rules. By contrast, the Levitical rules later go on to add that all quadrupeds with paws should be considered ritually unclean, something not explicitly stated by the Deuteronomic passages; the only quadrupeds with paws are the carnivorans (dogs, wolves, cats, lions, hyenas, bears, etc.), and all carnivorans fall under this description.
The Leviticus passages thus cover all the large land animals that naturally live in Canaan, except for primates, and equids (horses, zebras, etc.), which are not mentioned in Leviticus as being either ritually clean or unclean, despite their importance in warfare and society, and their mention elsewhere in Leviticus.
In an attempt to help identify animals of ambiguous appearance, the Talmud, in a similar manner to Aristotle's earlier Historia Animalium, argued that animals without upper teeth would always chew the cud and have split hoofs (thus being ritually clean), and that no animal with upper teeth would do so; the Talmud makes an exception for the case of the camel (which, like the other ruminant even-toed ungulates, is without upper teeth). The Talmud also argues that the meat from the legs of clean animals can be torn lengthwise as well as across, unlike that of unclean animals[unreliable source?], thus aiding to identify the status of meat from uncertain origin.
Biblical scholars believe that the classification of animals was created to explain pre-existing taboos. Beginning with the Saadia Gaon, several Jewish commentators started to explain these taboos rationalistically; Said himself expresses an argument similar to that of totemism, that the unclean animals were declared so because they were worshipped by other cultures. Due to comparatively recent discoveries about the cultures adjacent to the Israelites, it has become possible to investigate whether such principles could underlie some of the food laws.
Egyptian priests would only eat the meat of even-toed ungulates (swine, camelids, and ruminantians), and rhinoceros. Like the Egyptian priests, Vedic India (and presumably the Persians also) allowed the meat of rhinoceros and ruminantians, although cattle were excluded from this, since they were seemingly taboo in Vedic India; in a particular parallel with the Israelite list, Vedic India explicitly forbade the consumption of camelids and domestic pigs (but not boar). However, unlike the biblical rules, Vedic India did allow the consumption of hare and porcupine, but Harran did not, and was even more similar to the Israelite regulations, allowing all ruminants, but not other land beasts, and expressly forbidding the meat of camels.
Historically, health concerns were the main argument against the consumption of pigs, and Nahmanides comments that many non-Jewish physicians maintained objections against eating pork. In recent times, the concern has been that pork can easily harbour trichinosis, as well as bringing a significant risk of cirrhosis.
The late anthropologist Marvin Harris instead proposed that the regulation results from mundane socio-economic concerns. Pigs are not biologically suited to living in the arid climate of the Middle East, requiring far more water to keep cool than animals native to the region. Although wild pigs forage in the forests, there are no such environments for them in the region that was Canaan, and consequently they must instead be fed grain; however, the grain pigs food is also eaten by people, so the pigs would compete with humans for survival during years of bad harvest. As such, raising pigs could have been seen as wasteful and decadent; Harris cites examples of similar ecological reasons for religious practices, including prohibitions against pork, in other religions of the world.
In 1966, British cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas published the influential study Purity and Danger, which made the first proposal that the prohibited foods were those that were liminal; for example, she argued that Leviticus declared pigs unclean because the place of pigs in the natural order is superficially ambiguous, since they shared the cloven hoof of the ungulates, but do not chew cud.
Like Said al-Fayyumi, biblical scholars view totemism as the significant factor in the origin of the pig taboo. The denizens of Harran wouldn't eat pigs, because they were sacred to Sin, the Levantine lunar deity, which scholars suspect Mount Sinai was sacred to, hence its name; Ibn al-Nadim reports that pigs were only eaten once a year in Harran, at an annual sacrifice.
In addition to meeting the restrictions as defined by the Torah, there is also the issue of masorah (tradition). In general, animals are eaten only if there is a masorah that has been passed down from generations ago that clearly indicates that these animals are acceptable. For instance, there was considerable debate as to the kosher status of zebu and bison among the rabbinical authorities when they first became known and available for consumption; the Orthodox Union permits bison, as can be attested to by the menus of some of the more upscale kosher restaurants in New York City.
Leviticus 11:9-12 and Deuteronomy 14:9-10 both state that anything residing in "the waters" (which Leviticus specifies as being the seas and rivers) is ritually clean if it has both fins and scales, in contrast to anything residing in the waters with neither fins nor scales. The latter class of animals is described as ritually impure by Deuteronomy, but Leviticus is much harsher, describing them as filth. (Hebrew: sheqets, sometimes translated as abomination; "abomination" is also sometimes used to translate piggul and toebah). Although these biblical rules do not specify the status of animals in the waters with fins but no scales, or scales but no fins, it has traditionally been assumed that these animals are also excluded from the ranks of the ritually clean.
These rules restrict the permissible seafood to stereotypical fish, prohibiting the unusual forms such as the eel, lamprey, hagfish, and lancelet. In addition, these rules exclude non-fish marine creatures, such as crustaceans (lobster, crab, prawn, shrimp, barnacle, etc.), molluscs (squid, octopus, oyster, periwinkle, etc.), sea cucumbers, and the cnids (jellyfish etc.). Other creatures living in the sea and rivers that would be prohibited by the rules, but are not normally considered seafood, include the cetaceans (dolphin, whale, etc.), crocodilians (alligator, crocodile etc.), sea turtles, sea snakes, and all amphibians.
Sharks are sometimes regarded as being among the ritually unclean foods according to these regulations, as they appear to have a smooth skin. However, sharks do have scales, they are just placoid scales, which are denser and appear smooth if rubbed in one direction, in contrast to leptoid scales, ganoid scales, and cosmoid scales. The sturgeon, and related fish, are also sometimes included among the ritually impure foods, as their surfaces are covered in scutes, which are bony armoured nodules; however, fish scutes are actually just hardened and enlarged scales. Scales has thus been traditionally interpreted along the lines of Nahmanides's proposal that qasqeseth (scales) must refer specifically to scales that can be detached, by hand or with a knife, without ripping the skin. In practice this excludes all but cycloid and ctenoid scales. A minor controversy arises from the fact that the appearance of the scales of sturgeon, swordfish, and catfish is heavily affected by the ageing process - their young satisfy Nahmanides' rule, but when they reach adulthood they do not.
Traditionally fins has been interpreted as referring to translucent fins. The Mishnah claims that all fish with scales will also have fins, but that the reverse is not always true. For the latter case, the Talmud argues that ritually clean fish have a distinct spinal column and flatish face, while ritually unclean fish don't have spinal columns and have pointy heads, which would define the shark and sturgeon (and related fish) as ritually unclean. Nevertheless, Aaron Chorin, a prominent 19th-century rabbi and reformer, declared that the sturgeon was actually ritually pure, and hence permissible to eat. Many Conservative rabbis now view these particular fish as being kosher, but most Orthodox rabbis do not. The question for sturgeon is particularly significant as most caviar consists of sturgeon eggs, and therefore cannot be kosher if the sturgeon itself is not. Sturgeon-derived caviar is not eaten by some Kosher-observant Jews because sturgeon possess ganoid scales instead of the usual ctenoid and cycloid scales. There is a kosher caviar made of seaweeds. The salmon roe is also kosher.
Nahmanides believed that the restrictions against certain fish also addressed health concerns, arguing that fish with fins and scales (and hence ritually clean) typically live in shallower waters than those without fins or scales (i.e., those that were ritually impure), and consequently the latter were much colder and more humid, qualities he believed made their flesh toxic.
The academic perception is that natural repugnance from weird-looking fish is a significant factor in the origin of the restrictions. Vedic India (and presumably the Persians also) exhibit such repugnance, generally allowing fish, but forbidding weird looking fish and exclusively carnivorous fish; in Egypt, another significant and influential culture near to the Israelites, the priests avoided all fish completely.
The list in Deuteronomy has an additional bird, the dayyah, which seems to be a combination of da'ah and ayyah, and may be a scribal error; the Talmud regards it as a duplication of ayyah. This, and the other terms are vague and difficult to translate, but there are a few further descriptions, of some of these birds, elsewhere in the Bible:
The Septuagint versions of the lists are more helpful, as in almost all cases the bird is clearly identifiable:
Although the first ten of the birds identified by the Septuagint seem to fit the descriptions of the Masoretic Text, the ossifrage (Latin for bone breaker) being a good example, the correspondence is less clear for most of the remaining birds; it is also obvious that the list in Leviticus, or the list in Deuteronomy, or both, are in a different order in the Septuagint, compared to the Masoretic Text. Attempting to determine the correspondence is problematic; for example, the pelican may correspond to qa'at (vomiting), in reference to the pelican's characteristic behaviour, but it may also correspond to kos (cup), as a reference to the pelican's jaw pouch. An additional complexity arises from the fact that the porphyrion has not yet been identified, and classical Greek literature merely identifies a number of species that are not the porphyrion, including the peacock, grouse, and robin, and implies that the porphyrion is the cousin of the kingfisher. From these meager clarifications, the porphyrion can only be identified as anything from the Lilac-breasted Roller, Indian Roller, or Northern Carmine Bee-eater, to the flamingo.
During the Middle Ages, classical descriptions of the hoopoe were mistaken for descriptions of the lapwing, on account of the lapwing's prominent crest, and the hoopoe's rarity in England, resulting in lapwing being listed in certain bible translations instead of hoopoe; similarly the sea eagle has historically been confused with the osprey, and translations have often used the latter bird in place of the former. Because strouthos (ostrich) was also used in Greek for the sparrow, a few translations have placed the sparrow among the list. In Arabic, the Egyptian Vulture is often referred to as rachami, and therefore a number of translations render racham as gier eagle, the old name for the Egyptian Vulture.
Variations arise when translations follow other ancient versions of the Bible, rather than the Septuagint, where they differ. Rather than vulture (gyps), the Vulgate has milvus, meaning Red Kite, which historically has been called the glede, on account of its gliding flight; similarly, the Syriac Peshitta has owl rather than ibis. Other variations arise from attempting to base translations primarily on the Masoretic Text; these translations generally interpret some of the more ambiguous birds as being various different kinds of vulture and owl. All of these variations mean that most translations arrive at a list of 20 birds from among the following:
Despite being listed among the birds by the Bible, bats are not birds, and are in fact mammals (the reason being that the Hebrew Bible distinguishes animals into four general categories - beasts of the land, flying animals, creatures which crawl upon the ground, and animals which dwell in water - not according to modern scientific classification). Most of the remaining animals on the list are either birds of prey or birds living on water, and the majority of the latter in the list also eat fish or other seafood. The Septuagint's version of the list comprehensively lists most of the birds of Canaan that fall into these categories. The conclusion of modern scholars is that, generally, ritually unclean birds were those clearly observed to eat other animals.
Although it does regard all birds of prey as being forbidden, the Talmud is uncertain of there being a general rule, and instead gives detailed descriptions of the features that distinguish a bird as being ritually clean. The Talmud argues that clean birds would have craws, an easily separated double-skin, and would eat food by placing it on the ground (rather than holding it on the ground) and tearing it with their bills before eating it; however, the Talmud also argues that only the birds in the biblical list are actually forbidden - these distinguishing features were only for cases when there was any uncertainty in the bird's identity.
The earliest rationalistic explanations of the laws against eating certain birds focused on symbolic interpretations; the first indication of this view can be found in the 1st century BC Letter of Aristeas, which argues that this prohibition is a lesson to teach justice, and is also about not injuring others. Such allegorical explanations were abandoned by most Jewish and Christian theologians after a few centuries, and later writers instead sought to find medical explanations for the rules; Nachmanides, for example, claimed that the black and thickened blood of birds of prey would cause psychological damage, making people much more inclined to cruelty.
However, other cultures treated the meat of certain carnivorous birds as having medical benefits, the Romans viewing owl meat as being able to ease the pain of insect bites. Conversely, modern scientific studies have discovered very toxic birds such as the Pitohui, which are neither birds of prey nor water birds, and therefore the biblical regulations allow them to be eaten. Laws against eating any carnivorous birds also existed in Vedic India and Harran, and the Egyptian priests also refused to eat carnivorous birds.
Due to the difficulty of identification, religious authorities have restricted consumption to specific birds for which Jews have passed down a tradition or permissibility from generation to generation. Birds for which there has been a tradition of their being kosher include:
and also ducks, geese and chickens  among others. As a general principle, scavenging birds such as vultures and birds of prey such as hawks and eagles (which eat carrion when they find it) are unclean. Turkey does not have a tradition, but because so many Orthodox Jews have come to eat it and it possesses the simanim (signs) required to render it a kosher bird, an exception is made, but with all other birds a masorah is required.
Songbirds, which are consumed as delicacies in many societies, may be kosher in theory, but are not eaten in kosher homes as there is no tradition of them being eaten as such. Pigeons and doves are known to be kosher based on their permissible status as sacrificial offerings in the Temple of Jerusalem.
The Orthodox Union of America does not consider the peafowl and the guineafowl as a kosher birds since it has not obtained testimony from experts about the permissibility of either of these birds. In the case of the swans, there is no clear tradition of eating them.
Unlike with land creatures and fish, the Torah doesn't give signs for determining kosher birds; instead it gives a list of unkosher birds, The Talmud also offers signs for determining whether a bird is kosher or not. If a bird kills other animals to get its food, eats meat, or is a dangerous bird, then is not kosher, a predatory bird is unfit to eat, raptors like the eagles, hawks, owls and other hunting birds are not kosher, vultures and other carrion-eating birds are not kosher either. No birds of prey are kosher, nor are the crows or any member of the crow family such as jackdaws, magpies and ravens. The storks, kingfishers, penguins and other fish-eating birds are not kosher.
Deuteronomy 14:19 specifies that all "flying creeping things" were to be considered ritually unclean and Leviticus 11:20 go further, describing all flying creeping things as filth, Hebrew sheqets. Leviticus goes on to list four exceptions, which Deuteronomy does not. All these exceptions are described by the Levitical passages as "going upon all four legs" and as having "legs above their feet" for the purpose of leaping. The identity of the four creatures the Levitical rules list are named in the Masoretic Text using words of uncertain meaning:
The Mishnah argues that the ritually clean locusts could be distinguished as they would all have four feet, jumping with two of them, and have four wings which are of sufficient size to cover the entire locust's body. The Mishnah also goes on to state that any species of locust could only be considered as clean if there was a reliable tradition that it was so. The only Jewish group that continue to preserve such a tradition are the Jews of Yemen, who use the term "kosher locust" to describe the specific species of locusts they believe to be kosher, all of which are native to the Arabian Peninsula. Due to the difficulties in establishing the validity of such traditions, later rabbinical authorities forbade contact with all types of locust to ensure that the ritually unclean locusts were avoided.
Leviticus 11:42-43 specifies that whatever "goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground, you shall not eat, for they are detestable." (Hebrew: sheqets). Before stating this, it singles out eight particular "creeping things" as specifically being ritually unclean in Leviticus 11:29-30. Like many of the other biblical lists of animals, the exact identity of the creatures in the list is uncertain; the Masoretic Text names them as follows:
The Septuagint version of the list doesn't appear to directly parallel the Masoretic, and is thought to be listed in a different order. It lists the eight as: