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Friday, December 14, 2018

Chef Moshe Basson with a shoulder of Asian water buffalo.

King Solomon’s Venison, roasted whole in the style of Babylonian Jewry.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin with a six-foot swordfish, acquired for the Feast of Legends of the Sea.

Notwithstanding the vast range of kosher foods available today, keeping kosher sometimes seems limiting in terms of the actual species that we can eat. I remember staying at a lodge in Zimbabwe, where the other guests were eating ostrich burgers, crocodile steaks and grilled warthog, whereas the participants in my group had to settle for chicken and beef. And while the species that are available to the kosher consumer are strictly of the mammalian, avian or piscine variety, if you go to the market in Bangkok, you’ll see people munching on all kinds of grub—literally.

Still, the truth is that there are many more kosher species than is commonly assumed. A few years ago, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we decided to prepare banquets that were not only delicious, but also educational, and very special from a kashrut standpoint. Inspired by the trailblazing work of our colleague Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan, we decided to see how far we could take this idea. These events are enormously complicated, stressful and expensive to produce, but they are unique educational and cultural experiences!

Our first banquet at the museum, two years ago, was a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna. This featured species that we see in the Torah were consumed, but that are not normally eaten nowadays. Thus, there was no chicken—chickens are not mentioned anywhere in Tanach, since they were domesticated from Indian jungle fowl, which had not yet reached the land of Israel in the Biblical period. Instead, we served species such as doves, quails, geese, goat and deer—which was served daily at King Solomon’s table, but which is almost impossible to obtain (under kosher certification) today.

Dessert was, of course, chocolate-covered locusts. The Torah states that certain locusts are kosher, and various North African and Yemenite Jewish communities retained the tradition as to which species is kosher—namely, the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Eating locusts is not a relic of a primitive era; locusts are considered by food nutritionists to be the super-food of the future. They are high in protein and very nutritious, although that benefit is lost somewhat when they are coated in chocolate. The Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna will be repeated in Teaneck in October, though there is not yet any guarantee as to exactly which species will be served, since the shechitah of unusual species can be even more complicated in the US than in Israel.

The next year, we wanted to do something different at the museum, and so we held a Feast of Exotic Curiosities (which we plan to run again in Los Angeles next February). That menu featured non-Biblical foods of halachic intrigue, including kingklip, sparrow, pheasant, guinea-fowl, udders, turkey animelles, Asian water buffalo and more. Yet perhaps most controversial were the breeds of chicken; after all, last year was the summer in which controversies raged in Israel as to whether conventional supermarket Cornish Cross chickens are a treife breed and only a rare breed called the Braekel is kosher, or whether Braekel is treife and only Cornish Cross are kosher. We made a soup out of both of them together! (Contrary to widespread misconception, all these breeds are simply varieties of chickens—they are not new halachic categories that require a separate mesorah.)

This year at the museum, we have decided to do something different yet again: A Feast of Legends From the Sea. This includes several different types of dishes. First of all, despite the name and theme of the event, the feast is not pareve—there are two unusual fleishig items on the menu. But everything served is on the theme of “Legends From the Sea.” And all fishes are pareve. So how can we be serving two “Legends From the Sea” that are fleishig? That’s a riddle that can be answered with knowledge of some commentaries on a certain verse in the Torah. It would be a pity to spoil the riddle, so we will publicly reveal the answer after the event.

A second type of dish relates to species that are popularly believed to be unequivocally non-kosher, but that are actually kosher—at least according to certain significant halachic opinions. There are a number of species that fall into this category, some (but not all) of which we shall be serving, including sturgeon, swordfish and piranha!

Then are the dishes that are based on the Gemara’s fascinating statements that there is nothing inherently unappetizing about non-kosher food, and that for every non-kosher food, there is a kosher equivalent. Kosher “crab” has been available in supermarkets for a while already. But we are taking things to the next level, with foods that not only visually look like the more exotic seafoods—complete with shells and tentacles—but that are even made with them!

Now, how is that possible? Well, let us first consider our planned dish of Cephalopod Salad. Cephalopods are the class of molluscs that includes octopus and squid. They are surely all non-kosher, as treife as treife can be. And yet, there are actually theoretically not one but two ways of serving a kosher tentacled dish that is actually made with real cephalopod!

One involves a unique species of cephalopod called the Grimaldi squid. Contrary to popular belief, the Torah does not say that a sea creature has to be a fish in order to be kosher. It only speaks of “anything that has fins and scales.” And, uniquely among cephalopods, the Grimaldi squid actually has fins and scales.

However, this is not the way that we are serving cephalopod. First of all, while some authorities are of the view that any scaled and finned aquatic creature is kosher, Rambam and others maintain that it must be a fish. Second, in any case, Grimaldi squid are impossible to obtain—only a few individuals have ever been discovered.

And so we have devised a different way of serving cephalopod. Without giving away too much in advance, the halachos of kashrut include some fascinating concepts, including that not every part of every non-kosher creature is itself non-kosher. Certain parts of some unusual non-kosher creatures are simply not considered to be the “meat” of the creature, and thus may be eaten. And so, with the aid of an obscure halachic ruling in this vein, the knowledge of a particular unusual species, together with a specialized item from Japan, we plan to serve something that not only looks like cephalopod—tentacles and all—but is even made with cephalopod!

The world houses an astonishingly diverse range of marvelous creatures, and halacha encompasses a remarkably wide variety of kashrut scenarios. The combination of the two is enlightening—and delicious.

By Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. For extensive discussion about kosher locusts, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/locustFor more details about the Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck, and the Feast of Legends From the Sea in Israel, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/feast.