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Chicken: The Issues

  Karaite scholars have long maintained that the purity status of the chicken is questionable.  When presented with a doubt about a law or the detail of a law in the Torah, Karaite scholars rely on a strict opinion about how to observe that law or aspect of law.  The case of the chicken is just such an example. 

When the Torah speaks of those birds which are tahor (ritually pure) and those which are not, it does so not by example, but by pointing out specific birds.  The issue we face with this is that many of the names of these birds are not known.  Rabbanite sources concur on this, and they stipulate that one must have a tradition about the tahor status of a given bird before it can be consumed. The only birds we should consider tahor, are those that we know in point of fact are tahor.  These birds are the quail, pigeon and turtledove. One may ask why with our advances in modern science, and our understanding of ancient languages we cannot determine what birds the Torah was talking about.  Many modern theories have been put forth claiming to either identify the chicken directly or indirectly as tahor.  Let us examine some of these claims, and see whether or not they make sense. 

One of the most prominent claims to the chicken's purity status comes from the fact that the chicken is identified by name in Mishnaic Hebrew.  The name used there is tarnegol.  Mishnaic Hebrew contains many words which are not found in Biblical Hebrew, and, in fact, some words in Biblical Hebrew are changed in Mishnaic Hebrew, making this contention highly questionable, and therefore unreliable.  This position, therefore, is easily dismissed.

 Some contend that because the Torah mentions both doves and quails, and doves and quails constitute an entire bird family, therefore what the Torah is saying is not that doves and quails are tahor, but that their entire family, the Galliforme family, is.  Based on this, they conclude one of the following:  1) each bird mentioned in the list of forbidden birds represents a bird family, 2) each bird mentioned either represents a bird family, or an individual bird, 3) a given bird or set of birds mentioned represent a bird family.  In each case, this reasoning is fallacious.   

Before we go into each instance, let us first examine a few critical issues.  One, the people at the time of the Torah had no idea of bird classification as we understand it.  Two, the ostrich, a bird whose Hebrew name we know, is mentioned on the list of forbidden birds, but is in point of fact a Galliforme.  Thirdly, bird taxonomy is based not on genetic associations between birds, but rather perceptions on how birds are similar (remember bird taxonomy is old, it predates genetics by some time).  Finally, the list in question in Torah is a list of flying animals not birds, per se, and, for example, includes the bat - definitely not a member of the bird family.  Therefore, the contention that the Torah is saying the family which contains doves and quails is tahor falls flat on its face.  

Furthermore, the Torah gives no indication whatsoever that it is dealing with families of birds.  If this were the case it would provide us with general criteria.  If general criteria (i.e., families) were the concern of Torah, it would not need to mention two birds from the same family - the foundation of this argument; the people would see what bird is tahor, conclude from this that all related birds are tahor, and that's the end of that.  The fact that it specifically mentions two birds from the same family, that make up the totality of that family is damning evidence for the fact that the Torah is NOT dealing with bird families, but individual birds.  Furthermore yet, we would have to assume that an illiterate group of recently liberated slaves would know enough about bird classification that they would be able to recognize that the Torah is classifying a specific family of birds as tahor (remember the Torah itself states that it is not out of their reach of comprehension).  This is clearly absurd!  However, even if we accept that the Torah is dealing with birds, and not flying things (other flying things could be a flying rodents and mammals), this reasoning is still grossly fallacious.  Let's take them one by one.

Contention 1.  Given that the Torah clearly mentions separately more than one bird from a given family (with the intent to inform us that this is tahor), we must assume, the argument does not rest on this.

Contention 2.  If each bird can either stand for an entire family or a specific member in that family, then we are left with no conclusive criteria for determining what would be tahor.  In as much as the Torah does not deal with bird families we cannot ask with any certainty the question, "Are we dealing with an instance where this bird stands for a family, or a bird that stands on its own?"

Contention 3.  First off, we would have to ask the question why would the Torah, if it intended to concentrate on bird families, use a set of birds and not a single bird to identify that family.  If we assume that it was identifying specific sub-groups within a larger family, we have to assume that the group of illiterate slaves, heretofore mentioned, would be able not only to identify the family of birds, but the sub-classifications within that family by the birds that are its members.  Furthermore, the Torah would be assuming that everyone who came to read it had this knowledge about highly technical scientific classifications.  Clearly, this is absurd.
Consequently, as has been shown, there are still no conclusive arguments that show the Chicken is a tahor bird.  Therefore, it and its products (i.e., eggs) should be avoided.