Jeannette Friedman’s article on the kashrut of turkey (12/2) ducks the real question. With all due respect to the various rabbis cited in support of kosher turkey consumption, I submit that they have simply chickened out.
Let’s talk turkey and set the record straight. The rules regarding the kashrut of birds are delineated in a list of about 20 prohibited avian species found in Leviticus 11 and again in Deuteronomy 14. How do we know which birds those really are? That is based on mesorah (tradition). In other words, there is a traditional understanding of those words, and there also are traditions about which birds Jews considered kosher. Traditions, particularly food traditions, are passed down mimetically as each generation models correct behavior for those that follow.
The turkey is native to North America and thus could not possibly have been banned at the time of the Torah, nor could there have been any tradition indicating that it had been consumed by kashrut-observing Jews. The three attributes of kosher birds developed in the Talmud were essentially a conjecture – and were clearly developed turkey-free.
The ruling of Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572) including turkey among the edible kosher avians clearly did not win immediate acceptance. The kashrut of turkeys was still being denied by the Tosefot Yom-Tov (Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller) and other leading rabbis of the 17th century long after Isserles’s death. In fact, Heller enjoined his descendants never to eat turkey, a stricture that I and some of his other descendants maintain to this day.
The rapid spread of turkey raising and eating in Europe swept along a large number of rabbis and other observant Jews. The Tosefot Yom Tov, however, did not quail or turn tail, and run along with the rest of the flock. He called foul, maintaining his position in the face of opposition, because he believed that the logic of the development of the Jewish legal system would countenance no exception for turkey. That’s something to crow about.