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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
Q. We’re planning a trip to the zoo. Anything we should know or can learn about kashrus while we’re there?
A. There is plenty of kashrus information you can easily experience firsthand at the zoo with minimal effort. The simplest is that the Torah tells us that kosher animals are those which chew their cud and have fully split hooves. Both of those are pretty easy to notice. Animals that chew their cud – like cows, giraffes, antelopes, oryxes, and yaks – seem to always be chewing, as if they have a stick of bubble gum in their mouths. But then you’ll notice that camels – and the related alpacas and llamas – are also chewing their cud, and we know those are not kosher. In fact, the Torah specifically says that there are 3 species that do that, and camel/gamal is one of them. [There are different opinions what the other two species are.] The reason camels are not kosher is because their hooves are not split all the way through.
Seeing split hooves is not so easy, and you’ll have to be closer to one of the animals to see it. The hoof is a nail-like cover on the bottom of the animal’s foot, and if you look at that part of a deer, sheep, or other kosher animal you can see that the hoof is split all the way through. In contrast, a horse’s hoof is not split at all, and a camel’s is partially split but it has a padding on bottom that goes under all the “toes”. [This feature gives camels extra stability when walking through the loose desert sand.] The Torah tells us that there is one animal that has split hooves but does not chew its cud – the pig (and related animals such as the warthog).
Another thing you’ll notice is that just about every single animal which has horns is kosher. Actually, some understand that one opinion in the Gemara holds that the presence of a horn proves that the animal is kosher. So, when you see the unusual horns of an eland, addax or a moose, you can be pretty confident it’s going to be a kosher animal. At the same time, be aware that (a) in most species, it is only the males which have horns, but the females don’t, (b) antlers (the branched “horns” found on deer-like animals) are shed (i.e., fall off) for a few months each year, and (c) there are some kosher animals, like chevrotains, musk deer, and soalas, that don’t have horns at all. So, the lack of horns does not mean that the animal is not kosher, but the presence of horns is a good indication that it is kosher.
On the topic of horns, please be aware that a shofar cannot be made from antlers, ossicones (the “horns” on giraffes and okapis), horns of any animal in the “cow” family, and from certain other animals. Additionally, the preference is to always use horns from a ram. Details of these issues are beyond the scope of our discussion.
Moving on from animals to birds, things are a bit more complicated. The Torah lists the non-kosher bird species by name but does not give any way to visually tell which birds are kosher. However, Chazal and Poskim mention certain features to look out for, and two of those are ones that anyone can see for themselves. One is that when most birds – kosher and non-kosher – stand on a pole or wire, they will hold on by placing three fingers in front of the pole and one finger behind it. If a bird perches with two fingers in front and two in back, that is a sign that it is a non-kosher bird. So, if you can find a bird perching in this manner, you’ll know that’s a non-kosher bird. The other sign is that some are of the opinion that any bird which has webbed feet and a wide bill is kosher, and this includes most geese and ducks. While these are some of the signs of kosher birds, be aware that the custom is to only eat the handful of birds for which we have a mesorah that they are kosher, and not rely on any “signs” to decide which ones are okay.
One last thing to keep in mind is what the animals are eating. Animals don’t have to keep kosher and can eat whatever they want to. However, there are certain non-kosher foods which not only are we not allowed to eat them, but we also cannot have any benefit from them either (assur b’hana’ah). That means that you cannot feed them to your pets…and you also cannot feed them to zoo animals. The two most common examples we have of foods like this which are assur b’hana’ah are chametz on Pesach and basar b’chalav (milk and meat cooked together). There are definitely pet foods that contain these forbidden items, and sometimes the “animal feed” you can buy at the zoo would also contain these types of non-kosher components. So, pay attention to what you’re feeding the animals to make sure that you aren’t feeding them anything you shouldn’t be.
This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, January 26, 2024.