Israeli Rabbis Embroiled in Kosher Cock Fight

Monday, September 04, 2017 |  Tsvi Sadan

About three years ago, some Orthodox entrepreneurs decided to import the Belgian Barkel chicken breed. 

First, they sold the Barkel eggs above market price under the strictest kosher code of Mehadrin (for consumption by people who are meticulous in their observance). 

When the eggs were well-received, the entrepreneurs built a proper slaughterhouse and started to import the "pure breed" Barkel chickens. They slaughtered some 7,000 chickens before they were summoned to a Jewish court of law (beit din) that was to rule whether this breed was kosher or not.

The "Barkel Controversy" became a laughing-stock among many Israelis who saw it as yet another example of rabbinic backwardness and the irrelevancy of Jewish law. Chicken is a chicken is a chicken, they sneered at the TV screens, as the bizarre test for determining a chicken's "kosher-ness" was explained. For it to be kosher, the chicken had to be able to stand on a broomstick. The Barkel failed the test and was spared to live another day.

But, in all seriousness, for Jews who care for the divine commandments, eating impure animals is a grave matter. Today, Jews regard all chickens as pure fowls without too much thinking. However, considering that flesh-eating birds are impure, the chicken, known to eat flesh, is an edge case. This is why Karaite Jews don't eat chicken, and why many others eat only fowls that were recognized as chickens by previous generations. Making matters more complicated, the Barkel has hair-like feathers on its neck, a feature that could identify it with the "ostrich" category of impure fowls. 

The Barkel, therefore, had to stand the test of tradition, as well as "science." Regarding tradition, despite the claims of the entrepreneurs, after thorough investigation it was decided by the very important Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch that the Belgian breed was unknown to previous generations. This means that the Barkel must be a cross-breed, and, thus, impure. The broomstick test was proof enough for the esteemed rabbi to seal the fate of this bird.

The ruling of Rabbi Sternbuch reveals another layer in this kosher cock fight. By and large, the Orthodox community is financially needy, and that is always a concern for responsible Orthodox leaders. The initial rabbinic permission to import the Barkel, given by "minor" Orthodox rabbis, rested on a verbal agreement that the meat would not be more expensive than local chicken. That the Barkel eggs were then sold as more expensive "extra kosher" eggs, thereby promoting the Barkel as the "purest" breed, angered local competitors and raised concern within the Orthodox community. From this angle, the cock fight may have exposed as a non-kosher scam.

Yet, as is typically the case, other rabbis disagreed with Sternbuch's ruling. The decision of religious-Zionist Rabbi Yehudah Amichai, for example, rested on the examination of "chicken" organs, such as a special kind of gizzard, goiter, the existence of spur, etc. 

Remote and strange as it may seem to many, at least among the kosher-eating Jews, and they are the majority, this cock fight is kosher.

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