It might have been Parashat Shmini that put the idea of becoming a rabbi in my head. No, not the part about the two young priests getting zapped, but rather the detailed laws of kashrut. I grew up eating “glatt treife,” but by the time I was 13 I bought into the kashrut system as a way of cultivating self-control and awareness of the potential for holiness in every bite. I was one of the only teens who regularly attended services at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ (one of the others was named Benjamin Sommer), and somehow I got invited to make a presentation each week to the b’nai mitzvah. My presentations grew increasingly elaborate, no doubt trying the patience of our distinguished (and terse!) Rabbi Andre Ungar, reaching their apotheosis with an impassioned plea for kashrut one Shabbat morning. Weirdly, the congregation applauded, and my grandparents (who did not keep kosher, though Nana waited an hour to serve ice cream after eating meat) kvelled. Well, it took another decade to sort things out, but that is a decent origin story for my rabbinate.
And so it is to kashrut that we turn, but in a very strange way. The Torah’s code is reasonably specific about the criteria for kosher mammals and fish, but as for birds, all we get is a long list. What distinguishes the “impure” birds listed in Leviticus Chapter 11 (and Deut 14) from edible avians is not specified, though many have noted that the banned birds are all predators (yet I suppose that worms consider chickens to be predators). We can’t really say for sure what each listed species corresponds to in modern identifications—is a nesher really an eagle, or perhaps a vulture? (…”and I shall bring you on vultures wings” doesn’t have the same ring).
For today what really interests me is the ostrich, which is identified here as בת היענה. Literally, this could be read as “daughter of the ostrich,” though BDB suggests (p.419) perhaps “daughter of the desert or steppe.” In other words, it is a bird that dwells in the desert, as ostriches tend to do. The rabbis, however, took its name literally and they asked, why does the Torah mention the ostrich’s offspring? Continue reading