In Judaism, kashrut is the set of laws governing diet and the preparation of food. Food that is in accordance with the law is deemed “kosher,” a word derived from the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew “kasher,” meaning “fit.” Kashrut determines certain land animals, specifically those that have cloven hooves and chew their cud, to be fit for human consumption. Descriptions of kosher dietary laws and examples of acceptable animals can be found in the biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Kosher land animals ruminants and have cloven hooves. A ruminant is an animal with multiple stomachs, which digests plant-based food by first softening it in its first stomach, then regurgitating the food (now referred to as cud) and chewing it again. Cloven hooves are hooves that split into two toes. Under these restrictions, camels, which chew cud but do not have cloven hooves, would not be kosher, nor would pigs, which have cloven hooves but do not chew cud.
Specifically Referenced Animals
Deuteronomy 14:4-8 specifically mentions a number of animals considered to be ritually pure or kosher. Among these animals are gazelle, ox, deer, sheep, antelope and goat. Also mentioned are several creatures whose names are difficult to translate. Among these are the the’o, which has been variously translated as “wild goat” or “wild ox,” and the pygart or dishon, which may be an ibex. The list of animals included in Deuteronomy is by no means exhaustive.
Tradition provides rules for determining whether an unfamiliar animal can be considered kosher or not, simply based on the animal’s appearance. The Talmud states that animals without upper teeth would be considered likely to be a cud-chewer, and therefore ritually pure; an exception to this would be the camel, which chews cud but does not have cloven hooves.
Over the centuries, as more animals have been discovered, rabbinical authorities have had to determine how kosher dietary law applies; giraffes were declared kosher only as recently as 2008. Bison had once been the subject of debate, but the Orthodox Union declared bison to be permissible and bison meat is available in many kosher restaurants.
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