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Parshat Shemini — Shakespeare’s birds

There's no telling how much havoc people can wreak by calling very different animals by the same name
Adult male starling singing. (CC BY, David Corby/ Wikimedia Commons)
Adult male starling singing. (CC BY, David Corby/ Wikimedia Commons)

Shakespeare was all the rage in 19th century America. Theaters performed the Bard’s plays more frequently than any others. If you entered even the most barren log cabin high in the Rockies, you would likely find at least two books — the Bible and Shakespeare.

When the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited America he wrote, “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.”

Perhaps the most famous example of the popularity of Shakespeare in America comes from Mark Twain. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two lowlifes, claiming to be the Dauphin of France and the Duke of Bridgewater, try to make money be performing Shakespeare in a small town in Arkansas.

The fact that Mark Twain has them mix up the lines for comic effect shows that he expected his readers to be familiar with the originals.

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,/But that the fear of something after death/Murders the innocent sleep,/Great nature’s second course,/And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune/Than fly to others that we know not of.

Portrait of William Shakespeare thought to have been painted by John Taylor during Shakespeare’s lifetime. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I recently listened to a podcast from The Memory Palace about one of Shakespeare’s greatest fans, a guy named Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin came from one of the oldest families in Manhattan and inherited enough money to be able to dabble in whatever ideas crossed his mind. And his mind was focused on Shakespeare — specifically the birds of Shakespeare. From his New York home, he yearned to hear the birdsong of the English countryside.

In his works, Shakespeare references about 64 species of birds. These include:

blackbird, bunting, buzzard, chough, cock, cormorant, crow, cuckoo, daw, dive-dapper, dove, duck, eagle, falcon, finch, fowl, goose, guinea hen, hedge sparrow, heron, jay, kestrel, kingfisher, kite, lapwing, lark, loon, magpie, mallard, martin (martlet) nightingale, osprey, ostrich, owl, paraquito, parrot, partridge, peacock, pelican, pheasant, phoenix, pigeon, popinjay, quail, raven, rook, sea gull, snipe, sparrow, starling, swallow, swan, thrush, turkey, vulture, woodcock, and wren.

Unfortunately for Schieffelin, most of these birds were not native to North America. So he hatched a plan. He decided to import Shakespeare’s birds to the US. He was the chairman and driving force behind the American Acclimatization Society, which was dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna to the US.

Schieffelin shipped over crates of birds from Europe and released them in New York’s Central Park. He tried to import bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks, but the birds could not survive in the hostile foreign climate.

Schieffelin’s biggest success, which in true Shakespearean fashion was also a tragedy, was when he released a cage of 60 starlings into the New York night in the winter of 1890. The birds appear only once in Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part I. Somehow, the starlings managed to survive and adapt to the New York environment, and gradually bred and spread throughout the country. In 2014, there were an estimated 200 million starlings, which were responsible for spreading diseases and destroying crops. Shockingly, in 1960, starlings were also responsible for the deaths of 62 people when a plane in Boston flew into a flock and crashed into Winthrop Harbor.

Schieffelin’s starlings are a cautionary tale of the dangers of introducing foreign species into an environment.

Even though few people were as wealthy or foolish as Schieffelin, many people found another way to remember the birds of the old country in the new land. Early settlers called the New World birds by names with which they were familiar – some of which stayed close to the originals, while others did not.

And this has serious halakhic implications (which brings us to this week’s Torah portion which lists the non-kosher species of birds).

Common (European) quail. (CC BY, Wouter van der Ham/ Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the quail is definitely a kosher animal. In Numbers (11:31) when the Israelites in the desert complained that they had no meat, God sent quail for them to eat (at least according to the King James translation of the Bible). But that does not mean that every bird called quail is kosher. Old World quail are actually several different genera, all from the Phasianidae family, whereas New World quail are almost twice as many different genera, all from the Odontophoridae family.

Rashi, in, our Torah portion (Leviticus 11:14) explains that in the list of non-kosher birds, it often says, “of its kind” to teach that “that kind has some that do not have the same appearance or the same name.”

California quail. (CC BY-SA, William H. Majoros/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet even Rashi and other medieval commentators reading the Torah in Europe, assumed that the birds and animals of the Bible were the same as those they saw around them. So, for example, Rashi says that the tinshemet is a bat (“it looks like a mouse and flies at night”). In contrast, Rav Saadia Gaon, who was born slightly earlier in Egypt where many of the Arabic names were similar to the Hebrew ones, explains that the tinshemet is a peregrine falcon (he uses the Arabic word shahin), whereas the atalef is a bat.

Even more confusingly, the Torah also lists the tinshemet in the list of creepy-crawly animals a few verses later (11:30). Rashi explains that there it means a blind mole, which he says is similar to a bat, whereas Rav Saadia says it means a gecko.

Similarly, Hizkuni translates nesher as eagle whereas Rav Saadia translates nesher into the Arabic word neser meaning griffon vulture (so the biblical phrase “wings of eagles” is better translated “wings of vultures”). This is not at all surprising because Hezekiah ben Manoah, who wrote the Hizkuni commentary, lived in 13th century France, where they had eagles but did not know of griffon vultures.

Griffon vulture in Hai-Bar reserve, Mount Carmel. (CC BY-SA, Ehud Halperin/ Wikimedia Commons)

For this reason, the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that Jews may only eat birds that they know to be kosher by tradition. Even though they also give some signs to define a non-kosher species of bird (and the medieval commentaries argue over the meaning of those signs and struggle to make them fit with the birds we know to be kosher), they stressed that one cannot rely on the name of a bird or its appearance when deciding if it is kosher or not. There is too much confusion with names and appearance. Only birds which Jews have always eaten are permissible.

This obviously creates a lot of confusion in the modern world, as farmers and genetic engineers crossbreed birds, for example, to create a bigger, stronger, faster-growing chicken. How do we know that the chickens of today are the kosher ones of 2,000 years ago? Yet they must be kosher because all Jews eat them.

Wild Turkey (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The second-most popular kosher bird in the world poses even more problems. Turkey is a New World bird. There is no way European, Babylonian or ancient Israelite Jews could have known about Meleagris gallopavo. No turkey fossils or bones have been found anywhere outside the Americas. Yet somehow, when the first Jews came to America they must have decided that this was a kosher bird, despite the lack of tradition. So you should thank the Jewish Pilgrim fathers for making turkey kosher for us today.

Schieffelin wanted to recreate Shakespearean England in the New World but did not realize the ecological damage of his actions. The medieval European rabbis tried to explain the Israeli and Middle Eastern fauna using terms their readers were familiar with, which led to tremendous confusion about how to translate and understand the Torah.

So religious Jews today follow the Talmud’s principle of only eating birds which were also eaten in previous generations, although those birds may have been crossbred and engineered beyond recognition. And there’s always room for turkey.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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