Shemini: Bats? Not Kosher 

The life-altering outbreak of COVID-19 has brought a great deal of attention to one animal that always liked staying out of the spotlight: the bat. We do know that SARS-CoV-2 did originate in bats, yet the investigation on whether or not COVID-19 originated in bats, continues to rage on and continues to keep scientists busy. Either way, bats are referred to as “the perfect host for viruses.” Is this why the Torah says they are not Kosher? This, too, is a debate that raged among Jewish commentaries on this week’s Parsha, far before COVID-19 was part of the calculation. 

Of all commandments the Torah gives on foods that are Kosher or not, the section with least detail is that on Kosher birds. When it comes to fish, the details are precise: fins and scales are what make a fish Kosher. If the fish has both fins and scales, it is kosher, if it does not, then no. Mammals? Also simple. If they have split hooves and chew their cud, they are Kosher, otherwise, not. Then come the birds. 

The Torah does not tell us how to tell the difference between Kosher birds and non-Kosher birds. It just gives us a list:

“And among birds, you shall hold these in abomination; they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: The eagle [or the griffin vulture], the kite, the osprey, the kestrel, and the vulture after its species, and the raven after its species, and the raven after its species, the ostrich, the jay, and the sparrow hawk, and the goshawk after its species; The owl, the gull, the little owl; the white owl, the pelican, and the bustard; the stork; herons of every variety; the hoopoe, and the bat. (Vayikra, chapter 11)

The implication is that unless a bird is “blacklisted” here, it is permitted and can be eaten. The rabbis, following rabbinic tradition and a common denominator these birds all, have stated in the Mishna:

“the signs of a kosher bird were not explicitly stated. But the Sages stated certain signs in a bird: Any bird that claws its prey and eats it is non-kosher. Any bird that has an extra digit behind the leg slightly elevated above the other digits, and a crop, which is a sack alongside the gullet in which food is stored before digestion, and for which the yellowish membrane inside its gizzard can be peeled, is kosher. Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Tzadok, says: Any bird that splits the digits of its feet when standing on a string, placing two digits on one side of the string and two on the other, is non-kosher.”

The implication is clear, what makes these birds not Kosher is their vulturous nature. Interestingly, even groups that did not follow the rabbinic traditions, such as the Karaits, followed this rabbinic interpretation. While this is not explicit with regard to fish and mammals, those too follow this pattern: Kosher animals are not hunters. 

The Rabbis draw from this a profound interpersonal lesson:

“Rabbi Abbahu says: A person should always be among those who are pursued and not among the pursuers. One can prove that this is so, as none among birds are pursued more than doves and pigeons, as all predators hunt them, and from all birds, the verse deemed them fit to be sacrificed on the altar.” (Talmud, Bava Kama 93a)

The lesson is clear: the more pursued one is, the more virtuous and spiritual they are. The Torah does not want us to consume animals that pursue others, nor does it want us to bring them to God’s altar. 

The great Medieval commentator, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman (1194–1270) says this in the most explicit way possible:

“The reason for certain birds being forbidden as food is on account of their cruel nature. It is also possible that the reason for certain animals being forbidden is similar, since no animal that chews the cud and has a parted hoof is a beast of prey, while the rest all devour others.”

So why are bats not Kosher? following this reasoning, bats are not Kosher because of their cruel nature and how they pursue other creatures. But do they? 

While we did know about vampire bats, a fascinating find from the recent scientific research found the following:

“When a team of researchers found hints six years ago that bats hunt migrating birds by night, some found the story hard to swallow. But a new study now confirms their suspicions.

The greater noctule bat (Nyctalus lasiopterus), the biggest bat in Europe, lives off insects in the summer. But in the autumn and spring, the bats turn their attentions to the huge flocks of songbirds that migrate at night to avoid daytime predators such as falcons.”

This hunting nature of the bat deepens our understanding of why the Torah backlisted the bat among the birds we should not eat. 

 

The Ramban goes on to suggest there are health concerns associated with non-Kosher animals as well: 

“There has also been found a difference in nature between animals fit for food and those which are unfit, as the Sages have mentioned, namely that all milks of animals fit for food curdle, whereas all milks of those unfit for food do not coagulate and cannot ever be made into cheese. Thus they are physically different. It is possible to say based on this difference in their natures that those animals unfit for food harm human beings who eat them.”

While the science available to Nachmanides at the time may have been limited at the time, one truth remains clear: Kosher animals are safer and healthier. 

So why are bats not Kosher? Either because of the health risk, they pose, like other non-Kosher animals, or because of their cruel nature. Another fascinating perspective 

Rabbi Abraham Korman (1917-2001), a remarkable individual who used his knowledge of both Torah and science to better understand this world, makes a fascinating observation. While one can at times observe cruel behaviors even among Kosher birds, such as chickens, there is a significant difference between the two categories of birds. Kosher animals have a higher body temperature, which can reach 42 Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit), something that allows them to base their diets primarily off carbohydrates, as opposed to non-Kosher birds, which need to rely on protein and thus hunt more often. 

Whether it is for health reasons avoiding eating animals that can harm our health, or spiritual reasons of eating animals who vulturous nature might influence our own, in these commandments, God was looking out for our wellbeing. Not to make our life more difficult. We don’t always understand this immediately, yet sometimes we have an epiphany that helps us understand it all. As humanity fights off virus after virus threatening our very existence, let us remember there is a God who loves us, is rooting for us, and wants us to win. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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