Parshas Re’eh-Zebu and Bison

This week’s Parsha, Re’eh, is one of the places where the Torah delineates which animals are Kosher and which are not. The simplest classification would appear to be the land-dwelling animals, where the relatively straightforward rule that a beast must have split hooves and chew its cud to be permitted, is given.

However, as with many things, life is not so simple.

 

Within the general family of land-dwellers, Halacha divides them into two sub-categories, Beheima and Chaya (generally translated as domesticated and wild animals respectively). The distinction between these classifications is trickier and quite complicated.

While both groups share the same defining characteristics to determine their Kosher status and must be split-hooved ruminants, there are two significant distinctions between them. A Beheima has a stringency that its Cheilev, forbidden fats, may not be consumed, while they are permitted in a Chaya. On the other hand, there is an obligation to cover the blood from a slaughtered Chaya, which is not necessary for a Beheima. Consequently, despite the difficulty involved, it is essential to determine the appropriate category for each animal.

The identification of Kosher and non-Kosher fowl is similarly complicated, and while the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch do mention various indications to make this determination, the Rema concludes in Yoreh Deah 82:2 that we do not eat any bird that we do not have a long-standing tradition to consume.

 

In Siman 79, the Shulchan Aruch mentions that both a Behaima and a Chaya require split hooves and chewing a cud to be Kosher, and in Siman 80 he describes the Halachic differences between a Behaima and a Chaya, as we explained previously.

The Shach there §1 makes a cryptic remark. He states that since today we only follow our tradition, similar to the Rema’s statement regarding fowl, “this” Halacha is not relevant, and he intends to keep his remarks brief.

The Pri Megadim interprets the Shach in what would appear to be a straightforward manner. The determination between Kosher and non-Kosher animals is uncomplicated and not likely to lead to confusion; hence any unfamiliar animal that chews its cud and has split-hooves may be eaten. However, the determination of this unfamiliar creature’s status as a Beheima or Chaya is much more complicated, and in lieu of a clear tradition we must be stringent regarding the consumption of Cheilev and covering of the blood. Consequently, the Shach is exclusively refraining from discussing specifically these indicators, and we cannot rely on them to make a conclusive lenient determination.

However, the Chochmas Adam 36§1 understands the Shach very differently. He states that once animals are equated to fowl regarding the requirement for a tradition, the only Chaya we can consume at all is the familiar deer. The obvious implication of his words is that if we were to discover an original species of animal which clearly is a split-hooved ruminant but we have no tradition to eat it, it would be forbidden to consume.

This debate came to the forefront many decades ago when there was a proposed initiative to import bison to Israel, and the Chazon Ish opposed this suggestion due to their lack of Mesorah. This was clearly based on his ruling that the Halacha follows the Chochmas Adam’s opinion.

 

Recently, this controversy reawakened when it was discovered that many of the cattle slaughtered today are not the familiar Northern European varieties. In North America where the climate tends to be more temperate, the varieties grown were the Holsteins and Anguses our ancestors were accustomed to in Europe. However, over the past decade or two, much of the Shechita has transferred to South America, where cattle more suited to the warmer climate are common.

One of the common varieties there, which comprises a large percent of the cattle either as purebred or hybridized with other varieties, is the Zebu. It traces its ancestry to Brahman cows native to India, which were unfamiliar to most of us until recently. Its most significant characteristic is a large hump on its back. It also has a significant advantage of being a very hardy specimen, with an extremely low percent of Treifos; however, its meat is tougher and less appetizing.

 

A couple of years ago, this revelation stunned the communities here in Eretz Yisroel, with many Hechsherim withdrawing their South American operations due to the inability of determining the precise lineage of even the cattle that were clearly not purebred Zebus.

Other Poskim suggested a number of reasons for leniency:

1)      The majority of Achronim and the context of the Shach’s remarks support the Pri Megadim’s more lenient approach, unlike the Chazon Ish’s ruling.

2)      It is not clear that the Zebu is a new species of animal altogether, which would require a unique tradition. There is a wide range of individualism within the known varieties of cattle, and the Zebu certainly appears to be a cow. Therefore, many Poskim proposed that these animals should be included in the general Mesora on cows, and not require a specific tradition.

3)      Furthermore, I have heard that archeological excavations have discovered mosaic art from the floors of Shuls dating to the period of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Some of these depicted an image of an ox, either as one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, or representing Yosef as one of the 12 Shvatim. The picture of the cow shows a distinct hump on its back. While we cannot determine Halacha based solely on archeological evidence, it seems likely that there was a long-standing tradition to consume the Zebu.

When this question was presented to HaRav Elyashiv zatzal, his initial impression was to follow the Chazon Ish’s stringent ruling. However, he quickly realized that the implications of this decision would be unusually far-reaching. While it is a relatively simple matter to enjoin the Hechsherim to avoid the Zebu in the future, forbidding it retroactively would have earthshaking consequences.

In addition to its hardy constitution and tough meat, another characteristic of the Zebu is a hide that is uniquely suited to STaM. Over the recent decades, the vast majority of Sifrei Torah, Mezuzos and Tefillin have been written on the skins of Zebu, and invalidating all of them would have enormous consequences.

Ultimately, HaRav Elyashiv’s decision was to proceed with caution and avoid Zebu in the future, but to unquestioningly accept ex post facto any prior Zebu products.

8 thoughts on “Parshas Re’eh-Zebu and Bison

  1. I would add that I might be wrong about the interbreeding dating from the 50’s. It could have been way earlier, as I recall someone writing that if the Chazon Ish ate beef or consumed dairy, he was certainly consuming products from interbred European /zebu. European cattle were suited to European climate, not to EY, which is why zebu were indigenous to the middle east and other arid climates, while European cattle were indigenous to the colder climate of Europe and North America.

  2. Given that Jews never had a tradition of European cattle — there is absolutely no doubt that until Jews moved to Europe, the cow they ate was the cow indigenous to Bavel, EY, and all hot, arid climates, namely the zebu — how, according to the Chayei Adam, were Jews in Ashkenaz allowed to eat European cattle, for which they had no tradition?

    • Taurine cattle, also known as European cattle, actually originated in the Middle East. So, we can’t say with any certainty that the original mesora was necessarily on zebu, which originated in India, and not on European cattle.

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