Rabbi Jacob ben Asher was scandalized when he found out his congregants were eating stork. “Don't they know the Bible explicitly prohibits the eating of the bird?” the young community leader must have asked himself.
There was much he didn’t understand about the congregation he had recently begun to lead, including their Judeo-Spanish language, for one.
Jacob had come to central Spain in the late 13th century with his family, to escape persecution by Emperor Rudolf. Jacob’s famed father Asher ben Jehiel, known as ha-Rosh - “the head,” was appointed rabbi of Toledo’s Jewish community, and Jacob and his brothers became the rabbis of satellite communities in the surrounding area.
When young Jacob learned his congregants were eating stork, he wrote to his father, asking what he should do. When no response ensued, he wrote again.
This time the father answered and in no uncertain terms, advised the son to stick to the traditions of "the wise men of Ashkenaz (German Jewry), whose learning was an inheritance from their fathers from the days of the destruction" (of the Temple).
Essentially, Asher was telling his son not to trust the customs of Spanish Jewry. French and German Jewish tradition, that of the family, had been faithfully preserved since the time of the Temple, while theirs – who knows. In other words: Don’t fall into sin and eat stork with them!
But not everyone agreed. One of Asher’s pupils, Rabbenu Yerucham, who settled in Toledo after the Jews were expelled from France in 1306, disagreed with his great teacher. In his book “Toldot Adam ve-Khava” Yerucham wrote that according to the regular methods of determining kashrut of birds, the stork is kosher.
According to the Mishnah, Yerucham pointed out, “Any bird of prey is prohibited. Any bird that has an extra digit, a crop, and gizzard that peels is permitted” (Chullin 3:6). The stork meets these criteria, so, he argued, it's kosher. Furthermore, “I have received a tradition that it is a clean bird and I have seen several places where tradition dictates that one can eat it," he wrote.
Eat not of the vulture
The crux of the argument, which must have been quite heated in 14th century Spain, was what bird exactly the bible was prohibiting.
The Bible did not say “stork,” of course, being written in Hebrew. It has not one but two lists of around 20 unclean birds, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. One of the banned birds is a bird called khasida.
The rabbis of medieval France and Germany identified this mysterious khasida as the stork, a tradition they believed went back to Moses and Mount Sinai.
But Yerucham wasn’t certain that their identification was accurate. “We shouldn't trust names of which we are uncertain,” he wrote.
So who was right? Does khasida indeed mean stork as the North European rabbis said it does or does it mean something else as Spanish Jews suspected?
In the end, the whole question boils down to this: does the Hebrew word khasida mean stork or not?
Looking at how the six mentions of the khasida in Bible were translated by the ancient translators might be helpful.
The oldest translation, the Septuagint, was into Greek. It twice translated khasida as heron, once as pelican, once as hoopoe, and twice - evidently because the translator didn’t know what bird was meant at all - just transliterated the Hebrew word into Greek.
Somewhat later the rabbis translated the Bible into Aramaic. They were more consistent, translating khasida as "white one" or "white daya." What kind of bird or group of birds the Aramaic word daya referred to is not clear but it is quite certain we are talking of a bird of prey. In one exception, Zechariah (5:9), the rabbis translated the khasida into the Aramaic for vulture.
A different translation into Aramaic, the Samaritans translated khasida into sparrow, while the Christian translation into Syriac was "khorba," and what kind of bird that was is anyone’s guess.
St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate, basically followed the Greek translations, with minor adjustments.
The bottom line is that no one in antiquity seems to have thought that the khasida was a stork.
Eat not of whatever that is
While there seems to have been quite a bit of disagreement on the question of what bird the khasida was, by Talmudic times (the 3rd to the 5th centuries C.E.) agreement had been reached among the rabbis in the center of world Jewry (which – after the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the late second century – had moved from Palestine to Babylonia).
The Talmud doesn’t record any arguments on this issue, only providing the Aramaic definition of Rabbi Judah that the khasida was a "daya khavarita" (Khulin 63b), meaning some kind of whitish bird of prey. That agreed with the rabbinic translations of the Bible into Aramaic; but again we cannot know which bird was meant. The Middle East and Levant do not have naturally white birds of prey, though there are some light-bellied ones, which could be the intention.
This consensus that the khasida was a bird of prey, but not a stork, was maintained for hundreds of years in Babylonia, well into the time of the Geonim (9th-11th centuries C.E.). Sa’adia Ga’on and his bitter enemies the Karaite Jews agreed that khasida is best translated using the Arabic word saqar.
Today saqar is the Arabic word for falcon, but at the time, it was used for any kind of bird used for hunting, not just falcons. Sa’adia explicitly tells us in the introduction to his translation of the Bible, that he did not just make up his translations of the names of the unclean birds listed in the Torah: he received their identity from his rabbis.
This Babylonian tradition identifying the khasida as a “saqar” made its way from Babylonia to Spain. That is the word’s meaning given in the dictionary of Jonah ibn Janah, written in the first half of 11th century Spain. So we can see why Spanish Jews thought storks were kosher. They had the hallmarks of a kosher bird prescribed by the Mishnah - and they weren’t on the list of those 20 birds in the Torah.
The question is what happened in Europe that caused the Jews there to identify the khasida with the stork.
Eat not of the heron, I think
The answer apparently is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of Troyes, France, known by all as Rashi.
During the second half of the 11th century, Rashi labored on his commentary of the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, which became and still are highly influential. It was in these that Rashi identified the khasida with the stork, apparently for the first time.
Rashi could not read Arabic and was thus cut off from the traditions of the Geonim. He based his commentary of the oral tradition he received from his teachers, and his own power of logic.
With regard to the identity of the 20 unclean birds listed in the Bible, Rashi apparently did not receive a precise identification of each one. He writes in his commentary that the anafa, the bird coming right after the khasida in the list, was a heron - “I think.”
He may have been more certain regarding the khasida, since he doesn’t qualify that its identification was based on conjecture, but it probably was.
This was a habit of Rashi's: he would provide translations for words in the Bible and Talmud based on conjecture, without necessarily telling his readers.
For example, Rashi very confidently tells us in his Talmud commentary that the sigaley (Shabbat 50b) is a flower known as the violet, but this could not have been the case. Violets do grow in France but they did not in Babylonia, where the Talmud was compiled, so the Talmudic rabbis couldn’t have been talking about them.
Another example is the bdolakh mentioned in in Genesis 2:12 and Numbers 11:7. Rashi tells us that this is lead-glass crystal. But that is a modern invention: we now know that the word refers to the fragrant resin known as bdellium. That is what the word meant in the original Akkadian.
So it seems that Rashi basically guessed that the khasida was a stork, not that he didn’t have good reason to assume so. Storks don’t meet our modern definitions of birds of prey, but they do eat frogs, reptiles, fish, and small mammals. Anyway, the Jews of France in his day were not eating them.
Furthermore, the Bible says that the khasida "knoweth her appointed times" (Jeremiah 8:7), and the stork does indeed keep to an accurate schedule with its migration, arriving in France each year in the spring and leaving in the fall. Also, while natural storks have black wings, most of the bird certainly is white.
But most importantly, khasida, the Hebrew word for stork stems from a Hebrew root meaning piety, the same root that gave us the words "Hassid" and “Hassidic.” In the European culture which Rashi lived in, the stork was believed to be an extremely pious bird. It’s got to be a stork, Rashi reasoned.
The influence of Rashi’s commentaries was immense. Once Rashi identified the khasida with the stork, this became the traditional view among European Jews with in just a few generations. Over time this tradition spread throughout the Jewish world, and into Christian vernacular translations of the Bible.
The identification of the khasida with the stork began to spread throughout Spanish Jewry as we have seen with the arrival of Asher ben Jehiel and his family at the turn of the 14th century, and Spanish Jews gradually stopped eating the bird.
When the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, they took the ban on stork to Jewish communities throughout the Arabic-speaking world, and these communities too stopped eating storks. Eventually all Jews accepted Rashi’s identification of the biblical khasida with the stork and today all Jews accept that storks are not kosher.