Was Marius the Giraffe Kosher?

The public killing of Marius the giraffe at a Copenhagen Zoo and the recent restrictions on kosher slaughter in Denmark raise the question: are giraffes kosher?

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The cries of outrage heard around the world over the killing of a giraffe named Marius in a Copenhagen Zoo and the planned killing of another giraffe named Marius, in another Danish zoo, raises some questions (apart from: Why do the Danes call their giraffes Marius?). Why is it that we care about the slaying of one Danish giraffe when the millions of cows, chickens, pigs and other livestock that are slaughtered and eaten each year don’t trigger in us any emotional response?

Is it because Marius was fed to the zoo’s lions? Perhaps if instead of dissecting the beast in front of voyeuristic zoo-goers, including young children, the giraffe would have been handed to a Copenhagen shochet, an expert in Jewish ritual slaughter, the world would remain mute. Then again, this would probably have raised the ire of many Danes opposed to the ritual slaughter of animals in accordance to Jewish and Muslim law evident by the recent restrictions on these practices in the country.

Yes, a giraffe can be sent to a shochet because giraffes are kosher. The first source for this is in the Bible, naturally. The Book of Deuteronomy lists 10 animals, or what in modern taxonomy we’d call a loosely defined groups of species, that God's commands allows Jews to eat. “These are the beasts which ye shall eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat, the hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois.” (14:4-5)

The identity of many of these beasts has been debated over the ages, including the last on the list, which the King James translation above rendered chamois, a species of mountain goat-antelope native to Europe. But chamois is surely not what was meant by the original Hebrew word zemer. The first surviving translation of the passage can be found in the Septuagint, a translation into Greek that dates from the third century B.C.E., which was apparently done by Alexandria Jews. It renders zemer as khamelopardalis, which carried into the Latin Vulgate as camelopardalus. Both mean camel-leopard.

Camel-leopard seems to be a good way to dub a giraffe, considering the animal's weird form and considering that though it was known in Egypt when the Septuagint was written, it was likely unknown to the author of Deuteronomy, who lived in the giraffe-less Jerusalem of the seventh century B.C.E. Later Jewish scholars, most ostensibly Rabbi Saadia Gaon (b. 882 or 892, d. 942 C.E.), have clearly associated the zemer with the giraffe.

Based on this strenuous chain of evidence, people who keep kosher may be hesitant to pick up some giraffe meat at their local deli, but luckily, the author of Deuteronomy does not only provide us with an ambiguous list of names. The next sentence after the list quoted above gives us general guidelines by which to judge which animals are kosher and which are not. “And every beast that parteth the hoof, and cleaveth the cleft into two claws, and cheweth the cud among the beasts, that ye shall eat.” (14:5)

The Mishna elaborates on how these signs are checked in more detail and later rabbis including the Rambam and Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote that one does not have to rely on tradition regarding what animals were kosher and that if an animal whose kashrut is unknown is examined and found to meet the requirements given by the halakha, one can safely eat them as long as they are slaughtered according to tradition.

The giraffe has a hoof that is separated. That is, it has two separate "toes" just like the ox and other kosher animals. Part one - check. The second test an animal must pass determine if it's kosher: Does it “chew its cud?” Meaning, is the animal is a ruminant? Ruminants have special stomachs with bacteria that ferment food before it's further digested, an adaptation which allows these animals to eat grass and other plants.

The Mishna goes into much detail to describe the kashrut test. I will not go into detail here but it involves the dissection of the animal in search for the number of stomachs, as described in gruesome detail in Hullin, 3. In Tel Aviv on April 18, 2003, a team of veterinarians dissected an aborted giraffe fetus in the presence of Shlomo Mahfud, a leading kashrut expert, which found that the signs prescribed by the Mishna and later expanded upon in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts were all present: Giraffes chew their cud.

Thus it is clear that the giraffe is kosher, but just don't eat the endangered ones.

The ancient Greeks dubbed giraffes 'camel-leopords' in their first known translation of the Bible. Credit: AP

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