How to Identify a Ritually Clean Animal

The meat of ritually impure animals are no less healthy, but are harmful to the soul * Mammals and ritually clean birds are temperate creatures, and not predatory * Signs of ritual cleanliness are related to the traits plant-eating animals received in order to survive * We can learn from ritually clean animals that it is possible to exist in this world without attacking others * Regarding some species of ritually clean animals the tradition was lost, but we follow the signs of purity from the Torah, and our Sages * Which are the pure species according to the definition of zoologists today? The red deer is kosher according to halakha * Kosher fish are identified according to their scales visible to the naked eye


The Ritually Clean and Unclean Beasts and Animals

God created many animals in the world, and after permitting the sons of Noah to eat from the flesh of all of them, He separated us from all nations and sanctified us in His commandments, and permitted us to eat the ritually clean species and forbade us from eating the unclean species.

The Torah divided animals into four types: a) beasts and animals (mammals); b) fish; c) birds; d) vermin (including winged creeping things that swim in water and fly, from which come the kosher locusts). All these types have ritually clean and unclean species.

The Torah gave signs to distinguish between ritually clean and unclean beasts, fish, and vermin. The Torah also gave a list of unclean birds, to teach us that all other birds were ritually clean.

Explanations for the Prohibition

Some of the eminent Rishonim noted that there are typical features of the ritually clean mammals, namely, that they eat plant material (herbivores) and have a calm temperament, whereas the unclean animals are predators and hostile. Similarly, unclean birds are also predators. And since the food that man eats affects his soul, the Torah commands that we not eat species that are prone to cruelty (Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachaye, Abarbanel, Akeidat Yitzchak).

Some authorities have said that the ritually clean species are healthy to eat, whereas the impure species are unhealthy (Guide to the Perplexed 3:48), but many opposed mentioning this reason, claiming it is improper to reduce the Torah into a book of medical remedies. Moreover, we have not found that non-Jews who eat these species were less physically healthy than Jews. Rather, the commandments are intended to sanctify man and rectify his soul, and one who eats forbidden foods defiles his soul, and therefore the Torah calls the species that are forbidden to eat – impure (Akedat Yitzchak, Abarbanel).

The Signs of Ritual Purity for Mammals

Two signs were given by the Torah for ritually clean animals and beasts. One is ‘maphreseth parsah v’shosat shesa’ (“cloven hooves”). A ‘parsah‘ (hoof) is a hard coating, a kind of thick fingernail or soft bone that grows on the foot of the animal, by which it straddles the ground and prevents it from damage. ‘Shosat shesa’ (a cleft) is when the animals foot or hoof is split, that is, divided into two parts.

The second sign: ‘maalei gerah’ (ruminants, or animals that chew its cud). The ritually clean species have a unique digestive system consisting of four “stomachs”: 1) the rumen; 2) reticulum; 3) the omasum; 4) and the abomasum. At first, animals that chew their cud tear off grass quickly and chew it a bit. From there it goes down to the rumen, and goes through primary digestion. It then moves to the reticulum, and is regurgitated back into the animal’s mouth in the form of “cud” for it to chew on again and again. Afterwards, it goes down to the omasum, and from there, to the abomasum.

Our Sages gave another clear sign for the ritually clean species, namely, that they have no teeth in their upper jaw (Chulin 59a). Another sign is that the milk of the pure species can be curdled into cheese, while the milk of the impure species does not curdle (Avodah Zara 35a).

Ritually Clean Species that are not Predators

In general, the signs given by the Torah to the ritually clean species are signs of herbivores that are not predatory, and since plant material is hard to digest because of its large amount of cellulose, God created the possibility for animals to bring up their cud so that they can continue to chew the food for their digestion. And instead of claws to dig into prey, they have split hooves to help them run through mountains and rocks, in order to find plant material, and escape preying animals. Despite their difficulties, ritually clean species manage to exist nicely in the world, coming to teach us that if a person is willing to make an effort and be satisfied with less, it is possible to earn a decent living without devouring others.

The Ten Ritually Clean Species and their Characteristics

The Torah designated ten ritually clean species, as it is stated: “These are the mammals that you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the gazelle, the deer, the antelope, the ibex, the chamois, the bison, and the giraffe” (Deuteronomy 14: 4-5). The first three species are beasts, namely, domestic animals, and the seven remaining species are wild animals. Like all species found in nature, the ten pure species are also divided into different breeds.

Given that some of the animals are domesticated, their tradition was not forgotten, and their identity is known. As for the seven species of animals that breed in the wild, due to the many exiles and years that have passed, doubts arose regarding their identity, and presently, we can identify with certainty according to tradition only two species – the deer, and the gazelle. Nevertheless, according to halakha, the signs of ritual purity written in the Torah and the signs added by our Sages are the determining ones, and all animals that have these signs are kosher for eating.

The Division of the Species in Zoology

It is worth noting that there is a difference between the Torah’s division into ten species, and the definition of modern scientists, determined in accordance with a particular point of view.

According to current zoological classifications, all kinds of animals are divided into divisions (mammals, birds, fish, etc.). The divisions are divided into orders, the orders are divided into families, the families are divided into species, and the species are divided breeds. In general, same-sex breeds can mate and produce fertile offspring, whereas different species, even from the same family, are unable to mate with one another. In rare cases they are able to mate, but will produce an infertile offspring, such as a horse and donkey who are able to mate, but produce a mule that cannot reproduce.

All types of ritually clean beasts and animals a found in the division of mammals and in the order of ‘machpilei parsah’ (even-toed ungulate), that is, mammals that have an even number of toes, because only a species that has an even number of toes can have a split hoof which is one of the signs of ritual cleanliness. We will mention other series in which all its species are ritually unclean: the predatory series, which includes, among others, the cat family, bears, and dogs; the series of ‘mafritei parsah’(odd-toed ungulate), namely, species that have an odd-numbered amount of toes, such as the species of the horse family, zebras, and rhinos.

Let’s return to the ‘machpilei parsah’ order. All ritually clean species are found in this order, but not all species in this order are ritually clean, because there are non-grazing species in this order, such as the pig, which falls in the sub-class of ‘pseudo-pig’ (‘suidae‘, artiodactyl mammals), and the hippopotamus in the sub-class of ‘whippomorpha‘. The camel also belongs to the order of ‘machpilei parsah’, but it is unclean because its doubled-toes are not split, and they do not have a hoof, rather, they are covered with a leather coating, and they fall under the sub-class of ‘baalei ha’karit’ (‘possessors of humps’).’

The Sub-Class: ‘Maalei Gerah’

Indeed, all of the pure species are found in the order of ‘machpilei parsah’ and in the sub-class of ‘maalei gerah’, and as far as today’s animal researchers are aware, all species in this sub-class chew their cud and have cloven hoofs, and are kosher. However, since the divisions in zoology are liable to change, this definition cannot be relied on, but only on the signs given in the Torah, and the words of our Sages.

As mentioned, the orders are divided into families, and these are the families are found in the order of ‘machpilei parsah’, in the sub-class of ‘maalei gerah’, which, as mentioned above, are all pure species: cattle (in Latin they are called bovinae, meaning “hollow horns”), giraffe, deer, musk deer, chevrotains (mouse deer), and pronghorns. There are families that have few species, and there are families that have numerous species, such as the cattle family, due to which, all of the species included in it were divided into sub-families. These are: the impala, ibexes, bulls, antelopes, waterbucks, duiker (small African antelope), and rams. The three kosher animals also belong to the cattle family: the ox, in sub-family of bulls, and sheep and goats, in the sub-family of ibexes.

The Red Deer

Some authorities raised a question about the red deer which began to be bred in the Land of Israel. True, it has all the signs of ritual purity from the Torah and our Sages, but it has upper teeth where other animals grow fangs, and some say that the place of fangs is considered to be at the front of the jaw. Since our Sages said (Chulin 59a) that the ritually clean species have no teeth in the front part of the upper jaw, the red deer is forbidden to be eaten (Rav Mashash, Rav Amar, Rav Wozner).

However, this stringent opinion is very problematic, since our Sages said in the Gemara (Chulin 59a) that if one finds an animal whose mouth is mutilated, he should examine its hoofs, and if he finds that its signs are ritually pure, its flesh is kosher, because there is no animal with signs of ritual purity in its feet, and signs of uncleanliness in its mouth. Therefore, it follows that teeth located in area of fangs are not considered front teeth.

In addition, several Rishonim wrote that when one can examine the signs given by the Torah, one does not take into consideration the signs added by our Sages, which are intended only in a case where the signs of the Torah cannot be determined (Rabbeinu Gershom, Meiri).

This is the conclusion of Rabbi Eliyahu Malka, Rabbi Dr. Levinger, Rabbi David Teherani, and Rabbi Ari Zibotfsky. The research of Prof. Zohar Amar also clarified that the milk of the red deer curdles, which is also a clear sign of ritual purity.

Not only that, but like the red deer, there are other breeds of deer that have upper teeth instead of fangs, one of which is the Canadian deer (elk), which authorities in the United States determined kosher without doubt.

Ritually Clean and Unclean Signs of Fish

Any fish that has fins and scales is ritually clean. The fin is found on the side of the fish, and helps it to swim. The scales grow on the skin of the fish, and are used as an additional shield, with each scale attached to one side of the skin, and on the opposite side, lies on the skin without being firmly attached. Our Sages said: Any fish that has scales also has fins; thus, in practice, scales are the determining sign. If the scales are very thin, as long as they are visible to the naked eye, the fish is kosher.

Unlike mammals and birds, ritually clean fish are not known to be less predatory, and it would be interesting to assess whether, apart from Divine law, a fundamental difference between unclean and ritually clean fish can be discerned. If any of my readers has an explanation, I would appreciate hearing it.

The Swordfish

A feature of the scales is that they are attached to the skin of the fish but not very firmly, therefore, they can be easily removed by hand or with an instrument, leaving the skin beneath them intact. However, if in order to remove them they need to be cut off, and the underlying skin does not remain intact, it is a sign that they are not scales, but are part of the skin, and the fish is ritually impure (R’ma 84:1). Therefore, many authorities forbid swordfish, because the scales that appear on it are part of its skin.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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