by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
Is the giraffe a kosher animal?
In this week's Torah portion the Torah lays down the rules for kosher animals - chewing of the cud and having a split hoof renders the animal kosher. The giraffe, which evidently fits these criteria, would seem to be a kosher animal.
In addition to the basic tell-tale signs of a kosher animal, the Torah clearly lists a range of wild animals which are kosher. Among those animals the Torah mentions the "zemer". Rabbi Sadyah Gaon (882-942) identifies the "Zemer" as an animal known in Arabic as the al-zerafah, better known as the giraffe.
So the giraffe is kosher but you still won't find giraffe meat available for sale in your local kosher butchery. The obvious reason being that logistically and economically it's just not worth it - imagine the nightmare in just catching the animals and bringing them into an abattoir to process!
But another often heard reason is - "the giraffe is kosher but we don't eat it because they don't know where on the neck to slaughter it". This reason is just another great misconception. Jewish law identifies a certain area on the neck within which an animal has to be slaughtered in order to be considered kosher. The shorter the neck, the smaller that area; the longer the neck, the greater that area. So while you may have some trouble getting the giraffe through the abattoir door, it's actually easier to identify the place of slaughter on the neck of a giraffe than on the neck of a chicken or cow!
However, before you go looking for some big kosher giraffe steaks there is something else which needs to be taken into account: With regards to the kashrut of birds the Torah gives us a list of non-kosher birds and declares all others as kosher. The difficulty with this is that it is very difficult to correctly identify the listed species. Rabbi Moshe Isserels (1520-1572), chief codifier of all Ashkenazi law therefore ruled that unless we have a tradition, known as "mesorah", going back generation after generation that a certain kind of bird is permissible, it may not be eaten.
For a number of reasons, later Rabbinic authorities extended this requirement of "mesorah", tradition, to animals too. Even animals cannot be eaten on the basis of their "kosher signs" alone; like birds they may only be eaten if a tradition had been received that this type of animal was consumed by our grandparents all the way back to the time of Moses. Since most of us didn't hear from our grandparents that they were accustomed to eating giraffe meat, we lack a tradition with regards to its kashrut. According to this extension of the law, which is binding upon most Ashkenazi Jews, giraffe meat would hence be forbidden to eat.