The Unicorn Convention

Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to a uniquely historic event in Judaism. It involved a select group of scholars and experts from across the U.S. and Israel.

And one dead giraffe.

The location was the Tel-Aviv Safari. They have a female giraffe whose latest calf was, sadly, stillborn. But this baby wasn't going to be thrown to the lions. Word had gotten out, and we descended upon the carcass like a pack of vultures. But whereas the vultures' goal is a good meal, our goal was the academic thrill of proving that the giraffe is indeed a kosher animal.

The event was arranged by Dr. Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University, who specializes in identifying kosher animals. He is currently working on preserving a tradition for those creatures for which a tradition of their being kosher is fast dying out, such as locusts with the Yemenite communities. The giraffe was right up his alley, as there is a millennia-old commentary from Rav Saadia Gaon that identifies the zemer, an animal pronounced kosher in Deuteronomy 14:5, as the giraffe. Dr. Amar launched the event by introducing everyone present.

There was Rabbi Amitai ben-David, shochet and author of Sichas Chullin, an important work that clarifies laws of kashrus. Rabbi ben-David had also published an exciting theory regarding the tachash, the creature whose skin was used to decorate the Mishkan (Tabernacle). According to certain traditions, the tachash was large, kosher, non-domesticated, possessed beautiful skin, and, most intriguingly of all, "it possessed a single horn in the center of its forehead." Many had presumed that this described a unicorn. But other sources indicated that this animal still exists, and that the single horn in its forehead was in addition to two other horns on the back of its head. This description would match the reticulated giraffe, which has three horns - one in the center of its forehead, and two higher up on its head. The giraffe is also large, non-domesticated, and possesses beautiful skin. Now it was time to verify that it is kosher.

There was Rabbi Avraham Hamami, author of an article on the giraffe that appeared in the halachic journal Techumin; Dr. Ari Greenspan, a dentist and shochet from Efrat; Eli Hakak, director of the biology laboratory at Bar Ilan; and Rabbi Chananel Seri, who is co-researching locusts with Dr. Amar.

From the Safari itself, there was the vet, curator, head keeper, and another worker who was a student of Dr. Amar and had set everything up in the first place. The Safari director also showed up an one point, intrigued by the sight of several bearded men gathering around a giraffe carcass.

My role is described as "Zoo Rabbi" - I teach at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and at zoos in the U.S. about the relationship between Judaism and the animal kingdom. My wife, whose loyalty knows no bounds, went far beyond the call of duty in agreeing to photograph the event.

Last, but by no means least, were the three Zivotofsky brothers. Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, a shochet and researcher in neuroscience at Bar-Ilan, authored an article entitled "Is the Giraffe Kosher?" Dr. Doni Zivotofsky, a veterinary surgeon, would be performing the dissection. David Zivotofsky, a real estate agent visiting Israel from New York, was undoubtedly the most reluctant participant. Instead of touring the Holy Land, he had been schlepped along to film the dissection. As he hoisted the video camera onto his shoulder, and surveyed the decaying carcass on the table, he made his reluctance clear.

"Hey, look!" David complained. "There's a peacock over there. Can't I video that? It's much more attractive!"

The proceedings began. The giraffe's feet were examined to prove that it indeed possessed fully split hooves, one of the requirements of a kosher animal. Its mouth was opened to verify that it lacked upper canines and incisors, an indication that it chewed the cud, which is one of the other requirements. This giraffe's parents, who were in a nearby enclosure, could also clearly be seen to be chewing the cud.

Then Rabbi ben-David slaughtered it. Of course, since the giraffe was already dead, the shechitah did not accomplish much. But it was very theatrical. Besides, there is a popular myth that although giraffes are kosher, we don't know where to slaughter them. This is simply false; anywhere along the neck is fine.

It was now time to cut open the giraffe and examine its anatomy. Doni cut open its stomach with a scalpel and peeled it back. There was a hushed aaaahhhh from most of the participants, and a loud yeuchhhhh! from the rest.

"David!" yelled Ari, "Are you getting this on the video?"

"Well, maybe I don't want to film the guts of a dead giraffe! Have you ever thought of that, huh?"

The giraffe's interior was seen to be essentially anatomically identical to that of a cow. There were four stomachs for rumination. And the live giraffes in the paddock nearby were clearly seen to be chewing the cud. It had all the hallmarks of a kosher animal. We had all expected as much, but we were jubilant to see it with our own eyes. With blood and guts splattered all over the place, we triumphantly posed for photographs, apart from those who were standing to the side and looking slightly ill.

Can we eat giraffes today? There is an opinion in Jewish law that we may only eat animal species for which there is a continuous tradition of their being eaten. The giraffe, then, would not be permitted. Others, however, state that no such tradition is required. According to these views, it would be permissible to eat a giraffe. Restraining it for the slaughter might be difficult, since giraffes can kill a lion with one kick. But someone like Doni Zivotofsky, who patented the "llamatape," a gadget for estimating the weight of llamas based on their girth, could probably design a contraption. Other than that, there's no reason why we shouldn't enjoy a giraffe steak.

Except that I doubt the Safari would part with a live giraffe as easily as it did with a dead one.

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