A long time ago, I read Herman Wouk’s book This Is My God, an explanation of Jewish thought and practice written more than half a century ago, but still relevant today. When the locusts arrived recently in the south of Israel, the following paragraph from Wouk’s book, in the section containing notes at the back, surfaced in my memory:
On the eating of insects, the Bible law specifically permits grasshoppers of a certain variety. The grasshopper was widely eaten in the ancient Near East, and it still is. The locusts devour the crops; all the protein and carbohydrate are in them; the people recover their food supply by roasting or pickling the creatures and eating them. A brilliant short novel by David Garnett, The Grasshoppers Come, is built on the edibility of the locust. In Jewish common law the exact definition of the edible varieties of grasshopper became obscure, and so these insects passed under the general ban. But in some settlements of the Near East the knowledge of the distinguishing marks of the edible locust survives. I recently heard of a Yemenite medical student in a United States university, devoutly orthodox, who attended a laboratory class where locusts were being dissected. He told the instructor, a Jewish biologist, that the creatures were of an edible variety; and he pointed to a distinguishing mark, the Hebrew letter hes [het in modern Israeli pronunciation – RSJ] clearly marked on the insect’s abdomen. He proceeded to prove that they were edible and kosher (as least so far as he was concerned) by eating a few. I asked a rabbinic authority whether this conduct was acceptable. Perfectly, the answer was; based on the Talmud rule, “He has a continuous tradition from his fathers.” I gather that if I caught a grasshopper with a hes on its abdomen it would not be an available morsel for me, since I have no such tradition. I submit to this deprivation with fortitude.
Don’t you just love that last sentence? I do. For me, the above paragraph is a distillation of the clarity, depth and humor of Wouk’s book. I think I’ll read it again.