Are Locusts Really Kosher?

Mar 23, 2022

אֶת־אֵלֶּה מֵהֶם תֹּאכֵלוּ אֶת־הָאַרְבֶּה לְמִינוֹ וְאֶת־הַסָּלְעָם לְמִינֵהוּ וְאֶת־הַחַרְגֹּל לְמִינֵהוּ וְאֶת־הֶחָגָב לְמִינֵהוּ׃

of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper.

Leviticus 11:22

The Torah prohibits eating insects, referring to them as “an abomination”:

All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you. Leviticus 11:20

Given that the Torah defines insects as an abomination, it comes as a surprise that there is an exception to this rule, a bonus snack that is unexpectedly kosher; locusts:

But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground, of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. Leviticus 11:21-22

Based on these signs described in the Torah, the Talmud (Chulin 53b) tells us that there are 800 non-kosher species of grasshoppers and locusts, and there are only eight that are kosher.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, holding a kosher locust (Mordechai Gordon/Biblical Museum of Natural History)

Since it is difficult to identify the species that are kosher to be eaten, rabbinic law maintains that Jews may only eat locusts if they are from a community that has a strong tradition as to which are kosher. Some rabbinic authorities rule that a person from a locale that doesn’t have a tradition about a certain species of animals (usually referring to species of birds) may rely on those that do.

To this day, certain Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities have a tradition that specific species of locusts are kosher. The most widely accepted species among them is the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria). These locusts also pose the biggest threat to crops, swarming periodically and flying great distances to voraciously consume crops and vegetation. Some commentaries explain that the Torah permitted this species of locusts precisely because they consume all the crops. Thus, even when all the crops were eaten by the locusts, there was still something left to eat. This would also explain why eating locusts were not considered a delicacy but eaten more by the poor.

A swarm of locusts over the town of Naveh, Israel

Several methods were used to prepare locusts. One popular way was to take the locusts and throw them into a pot of boiling saltwater. After cooking for a few minutes, they were placed in a heated oven or spread out in the sun to dry. Once dried, the heads, wings, and legs were removed before eating.

Another method was to stoke an earthenware stove and, when fully heated, the locusts were cast alive into the stove. Once roasted, a brine solution was sprinkled over them and they were dried in the sun.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabba hints that the preferred way to eat locusts was to pickle them.

Deep frying is a popular modern preparation method.

Chocolate-covered locusts (Mordechai Gordon/The Biblical Museum of Natural History)

Like fish, locusts do not require shechitah (ritual slaughter) and their ‘blood’ can be eaten. For religious Jews, grasshoppers are classified as pareve, neither meat nor dairy. As such, they can be eaten with either dairy or meat.

Locusts are, in fact, a source of concentrated high-quality protein.  They have superior nutrient content with up to 70% protein, all essential amino acids, omega-3, omega-6, iron, zinc, folic acid, chitin. Compared to animal-based protein, they have much lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as a greater density of amino acids. And raising locusts produces very little in the way of greenhouse gases. 

Though locusts are not plants, eating them presents fewer ethical obstacles for vegetarians as the insects do not experience pain. The grasshoppers that are ready to be harvested are placed in a refrigerated room and simply go to sleep as the temperature is lowered. While asleep, they are placed in a freezer, where they painlessly pass away. Locusts also require far less processing and additives than most vegetarian proteins.

Grasshoppers are already the most popular insect eaten by humans with 2.5 billion people in Asia, Africa, and Central America that consume them. In some countries, grasshoppers are considered a delicacy and sold for exorbitant prices. But that is due to short seasons during which the insect can be harvested in the wild.

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