Barnacle Goose Myths

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The barnacle goose is a migratory bird, whose winter habitat is the Arctic region, when it is seldom seen outside the Arctic circle. In summer, however, large flocks are found on the western shores of the British Isles and other parts of the temperate zone. According to a popular medieval fable, the barnacle goose was produced out of the fruit of a tree, or grew upon the tree attached by its bill (hence called the tree goose), or was produced out of a shell. This fable – the origin of which is obscure – was taken quite literally by both Jews and non-Jews, and in consequence it was a matter of doubt whether it was to be regarded as bird, fish, or a completely distinct species. *Isaac b. Moses of Vienna (Or Zaru'a) quotes R. Tam – who was the first to deal with the subject – as ruling that it may be eaten after ritual slaughtering like poultry. This decision was in opposition to the views of contemporary famous scholars who permitted it to be eaten in the same way as fruit. Samuel he-Ḥasid and his son *Judah he-Ḥasid of Regensburg agreed with R. Tam. R. *Isaac b. Joseph of Corbeil forbade it (Sefer Mitzvot Katan no. 210), as he regarded it as a species of shellfish. The Zohar (3:156) states that R. Abba saw a tree from whose branches grew geese. The Shulḥan Arukh (yd 84:15) rules that birds that grow on trees are forbidden since they are regarded as creeping things. The fable was disputed, however, by various scholars but as late as 1862 R. Bernard Issachar Dov *Illowy in New Orleans quoted a conflict of authorities whether it might be eaten and vigorously denounced those who would permit it. He too referred to the belief of many early naturalists that it grows on trees.


J.G.T. Graesse, Beitraege zur Literatur und Sage des Mittelalters (1850), 80; Lewysohn, Zool, 362f., no. 515; Ginzberg, Legends, 1 (1909), 32; 5 (1925), 50f.; Zimmels, in: Minḥat Bikkurim… Arje Schwarz (1926), 1–9.

[Harry Freedman]