A look inside Israel’s kosher goat meat revolution
This Rosh Hashana 5781, dinner tables around Israel and the Jewish world were being adorned with the usual staples.
Apples. Honey. The simanim. And — for some — kosher goat meat.
When people think about kosher meat, the usual staples usually come to mind: chicken, beef, and lamb.
Most longterm keepers of kashrut from populous Jewish communities might also have tasted a few meats they thought somewhat exotic in their time. Meats such as duck, goose, and even buffalo.
Yet there’s one meat which seems to curiously evade most kosher eaters’ attention. Which is a great pity because — more than any meat arguably — it is the one with the longest history in the Jewish tradition. And that is: goat meat.
The Meat of the Ancient Israelites
Ever wonder what the figures of the Tanakh would have eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and how such a diet would differ from the diet prevalent in Modern Israel (a mish-mash of the cuisines of various cultures with decidedly Middle Eastern influences)?
If you have then there’s a plethora of scholarly research to whet your curiosity and while there’s some overlap between the two (chickpeas were popular back then too!) there are also marked differences — which is almost inevitable considering the long passage of time between the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora and the foundation of the modern State of Israel.
Wikipedia, for one, has an interesting page on the diet of the Ancient Israelites — which is a good starting point for anybody interested in learning more. The subject is of interest to archaeologists too who are often able to piece together the approximate diet of the ancient denizens of these parts by finding their cookware and storage vessels on excavation sites. And, of course, there are books. Nathan McDonald’s “What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?: Diet in Biblical Times?” does pretty much what it says on the tin — in exhaustive detail. The more recent Household Food Storage in Ancient Israel and Judah merits mention too.
By all accounts, the most distinctive feature of the diet of the Ancient Israelites, by reference to today’s Western diets, was that it was largely a vegetarian one — dairy and legumes made up the main proteins.
Meat, when it was eaten, tended to be reserved for special occasions like weddings and major festivals. Kosher birds were also eaten, including those which are extremely hard to pin down today (ever seen pigeon at your friendly kosher butcher?). The kosher meats which are the most commonplace today ranked down the food chain. Spices were exorbitantly expensive import items and most dishes were modestly flavored with things like garlic, cumin, and leeks. Turkey shawarma hodi? Not so much. And forget chopping up some nice Israeli tomatoes to serve it with. Tomatoes are a New World nightshade and weren’t even known to European explorers until the 16th century or so.
Goat Was The Leading Meat
But what about meat, you might be wondering?
You guessed it, goat likely came in first place — with sheep meat relegated to a slightly distant second (veal would have also been eaten but only, in all likelihood, by the elite).
There are many other fascinating tidbits one can pick up by studying what archaeologists have discovered about the diet of the people of the Bible.
For one, barley — rather than wheat — was the most important grain during the Biblical period and up to approximately the period of the First and Second Temple.
Unqualified, the לחם (lehem; bread) referred to in the Bible therefore likely refers to barley bread. Barley flour is comparatively hard to find these days — including in Israel — and yields much flatter loaves than wheat due to its lower gluten content. Fenugreek — which is rarely seen in Israel in its dried leaf form (the ingredient known to Indian food aficionados as kasoori methi)- was also consumed as was a legume called bitter vetch which I have never seen here. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can easily grow your own.
All these Biblical asides are just really to say that slices of goat meat served on a bed of scorched ripe wheat ( what we today know as freekeh is also of ancient origin!) is actually much more authentically and historically Jewish than the turkey served on wheat bread that you might find at your local shawarma shop — bathed, as it typically is, in a fragrant rich blend of exotic spices.
Remember that the next time somebody tells you that goat meat “isn’t something Jews eat.”
Sourcing Goat in Israel Today
As goat’s relatively dismal standing in the modern kosher world bears out, at some point in history it appears as if the meat fell out of favor with the Jews — such that the mere mention of eating kosher goat meat these days is often enough to cause looks of astonished bewilderment.
It’s hard to piece together the ‘why’.
The Ancient Israelites were, in large part, a nation of goat herders — and, as the Tanakh bears out, shepherding was the prototypical Jewish occupation in the ancient world.
The Ancient Israelites drunk goat’s milk, slept in tents made from goat hair, and — on rare occasion — ate from their animals’ meat. Perhaps their flocks never made it to the Diaspora with them after the Exile?
The answer as to why and when goat slipped off the kosher food agenda is probably unknowable — and I’m certainly not the best-placed person to attempt the guesswork.
But whatever the explanation, the perpetuation of the modern Jewish alienation from goat is certainly strange given that the meat remains a very popular meat in the Muslim world — and is widely enjoyed by both our Palestinian neighbors and those in neighboring countries. And even though a claim that goat meat is the most popular red meat in the world was debunked, it also enjoys widespread popularity beyond our region on an international scale.
The Israel Kosher Goat Meat Buying Network (IKGMBN)
It was against this backdrop of wishing to cook goat for its historic significance but struggling to find it that, one rainy day last winter, I started a frivolously intended Facebook group entitled Israel Kosher Goat Meat Buying Network (IKGMBN)
The group is its infancy with 45 members, although several leading luminaries from the Israel kosher goat world have left thoughtful recipes and videos to share their enthusiasm for kosher goat meat among kindred spirits.
I started the group in a fit of frenzied excitement after a local (kosher) butcher told me that he would be able to procure us a goat if we could find a slaughterer to schecht the animal. We were two steps away from kosher goat meat — or so it seemed! And if enough people would sign up for a buying consortium, I wouldn’t have to worry about fitting an entire animal in an Israel-sized top-loading freezer compartment. At the least, I thought a couple of friends might get a laugh out of the group’s preposterous title and acronym.
The proposition was quickly torn asunder by members of the potential buying consortium who pointed out that doing so while remaining compliant with the Ministry of Health’s veterinary standards would be nigh on impossible. The search went on. But the community had been assembled.
The Kosher Goat Underworld
Although the initial burst of excitement was to be short-lived, the nascent group confirmed my suspicion that I was not alone in wishing to find a source of kosher goat meat.
What I discovered was akin to a sort of kosher meat buying underworld that it appeared had been in existence for some time (and by ‘underworld’ I do not mean to suggest that the activity was in any way illegal).
A patchwork of shohets (ritual slaughters) worked with farmers — mostly in the north of the country — in order to procure goats for kosher slaughter.
These were then either sold directly online or through buying consortia to exotic meat fanatics dotted through the country — from Metullah to Eilat.
The market which these groups sold into was as loosely organized as the supply side of it was — which consisted of a network of entrepreneurs, specialty meat purveyors, and people with mobile refrigeration to bring the meat to enthusiast buyers around the country.
Although Israel’s main goat meat suppliers now sport flashy e-commerce websites, a lot of goat-related discussion, it seemed, was still taking place over WhatsApp and social media. The result is that the market is currently a charming mixture of the intimacy of word-of-mouth and the convenience of being able to place orders online through an automated system. A goat-supplying contact might drop you a WhatsApp message to let you know that goat has been procured and is in stock. Pay online by credit card and a few days’ later it’s lying in your refrigerator.
These days, although it appears to be swelling, the ranks of those interested in kosher goat meat in Israel remains comparably small.
Those interested are disproportionately passionate about reviving the ancient Jewish custom of consuming goat on special occasions — or whenever else meat is eaten.
More than anybody, perhaps, Artzenu Meats — a niche provider based in Tsfat — has helped both popularize goat meat in Israel and made obtaining it more accessible.
Availability of goat meat is periodic and updates as to availability are conveyed both through the company’s Facebook page and (sometimes) through the aforementioned niche collective of English-speaking, kosher-keeping goat meat enthusiasts (Israel Kosher Goat Meat Buying Network).
Through its online website, the company sells a variety of cuts of goat meat ranging from ribs to shoulder to neck and chops.
Prices — in the author’s estimation, at least — are high — and certainly a multiple of what breasts of chicken cost at a local Shufersal.
This is potentially a product of the limited economies of scale which this market currently enjoys but one could arguably also see the higher cost of the meat Arzenu sells as more in tune with the ancient Israelite way of reserving meat consumption for festivals and special occasions.
One thing is clear. As more kosher-keeping goat eaters clamor for their meat of choice it can be expected that more competition will be introduced to the market and prices will fall. And who I am to hide the fact that spreading the message that goat is a Jewish meat was part of the motivation for writing this post?
If you took nothing else from this strange Times of Israel blog post let it be that kosher goat meat can be procured.
Cooked — or thrown on the grill — I can confirm that it is an exquisitely tasty meat that has a slight but not overpowering hint of gaminess. Most recipes for lamb can be adapted and — for that extra Biblical fidelity — it can be served with a side of freekeh or unhulled barley.
Goat not only can be kosher it is — in a sense — the original Jewish kosher meat.
Jews have been eating kosher goat meat pretty much since there have been Jews in the world.
Right now, in Israel, kosher goat meat is not commonplace. But there are those who eat it.
Most importantly, it is available. And it is rather tasty. B’teavon.
- What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?: Diet in Biblical Times (Amazon)
- Food At The Time Of The Bible (Amazon)
Where To Buy Kosher Goat Meat in Israel
Israel Kosher Goat Meat Buying Network (IKGMBN) I have no commercial affiliation with Artzenu!