The Torah prohibits eating most insects, going so far as to call their consumption an “abomination.”1 However, certain types of grasshoppers and locusts are permitted. Yet, with the exception of very few and specific communities, we don’t find that Jews eat them—and it doesn’t just have to do with taste. Let’s start at the beginning.

Signs of a Kosher Grasshopper

The Torah2 gives us a number of signs to discern which species are permitted. The Mishnah sums up the signs:

. . Of locusts: all that have four legs, four wings, leaping legs, and wings covering the greater part of the body, are kosher. Rabbi Yose says: [In addition to the signs] its name must be chagav [locust].3

In other words, even with the signs, there must be a tradition that the locust bears the name chagav. As the Talmud tells us, there are 800 non-kosher species of grasshoppers and locusts,4 and there are only eight that are kosher.5 Since, for the most part, we are no longer able to ascertain which species of locusts are kosher, we refrain from eating any locusts.6

This is, however, an oversimplification of the issues involved.

Communities That Eat Locust

To this day, certain Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities (and their descendants) have a tradition that specific species of locusts are kosher.

The most widely accepted species among them is the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria).7 Interestingly enough, these locusts also pose the biggest threat to crops since they swarm and can quickly fly over great distances. Indeed, some 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.8 In fact, some explain that a distinguishing characteristic of kosher grasshoppers is that they sometimes swarm.9

A desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) laying eggs during the 1994 locust outbreak in Mauritania (photographed by Christiaan Kooyman).
A desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) laying eggs during the 1994 locust outbreak in Mauritania (photographed by Christiaan Kooyman).

However, although some have a tradition regarding the identity of kosher species of locusts, most abstain from eating them for a number of reasons.

The Locust Ban of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Ohr Hachaim)

Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696–1743, commonly known by the name of his commentary, Ohr Hachaim) was born in Morocco, where he lived most of his life before emigrating and eventually passing away in Jerusalem. Thus, he lived in a locale where some Jews ate locusts. Nevertheless, he issued a ban on eating it for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons had to do with the signs of the kosher locust.

One of the signs of the kosher locust is that it has “jumping legs,” called kartzulayim. In his commentary, the Ohr Hachaim follows the approach of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) that “high up on the creature’s body, near its neck, it has two leg-like extensions besides its [regular] four legs. When it wishes to fly or hop from the ground, it bolsters itself firmly with them and flies.”

However, he points out, in the common grasshoppers and locusts, including those that many were accustomed to eat, the jumping legs were below the four walking legs, toward the rear of the insect. Based on this, as well as other reasons, he concludes that the local custom to eat these species of locusts was in error and people should refrain from eating any grasshoppers and locusts due to the difficulty in identifying the kosher species among the vast number of non-kosher species.

The Ohr Hachaim writes that the communities in his area had been plagued by locusts, which would come and devastate the crops every two or three years. But in the 20 years since they had heeded his ban, there had not been a single incident of locusts damaging their crops.10

Those who maintain the tradition of eating locusts explain that kartzulayim are actually small foot-like extensions at the end of the “jumping legs,” which are indeed found on the desert locust.

The Bottom Line

Although some communities have a tradition regarding the permissibility of certain species of locusts, most communities refrain from consuming any species due to the lack of a clear tradition, as well as the ban of Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar. According to most opinions, unless someone’s family belongs to a community that has a clear tradition to eat these locusts, one should refrain from eating them.11