A Look at the ‘Clean’ Insects

Chad Arment (2023)

Leviticus 11: 20-23 defined the ‘clean’ insects which the ancient Israelites were given permission to eat as part of the dietary restrictions between what was ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. We read God’s instructions through Moses and Aaron (ESV):

20 All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you.

21 Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground.

22 Of them you may eat: the locust [Arbeh] of any kind, the bald locust [Sol‘am] of any kind, the cricket [Hargol] of any kind, and the grasshopper [Hagab] of any kind.

23 But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.

Desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria (CC BY 2.0 Dick Culbert)

Other translations have used similar language, though not always the same interpretations of insect classification. The KJV says: “Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” The NIV: “Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.” The NAS: “These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds, the devastating locust in its kinds, the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds.”

Let’s step back a moment. Technically, what is translated as ‘winged insects’ here, comes from two Hebrew words that mean ‘flying things’ and ‘that creep’, which narrows down a broader category. I think it is interesting that this is a natural extension of the larger ‘flying things’ (birds and bats) listed in Leviticus 11: 13-19. It seems clear that this is not a separate ‘insects’ category in general: terrestrial insects and other invertebrates are covered in Leviticus 11: 41-42, where all small ‘swarming things’ are called ‘unclean’.

We’ll look at the specific insects noted in a moment, but given that orthopterans are the primary examples being discussed, I think this gives us a little insight into the types of insects that would have been created on the Fifth Day of the Creation Week (Genesis 1: 20, ‘winged creatures’) along with birds, bats, and pterosaurs. It’s easy to contemplate dragonflies and butterflies being part of that category, but grasshoppers are a bit different. They don’t naturally call to mind an aerial lifestyle, but at least those that have fully-functional wings are apparently included in ‘winged creatures’. This suggests that other fully-winged insects like cicadas, mantids, and beetles were also created on the Fifth Day.

Egyptian locust, Anacridium aegyptium (CC BY 2.0 Gail Hampshire)

Moroccan locust, Dociostaurus maroccanus (CC BY-SA 2.0 Dr. Alexey Yakovlev)

I discussed some of the issues surrounding the ‘clean’ insects in a paper that looked at the relationship between created kinds and the Ark kinds (Arment 2022), and especially how the Hebrew word mîn is used in the phrase translated ‘after its kind’ or similarly. I pointed out that the traditional Talmudic understanding of ‘after its kind’ at these specific verses does not support referring to the concept of a greater baraminic lineage (the order Orthoptera or baraminic divisions thereof). This was never a ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ interpretation, in that listing several orthopteran insects did not mean that they interpreted it as God calling all orthopterans ‘clean’. Here I want to delve just a bit more into the problem that arises when English readers try to place such an interpretation on what these ‘clean’ insects were.

Traditionally, the Rabbinic literature has suggested that rather than ‘of any kind’ (as the ESV translate above), or ‘after his kind’ (KJV), or ‘in its kinds’ (NAS), the phrase is simply relational and refers to four separate pairs of related grasshoppers as ‘clean’ insects (Kelhoffer 2004; BMNH --). Certain tokens (Kelhoffer 2004; Belovski 2014) were necessary for identification: four regular legs, two additional ‘jumping’ legs, and four wings that cover most of the thorax. Throughout Israel’s history, it would have been necessary for the rabbis to be able to identify any species in question ‘continuously’ over time in order for it to remain kosher (Ohr Somayach --). This can be problematic over the centuries, as ethnozoological names can change over time, with new names applied to the same animal, or new animals given the same name (Amar 2002-3). In many modern Rabbinic traditions, locusts are no longer considered kosher because those direct connections have been lost. Only a few traditions still allow eating locusts. How would locusts be eaten? Amar (2002-3) noted from rabbinic sources that wings were removed, and the insects were then boiled, pickled, or prepared in soup. Generally, this would have only been done in times of poverty (Ohr Somayach --). John the Baptist ate locusts, but no details are given of culinary efforts. (Of some interest, while Deuteronomy 14: 19-20 gives a later edict against eating flying insects, the fact that John the Baptist was eating locusts suggests that this did not remove the ‘clean’ verdict for locusts.)

Amar (2002-3) suggested that the ‘eight types’ were intended to denote not species, but “groups of insects with specific characteristics as indicated by the rabbinic literature”. As the ethnobiological knowledge shifted over the centuries, the later Jewish sages used those characters to identify the insects according to contemporary names. Among those who have tried to specifically identify the original grasshoppers from the Hebrew words in Leviticus 11: 22, Aharoni (1938) suggested that Arbeh referred to the pairing of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) and Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium); Sol‘am to the short-horned grasshopper (Truxalis nasuta); Hargol to the great green bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima); and Hagab to the Moroccan locust (Dociostaurus maroccanus). Much of this comes from relating the original Hebrew to common words for various orthopterans in the Middle East. As previously noted, language changes. Arbeh is often a generalized word for locust; Hagab is sometimes just a synonym for the same, or may refer to a different locust phase. Today, Hargol in Arabic may refer to Saga ephippigera, a wingless, predatory katydid.

Slifkin (2021) made a good case, I think, that each of the four original Hebrew words referred to a different locust (or ‘swarming’ grasshopper). He suggested they referred to the desert locust, the migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), the Egyptian locust, and the Moroccan locust. Those would certainly have been the four main swarming species that the Israelites encountered during their agricultural work. Locust plagues were a significant threat to Israel. The prophet Joel, for example, gives four different names for locusts in connection to a devastating plague (Joel 1: 4). Simkins (1991) noted that those different names may refer to four different stages in the desert locust’s life cycle, or perhaps referring to three life stages while denoting two different adult forms (solitary and gregarious). Thompson (1974) noted ten different words in the Old Testament for locusts or similar insects, including different stages in the life cycle, while the Talmud had over twenty names for locust (Thompson 1955).

This long-faced grasshopper looks more like a toothpick than a meal.

Truxalis nasuta (CC BY 2.0 Lies Van Rompaey)

Predaceous orthopterans like this species seem unlikely candidates for 'clean' insects.

Great green bush-cricket, Tettigonia viridissima (CC BY-SA 2.0 Bernard Dupont)

Migratory locust, Locusta migratoria (CC BY 2.0 Ettore Balocchi)

Locust swarm in Israel (CC BY-SA 2.0 Niv Singer)

There are many other orthopterans in the Middle East, but quite a few of them are simply incongruous with the identifying tokens or with the principles guiding the selection of ‘clean’ animals. There are large wingless katydids, fossorial mole-crickets, predaceous bush-crickets, and brightly-colored grasshoppers that expel noxious fluids. None of those can seriously be considered ‘clean’ insects within the dietary laws. We shouldn’t attempt to force a wider definition of what a ‘clean’ insect was for the ancient Israelites.

This wingless, predaceous katydid can give you a solid nip.

Stout magician, Saga ephippigera (CC BY 4.0 Mohammad Amin Ghaffari)

This small-winged, colorful grasshopper produces a toxic repellent (Fishelson 1960).

Poekilocerus arabicus (CC BY-NC 4.0 Arno Beidts)


Aharoni, I. 1938. On some animals mentioned in the Bible. Osiris 5: 461-478.

Amar, Z. 2002-3. The eating of locusts in Jewish tradition after the Talmudic period. The Torah U-Madda Journal 11: 186-202.

Arment, C. 2022. Ruminating on created kinds and Ark kinds. Answers Research Journal 15: 391-404.

Belovski, H. 2014. Focussed on locust. Jewish Quarterly 61(1): 5-7.

BMNH. --. Kosher locust. The Biblical Museum of Natural History.

Fishelson, L. 1960. The biology and behavior of Poekilocerus bufonius Klug, with special reference to the repellent gland (Orth. Acrididae). Eos 36(1): 41-62.

Kelhoffer, J. A. 2004. Did John the Baptist eat like a former Essene? Locust-eating in the Ancient Near East and at Qumran. Dead Sea Discoveries 11(3): 293-314.

Ohr Somayach (yeshiva). --. Ask the Rabbi.

Simkins, R. 1991. Yahweh’s Activity in History and Nature in the Book of Joel. Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies, Vol. 10. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Slifkin, N. 2021. Can we eat locusts? Rationalist Judaism

Thompson, J. A. 1955. Joel’s locusts in the light of Near Eastern parallels. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14(1): 52-55.

Thompson, J. A. 1974. Translation of the words for locust. The Bible Translator 25(4): 405-411.