Shechita

Shechita

Shechita (Hebrew:שחיטה) is the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds according to Jewish dietary laws. The act is performed by cutting the animal's throat by means of a very sharp knife (referred to as "drawing" in ritual terminology) and allowing the blood to drain out, which causes death within a few minutes. Islamic dietary laws require a similar procedure, Dhabiĥa.

The animal must be killed with respect and compassion by a "shochet" (ritual slaughterer), a pious Jew who has in mind the life of the animal as he "draws" the knife across its neck. The animal can be in a number of positions; when the animal is lying on its back, this is referred to as shechita munachat.

If the hindquarters (or sirloin) of kosher mammals are to be eaten by Jews, they must be 'porged' - stripped of veins, fats and sinews in accordance with a strict procedure. Because of the expense of porging and the skill required to properly separate out the forbidden parts, a large portion of the meat of kosher mammals slaughtered through shechita in the United States winds up on the non-kosher market.

Preparation

The animal must be kosher. Before slaughtering, the animal must be healthy, so the animal is inspected as carefully as possible without being invasive. The shochet may feel the area around the lungs, for scabbing or lesions, which would render the animal not kosher. The animal cannot be stunned, as is common practice in modern animal slaughter, for this would render the shechita invalid.

Process

Though referenced in the Torah, the vast majority of the basic practices of shechita are not described in great detail there. Instead, they are found in Judaism's traditional Oral Torah, and have been codified in halakha in various sources, most notably the Shulchan Aruch. In order to fulfill the basic law of shechita, the majority of the esophagus and trachea of a land animal, or the majority of either of them in the case of birds, must be sliced through with a back and forth sawing motion without violating one of the five major prohibited techniques, or various more detailed rules. The five major forbidden techniques include: Pressing, Pausing, Tearing, Piercing, or Covering. A shochet must have studied these laws and demonstrate a thorough understanding of them, as well as have been carefully trained, before he is allowed to shekht meat unaided.

Pressing is accomplished when the shochet pushes the knife into the animal's throat, chops rather than slices, or positions the animal improperly so that either its head presses down on the blade as it expires or the shochet must push the knife into the throat against the force of gravity. There are those who feel that it is forbidden to have the animal in an upright position during shechita due to the prohibition of pressing. They feel that the animal must be on its back, laying on its side, suspended upside down by a rope or chain, or - as is done in most commercial slaughter houses - placed in a barrel like pen that restrains the animal's limbs while it is turned on its back for slaughter. However, an expert shochet can slaughter the animal while it is upright without pressing the knife. This method is employed in most smaller operations in America.

Pausing is performed by the shochet if he stops the slaughtering process after either the trachea or esophagus has been cut but before they have been cut the majority of the way through. Pausing can happen accidentally if muscle contractions in the animal's neck pull one of these organs out of contact with the blade. The latter case is especially common in turkeys.

Piercing is the result of stabbing the animal in the throat, slicing the trachea or esophagus with a serrated knife, slaughtering with a rusty knife or one that has an imperfection that rises above the blade's surface, burning the animal's throat, or slaughtering with a knife that is so hot it would cause a person to not touch it. Burning is always considered piercing in shechita, regardless of the motion of the knife.

Tearing is caused by using a knife with an imperfection on the blade, such as a scratch or nick, that causes a section of blade to be lower than the surface of the blade.

Covering is accomplished by either cutting into the animal's throat so deeply that the entire width of the knife disappears in the wound, using a knife that is too short so that the end disappears in the wound, or by having a foreign object fall over the knife so the shochet loses sight of the incision.

Minor rules

The animal's blood may not be collected in a bowl, a pit, or a body of water, as these resemble ancient forms of idol worship. If the shochet accidentally slaughters with a knife dedicated to idol worship, he must remove an amount of meat equivalent to the value of the knife and destroy it. If he slaughtered with such a knife on purpose, the animal is forbidden as not kosher. It is forbidden to slaughter an animal in front of others, or to slaughter an animal and its young on the same day, even separately. This is forbidden no matter how far away the animals are from each other. An animal's "young" is defined as either its own offspring, or another animal that follows it around, even if of another species.

The knife

The knife used for shechita is called a hallaf by Ashkenazim or a sacin by Sephardim. By biblical law the knife may be made from anything not attached directly or indirectly to the ground and capable of being sharpened and polished to the necessary level of sharpness and smoothness required for shechita. The Minhag now is to use a metal knife. Anything but a metal knife today would render the animal unfit to eat except in certain narrow circumstances.

The knife must be minimally 1.5 or 2 times as long as the animal's neck is wide, depending on the species of animal and the number of strokes needed to slaughter the animal, but not so long that the weight of the knife exceeds the weight of the animal's head. If the knife is too large, it is assumed to cause Pressing. The knife must not have a point. It is feared a point may slip into the wound during slaughter and cause piercing. The blade may also not be serrated, as serrations cause tearing.

The blade may not have imperfections in it. All blades are assumed by Jewish law to be imperfect, so the knife must be checked before each session. The shochet must run his fingernail up and down both sides of the blade and on the cutting edge to determine if he can feel any imperfections. He then uses a number of increasingly fine abrasive stones to sharpen and polish the blade until it is perfectly sharp and smooth. After the slaughter, the shochet must check the knife again in the same way to be certain the first inspection was properly done, and to ensure the blade was not damaged during shechita. If the blade is damaged, the meat may not be eaten by Jews. If the blade falls or is lost before the second check is done, the first inspection is relied on and the meat is permitted.

In previous centuries the hallaf was made of forged steel, which was not reflective and was difficult to make both smooth and sharp. The Baal Shem Tov, fearing that Sabbateans were scratching the knives in a way not detectable by normal people, introduced the Chasidische Hallaf. The Chasidische Hallaf differs from the previously used knife in that it was made from molten steel and polished to a mirror gloss in which scratches could be seen as well as felt. The new knife was controversial and was one of four reasons listed in the Brody Cherem for the excommunication of the Chassidim.

Today the Chasidische Hallaf is the only commercially available knife for shechita and is universally accepted.

Carcass preparation

Bedikah

An animal must be checked again after it has been shekhted to see if there were any internal injuries that would render have the animal unhealthy before the slaughter, but were simply not visible because they were internal. The inspector must check certain organs, such as the lungs, for any scarring which would render the animal treif (not-kosher)

Glatt

In the case of a scab or lesion on a cow’s lungs specifically, there is debate between Ashkenazic customs and Sephardic customs. Ashkenazic Jews hold that if the patch can be removed and the lungs are still airtight (a process that is tested by filling the lungs with air and then submerging them in water and looking for escaping air) then the animal is still Kosher, while Sephardic Jews hold that if there is any sort of scabbing or lesion on the lungs, then the animal is not kosher. “Glatt” meat would literally mean that the animal has passed the stringent Sephardic requirements, although today the word is rarely used in that context.

Removal

After the animal has been thoroughly inspected, there are still steps that have to be taken before the animal can be sold as kosher. The Torah prohibits the eating of certain fats and organs, such as the kidneys and intestines, so they must be removed from the animal. These fats are typically known as “Chelev”. Chelev prohibition only applies to domesticated animals, such as cows and sheep. For wild animals, such as deer, this prohibition is not applicable. There is also a biblical prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve (Gid Hanasheh) so that too, must be removed. The removal of the Chelev and the Gid Hanasheh is considered complicated and tedious, and even more specialized training is necessary to perform the act properly. While the small amounts of Chelev in the front half of the animal are relatively easy to remove, the back half of the animal is far more complicated, and it is where the sciatic nerve is located. In countries such as America, where there exist a large non-kosher meat market, the hindquarters of the animal (where many of these forbidden meats are located) is sold to non-Jews so as to simplify the process. On the other hand, in countries like Israel, specially trained men are hired to prepare the hindquarters for sale as kosher.

Blood

The blood must also be removed from the meat, as there is a biblical prohibition against the eating of blood as well. All large arteries and veins are removed, as well as any bruised meat or coagulated blood. Then the meat has to be purged of all remaining blood (kashering). The process is generally done by letting the meat soak for around 30 minutes, covering it with salt and then allowing it to drain. In Sephardi traditions, one generally leaves the salt on for a full hour and then rinses the meat thoroughly. The meat is then considered kashered. However, if the meat has been left for more than three days after being slaughtered without being kashered, or if the meat was frozen before being kashered, then the blood is considered to have “set” in the meat, and it is no longer salvageable to eat except when prepared through broiling with appropriate drainage.

Animal welfare controversies

The prohibition of stunning and the humane attitude towards the slaughtered animal expressed in shechita law limits the extent to which Jewish slaughterhouses can industrialize their procedures. The most industrialized attempt at a kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa, became the center of controversy in 2004, after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released gruesome undercover video of cattle struggling to their feet with their tracheas and esophagi ripped out after shechita. Some of the cattle actually got up and stood for a minute or so after being dumped from the rotating pen.

Temple Grandin, a leading designer of animal handling systems, wrote, on visiting a shechita slaughterhouse, "I will never forget having nightmares after visiting the now defunct Spencer Foods plant in Spencer, Iowa fifteen years ago. Employees wearing football helmets attached a nose tong to the nose of a writhing beast suspended by a chain wrapped around one back leg. Each terrified animal was forced with an electric prod to run into a small stall which had a slick floor on a forty-five degree angle. This caused the animal to slip and fall so that workers could attach the chain to its rear leg [in order to raise it into the air]. As I watched this nightmare, I thought, 'This should not be happening in a civilized society.' In my diary I wrote, 'If hell exists, I am in it.' I vowed that I would replace the plant from hell with a kinder and gentler system. However, Dr Grandin has said that "When the cut is done correctly, the animal appears not to feel it. From an animal welfare standpoint, the major concern during ritual slaughter are the stressful and cruel methods of restraint (holding) that are used in some plants.

The UK Farm Animal Welfare Council says that the method by which Kosher and Halal meat is produced causes severe suffering to animals and it should be banned immediately. According to FAWC it can take up to two minutes for cattle to bleed to death, thus amounting to animal abuse. Compassion in World Farming also supported the recommendation saying "We believe that the law must be changed to require all animals to be stunned before slaughter. The UK government rejected its recommendations.

Various research papers on cattle slaughter collected by Compassion In World Farming mention that "after the throat is cut, large clots can form at the severed ends of the carotid arteries, leading to occlusion of the wound (or “ballooning” as it is known in the slaughtering trade). Nick Cohen wrote in the New Statesman, "Occlusions slow blood loss from the carotids and delay the decline in blood pressure that prevents the suffering brain from blacking out. In one group of calves, 62.5 per cent suffered from ballooning. Even if the slaughterman is a master of his craft and the cut to the neck is clean, blood is carried to the brain by vertebral arteries and it keeps cattle conscious of their pain."

The Orthodox Union, the leading certificating body for kosher food in the USA, concluded, however, that AgriProcessors was observing proper procedures , though some changes could be made in consideration of marit ayin - community perceptions. The OU pointed out:

While unnecessary cruelty to even one animal is intolerable, one has to look at the total picture before judging the matter. To those unfamiliar with the slaughter industry—kosher or non-kosher—scenes showing post-shechita movement of several animals, such as are shown on the video, can be very disturbing. But it must be realized that during the six or seven weeks during which the video was taken, approximately 18,000 animals were slaughtered by the plant in question. With such numbers, it is inevitable that aberrations do sometimes occur, and those shown in the video represent only a tiny percentage of the total number processed in that time span.

PETA was rebuked by several parties in the Jewish community for mounting what they considered to be a vindictive campaign so soon after Jewish organizations had criticized the group for its "Holocaust on your Plate" ad campaign promoting veganism. Leading rabbis of the non-Orthodox movements in Judaism, allied with a small number of Orthodox rabbis including David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, sided with PETA and condemned what they viewed as the inhumane methods used at AgriProcessors.

European history and Shechita: controversies and legislation

The first instance of anti-Shechita legislation occurred when obligatory stunning of animals was introduced in the Swiss canton of Aragon (Aragau) in 1850 with a dispensation for shehitah that was rescinded ten years later. A ban was introduced in the Kingdom of Saxony. Later the Swiss ban in Aragon applied to the whole country after a referendum on the question; the Catholic cantons voted against and the Protestant cantons supported the ban. Shehitah was banned in Finland when it was part of the Imperial Russian Empire. The ban was lifted when Finland won its independence as a result of the Communist Revolution. In 1936 there were only bans in Switzerland and Saxony. The aim of preventing shehitah being practised because if offended the sensibilities of the gentile population was pointed out as a valid grounds for introducing anti-shehitah legislation in the Swedish riksdag in a proposal for legislation in 1937:

"Regardless whatever the case may be concerning the degree of suffering inflicted on the animal, there are other circumstances which support a schächten ban. Thus, we cannot disregard the fact that schächten makes a more disgusting and brutal impression on the observer than does slaughter by stunning. (...) Not only that, we have to take into consideration that, undoubtedly, for large sections of our population, it appears offensive to them that this kind of slaughter is legally permitted. [...]"

Germany, Antisemitism and shechita

In Germany post 1880 the Tierschutz - animal welfare (literally: animal protection) movement took on an antisemitic aspect. Shechita and vivisection were both protested. The Tierschutz and the related Völkisch movement were not endorsed by the Kaiserreich elite but were embraced by the Nazis. The anti-Shechita and animal welfare laws introduced by the Nazi regime after 1933 also affected Jews because they limited shechita. Today, animal welfare is a controversial topic in the Jewish community in Germany due to its associations with the Nazi regime..

In 1939 when Germany invaded Poland shehitah was banned there and in other areas under direct German governance between 1939 and 1945. Mussolini banned shehitah in Italy. The Allied command removed the bans together with other anti-Jewish legislation (Nuremberg laws) when they liberated Europe in 1945.

Current laws

The Swedish government commissioned a report from the Veterinary College in the 1920s that concluded that shehitah could continue but this was later ignored in later legislation by the Swedish government. Shechita slaughtering is also prohibited in Norway and Iceland. According to Swedish law it is permitted to slaughter fowl for private consumption.

The United Kingdom forbids shechitah munachat (slaughter of the animal while it is lying on its back), on animal welfare grounds.

In the shehitah debates feeling has been inflamed at times and there were strikes of slaughterhouse workers in Germany and in Malmö, in southern Sweden, protesting that shechitah was practised at all.

Significance in Jewish tradition

The laws of shechita are not given in the text of the Torah. Rather, the Torah only writes that the slaughter shall be "as I have instructed you." In Orthodox Judaism this is taken as a proof that Moses received an Oral Torah along with the text.

References

See also

External links

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