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Shechitah---The Jewish Ritual Slaughter of Animals

Facts, Myths, History, and Present Reality in the U.S.

In Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition, Louis Berman traces the origins of shechitah to the downfall of the biblical animal sacificial system, which had provided a religious format for the killing of food animals. Animal sacrifice itself was widespread throughout the world for millennia. But shechitah itself and the rules guarding the shochet's profession are post-biblical, and you will not find biblical references to this practice.

In Judaism, the shochet who is responsible for the killing of the animal is not regarded merely as a butcher. He is expected to be a man of exemplary piety to whom is entrusted the act of killing an animal for human consumption in such a manner that its death will be as quick and as merciful as possible. In Jerome Rothenberg's phrase, the schochet was seen as a "technician of the sacred."

It is also the job of the shochet to make certain that the animal is free of blemishes and disease, which would make it unfit for food. The list of damages to limb, genitals, membranes, etc is quite specific, and even the sharpness of the knife and the manner of drawing it across the jugular vein of the animal is described in detail in rabbinic literature. The technique for killing the animal required a great deal of skill, to sever the jugular vein as quickly and as thoroughly as possible so that the animal immediately lost a great deal of blood and lost consciousness in under a minute. Against a millennial background of other communities hunting and maiming animals, trapping them mercilessly, clubbing them, skinning them alive, bleeding them slowly to death, shechitah was the most humane form of killing an animal, and it served the Jewish people as the sign, the guarantee to the community that animal life would not be taken cheaply, and that the taking of it carried religious obligations.

One may--and should-- argue that there is no such thing as "humane slaughter," but even within that parameter there is better and there is worse. It is a fair statement to make that for centuries no other method of slaughtering an animal for food was comparable in its intent of sparing the animal unnecessary pain----until, unfortunately, we come to the middle of the twentieth century, when modern laws and technology rendered the Jewish ritual form of slaughter in the United States inhumane, even judged by its own standards.

The problem began in 1906 when federal law required the shackling and hoisting of food animals in the slaughterhouse. This method was considered by the government to be hygienic because it would prevent a bleeding animal from falling in the blood of the previously slaughtered animal, and thereby avoid the possible contagion of blood-borne diseases. Hygienic it may be, but it is also an exceptionally cruel method of slaughtering; it requires the lifting of an animal off the ground--perhaps a 1200 pound steer by a leg, which frequently results in the wrenching, twisting, lacerating or breaking of the animal's leg as he swings overhead in pain and terror.

Shackling and hoisting is not part of the tradition of shechitah. In fact, it was alien to it, and the Jewish community at the time protested this imposition. If shackling and hoisting were part of traditional Jewish slaughter, it would be practiced by all Jewish communities around the world, but it is not. Only Jewish communities in the United States and South America practice shackling and hoisting, as a governmental imposition.

All slaughterhouses in the U.S., religious and non-religious, shackled and hoisted conscious animals until 1958 when another law was passed which became known as "The Humane Slaughtering Act" and which required that animals be stunned or rendered unconscious prior to their shackling and hoisting. The Jewish community protested again because the Jewish religion requires that an animal be conscious at the time of its slaughter to confirm that it is not diseased. This time, the Jewish and Moslem communities were exempted from changes in their practice under the Religious Freedom Act.

Rendering an animal unconscious before slaughtering it may sound humane, and the intent of the law may have been humane, but rendering an animal unconscious is not easy to do. The slaughterer must be an expert in the physiology of cows, steers, sheep, goats, lambs, etc., to know how much pressure to apply and precisely where to apply it. The evidence of ineptness and corruption is endless. Many animals in the non-kosher slaughtering houses have been observed to regain consciousness while hanging in the air.

On the other hand, the history of shechitah in the U.S. reflects a terrible irony as the gap between the ideal and the real widened until the practice became a nightmare. In an article written by Henry Spira (Animals' Voice), he quotes a description from Meat and Poultry: "...I visited one plant where steers were hung up in a row to await slaughter. They were hitting the walls, and their bellowing could be heard out in the parking lot. To get the shackles on the live cattle, the operation was equipped with a pen with a false bottom that tripped the animal to make it fall down. In some plants, the suspended animal's head is restrained by a nose-thong connected to an air cylinder. Stretching of the neck by pulling on the nose is painful. Suspension upside-down also causes great discomfort because the rumen presses down on the diaphragm."

Not only is this horrific, it is a violation of the intent of shechitah, and a violation of Jewish law which prohibits shackling an animal by a leg so as to cause it pain. Furthermore, alternatives to shacking and hoisting have been available to the Jewish community since 1963, in the form of "casting pens." Here the animal is isolated in a pen so that its blood is not a threat to another animal. However, it is very expensive to change system machinery and small slaughterhouses have resisted change. The federal government has made casting pens mandatory for slaughterhouses that deal with meat that is shipped interstate, but it has no power to regulate those slaughterhouses whose meat is sold within state---and a great deal of meat is slaughtered by independent operators, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Hence, we now had Jewish communities continuing to practice what they once found loathsome.

But the shackling and hoisting of conscious animals in Jewish slaughtering plants is being phased out, after a long history of resistance to change. One of Henry Spira's accomplishments (among his many) before he died was to convince 80% of Jewish slaughterhouses that slaughter large animals to change their methods and machinery. The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) has taken steps to insure that the casting pen will be used in their own slaughtering plants, but their policies affect only their orthodox communities, and while this is considerable, as of this writing, it still leaves 30% of slaughtering plants that slaughter large animals as well as most of the slaughtering plants that slaughter small animals such as lambs and sheep unaffected. Spira's final words, an estimate and, hopefully, a prophecy were:

"It appears that all major shackle-and-hoist operations for adult cattle have been or are in the process of being replaced with upright systems. This may account for as much as 80% of ritual slaughter of adult animals, which means, of course, that the war on shackling and hoisting is not over. A handful of large plants still shackle-and-hoist calves as does one large sheep operation. And then there are medium-sized operations and "locker plants" which ritually slaughter smaller numbers of animals. At this time, there's a great deal of activity and energy toward implementing upright systems in the slaughtering of calves. And discussions are currently directed toward developing and implementing low-cost, small scale equipment appropriate for the "locker plants."....we feel optimistic about the future of Replacement and Reduction because the environment is becoming ever more receptive to the increasing concerns for farm animal well-being--a new awareness fueled by the broad spectrum of campaigns launched by the animal advocacy movement. Additional wind in the movement's sails comes from a shifting public perception of meat. An increasing awareness that it inflicts horrendous pain on billions of animals, and that it is linked to cancer, heart attacks, and diabetes for consumers....In fact, meat appears to be following the tobacco trend--from chic and macho to pariah. And we can all speed the process along."

There is a kind of morality tale to the history of shechita in the United States in the twentieth century --as there is to the Humane Slaughtering Act of 1962--and all efforts to make cruelty of whatever degree, moral. It reminds one of Lady Macbeth's famous statement to Macbeth, "What thou woulds't thou woulds't holily." Shechitah and the Humane Slaughtering Act are examples that every system is liable to corruption, and that when it becomes corrupt piling on methods of inspection does not help. The ultimate humane and cost-effective act is not to slaughter animals and not to eat them.