Every now and then the issue of religious ritual slaughter, namely Jewish (Kosher) and Muslim (Halal), reaches the headlines. In six European countries, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Poland and Denmark (and also New Zealand) Kosher Schitah is considered inhuman and thus forbidden.
Surprisingly, however, this struggle is not new at all. The first known struggle began in 1864 in Germany and it was launched by Animal Cruelty Prevention associations. In the 1880s, 150 years ago, anti-Semites joined forces with these Animal Protection Societies to campaign for anti-Shchita legislation to be passed in Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia.
According to Jewish law and to Muslim law, slaughter of animals and birds is carried out with a single cut to the throat, rather than the more widespread method of stunning with a bolt into the head before slaughter. However, many Muslim authorities accept reversible stunning, such as electro-stunning, prior to the cut.
Jewish authorities reject that in accordance with the Jewish dietary laws (Deut. 12:21, 14:21, Num. 11:22), claiming the Jewish slaughter causes minimum pain to the animal, therefore there’s no need in stunning the animal before. Animal welfare organizations have shown that pre-stunning fails to stun in between 9 and 31% of cases. When an animal is ‘miss-stunned’ it suffers enormous pain and distress.
A basic demand of Kosher Schitah is the animal must be killed “with respect and compassion” and in that the least painful method of slaughter possible would be used (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, III:48). It is a branch of a wider Jewish ideal of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim (which literally means: “the suffering of living creatures”); this ideal bans inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. It is linked in the Talmud from the Biblical law requiring people to assist in unloading burdens from animals (Exodus 23:5).
A few other manifestations of this ban include: Resting on the Sabbath also means providing rest for the working animals; Feeding one’s animals before she or he sits down to eat; the working animals must not be muzzled at harvest time, so that they can eat of the harvest as they work; Sports like bullfighting and hunting are forbidden by most rabbinical authorities as they are considered “a culture of sinful and cruel people” (rabbi Ovadiah Yosef); Milking a cow on Shabbat is generally prohibited on Shabbat unless unmilking it will cause it an immense suffering; All animals must be kept in adequate living conditions; the Torah forbids plowing with a cow and donkey together as they are not equally fit and strong and eventually the weaker donkey is bound to suffer (Ibn Ezra).
Judaism, however, doesn’t only demand Jews from inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, since it presents a similar demand to non-Jews as well. This is why one of the Seven Laws of Noah is the proscription on eating a limb from a living animal (Gen. 9:4), an act which is considered cruel and vile.
In terms of Sechitah, it must result in a rapid drop in blood pressure in the brain and loss of consciousness, rendering the animal insensible to pain and to exsanguinate in a prompt and precise blow of a very sharp knife (called halaf). Therefore there are five forbidden techniques which disqualify the kashrut of an animal:
Shehiyah (delay or pausing) – A pause of hesitation during the incision of even a moment makes the animal’s flesh unkosher. The knife must move in an uninterrupted sweep;
Derasah (pressing) – Derasah is the forbidden action that occurs when the shochet (butcher) 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;
Haladah (digging or burying) – Haladah occurs if the shochet either accidentally cuts into the animal’s throat so deeply that the entire width of the knife disappears in the wound, uses a knife that is too short so that the end disappears in the wound, or if a foreign object falls over the knife so the shochet loses sight of the incision;
Hagramah (slipping) – The limits within which the knife may be applied are from the large ring in the windpipe to the top of the upper lobe of the lung when it is inflated, and corresponding to the length of the pharynx. Slaughtering above or below these limits renders the meat unkosher; Iqqur (tearing) – Iqqur occurs if the shochet accidentally uses 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.
Breaching any of these five rules renders the animal as a “Nevelah” (carrion); the animal is regarded in Jewish law as if it was a carrion thus forbidden to be eaten. These requirements express the quest for the least vicious method of killing an animal. It was introduced more than 3,000 years ago, many centuries before electricity was invented.
These compassionate slaughter methods are only a part of the religious dietary laws, which follow a basic essence of avoiding the eating of cruel animals or cruel gastronomic combinations. For example all Jews refrain from eating blood following the biblical prohibition (Gen. 9:4, Lev. 3:1-17, Deut. 12: 22- 25), stating “the life of the flesh is in the blood…for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17:11). And indeed today science proved that taking blood samples enables to know a great deal about the physical health of the owner of that blood.
The blood supplies nutrients to empower the body, oxygen to make those nutrients work and other mechanisms to remove impurities. Eating it is considered cruel, and that’s why Jews for example have to roast thoroughly livers and heart, blood packed organs, before eating them so they won’t eat any trace of blood.
Another main relevant prohibition is that which forbids eating mixtures of milk and meat (Basar be-chalav). It is stressed out three times in the Torah in three different citations (Ex. 34: 26, 23: 19 and Deut. 14:21) to accentuate its moral stance in Jewish perception. Some of the rabbis, such as the Philo of Alexandria, Nahmanides, Rashbam and Rabbi Kook, interpreted this prohibition as a tool to distance Jews from the cruel act to cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. In fact it is a religious reminder that milk was not meant to serve as a spice for the cooking of the meat but to nourish and feed the young animals’ offspring.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar compared the practice of cooking of animals in their mother’s milk to the barbaric slaying of nursing infants. The Sforno argued that using the milk of an animal to cook its offspring was inhumane, based on a principle similar to that of Shilu’ach ha-Ken (Launching from the Nest), the injunction against gathering eggs from a nest while the mother bird watches (Deut. 24:7-7). Kabbalah explains it’s cruel since it mixes to separate forces of life.
The entire complicated laws of the dietary religious system are meant to educate one to refrain from gluttony and meat lust. That’s why not all fish are allowed to be eaten, and same goes to animals and chicken. In fact all carnivore animals which hunt other animals are generally non-Kosher, due to the aspiration of not wanting to be affected spiritually by their cruel trait of preying.
This factual background was the base of a doctoral dissertation focusing on the kosher Schitah and the minimum pain it inflects upon animals, written by rabbi Levinger a few years ago. That work was presented to the Dutch government, and it subsequently led to the abolishment of the law forbidding kosher Schitah. We hope that European governments will follow lead in understanding the morality of Schitah.
BY DAVID ANTEBI