Kosher Slaughtering: An Introduction

A survey of some of the laws governing the slaughter of kosher animals for meat.

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This articles covers only some of the more general provisions of the law; additional details may be found in Rabbi Appel's book and other written sources, but questions about specific instances should be directed to a competent rabbinic authority. For an explanation of the references to "salting and soaking" meat, see the accompanying article, "Making Meat Kosher: Between Slaughtering and Cooking." Reprinted, with permission from KtavPublishing, from The Concise Code of Jewish Law, Volume 1.

Laws of Slaughtering

1. It is a positive commandment of the Torah that whoever wishes to eat meat must first slaughter the animal, as it is written, "Thou shalt slaughter of thy herd and of thy flock, which the Lord hath given thee, as I have commanded thee, and thou shalt eat within thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul" (Deuteronomy 12:21). (Note: Administering electric shock to an animal prior to shehitah [kosher slaughtering] is prohibited, because it incapacitates the animal and renders it a trefah [animal unfit to eat]. It is forbidden to eat the meat of such an animal. The prohibition extends, as well, to administering an anesthetic, in the form of a drug and the like, since it may endanger the health and life of the animal and render it trefah prior to shehitah.)

kosher slaughteringThis commandment applies equally to cattle, to animals, and to fowl. A limb torn or cut from a living animal is forbidden. An animal that is not slaughtered, but dies of itself, is prohibited. The laws regarding the precise method of slaughter are not stated in the Bible, but were given orally to Moses on Mount Sinai, as indicated in the verse by the statement, "as I have commanded thee," that is, as I have already instructed you. [The function of this previous sentence is to make a link between rabbinically developed laws regarding implementation of these laws and what is traditionally understood as the revelation—of both oral and written Torah (which can be translated as both "teaching" and "law")—at Sinai.]

2. Only one who is knowledgeable in the laws of slaughtering (shehitah) and proficient in its practice, and who is a believing, pious Jew, may act as a slaughterer (shohet) in performance of the commandment. It is the prevalent custom that the shohet must receive written authorization from a recognized rabbinical authority attesting to the aforesaid qualifications.

3. Shehitahmust be done by means of a swift, smooth cut of a sharp knife whose blade is free of any dent or imperfection.

4. Shehitah entails severing the trachea and the esophagus in accordance with the oral tradition, which requires that five improper procedures be avoided, lest they invalidate the shehitah and render the animal unfit to be eaten. They are (a) hesitation or delay while drawing the knife, (b) excessive pressure or chopping, (c) burrowing the knife between the trachea and the esophagus or under the skin, (d) making the incision outside the specified area, and (e) laceration or tearing of the trachea or esophagus, which would result from an imperfect blade. An animal or fowl that is improperly slaughtered (or, as already noted, that is not slaughtered, but dies of itself) is considered carrion (nevelah) and unfit for food.

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Rabbi Gersion Appel, (1916-2008) D.H.L., Ph.D., served congregations in Worcester, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington; New York City and Kew Gardens, New York; and was Professor of Philosophy at Stern College of Yeshiva University. He is the author of A Philosophy of Mitzvot.