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The Hebrew term shechita (Hebrew:שחיטה; pronounced /ˈʃəXiːtɑ/)), also transliterated shechitah, shekhitah, shehita) is the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds according to Jewish dietary laws (Deut. 12:21, Deut. 14:21, Num. 11:22) The act is performed by severing the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins using an extremely sharp blade ("chalef"), and allowing the blood to drain out.
The animal must be killed "with respect and compassion" by a shochet (Hebrew:שוחט ritual slaughterer), a religious Jew who is duly licensed and trained. The animal can be in a number of positions; when the animal is lying on its back, this is referred to as shechita munachat; in a standing position it is known as shechita me'umedet.
If the hindquarters of kosher mammals are to be eaten by Jews, they must be 'porged' – stripped of veins, chelev (caul fat and suet) 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.
The animal must be kosher. For animals, this is restricted to ruminants which have split hooves. For birds the issue is more complicated. Biblically, all birds not specifically excluded in Deuteronomy 14:12–18 are permitted, but according to rabbinical law, only birds with a tradition of being eaten are allowed.
Before slaughtering, the animal must be healthy, uninjured, and viable. The animal cannot be stunned by electronarcosis, captive-bolt shot to the brain, or gas, as is common practice in modern animal slaughter, as this would injure the animal rendering the shechita invalid. After shechita the shochet may feel the area around the lungs, for scabbing or lesions, which would render the animal not kosher.
The Torah (Deut. 12:21) states that sheep and cattle should be slaughtered 'as I have commanded thee' but nowhere in the Torah (Five books of Moses) are any of the practices of schechita described. Instead, they have been handed down in Judaism's traditional Oral Torah, and codified in halakha in various sources, most notably the canonical codex of laws Shulchan Aruch.
To fulfill the basic law of shechita, the majority of both the trachea and esophagus (windpipe and food pipe) of a mammal, or the majority of either one of these in the case of birds, must be incised with a back and forth 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 the forbidden action that occurs 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, lying 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 occurs if the shochet accidentally 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 occurs if the shochet accidentally stabs the animal in the throat, slices the trachea or esophagus with a serrated knife, slaughters with a rusty knife or one that has an imperfection that rises above the blade's surface, burns the animal's throat, or slaughters with a knife that is so hot it would cause a person not to touch it. Accidental burning is always considered "piercing" in the terminology of shechita, regardless of the motion of the knife.
Tearing 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.
Covering 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.
Once the animal has been checked and found to be kosher, it is a Mitzvah for the shochet to give the foreleg, cheeks, and abomasum to a Kohen. Beit Din -in terms of the root of the obligation, has the Halachic authority to excommunicate a shochet who refuses to perform this Mitzvah. In any case, it is desired that the shochet himself refuse to perform the shechita unless the animal's owner expresses his agreement to give the gifts.
The Rishonim point out the Shochet cannot claim that since the animal does not belong to him, he cannot give the gifts without the owner's consent. On the contrary, since the average shochet is reputed to be well versed and knowledgeable in the laws of Shechitah ("Dinnei Shechita"), Beith Din relies on him to withhold his shechita so long as the owner refuses to give the gifts;
The obligation of giving the gifts lay upon the Shochet to separate the parts due to the Kohanim. Apparently, the reasoning is that since the average Shochet is a "Friend", since he completed the prerequisite of understanding the (complex) laws of Shechita and Bedikah. It is assumed that he -as well- is knowledgeable in the details of the laws of giving the gifts, and will not put the Mitzvah aside. This, however, is not the case with the animal's owner, since the average owner is an Am ha-aretz not wholly knowledgeable in the laws of the gifts -and procrastinates in completing the Mitzvah—Shulchan Gavoha to Yoreh Deah 61:61
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 other animals, 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 used for shechita is called a hallaf by Ashkenazim or a sakin (Hebrew: סכין) by all Jews. 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.
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 found to be 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 Hasidische Hallaf. The Hasidische 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 Hasidische Hallaf is the only commercially available knife for shechita and is universally accepted.
An animal must be checked again after it has been shekhted to see if there were any internal injuries that would have rendered 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 means "smooth" in German and Yiddish. In the context of kosher meat, it refers to the smoothness, or lack of blemish, in the internal organs of the animal. 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.
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 cattle 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, called nikkur, is considered complicated and tedious, and hence labor intensive, 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 exists a large nonkosher meat market, the hindquarters of the animal (where many of these forbidden meats are located) is sold to Gentiles so as to simplify the process. This tradition goes back for centuries where local Muslims accept meat slaughtered by Jews as consumable; however, the custom was not universal throughout the Muslim world, and some Muslims (particularly on the Indian subcontinent) did not accept these hindquarters as halal. In Israel, on the other hand, specially trained men are hired to prepare the hindquarters for sale as kosher.
The blood must also be removed from the meat, as there is a biblical prohibition against the eating of blood as well. (Gen 9:4, Lev 17:10–14, Deut 12:23–24) 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, 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.
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." (Deut. 12:21) In Orthodox Judaism this is often cited as one proof that Moses received an Oral Torah along with the text. Reform Judaism does not require observance of the laws of kosher.
The prohibition of stunning and the treatment of 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 said: "I've been in at least 30 other kosher slaughter plants, and I had never ever seen that kind of procedure done before. … I've seen kosher slaughter really done right, so the problem here is not kosher slaughter."
The UK Farm Animal Welfare Council said that the method by which Kosher and Halal meat is produced causes "significant pain and distress" to animals and should be banned. According to FAWC it can take up to two minutes for cattle to bleed to death. 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 opted not to follow FAWC's recommendations after pressure from religious leaders.
Temple Grandin, a leading designer of animal handling systems gives the various researchers' times to lose consciousness. She is opposed to shackling and hoisting as a method of handling animals and 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." Temple Grandin has worked closely with Jewish slaughters to design handling systems for cattle, and has said: "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."
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