New York – The Shechita Wars

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    illustrationNew York – It is a battle that has been going on for close to two hundred years. The battleground has ranged from Europe, to Australia, to England to the United States, Israel and South America. The battle has pitted animal rights activists against Rabbis, moderate animal right activists against the extremely radical animal rights activists, and even Rabbi against Rabbi.

    It is a battle that is partially responsible for landing Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of history’s largest kosher meat producer, in prison until April 2033.

    Another side effect of the battle over Shechita is the fact that Dr. Temple Grandin, a leading consultant of the livestock industry and a professor at Colorado State University, has become fully conversant in the Talmudic tractate known as “Meseches Chullin” – even though she is not Jewish. “Temple Grandin even owns Rabbi Loch’s “Chulin Illuminated,” remarked Rabbi Yehudah Shain, a Kashrus consultant in Lakewood, New Jersey.

    For thousands of years observant Jews have been consuming meat that has been slaughtered according to the laws of the Torah. Most of these laws were handed down in Jewish tradition, from generation to generation. Indeed, according to the Talmud, these laws came from the oral teachings of Moses himself.

    For hundreds of years, Jews have been law-abiding citizens in the United States of America, as they have endeavored to do in their host countries ever since their exile from the land of Israel in 70 CE. Every so often, however, the laws and procedures of Shechita are spotlighted by either the law or by the media.

    To appreciate the history of Shechita in this country, a brief overview is in order.

    Until pretty much the turn of the century, Jews who emigrate to this country eat kosher meat that is slaughtered by Shochtim in New York, Chicago and other big cities in pretty much the same way that their European counterparts did – the animal is knocked down to the ground and slaughtered.
    Then in 1904, a 26 year-old Upton Sinclair takes a job in the Chicago meat packing market in order to write a fiction book. Two years later, he publishes a best-seller book called the “Jungle.” The book is a national sensation and a few months later, the impact of this book affects the laws of Shechita in this country.

    In June of 1906, the US Congress passes the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act and its companion section called the Meat Inspection Act. Among other things, it stipulates that an animal cannot be slaughtered on the ground for sanitary reasons. The concern was that the cow might fall into the blood of another animal. Other parts of the 1906 US Pure Food and Drug Act legislate that heroin, cocaine and cannibas must be properly labeled before it is sold.

    The Meat Inspection Act is pushed through and supported by President Teddy Roosevelt. Jewish Shechita needs to come into compliance with Federal law, and they need to do so fast. They do so with a process called, “Hoist and Shackle.” The process is in use in non-kosher slaughter houses and soon comes to be the industry standard in Shechita as well.

    Initially, two concerns are raised – the practice is a bit more dangerous for Shochtim, and it did seem to cause the animal a bit more stress. Nonetheless, our grandparents generation adopts this method. In the gentile slaughterhouses, according to the minutes of the American Humane Association meetings in 1902 and 1904, cows were often “beaten over the head” and were “often skinned alive.” Kosher food laws, of course, forbid this.

    Then a few decades later in England something happened. A new method of humane killing was discovered – the captive bolt pistol. The National Humane Review a publication of the American Humane Society picked up on it in 1952 and started pushing for reform in American slaughter.

    The effort stagnates until the spring of 1955, when Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota introduces a bill that requires all slaughterhouses, including kosher ones, to quickly and painlessly stun animals before slaughter.

    The Jewish community is awakened with a jolt. Almost overnight, the status of Kosher Slaughter is at risk. A similar bill is introduced in the House of Representatives, and the nation is now, for the first time, mobilized to act for animal rights. President Dwight Eisenhower says, “If one were to look just at my mail, one would think the only issue facing this country is humane slaughter.” The bill is passed into law, but it deals only with the slaughterhouses that sell meat to the federal government. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall.

    Leading Jewish organizations conduct meetings and consult with each other as to what to do. The animal rights activists are now approaching the attack on Kosher slaughter state by state. By 1968 almost half of the countries states will have passed laws regarding “humane” slaughter.

    Never mind that stunning the animal is a very painful process – more so than proper Shechita – the animal right activists have been empowered.
    The Jewish Welfare Board undertakes to develop a machine that will hold the animal still – and will allow Shechita to take place with the animal standing upright.

    “Engineers were hired, and all segments of the Jewish community banded together on this one,” remarks Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union. “Conservative, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews helped develop this machinery. One of the prime movers behind the defense of Shechita was Isaac Lewin, Nat Lewin’s father.”

    Leading Rabbis immersed themselves in the battle to save Kashruth in this country. “Rav Yosha Ber Soloveitchik, the Dean of Yeshiva University actually became an advisor to the Secretary of Agriculturee on these issues, recalls Rabbi Genack. “He advocated for the creation of the pen which would be less stressful for the animal. It is the one in use today. He assisted in getting the ASPCA on board and urged them to adopt it. It is now called the ASPCA pen. His efforts and involvement certainly quieted down the issue.”

    Almost simultaneously, Canada develops similar equipment. By 1963, the equipment is commercially available. Rabbis are consulted to determine the halachic validity of such a solution and the method of slaughter in this country undergoes a sea change. Animals will now be slaughtered with the knife cutting upward – not downwards.

    And herein lies the second of the Shechita wars. Cutting upward is a controversial method of slaughter because of the need of avoiding something called “Drissa” – the forbidden application of vertical pressure on the cow. Torah law forbids such pressure – the slice must be done smoothly – across the animal’s neck – across the neck and without significant pressure toward the esophagus and trachea of the animal.

    Thus two areas of controversy are born – one area involves the best way to slaughter the animal – whether to slaughter the animal while it is standing and have the shochet slaughter upward or to have the animal on the ground facing up and have the shochet slaughter downward. The latter method is called “Shechita Munachas.” The former method is often called “Shechita Meumad.”

    The second area of controversy involves whether or not Shechita Munachas – where the animal is facing upward – is actually less comfortable for the animal, and whether or not pressure or possible future pressure from animal rights groups should be a determining factor in how Kosher slaughter is conducted.

    The issues revolve around the words of two of Judaism’s leading Rabbis. Rashi in his commentary on tractate Chulin explains that downward slaughter is the age-old method of kosher slaughter. Rabbi Shabtai Cohen, author of the Sifsei Kohen commentary on the Yore Deah section of the code of Jewish law writes (YD 6:8) that ideally, one should not slaughter facing upward.

    “The method of slaughter across the board in Israel is Shechita Munachas,” the secretary of Rabbi Moshe Landau of Bnei Brak, one of the leading supervisions in Israel tells Ami Magazine. And Israeli consumers carry enormous clout.

    Just as there is an upright pen there is also a revolving pen that turns the animal upside down. One such piece of equipment is called the Weinberg Pen which was initially developed in England.

    “Since then this pen has undergone many revisions, modifications, and improvements” explains Rabbi Yehudah Shain, “although there are still halachic reservations to this piece of equipment as well.” The concerns range from the issue of “one size fits all” perspectives which can cause an animal to have too much room to pull back, which causes a kashrus problem to not allowing enough room for a right handed shochet to slaughter from the left side.”

    But Shechita Munachas versus Shechita Meumad is becoming the great divide between Israeli Shechita and American Shechita.

    “The preference in Israel for Shechita Munachas is such,” remarks Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union, “that the South American countries that slaughter use the Shechita Munachas method.”

    What is the OU’s policy on how to slaughter? Rabbi Genack responds, “The OU’s preferred method of Shechita – from a halachic perspective is Shechita Meumad. Indeed, we will only grant a supervision to Shechita Munachas if steps are taken by the company seeking the supervision to ensure the comfort of the animal.”

    Who are the players in the United States lobbying for changes in the nation’s slaughterhouses? Although in the fifties and sixties it was the American Humane Society, the group that has made the largest waves recently is PETA.

    “They are the ones who caused the stir regarding the Rubashkin plant. They are the ones who came out with the horrific ‘holocaust on a plate’ campaign,” remarks a leading Kashruth authority.

    So who is Temple Granden? “Temple Grandin is a consultant for the meat and kashruth industry that brings enormous knowledge and sensitivity to the handling and care of animals,” says Rabbi Yehudah Shain.

    “She has a certain perspective that is not always in line with Peta. She is an expert in animal welfare. She has a certain vision of equipment, explains Rabbi Genack.

    “She even came out to Agri plant in Iowa and got them to put tread on the ramp that the animal goes on to reduce the agitation that the anima feels. She has introduced the practice of completely washing off any vestige of blood from the previous slaughter so that the animal does not suffer agitation.”

    What method of slaughter does Temple Grandin prefer? “She prefers omedes versus munachas – standing versus upside down,: answers Rabbi Genack.
    It didn’t end in the sixties, however. In 1977 the American Humae Association spearheaded a campaign for a federal law that would extend the Humae Slaughter Act to apply to all slaughterhouses in the United States, not just those that sold meat to the Federal government but would also forbid the import of meat from foreign slaughter houses that did not comply with US Federal standards. The bill passed, but fortunately an exemption for Kosher slaughter was obtained.

    “It wasn’t just an exemption. Thankfully the 1977 law specifically stated that Kosher slaughter was humane,” adds Rabbi Genack.

    “Were it not for the development of the upright method and equipment, and the careful perfection of the halachic aspects of it, I am not sure that the jewish community would have been so successful in ensuring that all kosher shechita would be protected. Plus, the rotary pen is much more expensive, requires a huge capital expense, and is thirty percent less efficient. The shechita meumad initiative made kosher meat cheaper too.”

    Notwithstanding Rabbi Genack and the OU’s discouraging of hoist and shackle methods, PETA, various media sources, and other organizations have been exerting pressure upon the OU to remove its supervision on imported kosher meat, particularly those in Central and South America. Most of the meat under attack by these groups originate from Frigorifico Las Piedras, in Uruguay and from Centro Internacional de Inversiones S.A. “If there were inversion pens in these factories, most of the issues would be addressed,” remarked a Kashruth insider.

    The three largest firms in America that sell kosher meat, Agri Star Meat in Postville Iowa, Noah’s Ark in in Minnesota and Alle Processing in Maspeth Queens are all fully compliant with the recommendations of industry consultants.

    Some consumers, however, are up in arms over the fact that issues and preferences of Kashruth are being decided by non-Jewish organizations when other methods of animal slaughter in this country at gentile establishments make the hoist and shackle method pale in comparison. “I saw what they do to the chickens and the pigs in slaughter houses here in America, and PETA has the Chitzpah to tell us not to do shechita minachas!?,” remarks Shlomi Friedman of Brooklyn. “Azai Chitzpah!”

    The author can be reached at [email protected]


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