What Could Be Wrong with the Steak?

Since the laws of kashrus and specifically of shechitah feature so significantly in this week’s parsha, I present:

Question #1: Why don’t we use that hechsher?

When Yankel returns from kollel one day, his wife Miriam asks for his advice about the following situation. While visiting a neighbor, Miriam noticed her neighbor using a brand of meat that nobody she knows considers reliably kosher. “Should I tell her that her meat does not have a good hechsher?”

Question #2: Ancient yet Different Standards

Chayim asks me the following: “Rashi mentions that Yosef reported to his father that his brothers ate meat that was prohibited, even for a Ben Noach; but Yosef was mistaken — the brothers were very careful to eat only properly shechted meat. Could it be that they were following different kashrus standards, so that Yosef thought what they were eating was treif, whereas the brothers were convinced that it was kosher?”

Shechitah Regulations

The Torah requires that kosher meat and poultry be slaughtered in a specific halachically-approved way (shechitah) and may be eaten only if they are without certain defects that render them tereifah. In Parshas Re’eih, the Torah (Devarim 12:20-21) teaches: When Hashem will enlarge your border as he has promised you, and you will say, “I will eat meat,” because you desire to eat meat, to your heart’s desire you may eat meat… And you shall slaughter as I have commanded you. Yet nowhere in all of Chumash does the Torah provide such instructions. This is one of the internal proofs that the written Torah was accompanied by an explanatory Oral Torah, and, indeed, the laws referred to in the verse, And you shall slaughter as I have commanded you, are part of this Torah she’be’al peh. (As a matter of fact, every deviant movement that has attempted to deny the authenticity of the Oral Torah has discovered that one cannot interpret the Written Torah without it. As a result, they have created their own literature as an ersatz substitute for the Oral Torah. Of course, this demonstrates that one who chooses the way of the infidel invariably also follows the route of the fool.)

Via halacha lemoshe misinai, an oral communication that Hashem taught Moshe at Har Sinai, the Torah provided five regulations that must be followed for a shechitah to be kosher (Chullin 9a). Violating any one of these regulations means that the meat was not slaughtered as I have commanded you, and is not kosher.

The five rules are:

  1. Shehiyah — Pausing during the act of shechitah invalidates it, even if the shechitah is subsequently completed (Mishnah, Chullin 32a).
  2. Drasah – Pressing down or chopping with the knife invalidates the shechitah. A proper shechitah involves a slicing motion, usually with a back-and-forth stroke (Mishnah, Chullin 30b).
  3. Chaladah – Burrowing the knife into the neck and then cutting in an outward direction invalidates the shechitah. Proper shechitah requires that the back of the knife is always exposed (Mishnah, Chullin 32a). (By the way, this is the way Moslem challal slaughter is usually performed, as I have seen myself.)
  4. Hagramah – Cutting above or below the area of the neck designated by halachah for proper shechitah (Mishnah, Chullin 18a).
  5. Ikur – Tearing, rather than cutting, is not kosher (Tosafos, Chullin 9a s.v. Kulhu, in explanation of Rashi). A shechitah knife that has nicks in it may tear, rather than cut.

The Shocheit

Thus, a shocheit must be highly competent, both in the halachos of shechitah and in the skills necessary to do the job right. His shechitah blade must not only be sharper than a razor, but it must also be totally smooth, because a slight nick invalidates the shechitah (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 18:2). It takes a considerable amount of time and effort for a shocheit to learn all the skills of his trade adequately, including how to quickly hone the knife to its required sharpness and how to check with his fingernail that its blade is completely smooth. These are difficult skills to learn. I recently borrowed the shechitah knife of someone who is in the process of learning the skill, and although his knife was adequately smooth, it was not nearly sharp enough to pass muster. Indeed, halachic literature is replete with anecdotes of rabbonim who discovered that shochatim active in the profession were not as proficient in their skills as the halacha requires. The Maharshal reports checking the knife of a well-experienced shocheit while making his rounds of shechting chickens for kaparos Erev Yom Kippur, and discovering that not only was the shocheit’s knife nicked, but the shocheit repeatedly checked his knife too speedily to notice it! (Yam shel Shelomoh, Chullin 1:39)

Furthermore, a shocheit must be fully proficient in all of the detailed laws applying to his profession; he is expected to review the laws of his field every thirty days, to maintain his expertise.

Since it is easy for a shocheit to invalidate a shechitah without anyone knowing about it, one should only use a shocheit who is known to be G-d-fearing, a yarei shamayim. Although one can never be certain whether someone is indeed a yarei shamayim or just pretending, a shocheit should at least appear to fulfill this qualification. It is therefore not surprising that, in the old European shtetl, people viewed the shocheit with tremendous esteem. He was respected second only to the rav for his erudition and his fear of heaven.

Other rules regarding shechitah include that it must be performed by an observant Jew. A gentile’s shechitah is not kosher, even if a knowledgeable observant Jew supervises to ensure that everything is done correctly.

(By the way, Moslem ritual observances are often feeble attempts at mimicking the Torah.  Although they ban the eating of pork, they permit consumption of other non-kosher species, such as camel and non-kosher seafood. Islam borrowed some ideas from shechitah, but their practice resulted in a very non-kosher product. Their slaughter, called hallal, does not require any of the five rules of the Torah she’be’al peh, although they insist that the animal be killed by cutting it at the neck. Kosher shechitah easily meets their requirements, and on a few occasions I have provided some livelihood to the proprietors of kosher restaurants by directing Moslem clientele to their eateries.)

We can already see why people sometimes hesitate to use a particular shechitah. Although one cannot be sure whether a shocheit is a yarei shamayim, one can sometimes sense that he is not. Indeed, the responsa literature is full of cases concerning shochatim whose behavior or personal shortcomings caused concern about their trustworthiness. Unfortunately, I, too, have met shochatim whose lackadaisical attitude to mitzvah observance did not reflect the character traits necessary to be found in the type of person I would want to entrust with this responsibility.

But Maybe It’s Treif!

Even if an animal received a flawless kosher slaughter, it may still not be kosher. The Torah prohibits eating meat of a bird or animal that is tereifah, meaning that the animal has certain physical defects (Chullin, Chapter Three). For example, a bird or animal with a perforated lung, gall bladder or intestine; a torn spinal cord; or that was attacked with the fang of a predator is tereifah. Although people colloquially use the word tereifah for any non-kosher food, technically speaking, it refers to an animal or bird with one of these defects. Not only is a tereifah animal non-kosher, but so, too, are its milk or eggs.

This leads us to an interesting question. If the milk produced by a tereifah cow is not kosher, how can we drink milk without checking to see if the milked cow has none of these defects? Most signs of tereifah are internal and cannot be verified on a living animal without a CT or MRI scan – neither of which is commonly performed on dairy cattle. Obviously, such testing would drive up the price of eggs and dairy products even more than last year’s heat wave.

The answer is that although the milk of an animal and the eggs of a bird with any of these imperfections is indeed tereifah, so long as we do not know that the animals or birds are tereifah, we may assume that most animals and birds are kosher. Therefore, we can rely on milk and eggs being kosher, unless there is reason to assume that there is a problem.

Regarding meat, we are not required to check for a particular tereifah, unless the defect occurs frequently. Thus, since animals commonly have lung problems, one is required to check their lungs, even if they do not smoke. Another example is a perforation in the intestinal wall that renders its possessor treif. There is a section of the small intestine on poultry called Meckel’s diverticulum that often becomes infected and swollen, which can result in a perforation that renders the bird tereifah. Since this defect is not unusual, mashgichim routinely check this part of the intestine in kosher poultry plants.

How Do I Check?

There are different opinions among rabbonim how carefully one needs to check for these tereifos, and, in some circumstances, whether one needs to check altogether. Disputes over such matters are often the reason why one rav accepts a certain hechsher, whereas another may reject it. The rav overseeing the packing plant may feel that he has adequate arrangements for checking for tereifos, while another rav disagrees. There may also be a disagreement over more subtle details, such as whether the factory is set up in a way that allows the shochatim sufficient time to perform their work properly, or whether their work schedule is too demanding for them to be able to do their job with sufficient care. Although one rav may feel that a particular hechsher is seriously lacking, the problems are not necessarily flagrant violations of halacha, but may involve grey issues that are subject to interpretation. Consequently, while Miriam’s rav may feel that a certain shechitah has inadequate control of particular tereifos and he therefore does not recommend relying on it, her neighbor’s rav may be perfectly comfortable with the standard observed.

At this point, I return to Miriam’s question: “While in my friend’s house, I noticed that they were using a brand of meat that no one I know uses. Should I tell her that her meat does not meet a proper kashrus standard?” The answer here would depend on circumstances: If there is, indeed, a real, serious problem at that abattoir, then Miriam should certainly tell her friend not to purchase that meat. However, this applies only if Miriam has firsthand knowledge of this issue, which is rarely the case. In the vast majority of situations, Miriam herself has no idea why the people in “her circle” do not use that shechitah. It may, indeed, be for the reasons we have mentioned.

When Miriam’s husband, Yankel, returned from kollel, she asked him whether she should say something to her neighbor. Yankel realized that aside from the laws of loshon hora involved here, he would also need active kashrus experience to answer her question. Lacking this qualification, he decided that this provided a good opportunity to educate himself on the subject, and  he made an appointment with an older rav, who was very experienced in issues associated with the kashrus of meat. Since this rav requested not to be identified, we will call him Rav Posek, as we present their conversation.

No Brisket for Me!

“I want to give you a bit of the history of shechitah in America,” began the rav. “Originally, almost all American kosher meat packers used a method called shechitah teluyah, which means ‘hanging shechitah.’ Shechitah teluyah involved hanging the animal from a hind leg, while a gentile employee or employees held the animal’s head still for the shocheit. This method of shechitah was highly popular, because the meat packer does not need to invest in any specialized equipment, and a non-kosher meat packer could easily be used to produce kosher meat. This was highly advantageous, since the kosher market in America does not use the meat from the hindquarters, and the non-kosher market considers hindquarter cuts, such as sirloin, tenderloin, and round roast, to be the highest quality cuts. The non-kosher meat packers had trouble selling their forequarters, so arranging a shechitah was a very convenient way of finding a new market for their product, without jeopardizing retaining their existent customers. It was a classic win-win arrangement that encouraged large non-kosher meat plants to have kosher shechitah, and was a significant factor in making kosher meat widely available and keeping its price down. One could justifiably argue that the practice of not eating hindquarters caused many marginally observant families to keep kosher.

Although the abattoir owners encouraged shechitah teluyah because it involved no investment on their part, it was not popular among most of the other people involved. Not the rabbanim, for reasons I will explain shortly; not animal rights advocates, who justifiably noted that this method is unnecessarily painful for the animals; not by the shochatim and plant workers, because it is unnecessarily dangerous; and presumably not by the animals themselves, because this is a rare case where they were in agreement with their self-appointed advocates.

“Many rabbonim frowned on shechitah teluyah for the exact same reason, considering it wrong to inflict such pain on the animals (Shu’t Menashe Halachos 16:2). Although this was perhaps the most popular method of shechitah both in North and South America until fairly recently, many rabbonim disapproved of shechitah teluyah for many other reasons.”

Pulling a sefer off his bookshelf, the rav continued. “Let me read you a teshuvah from Rav Pesach Frank, the rav of Yerushalayim for several decades, written to Rav Shmuel Yaakov Glicksburg, the rav of Buenos Aires, Argentina:

‘I rejoiced when I read your letter saying that you have succeeded in organizing a shechitah where the animals are not hung, similar to what we have here in Eretz Yisrael. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and the merits of the public are yours. If you have any other news about the kashrus of the shechitah, please notify me, as I am often asked whether one may eat the meat from Argentina and am constantly uncertain how to respond. I would like to hear from his dignity if I can guarantee to a G-d-fearing person that this meat is kosher without any concerns, because this is what they ask me’ (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Even Ha’ezer #189).

“It appears to me,” said Rav Posek, “that this meat was being shipped to Eretz Yisrael at the time – why else would many people have asked Rav Frank about its kashrus – and, he would not recommend it.

“In an article published in the rabbinic journal Hamaor in Teiveis, 5719, Rabbi Eliezer Silver ruled that one may not use shechitah teluyah, because he had concerns about the actual shechitah being non-kosher. He felt that the gentile holding the animal might actually push the animal into the shechitah knife, which would involve the gentile partially performing the shechitah, thus invalidating it.

“Rav Silver recorded that during the years the Ridbaz (who served as the Rav of Slutzk, Tzefas, and was even briefly Chief Rabbi of Chicago) spent in the United States, he once saw a shechitah teluyah in Denver and prohibited it. Also, when a shaylah about this matter was sent from Caracas, Venezuela, to Rav Menashe Klein, he responded that it was prohibited (Shu’t Menashe Halachos 9:151). Similarly, in a letter to Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung of Montreal, Rav Moshe Feinstein describes a shechitah teluyah that he saw in Toronto. Although his initial reaction was that there was basis to allow the shechitah, he told them that he would need to study the matter further. Upon further research, Rav Moshe wrote that he withdrew his original psak permitting this shechitah because of the ruling of the Simlah Chadashah, a major authority in the laws of shechitah, who prohibited shechting upwards because of concern that the animal might lean its weight into the shechitah knife, thus participating in its own shechitah, but invalidating the shechitah at the same time. Rav Moshe is concerned that even if workers hold the head in place during the shechitah, the animal could still be strong enough to sway into the knife during shechitah. He permits this shechitah only if the animal’s head is tied in such a way that it cannot move. (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:13). Rav Moshe makes no mention of any of the other concerns about this shechitah, such as the possibility that the gentile may move the animal into the shechitah or about tzaar baalei chayim.

“Nevertheless, this method of shechitah was very popular in the United States even among some of the most responsible hechsherim. When I was involved in examining shechitos, back in the 1970’s and 80’s, most shechitos that I saw were still shechitah teluyah.

“As the animal advocacy organizations became stronger and plant procedures came under the scrutiny of the general public, shechitah teluyah became less popular, and was generally replaced with shechitah in a pen. Although the pen would certainly resolve Rav Moshe’s concern that the head must be secured during the shechitah, it may have created its own issues.”

At this point Yankel interrupted the rav’s monologue: “What do you mean by shechitah in a pen?”

“I have seen many such pens, each with a slightly variant design. The basic idea is that the entire animal, especially its head, is held in place in a pen operated either by electricity or through hydraulic power, which holds the animal securely during the shechitah. This appliance makes the shechitah safe for the shocheit, and he has plenty of time in which to perform the shechitah and to check afterwards that it was performed correctly. In the States, this became the standard method for most shechitos, but it is unusual to find such a shechitah in Europe, in Eretz Yisrael, or among those in South America that shecht for a chareidi market.

“Why do they not use this method in Europe?”

Again, the rav perused his well-stocked bookshelves, and produced a sefer Yankel had never seen before.

“In 1988, a movement was afoot in England to require that all animals be shechted only while standing in a pen. There was fierce opposition to requiring all Anglo-Jewish hechsherim to shecht with this device. This volume, Bishvilei Hashechitah, includes an essay by a shocheit named Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lieberman, who cites many reasons to oppose the change.

“Firstly, to shecht using a pen, the shocheit has to shecht upwards, which some poskim prohibit. This is a complex halachah, but there are authorities who contend that it is prohibited to shecht upwards, predominantly out of concern that this might cause the shocheit to press rather than slice while he is shechting, violating the Torah requirement of drasah (see, Shach, Yoreh Deah 6:8, but see Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:13).

“Secondly, a shocheit who is used to shechting in the way to which he is accustomed should not suddenly be required to shecht in a different way, foreign to his experience. This makes him uncomfortable, which could cause him to shecht improperly.

“The greatest concern was that the mechanical force used to control the animal’s head may be so strong that it injures the animal and renders it tereifah before the shechitah takes place. The contention was that this devise should not be used without first seeing whether the animal appears physically unharmed, and, ideally, the animal should be checked carefully afterwards.”

Yankel asked Rav Posek if he was familiar with the particular hechsher that Miriam had seen in the neighbor’s house.

“Although I have not been recently in the plant that they provide with a hechsher, I was there once many years ago. I cannot say that I was happy with the operation. The shochatim and bodakim all needed to work quickly to keep pace with the assembly line speed of the production. I found it difficult to imagine that they could do their jobs properly in the time allowed. As I recall, I even mentioned this at the time to the rav hamachshir, who told me that he hires only extremely competent personnel who are up to the task. I left very unsatisfied.”

“What would you tell our neighbor?”

“If she seems to be the type of person who wants to do the correct thing, tell her: ‘According to what I have heard, people feel that the kashrus standard used by that company is not the highest.’ This statement is accurate and reflects exactly what you know.” On the other hand, if she is the type of person who is more lenient about halachic matters, say absolutely nothing to her.


Based on the above information, we can gain a greater appreciation of how hard it is to maintain a high kashrus standard. We certainly have a greater incentive to become educated kosher consumers who better understand many aspects of the preparation of kosher food, and why it is important to ascertain that everything one consumes has a proper hechsher. We should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands us.