Hunting for Meat
Parshas Re’eih includes the commandment that instructs us how to prepare our meat for our table (Devorim 12:15).
Sheis, the son of Adom Harishon, was traveling one day and realized that he had not packed enough peanut butter sandwiches for the trip. Now hungry, he witnessed a travel accident, which resulted in an animal being killed. Was he permitted to cook the carcass for lunch?
Sheis’s descendant, Linda, lives in the modern era and is Jewish. While traveling in an unfamiliar area, she hunts for kosher meat, discovering some with an unfamiliar supervision, and calls her rabbi to ask whether he recommends it. What factors does he consider in advising her whether to use this product?
In a previous position, I was responsible for researching sources of meat that our local Vaad HaKashrus would accept. I traveled to many cities and visited many meat packing facilities. People have often asked why, sometimes, my hunt resulted in a new acceptable source, and why sometimes it did not. What was I looking for?
Before answering these questions, we need to understand what are the Torah’s requirements for allowable meat.
Upon Noach’s emerging from the teivah (the ark), Hashem speaks to Noach, notifying him that he and his descendants may now eat meat for the very first time. Prior to this time, no one had ever been permitted to sink his teeth into a steak or even a schnitzel (Sanhedrin 59b, based on Bereishis 1:29-30, 9:3; as interpreted by Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:1). In actuality, not all authorities agree that Adam and his pre-mabul descendants were required to be vegetarian – some maintain that they were permitted to eat the meat of animals that had already died, and were forbidden only to kill animals for meat (Rashi, Bereishis 1:29and Sanhedrin 57a s.v. limishri basar; Tosafos, Sanhedrin 56b s.v. achal). According to this last opinion, pre-Noach mankind may have eaten sushi, steak or schnitzel, provided that they did not take the animal’s life.
Thus, whether Sheis could barbecue the discovered road kill (Question #1 above) depends upon whether he held like Rashi, in which case he could, or like the Rambam, in which case he could not. According to the Rambam, he was restricted to a vegetarian diet, which included the responsibility to check that his veggies were insect-free. Presumably, he called the local Vaad HaKashrus to determine how to check each type of vegetable. I wonder what he did when he wanted to eat Brussels sprouts!
However, when Noach emerged from the teivah, he and his descendents were permitted to give up their vegetarian lifestyle, provided that they ate no meat that had been removed from an animal while it was still alive (eiver min hachai). Just think — had Sheis lived after the time of Noach, he could have included some tuna sandwiches in his lunchbox or picked up a salami at the local grocery, instead of going hungry!
When the Torah was given, it both limited the species that a Jew may eat and created many other regulations, including that kosher meat and poultry must be slaughtered in the halachically-approved way (shechitah), and may be eaten only if they are without certain defects that render them tereifah. Even after ascertaining that the animal, itself, may be eaten, one must still remove the blood, certain fats called cheilev, and the sciatic nerve (the gid hanasheh). These last two prohibitions do not apply to fowl.
In the contemporary world, guaranteeing that one’s meat is appropriate for the Jewish table involves several trained and G-d-fearing people, including shochatim, bod’kim, menakerim, mashgichim, and knowledgeable rabbonim to oversee the entire process.
THE SHOCHEIT’S JOB
Aside from the shocheit’s obvious responsibility to slaughter the animal the way Hashem commanded, he must also fulfill another very important task: following the slaughtering, he must verify that he performed the shechitah correctly. This is a vitally important step; without this inspection, the animal or bird must be considered non-kosher – it will be acceptable for the table of Bnei Noach, but not for Klal Yisroel.
Next, the animal or bird is examined to ensure that it is not tereifah. Although common use of the word “treif” means something that is non-kosher, for any reason whatsoever, the technical meaning of the word refers to an animal with a physical defect that renders it non-kosher, even if it was the beneficiary of a proper shechitah.
In a meat packing plant (beef, veal or lamb), the individual accountable to check for these defects is called a bodeik (pl. bod’kim). Most bod’kim are trained shochatim, and, indeed, in most plants, the bod’kim and shochatim rotate their tasks, thus making it easier for them to be as attentive as the post requires. As a result, a person licensed both as a shocheit and as a bodeik is usually called a shocheit, although, technically, he should be called a shocheit ubodeik, to truly reflect the extent of his training.
THE SECOND BODEIK
The responsibility to check for tereifos is divided between two bod’kim. The first, the bodeik penim, checks the lungs in situ, which is the only way one can properly check that the lungs do not adhere to the ribs, to the membrane surrounding the heart (the pericardium), or to themselves in an improper way, all of which render the animal non-kosher. This checking is performed completely based on feel. The bodeik gently inserts his hand, and runs his fingers carefully over all eight sections of the lung, to see if he feels any adhesion between the lung and one of the other areas.
The second bodeik, the bodeik chutz, rechecks the lungs and makes a cursory check of other organs, upon their removal from the carcass, particularly the stomachs and intestines, for swallowed nails and for various imperfections that render the animal non-kosher.
After the two bod’kim are satisfied that the animal is kosher, the second bodeik or a mashgiach tags the different parts of the animal as kosher with lead or plastic seals. Longstanding practice is that, in addition, the bodeik or a mashgiach makes small slits between the ribs that identify the day and parsha of the week, to mark the piece as kosher. A mark made when the meat is this fresh appears completely different from one made even a few hours later, making it difficult to counterfeit. Of course, this mark is not, alone, used to verify that the meat is kosher, but it is an essential crosscheck, since the old-styled tags can be tampered with.
The modern kosher poultry plant is organized slightly differently: The shochatim perform shechitah only, whereas the bedikah inspection is performed by mashgichim trained to notice abnormalities. If they notice any, they remove the bird from the production line; a rav or bodeik then rules whether these birds are kosher.
For both animals and birds, one needs to check only for commonly occurring tereifos, but not for uncommon problems. For example, the established halachic practice of over a thousand years is to check an animal’s lungs, because of their high rate of tereifos, and today it is common practice in Israel to check legs. Animal lungs frequently have adhesions called sirchos, which render them non-kosher (Chullin 46b), although Ashkenazic custom is that easily removed adhesions on mature cattle do not render them treif (Rosh, Chullin 3:14; Rema, Yoreh Deah 39:13). An animal without any sircha adhesions is called glatt kosher, meaning that its lung is completely smooth – that is, without any adhesions, even of the easily removable variety.
The rav hamachishir’s responsibilities include deciding which problems are prevalent enough to require scrutiny and what is considered an adequate method of inspection.
Depending on the factory, the next steps in the preparation of beef, veal or lamb are occasionally performed in the same facility where the shechitah was performed, or alternatively, they are performed at the butcher shop.
Prior to soaking and salting meat to remove the blood, certain non-kosher parts of the animal, including the gid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve), non-kosher fats called “cheilev,” and certain large blood vessels, must be removed (Yoreh Deah 65:1). The Hebrew word for this process is “nikur,” excising, and the artisan who possesses the skill to properly perform it is called a menakeir (pl. menak’rim). The Yiddish word for this process is traberen,which derives from tarba, the Aramaic word for cheilev, the non-kosher fat. This step is omitted in the production of poultry, since it is exempt from the prohibitions of gid hanasheh and cheilev, and its blood vessels are small enough that it is sufficient to puncture them prior to the soaking and salting procedures.
Early in its butchering, a side of beef (which is half its carcass) is divided into its forequarter and hindquarter. Since the gid hanasheh and most of the cheilev are located in the hindquarter, trabering it is a tedious process that requires a highly skilled menakeir. (On RabbiKaganoff.com, there is an article on the history and halachic issues germane to this practice.) The forequarters must still be trabered prior to soaking and salting, to remove blood vessels and some fat (Rema, Yoreh Deah 64:1; Pischei Teshuvah 64:3). Although trabering is a relatively easy skill to learn, Linda’s rabbi might need to check whether the hechsher can be trusted that this was done properly, as the following story indicates.
I once investigated the kashrus of a certain well-known resort hotel, one not usually frequented by frum clientele. I called the hotel and asked who provided their hechsher, and was soon on the telephone with both the resident mashgiach and the rav hamachshir.
I began by introducing myself and the reason for my phone call, and then asked about the sources of the meat used in the hotel. In the course of the conversation, it became evident that neither the rabbi nor the mashgiach knew the slightest thing about traberen, although they were officially overseeing a staff of in-house butchers, none of whom was an observant Jew. I realized that the rather poor kashrus reputation of this establishment was, indeed, well deserved. The rabbi overseeing the hechsher, himself, did not know trabering, nor did he have any halachically reliable supervisor. What was he overseeing?
SOAKING AND SALTING
Returning to our brief overview of the proper preparations for kosher meat: After the meat has been properly trabered, it is ready to be soaked and salted to remove its blood. In earlier generations, this process, usually called kashering meat, was performed exclusively at home, but today, common practice is that this is performed either by the butcher or at the meat packer. Almost all kosher poultry operations today soak and salt the meat immediately after shechitah, and it is becoming increasingly more common in beef operations.
To kasher meat, it should be rinsed well, soaked in water for half an hour, drained, salted for an hour, and then rinsed three times (Rema, Yoreh Deah 69:1, 5, 7). The halacha requires that the meat be covered with salt on all exposed surfaces (Yoreh Deah 69:4). Most packing plants do this job appropriately, although I have seen places where the salting was inadequate; entire areas of the meat were not salted. This is, probably, simple negligence; although when I called this problem to the attention of the mashgiach, he insisted that it was performed adequately, notwithstanding my observing the contrary. Needless to say, I did not approve this source.
The Geonim instituted a requirement that meat be soaked and salted within 72 hours of its slaughter (Yoreh Deah 69:12). This is because of concern that once 72 hours have passed, the blood becomes hardened inside the meat, and salting no longer removes it. If more than 72 hours passed without the meat being salted, the Geonim ruled that if the meat is broiled, it may be eaten, since this process will still remove the blood, even though salting will not (Yoreh Deah 69:12).
A question that developed with time was whether wetting the meat prevents the blood from hardening inside. Some early authorities permitted soaking meat to extend the 72-hour period (Shach 69:53). However, this leniency often led to highly liberal interpretations. I have seen butchers take a damp rag and wipe the outside of the meat and considered it washed. Thus, there are two different reasons why most reliable kashrus operations do not allow the use of “washed meat,” either because they do not accept this lenience, altogether, or because of concern that once one accepts hosed meat, it becomes difficult to control what type of washing is acceptable.
THE RAV HAMACHSHIR
Thus far, I have described the tremendous responsibilities of most of the staff necessary to guarantee that the meat is of the highest kashrus standards. One person that I have not adequately discussed is the rav hamachshir, the supervising rabbi, who has the final say on the kashrus standards that the meat packer and butcher follow. Although a rav overseeing meat kashrus does not necessarily have to be a shocheit or trained menakeir himself, he certainly must be proficient in all of these areas, both in terms of thorough knowledge of halacha and in terms of practical experience. For most of Jewish history, the most basic requirement of every rav demanded that he be proficient in all the halachos of kosher meat production. As the local rav, his responsibility included all shechitah and bedikah in his town.
However, in the contemporary world of mass production and shipping, the local shul rav is rarely involved in the details of shechitah, and often has limited experience and training in these areas. Depending on the semicha program he attended, he may not have been required to study the laws of shechitah and tereifos. Thus, what was once the province of every rav has now become a specialty area, and, sometimes, rabbonim involved in the giving of meat hechsherim lack the proper training.
I was once given a tour of a meat packing plant by the supervising rabbi of the plant. During the course of the tour, I became painfully aware of the rabbi’s incompetence in this area of kashrus. For example, he was clearly unaware of how to check shechitah knives properly, certainly a basic skill necessary to oversee this type of hechsher. Would you approve this meat supplier for your local Vaad HaKashrus?
At this point, I want to address the third question I raised above: Sometimes, my visit to a meat packer resulted in a new, acceptable source, and sometimes it did not. What was I looking for, and why would I disapprove a source that a different rav was approving?
The answers to these questions are sometimes subjective, but I will provide you with some observations of mine.
IS THE SYSTEM WORKABLE?
There are many subtle and not-so-subtle observations that a rav makes when examining a meat packer. I could not possibly list in one article all the types of problems I have seen, but I will mention certain specific concerns to which I would always be attentive.
Is the production line too quick for the shocheit or mashgiach to do his job properly? Are the shochatim or mashgichim expected to perform their job in an unrealistic manner, either because of a shortage of trained manpower or because of the speed or organization of the production line?
QUALITY OF PERSONNEL
Are the shochatim knowledgeable? Do they appear to be G-d fearing individuals? Although it is impossible to know whether someone is, indeed, a yarei shamayim, it is unfortunately often very obvious that he is not. It can happen that one rav has questions about the staff, and for this reason, he does not approve a source of supply.
I will give you an example of this. While visiting a plant to determine whether we should allow this shechitah, we heard a conversation in which one of the shochatim showed a shortcoming in tzeniyus within his family. Although one could point to a specific law that disqualifies him as a shocheit, I, personally, was uncomfortable with entrusting him with decisions that would affect what I eat. After discussion with the other rabbonim in our community, we decided not to accept meat from this shechitah.
Does this mean that we considered this meat non-kosher? G-d forbid. It simply means that we were uncomfortable allowing it, and decided that we have that responsibility as rabbonim of our community.
Thus, it could indeed happen that what one rav considers acceptable, another rav feels is not. The differences may be based on the interpretation of halacha, or they may result from a rav’s inclination as to how a plant should be run.
Based on the above information, we can better understand many aspects of the preparation of kosher meat and why it is important to use only meat that has a proper hechsher. We can also gain a greater appreciation of how hard rabbonim and shochatim work to maintain a high kashrus standard. Now that we recognize the complexity involved in maintaining kosher meat standards, we should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands us.