What Could be Wrong with the Steak?

Since this week’s parsha includes the prohibition of gid hanasheh, we have the opportunity to discuss certain issues of shechitah.

One of my editors suggested that I mention to those who are squeamish
that this article will be graphic about aspects of shechitah, so I am
fulfilling this request.

Question #1:

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: Chayim asks me the following: “In parshas
Vayeishev, 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?”

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’baal peh.
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).
  4. Hagramah – Cutting above or below the area of the neck designated by the Torah 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). If the shechitah knife has nicks in it, it may tear, rather than cut. 

Thus, a shocheit must be highly competent, both in
the halachos of shechitah and in the skills necessary to do the
job correctly. His shechitah blade must not only be sharper than a
razor, but also 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 his knife to the 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 doing 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
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 but him knowing about it, one should use only a shocheit
who is known to be G-d-fearing, a yarei shamayim. We now understand why
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 the shechitah
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.

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 shochtim whose lackadaisical attitude to
mitzvah observance did not reflect the type of person I would want to entrust
with this responsibility.

But maybe it’s treif!

Even if the animal passed muster and merited a flawless
kosher shechitah, 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 that has a perforated lung, gall bladder or intestine; that has a torn spinal
cord; or that has been 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 that were produced after it became tereifah.

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 scan or MRI
equipment, not commonly available on a farm.  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 assume
that most animals and birds are kosher and follow the majority. 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,
called Meckel’s diverticulum, that in poultry frequently becomes infected and
swollen, often resulting in a perforation that renders the bird tereifah.
Since this defect is not unusual, mashgichim in kosher poultry plants
routinely check this part of the intestine.

How do I check?

There are often different opinions among rabbonim how
carefully one needs to check for these tereifos, and, at times, whether
one needs to check altogether. There may also be a disagreement over other
subtle details, such as whether the factory is set up in a way that allows the shochatim
sufficient time to do their work properly. The rav overseeing the
packing plant may feel that all is in order, whereas another rav may
feel it is lacking.

At this point, I return to the question that Miriam asked
her husband Yankel: “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, but sometimes it is not.

Yankel realized that besides the laws of loshon hora
involved here, he would also need active kashrus experience to answer
her question. Lacking this qualification, he decided to educate himself on the
subject by asking a rav who is experienced 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 a history of shechitah,”
began the rav. “Originally, almost all American kosher meat packers used
a method called shechitah teluyah, which means ‘hanging shechitah.’
This method of shechitah was highly popular, because a non-kosher meat
packing plant can very easily be used to produce kosher meat. This was 
advantageous, since the kosher market in America does not use the meat from the
hindquarters, and the non-kosher market considers hindquarter cuts 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 their existing
customers. It was a classic win-win arrangement that encouraged large,
non-kosher meat plants to have kosher shechitah and was responsible for
making kosher meat widely available and keeping its price down.

“The standard method of shechitah in these packing
plants involved hanging the animal from a hind leg, while gentile employees
held the animal’s head still for the shocheit. Although the abattoir
owners encouraged this method because it involved no investment on their part,
it was not viewed favorably among most of the other people involved. Not the rabbanim,
for reasons I will shortly explain; not animals’ rights advocates, who
justifiably noted that this method is cruel; not the shochatim and plant
workers, because it is unnecessarily dangerous; and, presumably, not the
animals themselves, although they were not consulted.

“Many rabbonim frowned on shechitah teluyah
because it inflicts unnecessary pain on the animals (Shu”t Mishneh
16:2). Although this was perhaps the most popular method of shechitah
both in North and South America until fairly recently, many rabbonim had
additional reasons to disapprove of shechitah teluyah.”

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 on the 19th of
Elul, 5755, to Rav Shmuel Yaakov Glicksburg, then the rav of Buenos
Aires, Argentina:

‘I rejoiced when I read your letter saying that you have
succeeded to organize 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 HaEzer #189).

“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 and thereby invalidating it.

“Rav Silver recorded that during
the years the Ridbaz (who served as the Rav of Slutzk, Tzefas, and served
briefly as the 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
prohibited it (Shu”t Mishneh Halachos 9:151). Similarly, in an
interesting letter to Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung of Montreal, Rav Moshe Feinstein
describes a shechitah teluyah facility 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 examine the matter further. Upon further
research, Rav Moshe withdrew his original psak permitting this shechitah
and permitted it only if the animal’s head was secured during the shechitah,
and not if it was simply held by workers (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 1980’s, most shechitos
that I saw were still shechitah teluyah.

“As the animals’ advocacy
organizations became stronger and plant procedures came under the scrutiny of
the general public, shechitah teluyah became less popular and was
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 one with a slightly
variant design. The basic idea is that the entire animal, especially its head,
is secured by a pen operated either by electricity or through hydraulic power,
which holds the animal securely during the shechitah. This appliance makes
the shechitah very 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 United States, this became the standard method
for most shechitos, but it is unusual to find such a shechitah in
Europe, in Eretz Yisroel, or in 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

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

“1. The shocheit has to shecht
upwards. This is a highly technical halacha, 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 rule of drasah.

“2. A shocheit who is shechting
in a manner to which he is accustomed should not suddenly be required to shecht
in a different way, foreign to his experience.

“3. The greatest concern was that
since these devices are usually custom made, it is possible that the mechanical
force used to control the animal’s head may be so strong that it renders the
animal tereifah, before the shechitah takes place. The contention
was that such a device 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 in that shechitah
recently, I was there once many years ago. I cannot say that I was that happy
with the operation. The shochatim and bodakim all needed to work
quickly to keep pace with the speed of the assembly line 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 to the rav hamachshir, who
responded that he hires exclusively 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.”


We now more fully appreciate the difficulties in maintaining
high kashrus standards, particularly when producing meat. We should
always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that
the Torah commands.