What Makes Meat Kosher?
“I know that I only eat from certain hechsherim. However, my sister-in-law, who is a very frum person, was told by her Rav that she can use a certain hechsher that I was told not to use. Don’t all the rabbonim follow the same Shulchan Aruch?”
“I have been told that it isn’t possible that there could be such a high percentage of glatt kosher to accommodate everyone purchasing it, and that the term is used incorrectly. Is this true?”
“Is there such a thing as non-glatt kosher veal?”
These are common questions, and indeed, explaining the distinctions between different kashrus standards could fill volumes. This article will be devoted exclusively to issues of kosher meat. By the time we finish this reading this article hopefully the answers to the above questions will be clarified.
THE BASICS OF KOSHER MEAT
There are several mitzvos involved in the preparation of kosher meat and poultry. Only certain species may be eaten, and these must be slaughtered in the halachically-approved way, shechitah. Even then, the animal or bird may still have defects that render it non-kosher. Finally, there are non-kosher parts that must be removed, specifically the gid hanasheh (the sciatic nerve), non-kosher fats called “cheilev,” and the non-kosher blood. After all these have been removed, the meat is finally ready to be prepared for the Jewish table.
In other articles, I discussed some of the contemporary issues concerning kosher animal, bird, and fish species. This article will discuss some halachic issues that occur after the shechitah.
Immediately following the slaughtering, the shochet (ritual slaughterer; plural, shochtim) checks visually to verify that he performed the shechitah correctly. This is a vitally important step – if this inspection is not performed, the animal or bird cannot be eaten.
Next, the animal or bird must be examined to ensure that it is not a treifah. Although in common usage the word “treif” means anything non-kosher for any reason whatsoever, technically the word refers to an animal with a physical defect that renders it non-kosher. The word treif literally means “torn,” and indeed the most common cause of a treifah is tearing or damage to the internal organs.
Organs where treifos are infrequent do not require inspection. In these instances, one may rely on the principle of “rov”- since the overwhelming majority is kosher, one need not check for treifos. However, an organ that has a high percentage of treifos must be checked to ensure that it is kosher. Thus, established halachic practice of over 1000 years is to check an animal’s lungs because of their high rate of treifos.
How high a percentage of treifos is needed to require examination? A dispute over this issue developed in the early nineteenth century between two great poskim, Rav Efrayim Zalman Margolies, the Rav of Brody (Shu”t Beis Efrayim, Yoreh Deah #6) and Rav Yaakov, the Rav of Karlin (Shu”t Mishkenos Yaakov, Yoreh Deah #16 & 17). The Beis Efrayim contended that it is not necessary to check for a treifah if we do not find that Chazal and early poskim required it, whereas the Mishkenos Yaakov contended that if a certain treifah occurs in ten per cent of animals one is required to check every animal for this treifah. (The halachic source for this figure of ten per cent is beyond the scope of this article.)
Reliable hechsherim tend to follow the Mishkenos Yaakov’s ruling and check for treifos that appear frequently. Thus, it is standard to check the stomachs and intestines of chickens and the lungs of turkeys for irregularities, and reliable hechsherim usually check the second stomach of cattle (the reticulum, called the beis hakosos in Hebrew) for damage that results from swallowed nails.
Geography can sometimes be a factor. For example, treifos are not found commonly in the lungs of chickens raised in North America, and therefore the hechsherim there do not check the lungs. On the other hand, it is far more common to find these problems in chickens raised in Israel. Thus, many poskim require chicken lungs in Israel to be checked for treifos. (I have heard different theories why there is a greater rate of treifos in the lungs of Israeli chickens, including that the heat and desert climate damage the lungs or that there are exposure to certain viruses, but the truth is that no one really knows.)
Before explaining the concept called glatt kosher, we must first discuss adhesions, a type of lesion that develops on the lungs of animals. An animal or bird with a tear in its lung is not kosher and this is one of the many types of treifah.
The Gemara rules that an animal with an adhesion (sircha) on its lung is also non-kosher (Chullin 46b), because this demonstrates that the lung once had a tear that was subsequently covered by the adhesion (Rashi ad loc.). A second reason given is that the adhesion would have eventually torn off and damaged the lung (Tosafos). Even though the animal was slaughtered before the adhesion tore off, the animal is considered non-kosher since it ultimately would have died as a result of the adhesion.
If the adhesion is between two adjacent sections of the lung, the animal is kosher, because the lung protects the adhesion from tearing.
Did the Gemara prohibit all adhesions or only ones that are difficult to remove? Is there a concern that even a thin adhesion might be covering a tear in the lung or will ultimately cause the lung to tear?
This halacha question is disputed by the Rishonim. The Rosh (Chullin 3:14), who was the foremost posek in Germany (Ashkenaz) in the Thirteenth Century, ruled that any sircha that is removed easily without damaging the lung is kosher. These easy-to-remove adhesions are called “ririn.” Based on his ruling, the custom amongst Ashkenazic Jewry was that a shochet who found a sircha on a lung would attempt to remove the sircha. If it could be removed without damaging the lung, the shochet declared the animal kosher. If the lung was completely clear of any adhesions, even ririn, the animal was declared “Glatt Kosher.” “Glatt” means “smooth” in Yiddish – in other words, the lung was smooth and had no adhesions at all.
The Rashba (Shu”t #304), who was the foremost posek in Spain (Sfarad) at the time, disagreed with Rosh, declaring that it is forbidden to remove adhesions, and that an animal with any adhesion is non-kosher even if the adhesion can be easily removed. He also declared that any shochet who removes sirchos in order to declare the animal kosher should be removed from his position if he has been warned to cease this practice and continues to do so.
(It is an interesting historical note that when the Rosh fled the persecutions in Germany for Spain, he became a houseguest of the Rashba in Barcelona. Eventually, the community of Toledo engaged the Rosh as its rav upon the recommendation of the Rashba.)
Shulchan Aruch follows the ruling of Rashba and declares that a shochet who removes sirchos is considered to have fed treif meat to Jews (Yoreh Deah 39:10). The Rama, however, points out that the custom in Ashkenaz was to permit meat from animals with easy-to-remove sirchos. The Rama explains that although the basis for the practice is tenuous, one should not rebuke those who are lenient. Clearly, the Rama himself is not advocating being lenient in this matter and preferred that people be strict. Furthermore, the Rama is only lenient when one knows that the bodek, the person checking the lung, is a G-d-fearing person who will be careful to remove the sircha gently (Yoreh Deah 39:13). Moreover even among Ashkenazic poskim, many were hesitant to be lenient.
Because of all this, the Gr”a ruled that one should not use non-glatt meat, that is meat from animals that have thin adhesions on the lungs.
Since Sefardim follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch over the Rama, they are not permitted to use non-glatt meat. Ashkenazim are permitted to follow the Rama and use non-glatt kosher meat, although it is preferable to be strict.
There is an additional reason to be strict. Based on a pasuk in Yechezkel (4:14), the Gemara concludes that a meticulous person does not eat meat that had a shaylah, even if it was paskened to be permitted (Chullin 44b). Because of this Gemara, hechsherim that cater to Bnei Torah attempt to certify only products that have no shaylos whatsoever. These hechsherim are usually referred to as “Mehadrin,” although it is important to note that there is no universal mehadrin standard. I have found hechsherim that refer to themselves as “mehadrin” or as “heimishe” that are indeed excellent, but I have also found hechsherim purporting to be “mehadrin” or “heimishe” whose standards are at best mediocre.
It should be noted that the lenience of removing adhesions from the lungs applies only to mature beef cattle. On birds and other animals, any lung that has a problematic adhesion would automatically be non-kosher. Thus, any poultry, veal and lamb that is kosher is by definition glatt kosher, and using the word “glatt” is superfluous. However, since consumers often assume that “glatt” means a higher standard of kosher, it is not uncommon to find these items advertised as “glatt kosher.” I have even seen dairy or pareve products sold as “glatt kosher,” which is a totally meaningless usage of the expression.
DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS OF GLATT
The Beis Dovid, a commonly used halacha work on the laws of shechitah, contends that adhesions that can be removed easily are not only considered kosher, but even qualify as glatt kosher (Section 2 pg. 72, #8:5, quoting Shu”t Daas HaZevach). Many hechsherim follow this opinion and consider such meat to be glatt kosher. However, other poskim dispute his conclusions and feel that this meat should not be used by Sefardim who are halachically required to use only glatt meat. Those who are strict in this shaylah often refer to their hechsher as “Glatt Beis Yosef.” However, this term (Glatt Beis Yosef) also has no precise definition. An experienced shochet/rav hamachshir once told me that it probably only means that in the opinion of the hechsher, the Beis Yosef himself would prefer eating this meat than some other kosher meat on the market.
Thus, two hechsherim may be called “glatt” and may not be using the same definition of the word.
As mentioned above, the heter of non-Glatt meat only exists in reference to mature beef cattle, but that lambs, kids, and young calves that have any sircha should be treated as non-kosher (see Rama Yoreh Deah 39:13). The logic behind this is that if a young calf already exhibits some signs of an adhesion, it is probably a kashrus problem and the animal should be considered treif. Thus, we would conclude from this that all veal should be either glatt or treif.
However, at this point the modern meat industry has created a new problem by attempting to convince the consumer that quality veal should be very light-colored, almost white. Since meat is naturally red and not white, this is accomplished by raising calves in drastically unnatural circumstances such as not feeding them a normal diet, not providing them with any iron in their diet, and not allowing them to exercise. This approach decreases the hemoglobin in the blood which gives the meat its red color. The result is that “white veal” or the misnomer “nature calves” often have a notorious high rate of treifos in the lungs as a result of the conditions in which they were raised. (It is known in the industry that if the grower improves the ventilation and sanitary conditions of his pens, the rate of kosher product increases.) For this reason, non-scrupulous meatpackers have plenty of temptation to bend the rules that define the kashrus of veal. (One shochet recently told me that he once shechted 114 “nature calves” that had been raised in non-sanitary conditions and had only one kosher!)
I was once scheduled to visit a veal shechitah to see whether it met the standards for the Vaad HaKashrus I headed at the time. Before visiting the plant, I called the rav giving the hechsher to find out his standard for accepting kosher veal. When I asked him if he “takes sirchos” on veal, he replied, “Of course we do, otherwise we would never have enough marked kosher!”
What an astonishing reply! At least he saved me a long trip. Yet, there are hechsherim that allow purchase of “kosher” veal from shechitos like this!
(I have heard very complicated halachic reasons to permit this standard. Suffice it to say that I consider the reasons unacceptable.)
As mentioned above, before meat is ready for the pot, it must have several items removed. The non-kosher blood is removed from the meat either by broiling or through soaking and salting. Liver must be kashered by broiling. Except for certain extenuating circumstances, when kashering meat by salting it must be soaked for a half-hour and salted for an hour, with the salt covering all sides of the meat thoroughly. I have personally witnessed meat kashered inadequately in commercial facilities, usually because the workers are not given enough time or proper facilities to do the job correctly. However, any responsible hechsher will make certain that this does not happen.
In earlier times meat and liver were always kashered at home. Today, most housewives assume that the meat they purchase is already kashered. Thus, they often do not know how to kasher meat themselves, although concerned Jewish homemakers would do well to learn how to kasher meat and liver properly.
Over a thousand years ago, the Gaonim established a new requirement in the processing of kosher meat. They ruled that if the meat was not soaked within seventy-two hours of its slaughter, the blood could no longer be removed by the soaking and salting method but only by broiling. Thus, it is paramount to kasher meat, or at least to soak it, within a few days of the shechitah. Many poskim are lenient to permit meat if it was soaked within the seventy-two hours, but different hechsherim have very different definitions as to what is considered properly “soaked.” In general, a mehadrin hechsher will not permit meat to be used unless it has been kashered within seventy-two hours of the shechitah, whereas a non-mehadrin hechsher will permit it. Similarly, a mehadrin hechsher will not allow the use of meat that has been frozen before it was kashered, whereas non-mehadrin hechsherim will allow the kashering of meat that was frozen for more than seventy-two hours.
The Torah prohibited certain fats, called cheilev, which are predominantly attached to the stomachs and the kidneys in the hindquarter. These non-kosher fats and the gid hanasheh are cut out of the meat in a process called “trabering.” This Yiddish word’s origin derives from the Aramaic word for non-kosher fat, tarba, and thus means, removing non-kosher fat. (The Hebrew word for the process is “nikur,” excising.)
Removing the gid hanasheh and forbidden fats from the hindquarters is an extremely arduous process that requires much skill and patience. Since most of the forbidden fats and the entire gid hanasheh and all its tributaries are in the hindquarters, the custom in many places is to use only meat from the forequarters, thus considerably simplifying the trabering process.
OTHER DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HECHSHERIM
There are also subtle distinctions between hechsherim, which might cause one Rav to approve a shechitah and make another Rav uncomfortable. When is a shechitah line considered operating too quickly for the shochtim and bodkim to do their jobs properly? When is a plant considered understaffed? Are the tags that identify the meat as kosher kept under proper supervision? Are the shochtim yirei shamayim (G-d fearing)?
Thus, it could indeed happen that one rav considers a shechitah acceptable and another rav feels that it 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 as to how hard rabbonim and shochtim work to maintain a high kashrus standard.
We should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands us.