This week's parsha
Why Shechitah Is Important
The Jewish people today are facing many conflicts. One of these concerns shechitah, the ritual slaughter of fowls, lambs and beef so that Jews are permitted to eat the meat. A number of groups are applying pressure in an attempt to ban shechitah, or to impose government laws which would prevent it from being carried out effectively.
Why is it important to protect our right to perform shechitah?
In practical terms, shechitah is virtually painless for the animal. The special shechitah knife is honed razor sharp: if it sliced a person's finger he would not feel it. The act of shechitah generally cuts the carotid arteries, causing immediate cessation of the blood supply to the brain. This is an effective, swift and pain-free stunning procedure. Many contrast this with the fixed bolt form of stunning used in non-kosher slaughter which anti-meat-eating groups describe in very negative terms.
In terms of life in modern society, there is another issue: religious tolerance. We live in a pluralist society where freedom for religious practice can be claimed so long that it does no harm to other human beings. As mature human beings in the 21st century, we can claim acceptance of shechitah as a human right. Further, attacks on shechitah are often a disguised form of anti-Semitism: during World War II, shechitah was banned in all countries under Nazi control.
The real issue, however, is the spiritual question. The Torah commands the Jew to use the method of shechitah in order to eat meat.
The Torah does not regard meat-eating as something to be taken for granted. Before Noah, human beings were not permitted to eat meat. Then, in a law given by G-d to Noah after the Flood, meat eating became permitted as long as the animal is killed first. We generally understand this law, applying to all humanity, as demanding avoidance of wanton cruelty to animals.
For the Jew, of course, there are further restrictions. Since we are a special people, with a special spiritual task in the world, additional rules apply to us. Only certain animals can be eaten: the kosher animals ("kosher" means fit, suitable). The rules for kosher animals, birds and fish are given in the Torah. If the animal is unhealthy, again it is forbidden. The word treif (which we use for non-kosher) literally means "torn": an animal which has been torn internally and is ill may not be eaten by a Jew. The Torah also tells us that blood may not be eaten, and meat and milk must be kept separate.
There is more. For the Jewish people in the time of Moses, meat could only be eaten when it was part of a sacrifice brought to the Sanctuary. In a sense, the meat was considered sacred. Then, shortly before entering the Land of Israel, the Jewish people were told that they could eat meat, but only if they slaughter it in a special way. This method was revealed to Moses at Sinai. It was the mode of slaughter used in the Sanctuary and Temple, and it is still used by the Jewish slaughterer (shochet) today.
All food, including plants and animals, has within it a spiritual life-force. Chassidic teachings tell us that when a Jew eats permitted food and serves G-d with the energy it gives him or her, a crucial spiritual cycle is completed, helping to perfect the universe. This is our global task. The detailed laws and practice of shechitah help us to carry it out, for the ultimate benefit of all humanity.