SHEḤITAH (Heb. שְׁחִיטָה), the Jewish method of slaughtering permitted animals or birds for food. The underlying principle of the procedure is to kill the animal in the swiftest and most painless way possible by cutting horizontally across the throat, severing the trachea (windpipe), the esophagus, the jugular veins, and the carotid arteries. The knife (see below) is drawn across the throat of the animal in one or more swift, uninterrupted movements. In the case of animals most of the trachea and esophagus must be severed, while with birds it is sufficient to sever the largest part of either one. In the first instance, however, both are severed even in birds. "Then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock which the Lord hath given thee, as I have commanded thee" (Deut. 12:21) is the Pentateuchal basis of sheḥitah. Maimonides lists sheḥitah among the 613 commandments (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 146) and rabbinic authorities state (Ḥul. 28a): "Moses was instructed concerning the rules of sheḥitah."
In early times there were no "professional" shoḥatim (sing.*shoḥet). Any adult versed in the halakhah was allowed to perform the act of sheḥitah. In medieval times it was resolved that would-be shoḥatim in order to obtain a license (kabbalah) had to pass an examination (conducted by a rabbi) on the theory and practice of sheḥitah. A synod convened in Germany around 1220 resolved that no man could act as a shoḥet without such a license.
A kabbalah certificate is nowadays issued to an applicant who has successfully passed an oral examination on the laws of sheḥitah and terefah (see *Dietary Laws) and has correctly performed ritual slaughter, at least three times, in the presence of experts. Only meat of animals slaughtered by a shoḥet who possesses a kabbalah certificate is fit for consumption according to religious law (i.e., kasher, cf. Sh. Ar., yd 1). Kabbalah certificates are not issued to minors, women, or to mentally or physically handicapped persons (e.g., a deaf-mute or an idiot), although, if they perform the sheḥitah properly, their slaughter is ritually valid (ibid., 1:2, and Ḥul. 1:1). In Yemen there were women ritual slaughterers and it is even recorded that on Jan. 13, 1556, R. Isaac Immanuel de Lattes of Mantua gave a kabbalah to a woman.
A rabbi should not issue a kabbalah certificate to a person who is his close relative, or irresponsible, or to someone who is lax in the fulfillment of religious duties. Excluded also are persons inclined to drunkenness or those whose "hands are unsteady." In order to retain his status, the shoḥet is obliged to rehearse the rules of ritual slaughter every day during the first 30 days of receiving the kabbalah certificate, then once a month during the first year, and after that at least once in three months. He is also obliged to inspect, from time to time, the sharpness of his knife (or knives) or to have them inspected, upon request, by rabbinic authorities.
In the sheḥitah procedure, the knife (known as ḥalaf) has to be spotlessly clean and smooth, without a single notch or dent, and it has to be examined before and after sheḥitah. The examination is performed by passing the edge of the knife gently back and forth against the tip of the finger and the fingernail; any imperfection in the blade can thus be discovered. The knife must be at least twice as long as the width of the animal's throat and must not be pointed. Usually very high grade steel is used in order to avoid notches. One of the important stages in the training of a shoḥet is to learn how to set the knife to exquisite sharpness.
The act of sheḥitah is preceded by a benediction. One authority has ruled that the absence of the benediction renders the meat non-kosher, but the general opinion is that although a benediction should be recited, its omission, post facto, does not affect the validity of the act. Sheḥitah may not be performed on the Sabbath but, post facto, it is valid if so performed. Any one of the following five movements can disqualify the sheḥitah: shehiyyah – if the slightest pause or interruption occurs during the sheḥitah act; derasah – if the knife is pressed into the neck instead of moving firmly back and forth; ḥaladah – if the knife gets stuck behind the food pipe; hagramah – if the cut is not made in the prescribed section; ikkur – if the tissues are torn out rather than cut.
For birds and undomesticated animals (ḥayyot) the blood must be covered after the sheḥitah. This is done by placing sand or soil underneath, slaughtering, and then spreading more soil over the split blood, at which time a special benediction is pronounced. One of the reasons given for this procedure is that these animals owe nothing to man (as opposed to domesticated animals) and thus their slaughter is more shameful.
Reasons Given for Shehitah
Underlying these minute regulations is the concept of ẓa'ar ba'alei ḥayyim, the deep concern not to inflict pain on any living creature. The sheḥitah procedure was thus devised to make animal slaughter instantaneous and painless (see *Animals, Cruelty to). Maimonides writes in a similar vein: "The commandment concerning the killing of animals is necessary because the natural food of man consists of vegetables and the meat of animals; the best meat is that of animals permitted to be used as food. No doctor has any doubts about this. Since, therefore, the desire to procure good food necessitates the slaying of animals, the law enjoins that the death of the animal should be as easy and painless as possible" (Guide of the Perplexed, pt. 3, 48).
Though the concept of sheḥitah is rooted in humane aspects and the laws are directed to perform the act as swiftly as possible and render the animal insensitive to pain almost instantly, from time to time there have been attempts in the non-Jewish world to ban sheḥitah. While some of these were motivated by humanitarian concern, in many cases the agitation was a manifestation of antisemitism.
An anti-sheḥitah movement was started in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. The first country to ban sheḥitah was *Switzerland, which outlawed it by plebiscite (178,844 votes to 115,931) on Aug. 20, 1893. Later sheḥitah was forbidden in Norway (Jan. 1, 1930), Bavaria (May 17, 1930), Nazi Germany (April 21, 1933), Sweden (1937), Fascist Italy (1938). Severe restrictions were imposed on the Jews of Poland in 1936. During World War iisheḥitah was banned in the countries under Nazi hegemony.
In the United States, sheḥitah is protected in a number of states (in 1915 a law was passed in New York according to which it is an offence to sell as kosher an article that is prohibited for Jewish consumption). Similarly, the Act of Parliament of August 13, 1928, which provides for the humane slaughter of animals in Scotland, makes a special provision for sheḥitah (Article 8). Subsequently, an act passed on July 28, 1933, which provides for the humane and scientific slaughter of animals, and the Slaughter of Animals (Consolidation) Act (1958) further safeguarded sheḥitah in Britain. They require that in abattoirs cattle and sheep be instantaneously slaughtered or be rendered insensible by stunning until death supervenes, but food intended for Jews and Muslims is exempt from the foregoing provision (a private member's bill to forbid sheḥitah, introduced in the British Parliament, was defeated in 1968). There are similar legal safeguards in Finland, the Republic of South Africa, and Ireland. Many slaughterhouses have special large padded casting pens and other similar devices to get the animal into the required position swiftly and painlessly.
In recent years, the anti-sheḥitah movement has been revived in a number of countries. Medical and veterinary authorities such as Lister, Virchov, and Vogt and more than 450 of the most eminent physiologists, pathologists, and heads of veterinary colleges in Great Britain have become convinced that the Jewish method is absolutely humane. The British physician Lord Horder stated in 1940: "Careful and critical scrutinising of this method of slaughtering leaves me in no doubt whatever that it is fraught with less risk of pain to the animal than any other method at present practised." Similar sentiments were expressed by Sir William Bayliss, professor of general physiology at the University College of London: "The Jewish use of the knife is a humane method of slaughter which compares favourably with any other process. The result of the cut made by the Jewish expert is to produce immediate insensibility, from which the animal does not recover. The pain, if any, is momentary, and at the worst is but slight."
Many of the opponents of sheḥitah have advocated electrical stunning before the act which would render the animal unconscious and thus insensitive to pain. The halakhah strongly opposes such stunning prior to sheḥitah. Stunning often causes a strong jerk of the muscles, which could impair the act of sheḥitah. It may also injure the brain and lungs, rendering the animal forbidden. The stunning furthermore causes extravasation of blood so that small blood clots form in the meat, hemorrhages, and severe congestion of muscles.
The laws of sheḥitah are codified in Sh. Ar. yd, ch. 1–28.
In many regions and during many periods sheḥitah provided a major source of income for the communal leadership. The first signs of organized communal control over sheḥitah appeared at the end of the tenth century in Ramleh, Ereẓ Israel, and in Egypt. The old profession of tabbaḥ, combining slaugterer and meat seller, was divided into two, when the kaẓẓav, the butcher, ceased to act as slaughterer, a function which was acquired by the specialist shoḥet. This became the rule, albeit with some exceptions, in the kingdoms of Christian Spain and in the Sephardi Diaspora after 1492. The shoḥet was also expected to act as bodek, to examine the animal lungs for kashrut. Usually the shoḥet was granted *ḥazakah or perpetual tenure; he did not have to stand for reelection and could be dismissed only for transgression. This right was often transmitted to his heirs and sometimes remained in the same family for many generations. In Venice he was called the sagatino. In order to pay the shoḥet's salary, the community arranged to collect fees for his services. Periodically the shoḥet's work in the abattoir was inspected by the local rabbi or dayyanim; many communities hired two shoḥatim. In smaller settlements the shoḥet often combined his work with the office of cantor, teacher, or other paid communal functions. As the shoḥet was responsible for many minutiae in the proper exercise of his function, his character and piety were as important to the community as his technical expertise. Some kabbalists, chief among them the anonymous 14th-century Spanish author of Sefer ha-Kaneh and Sefer ha Peli'ah, attacked the whole conception of meat-eating and cattle-slaughtering as a part of the general life-style. On the other hand, the development of the concept of metempsychosis made sheḥitah and the shoḥet participants in the right way of liberating the soul from its material environment if both the action and the man were pious and proper (see also *Sacrifices in Kabbalah).
The method of sheḥitah and attitude to it of Ashkenazi Jewry developed largely on the same lines. In Ḥasidism the mystical appreciation of sheḥitah became an ideological and social mark of the movement. Tales told about *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov express a deep concern with the personality of the shoḥet; miraculously the Ba'al Shem Tov was able to know and disclose the sins of the shoḥet in various places. Ḥasidism introduced a different technique for the fine sharpening of the shoḥet's knife. As the circle around *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, objected to the introduction of highly polished knives, contending that such instruments were prone to denting, the ḥasidic sheḥitah became both a divisive factor in the community and a unifying element among the Ḥasidim. In 1772 a ḥerem was proclaimed against the ḥasidic sheḥitah, its knives, and its shoḥatim, which "are of a certainty blemished with the taint of heresy. Meat [or cattle] slaughtered by these burnished knives is not kasher." As Ḥasidism spread, the close tie between the rabbi and the shoḥet made the introduction of ḥasidic sheḥitah a tangible sign that the Ḥasidim had taken over the community and the rabbinate.
The kahal acquired monopolistic control over all sheḥitah and sale of kasher meat. Soon the income from sheḥitah was employed not merely to defray expenses but also to underwrite educational, charitable, and other communal endeavors. As early as the 12th century in Castile there are references to such a meat tax. Throughout the Sephardi world it was known as gabela and in Morocco in modern times it was called hakdish. In Poland from the 17th century and in Russia it was called *korobka. In Berlin the sheḥitah tax is first documented in 1723, but it probably existed long before that. Often these taxes became the mainstay of communal income. In modern times various states – often on the initiative of the maskilim – used the meat tax as a method of financing their own enterprises, educational and otherwise, among the Jews. As East European Jewry migrated to Western Europe and the New World they instituted the sheḥitah tax there too. In New York the shoḥet was at first a functionary of the synagogue rather than of the community as a whole. In the 20th century, with the development of canned meat and canning factories and the concentration of great numbers of Jews in a few communities, sheḥitah underwent many changes. The kasher butchers were supervised by a mashgi'aḥ ("supervisor") or as he was called in London a shomer ("watchman"). Each properly slaughtered animal or fowl was identified by a plombe, a lead disc stamped kasher and showing the date of slaughtering. Every can of meat had to be similarly marked. Attempts were made to ensure central supervision over kashrut in order to check the many abuses that had appeared. In Palestine the Mandatory government adopted regulations which provided that in each city sheḥitah must be under the control of a single board representing the various groupings in the community. In Israel sheḥitah has remained under the general supervision of the Mo'aẓot Datiyyot ("religious councils") and the rabbinate.
Women and Sheḥitah
Women are tacitly included when the Mishnah states that everybody slaughters, that their slaughtering is acceptable, and that they are not included among those whose slaughtering is unacceptable (Ḥul. 1:1). According to Zevaḥim 3:1, slaughtering, even of the most holy things (kodshei kodashim), by women, slaves, and the impure, is acceptable. On the one hand, this statement seems to put women in the category of those who do not usually slaughter while, on the other, it affirms that women could slaughter sacrifices. The only condition is that those who are impure should not come into contact with the meat. According to Zevaḥim 31b, "everybody slaughters" means that women have the authority to do so in the first instance (based on Lev. 1:5, where the commandment to slaughter was not limited to priests); that their slaughtering is "acceptable" means after the fact (Ḥul. 2b). The Jewish traveler *Eldad (ben Mahli) ha-Dani (c. 880) left behind a small code of law, Hilkhot Ereẓ Yisrael ("Laws of the Land of Israel"). Beginning with the Tosafists, medieval rabbis rebut arguments purportedly found in Hikhot Ereẓ Yisrael against women's slaughtering; these include claims that women are feebleminded, physically weak, and prone to fainting. Instead, they affirm that women may slaughter on their own (e.g. Tos. Ḥul. 2a, d.h. hakol; Zev. 31b, kol; Kid. 36a, d.h. Hakabalot; 76b, d.h. ein bodekin; Er. 59b, d.h. ve-tehumin; mt Sheḥitah 4:4; Commentary on the Mishnah Ḥullin 1:1; Commentary on the Mishnah Zevaḥim 3:1; Meir of Rothenberg, Shut Maharam 4 (Prague), no. 193; Jacob ben Asher, Tur yd 1). Orḥot Ḥayyim and Kolbo of the 13th–14th centuries deem it acceptable for women to slaughter for themselves, le-atzman, but not for others, lo le-aḥerim (oḤ Hil. Sheḥitah, no. 3; Kolbo, no. 107). Jacob ben Judah *Landau, 15th century author of Sefer ha-Agur, represents a major turning point in the development of rabbinic discourse on the subject. He states that while it is obvious that a woman may slaughter, "It is a custom in all the Jewish diaspora that they do not slaughter and I have never seen the practice of doing so. Therefore, there is no reason to allow them to slaughter because custom cancels, and the custom of our fathers is Torah" (Sefer ha-Agur, Hil. Sheḥitah, no. 1062). Joseph *Caro contests Jacob ben Judah Landau's view that the custom is that women do not slaughter; he also asserts that women's slaughtering for themselves means slaughtering by themselves, that is alone (levadan) without anybody supervising them (by yd 1; Kesef Mishnah, Hil. Sheḥitah 4:4). Limitations on women's slaughtering were accepted by Moses *Isserles of Cracow and by Solomon ben Jehiel *Luria of Poznan (Rama, sa yd 1; Yam shel Shelomo, Ḥul. 1:1). Luria raised the possibility that fear of their husbands will lead women to hide mistakes; he ruled that because of the many stringencies recently added to the process of slaughtering and of the greater concern that they will faint, women are not allowed to slaughter for others or at all (Yam shel Shelomo, Ḥul. 1:2). One relatively late attempt to limit women's slaughtering in Italy reveals what may have been a new or a previously understated argument. In 1728, in an exchange with Abraham Yaḥyah of Modena, Shabbetai Elhanan ben Elisha *del Vecchio accepted all the traditional arguments for women's slaughtering, even for sacrifices, but expressed concern that a women in a state of impurity might touch the animal.
In contrast with efforts by rabbis elsewhere in Christian Europe to limit women's rights to slaughter, licenses appear in early modern Italy for specific women not only to slaughter but also to porge (nikkur or treibern) animals. Porging, removal of fat, veins, nerves, and sinews after the animal has been ritually slaughtered, is a complex process. The involvement of women in kosher slaughtering and porging has been construed by some as proof of an improvement in the condition of women among Italian Jews. Others have argued that the reason women were allowed to slaughter was not emancipation but so that they could provide food for their families in isolated locations, such as summer houses in the mountains, or in distressed circumstances. Italian Jewish women who demonstrated under supervision that they had sufficient knowledge and expertise to slaughter, to examine, and to porge received permission to slaughter both fowl and cattle unsupervised (beinah levein atzmah) for all Jews (lekhol yisrael).
[Howard Tzvi Adelman (2nd ed.)]
J.J. Weinberg, Teshuvah be-Inyan Himmum ha-Behemot (1934); J.J. Berman, Shehitah: A Study in the Cultural and Social Life of the Jewish People (1941); I. Lewin et el., Religious Freedom: the Right to Practice Shehitah (1946); S.D. Sassoon, A Critical Study of Electric Stunning and the Jewish Method of Slaughter (Shechitah) (1956); Y.J. Grunwald, Ha-Shoḥet ve-ha-Sheḥitah ba-Sifrut ha-Rabbanit (1956); S.E. Freedman, Book of Kashruth (1970), 28–46; Shunami, Bibl, 1051–52, 2482; Baron, Community, 3 (1942), index, s.v.Slaughtering and Slaughterers; I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (1943), index s.v. Korobka; Ch. Shmeruk, in: Zion, 20 (1955), 47–72; B. Homa, Shehita (1967); Cohen, Lord, of Birkenhead, Hansard, House of Lords, 3rd Dec. 1962; I.M. Levinger, Untersuchung zum Schaechtproblem (1961); B. Homa, Shehita, The Jewish Method of Slaughtering Animals for Food (1961).add. bibliography: women and sheḤitah: H. Tz. Adelman, "Religious Practice among Italian Jewish Women," in: L. Fine (ed.), Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period (2001), 204–8; idem, "Rabbis and Reality: Public Activities of Jewish Women in Italy during the Renaissance and Catholic Restoration," in: Jewish History, 5 (1989), 32–34, 39.