Taking Shehitah into Our Own Hands: My Journey to Become a Shohetet

by Rachel Marder

It is clear that there is a renewed interest in shehitah among Jews from across the religious spectrum. Two recent Jewish news stories, “Backyard Kosher: Observant Jews Take Meat Ritual into Their Own Hands” (in jweekly, the Jewish newsweekly of Northern California) and “DIY Shechita” (from JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), explore what is motivating this new strain of shohetim. These articles suggest that a desire to combat the stranglehold that large and, at times, unethical factory farms have on the kosher meat industry plays a big role. Another motivator, found as well in the larger culture, is a desire to know the precise circumstances of food production and to learn where our food originates.

A spiritual element is also present, as these shohtim aim to change the way we perceive the impersonal meat industry. They hope that those who eat their meat will feel a closer connection to the animals they consume and become mindful of the animals’ deaths. If it becomes widespread, “backyard shehitah” may affect the amount of meat we eat and how we relate to the food industry.

My Journey into Shehitah

My journey to studying shehitah this year was born out of intellectual curiosity. A vegetarian since age ten, I have no interest in eating animals. I grew up, however, hearing that kosher slaughter is quicker, less painful, and more compassionate than other types of slaughter. I wondered whether this was true—and if so, specifically how so. When a student at my seminary in Los Angeles, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, advertised last fall that Rabbi Gabriel Botnick would be teaching a course on hilkhot shehitah (the laws of slaughter) of livestock this year, I was intrigued. I entered Rabbi Botnick’s course with the intention of merely learning the laws, but not actually performing shehitah and pursuing certification. However, the more halakhot I studied with Rabbi Botnick, who was certified by the Israeli rabbinate and ordained last May, and the more I considered the ethical issues regarding the kashrut industry’s treatment of its workers and animals, the more I considered learning the practical side of the trade as well.

I see a growing need for more local shohetim among Jews who keep kosher. As we become more concerned with how the animals we eat are raised and the conditions in which they live, which can be unhealthy, we, the kashrut consumers, should be more willing to buy from a shohet we know and whose expertise we trust.

Women and Shehitah

Growing up in the liberal Jewish community, I cannot recall a time when I was told I could not perform a ritual act because of my gender. On the first night of shehitah class, Rabbi Botnick taught us the first siman of the first saif of Hilkhot Shehitah in the Shulhan Arukh: “Every-one can slaughter from the outset (l’khathilah), even women.” How surpris-ingly inclusive, I thought, trying to recall ever hear-ing of a female shohetet. (I could not.) The Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, how-ever, commented, “There are those who say we do not permit women to slaughter, that we already have the custom that women do not slaughter.” At least by the sixteenth century in Ashkenazi communities, where Rav Isserles lived, it had become the minhag that women do not perform shehitah. It is unclear when that became the case in Sephardi communities.

Sephardi posek Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870–1939) explains the Rama’s statement in his seminal work Kaf Hahayim (“The Palm of Life”), a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh’s shehitah laws: “The reasoning behind not permitting women to slaughter is that their minds are weak and they might faint.” I found this answer unsatisfying, of course, as is any generalization about one gender. This fear of a shohet fainting and thus being ineligible for ritual slaughter is not limited to women. The Rama states: “One who tends to faint and we know he isn’t able, and he slaughtered and said, ‘It’s clear to me that I didn’t faint,’ he is believed if he knows the laws of shehitah” (Yoreh De’ah 1:3). Someone who is known to faint should not slaughter. However, we trust the shehitah of one who is educated in the laws. His knowledge and his word take precedence over his reputation.

The Shulhan Arukh also rules on other categories of people who may be unfit to slaughter, such as minors; blind, deaf, and mute people; and people who flout Jewish law. Rav Sofer asks whether any man can truly slaugh-ter from the outset, as Rav Caro wrote in the first siman. Rav Sofer’s answer is beautiful and could provide a basis for giving men and women equal opportunity in study-ing and performing shehitah: “We should judge every man based on his strength. If someone is young and weak, he shouldn’t slaughter, but someone old and strong should be permitted to do so.” Without adding too much to Rav Sofer’s words, I believe that his position could be used to argue for judging any individual on merits, not merely on age or gender, in determining whether he or she is fit to become a shohet(et). Rav Sofer also notes that a teacher training a student in shehitah must see that the student “is of good character and is God-fearing, can read Torah on his own, [and] can understand a little Talmud with Rashi’s commentary.” Women who meet these standards would thus be just as capable of providing shehitah to their com-munities. There is nothing innate about women to disqual-ify them from the outset, according to Rav Sofer.

I am hopeful that this field will become more open to Orthodox women as well, just as positions in hashgahah (halakhic supervision of food preparation) already have become and continue to expand. (See Women as Mashgihot.)

The Spiritual Nature of Shehitah

From Rabbi Botnick I learned that, in addition to knowing the laws and being competent in slaughter, a shohet(et) must bring proper kavannah (intention) to the act, must understand the gravity of taking an animal’s life, and must strive to prevent unnecessary tza’ar ba’alei hayim, suffering of God’s creatures. Rambam explains that we are not violating tza’ar ba’alei hayim when we sheht because when a person consumes an animal, it is elevated to a higher spiritual level.

Be that as it may, it seems that animals do suffer when they are slaughtered, even though we do not know what they feel in the moment. In my course of study, I learned that, if done properly, kosher slaughter is more humane and probably less painful to the animal than other methods. By performing each shehitah with kavod (respect) for the animal’s comfort (by holding it in a specific position) and at a slow pace (not one after the other speedily, as in kosher factory farms), we show that we value animal life. We learned that the Ba’al Shem Tov, who worked as a shohet, would wet his sharpening stone with his tears.

Slaughtering an animal is not to be taken lightly. Check-ing that one’s knife is had v’halak, as sharp and as smooth as possible, before making the cut prevents prolonged pain for the animal. By performing the cut swiftly and properly (not digging, lifting the knife, or pressing the knife into the animal’s neck, which would render it neveila, improperly slaughtered and therefore not kosher), a shohet(et) can elevate slaughter to a more holy and sensitive act.

I feel the intensely spiritual nature of shehitah. We humbly accept that one of God’s creatures sacrificed its life for our sustenance. As a vegetarian, I bring keen interest to the ethical dimensions of the meat industry and our consumption habits. As a liberal Jew, I am excited that as we participate in this holy ritual, we are creatively expanding it through the Magen Tzedek hekhsher movement, which works to infuse social values into the kashrut industry, including fair treatment of workers, animal welfare, and environmental impact.

[Editor’s Note: Out of similar concerns, the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek has created its Tav HaYosher program. See www.utzedek.org/ tavhayosher.html.]

Looking to the Future

For now, I am working on passing my shehitah ex-ams, which will enable me to become, I am told, the only shohetet in the world. For those in my community who know me and trust me, I am looking forward to provid-ing them with kosher meat and to teaching them about shehitah. I have passed my knife-sharpening test, have slaughtered three chickens for practice (and did not feel like fainting at any point) ahead of the practical exam, and am reviewing the laws for the written test. I look forward to sharing the spiritual meaning and the moral and practical implications of shehitah in the community that I will eventually serve.

Rachel Marder is a second-year student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. A California native, she received her B.A. from Brandeis University and M.A. in Conflict Research, Management and Resolution from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is currently a Wexner Fellow.


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