Shechita

May 4, 2004

In former generations shechita of animals and fowl was always done on a local basis. Every town had its own shochtim who were under the personal supervision of the local Rav. Chazal took great pains to assure that the authority of the Rav in the slaughterhouse was supreme. The most extreme emphasis on Kavod HaTorah to be found in Shas is in the case of bedikas hasakin atset chochom (Chutin 18)-review of the shochet’s knife by the Rav. One who was lax in this practice would be removed from his post, excommunicated and publicly denounced. The rules for penitence were quite severe. Even in the times of the holy Tanaim and Amoraim there was often trouble in the slaughterhouse.

In today’s times things have changed dramatically. Large centralized slaughterhouses have replaced the local ones. Huge herds of cattle (from 500 to 1200) are slaughtered every single day in each of over twenty-five facilities nationwide in assembly line fashion using modern streamlined equipment. Highly efficient transportation and distribution systems whisk away the finished products to a thousand and more butchers and processors to satisfy our insatiable appetite for beef. The entire process requires constant monitoring in a much different manner from the good old days and is beset by a host of complexities. Rabbinical supervision is divided among the slaughterhouse distributor, processor, and butcher. Great knowledge, experience, sincerity and dedication are fundamental. However, essentially a Talmid Chochom whose expertise in cattle stems chiefly from his understanding of shor she’nagach es haparah-an ox that gored a cow will be no match for a seasoned meat handler should the latter desire to cheat. I will attempt to portray in this article a partial description of the procedure along with a sample of concomittant problems-Tain l’Chochom v’yechakam ode-With a little information, a wise man can deduce much.

Let us begin with the shechita. Rabbeinu Yonah says that a shochet must be a high level y’ray shamayim -God fearing person. He must constantly examine his sakin-slaughtering knife, calmly passing his fingernail along the edge, checking far the tiniest nick (pegimah). The slightest lapse in concentration would cause him to miss a pegimah that might possibly invalidate the shechita. Nothing but superior yiras shamayim-fear of God-could motivate a man to carry out this painstaking labor with the proper exactitude day in and day out, hundreds of times each day. With modern slaughterhouses situated perhaps a hundred miles or so from the nearest Jewish yishuv, the problem of bringing a crew of yirai shamayim becomes acute. Should shochtim and bodkim take up permanent residence in these places, it could mean weeks on end without tefillah b’tzibar or k’riyat haTorah, living alone among the gentiles-no shiurim, chavrusos, and often no family. A conscientious Rav Hamachshir will see that his staff returns home at least for each Shabbos and keeps to a level of Limud HaTorah and Gidrey Tzinus in a manner commensurate with oskim b’mleches haKodesh-those involved in holy service. The presence of many well-worn sefarim in the shochtim’s quarters may tell us something about the personnel there.The absence of any sefarim at all tells us something entirely different.

The distance of the slaughterhouse from the residence of the Rav Hamachshir is often problematic in a much different way. Travel to and from the facility can become quite expensive and it behooves one to notify the company each time one drops by. Thus, the occasional visit becomes anything but an unannounced inspection. In honor of the distinguished visitor, the size of the staff may suddenly swell and the rate of production may decrease. In short, everyone is put on red alert.

The next stage in the production of beef is the Bedikas Horeyah-the examination of the lungs. No matter how excellent the shechita may have been, the meat may not be eaten if the animal is treifa i.e. if certain organs were damaged in a way Halacha considers unacceptable. For the most part we may assume that nothing is wrong until we actually see trouble.

The lung, though, has a high incidence of treifa and it requires an examination. This takes place in two stages. The first is called Bedikas Pnim,-internal examination. The Bodek places his hands inside the chest cavity and gently feels his way around each of eight lobes for any adhesions or abnormal tissue. If the lung is completely free of lesions it is “Glatt Kosher”-if a. small lesion is found the “Bodek Pnim”(examiner) will carefully tear it at its point of attachment to the chest wall; identify its location and report it to the “Bodek Chutz” (external examiner) who receives it after its complete removal from the animal. The Bodek Chutz then reexamines the lung for discoloration and a host of other possible treifas, passing his hands and eyes carefully over the entire lung. He will take the remains of the adhesions reported to him by the Bodek Pnim and attempt to peel them carefully from the lung. He then inflates the lung or section thereof at the point where the peeling was done and passes it through water to see if any air bubbles escape in which case the animal is pronounced treifa. The same procedure is followed for adhesions between adjoining lobes.

If this phase of the examination is successful, the animal is pronounced “kosher” (sans Glatt) and labeled accordingly. One can easily see that these two examinations take a little time and most definitely require expertise and yiras shamayim. With the present assembly line-fast moving conveyor belt system, patience and meticulous care often fall into the shadow under the onslaught of a mighty Texas-style herd of cattle each and every day.

All of the above, however, pales before the complexities of keeping tabs on the different cuts of meats and classifying all of them correctly. Shortly after the shechita, the animal is broken apart, the head going in one direction and the body in another. Then the liver goes off on its own, the lung sits on the table of the Bodek Chutz and the carcass speeds off to a fourth location.

Should the Bodek discover a treifa at this stage, he must pass his information on to sharp-eyed mashgichim posted at strategic locations alongside of the whirling, speeding organs, who must label them in a way that cannot be counterfeited later on.