Shechitah, A Perfectly Humane Method Of Slaughter

Written for "Judaism Today", June 1995

For Rabbi Hugo Gryn, ז״ל, mentor and friend

In these days of animal rights activism, with veal calf transport under constant attack and the eating of meat becoming ever more an issue, we can be nigh on certain that someone – whether as a convenient pretext for anti-Semitism or out of genuine if misplaced conviction – will soon enough launch an onslaught against Shechitah. It is vital that the Jewish community is ready when the knives come out, because we can be sure that there will be no muzzling, no anaesthetic, merely one cut aimed at the jugular and the activists standing there gloating as the last drop of blood drains out. Please do not forgive the gruesome but appropriate metaphors.

Shechitah is the religious – some would call it the ritual – slaughter of animals. In Deuteronomy 12:21 we read: "You shall kill of your herd and your flock which the Lord has given you, in the manner that I have commanded you." Though 
 (Moses) is said to have been given details of the manner which YHVH had commanded, it does not in fact appear in writing until the first two chapters of Tractate Chullin in the Babylonian Talmud, circa 180 BCE. The exact methods used today allow for modifications made by Maimonides in his codification of the Shechitah Laws in the Mishneh Torah, and by Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Din, chapters 1-18). Amongst these laws are the requirement that the animal be in perfect health before slaughter – thereby disallowing pre-anaesthesia – and that the slaughterer, the shochet, be a thoroughly trained and regularly examined expert.

The process of Shechitah is quite straightforward. Animals are transported from the farm to the abattoir, where they are kept in stalls overnight, foddered and watered. Proverbs 12:10 reminds us that "a righteous man considers the life of his beast", an ordinance reinforced by European Community regulations which require, quite properly, that animals going for slaughter should not be treated cruelly beforehand. On the morning of slaughter the animals are led into the abattoir, and Jewish law makes clear that rough-handling, goading, or tail-twisting are not permitted. Nor, where it can be avoided, do animals actually see other animals being slaughtered (though in truth, being herbivores and not carnivores, there is no reason to assume that the sight or smell of blood would upset them in the slightest). This is achieved by leading the animal directly into a pen, whose frontal section allows for the beast's neck to become fully extended. The shochet makes a single cut immediately, severing the trachea, the oesophagus, the two vagus nerves, the carotid arteries and the jugular veins in one "swift movement" that must be free of upward or downward pressure, without any pause, and with no "hacking, digging, laceration or tear". With that, the process is at an end. Non-Jewish slaughterers, on the other hand, do not use pens; the animal is simply held down, a procedure that may well involve a chase and physical restraint, and which allows the animal space to kick and attempt flight. Nor do they cut immediately; first the animal must be pacified. There is a strong case to be made that the pen system is actually far more humane, especially since changes were made to the penning system during the 1980s, when an upright pen, known as the Cincinnati Pen, replaced the older, rotating, Weinberg Pen, which required animals to be lying on their backs for slaughter.

The argument of the animal rights activists will be that Shechitah is cruel to animals. In one sense they are right: it must be cruel, or at least painful, for any creature to suffer killing, whether they are animal or human. But while this may very well be a perfectly good argument for veganism and vegetarianism – for human beings desisting altogether from the practice of eating meat – it is not in itself an argument against Shechitah. If we accept that it is acceptable to eat meat, and that it is unhealthy to eat the meat of animals who have died by disease, old age or natural causes, then healthy animals have to be killed. For Shechitah to be inherently cruel to animals, it must be proven that it inflicts a measure of pain more severe than any other method of killing. It is also necessary to show that any pain inflicted is unreasonable, that it is intended to hurt rather than being an inevitable, if fully minimised consequence, of the process of slaughtering for food. The key difference in this regard between Jewish and non-Jewish methods is the practice of "stunning".

The non-Jewish method of slaughtering, rather like a human's visit to the dentist, normally involves a process of pre-anaesthesia, in accordance with the British Veterinary Association's ruling that "all animals should be rendered insensible before slaughter". Three methods are used: an injection of anaesthetic gas, electrical stunning, or most commonly the "captive-bolt". The intention is to pacify the animal before cutting its throat. Yet there is strong evidence to suggest that all three methods inflict unnecessary pain, at a level that might well be considered "cruel".

Experience of ECT with human patients shows that electrical stunning frequently has very serious consequences. The electrical impulse itself is liable to cause blood vessels to burst, a process akin to minor haemorrhaging, while the normal tendency is for limbs to become rigid at such an extreme of intensity that there are often broken bones. Epilepsy is also a common side-effect. The use of gas is little better. CO2 causes cerebral hypoxia, which means the brain is starved of oxygen, and thereby damaged, much as is a new-born baby who spends too long in the uterine canal and emerges with cerebral palsy.

The most commonly used method is the captive bolt. This requires the animal to be restrained, its head held absolutely still while a special gun is aimed at a precise spot in its forehead, and a bolt fired into the brain, the purpose being the instant destruction of the brain. This method is treated as being a form of pre-anaesthesia, but in fact it is itself a process of slaughter, since if carried out successfully the animal will die from the bolt. However, official British government statistics suggest that in at least 30% of cases the gun misfires, in which case restraint has to be prolonged while the gun is reloaded and a second attempt made; and because the animal tends to swing its head to resist restraint, it frequently occurs that the bolt misses its target, and the animal, though fatally injured, does not die. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that, even where gas, electrical stunning or the captive bolt are applied with full success, the animal may still retain consciousness; indeed, an RSPCA survey, reported in "The Times" of February 23rd 1990, showed that 6.6% of animals "showed evidence of being less than fully effectively stunned".

So much for humane slaughter! So much for rendering all animals “insensible before slaughter”!

In his pamphlet on Shechitah, Dr Bernard Homa, a senior consultant on the subject to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, describes the Jewish moment of killing as "a single rapid cut to the neck by means of a knife of adequate length, set to exquisite sharpness, more acute than any surgical knife, with a perfect edge, free from the slightest notch or flaw and minutely examined by a specific method for any unevenness immediately before the slaughter of each animal". What happens medically when Shechita operates?

The key to mammal life is the full operation of the brain, and this is dependent upon two factors: its metabolism requires a sufficient level of glucose, which is carried in the blood; its auto-regulation requires sufficient pressure to sustain the blood supply. The process of Shechitah involves the severance of the carotid arteries at the base of the throat, and the effect of this is an instantaneous cutting off of the supply of blood to the brain. One-third of blood-flow to the brain is lost within thirty seconds, fifty per cent within the first minute. Where in normal haemorrhages the arteries contract to resist the loss of blood, the carotids in fact dilate in response, thereby increasing the loss of blood pressure. The vertebral arteries which provide an alternate blood supply through the spinal canal to the back of the brain are not severed in Shechitah; however the severe drop in blood pressure caused by the cutting of the carotid arteries (twenty-five per cent within three seconds) will in fact cause blood in the vertebral arteries to cease flowing, and even to fall backwards. Such a drop in blood pressure, causing such a speedy loss of blood-flow to the brain, will also have the side-effect of plummeting the animal into almost instantaneous unconsciousness, much quicker in fact than even the most successful use of the captive bolt, gas, or electrical stunning. Neurologically the effect is even quicker, as experiments at Cornell University in the 1950s demonstrated; the animal will in fact lose consciousness within two to three seconds, physically collapse within ten, and even corneal reflexes will last no more than between ten and twenty seconds. In that sense the Shechita "cut" may also be seen as an extremely successful form of anaesthesia.

At the opening of this essay I stated that "the argument of the animal rights activists will be that Shechitah is cruel to animals", but responded that, if we accept that it is acceptable to eat meat, and that it is unhealthy to eat the meat of animals who have died by disease, old age or natural causes, then healthy animals have to be killed., and that a suitably humane method of killing needs to be adopted. As the above shows, Shechitah is certainly no less humane, and arguably far more humane, than other methods of killing currently in use. In Genesis 1:29 we read: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food". No mention there of eating meat. The second argument of the animal rights activists will be that we should return to the Edenic state, where Man too was a herbivore, and meat was not yet given us for eating. That debate is not within the scope of this essay.

Bibliography and recommended further reading:

Sassoon,S.D., Letchworth, A Critical Study of Electric Stunning and the Jewish Method of Slaughter, 1956

Dukes,H.H., Cornell, Blood Pressure in the Vertebral Artery in Ruminants, 1958

Homa,B., London, Shechita, the Jewish Method of Slaughtering Animals For Food, Board of Deputies of British Jews, 1961

Homa,B., Shechita, Soncino Press, 1967

Shechita, A Humane Method, published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, 1990

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