Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Slaughterhouse Rules

Pending approval by its upper house of parliament, the Netherlands will join Switzerland and a handful of other Western countries in mandating that animals slaughtered for food must first be stunned unconscious, generally by a hammer blow to the skull. The law was introduced by the small, far-left Party for the Animals but won a solid majority of the lower house by drawing wall-to-wall support, including from Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom. If passed, the law would compromise the ability of the Netherlands' million Muslims and 50,000 Jews to render meat religiously acceptable for consumption.

Relevant Links
Unequal Rites  Shai Lavi, Jews and Muslims in Germany. Are Muslims in Germany today facing the same challenges that Jews confronted a century ago? A history of the failed movement to ban ritual slaughter in late 19th-century Germany shows the limitations of the comparison. (PDF)
The Jewish Method  J.A. Dembo, . One piece of evidence in the 1893 Swiss debate was this pamphlet by a renowned veterinarian, defending sh’hitah on humanitarian, hygienic, and economic grounds.
Animal Rights and Religious Freedom  Pablo Lerner, Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, Italian Institute of Bioethics. Those concerned about animal welfare should be no less concerned about the protection of minority rights in contemporary Europe.

It seems fairly clear that supporters of the proposed Dutch ban are at least as concerned with taking a tough stand against the country's burgeoning population of immigrant Muslims as with the humane treatment of animals, and that the tiny Jewish community and its lone shohet (ritual slaughterer) are seen merely as acceptable collateral victims.  But the episode inevitably raises the issue of Jewish ritual slaughter, which is our subject here. 

By the strictures of Jewish law, a shohet is a highly-trained and licensed specialist, who must use a surgically-sharp knife to incise the animal's neck quickly and effectively.  While there is every indication that sh'hitah (Jewish slaughter) minimizes animal suffering, this isn't the first time that the issue has come up before a non-Jewish court.  In 1893, Switzerland became the first modern state to pass a law forbidding the practice. The circumstances of that ban, still in force, bear clear resemblances to the contemporary case in the Netherlands: sh'hitah was defended by leading scientists (including renowned German pathologist Rudolf Virchow) as being more humane and hygienic than other forms of slaughter. Yet prevailing anxieties about Jewish immigration induced the Swiss public, voting by referendum, to ban the practice nonetheless.

There is also the German case.  Soon after rising to power in 1933, the newly-ascendant Nazi party banned slaughter (of animals) without prior stunning. There were three basic rabbinic responses to the Nazi legislation. Some rabbis, fearing that German Jews would simply abandon Jewish dietary laws or go malnourished, argued in favor of permitting sh'hitah of stunned animals. Other rabbis opposed granting such license, arguing that prior stunning invalidates the animal's kosher status. The group that ultimately prevailed argued that even if grounds for permitting stunning before sh'hitah could be established, such an accommodation might erroneously be construed as an admission that the time-honored methods of Jewish slaughter were somehow inhumane—and, more disturbingly, that Nazism could possibly have something to teach Judaism about the ethical treatment of living creatures.

In more recent times, attempts to protect sh'hitah from government regulation have relied on two basic strategies. The first is to gain exemptions for the practice on the grounds of religious freedom.  This strategy has succeeded in most European countries, which, following EU guidelines, regard the slaughter of conscious animals as inhumane but nevertheless exempt sh'hitah and other forms of ritual slaughter from regulation.  The second strategy is to get special legal recognition for the humane character of religious slaughter.  Thus, sh'hitah is enshrined in U.S. law as a humane method of slaughter. 

It is unfortunately true that the exemption of sh'hitah from regulation has on occasion allowed Jewish slaughterhouses to treat animals inhumanely. On the whole, though, and despite these exemptions, Jewish slaughter has never been indifferent to matters of animal welfare. Embedded in Judaism's laws is a deep uneasiness about killing and eating animals. Already in Genesis, meat-eating is permitted to man only as a concession after the Floodand even then, the Torah maintains a taboo against consuming blood. License for non-sacrificial killing and eating of meat is granted again in Deuteronomy (12:21), where the ban on consuming blood is repeated. But slaughtering practices go hand-in-hand with requirements for humane treatment of living animals. 

The prohibition of causing unnecessary pain to creatures is itself rooted in the Bible (which prohibits the muzzling of an animal as it threshes grain) and continues to clarify Jewish attitudes toward contemporary factory farming practices. Thus, recent decades have seen rabbinic bans on veal and foie gras due to the inhumane manner of fattening calves and geese for slaughter. The two largest kosher-certification bodies in the world, America's Orthodox Union and Israel's chief rabbinate, have responded to communal pressures by implementing systems that limit or eliminate stress to the animal as it is restrained and prepared for slaughter. An increasing number of kosher slaughterhouses in South AmericaIsrael's main source of beefhave eliminated, at the chief rabbinate's demand, the practice of shackling and hoisting animals prior to slaughter.  (This method became common when state regulations mandated that animals be off the ground when killed; the "shackle-and-hoist" method was required by American law from 1906 until 1958.)

With all these provisions for the minimization of pain to living creatures, it is all the more evident that those who seek to ban ritual slaughter often have something other than animal welfare in mind.  Indeed, while there has been political opposition to sh'hitah on humanitarian grounds for nearly two centuries, the practice has been banned successfully only when its aims have dovetailed with broader concernsmost notably, anxieties about immigration. 

In the current case in the Netherlands, the only consistent parliamentary opposition to the proposed ban has come, notably, from Christian parties, which argue that the law undermines the Netherlands' longstanding tradition of religious tolerance.  It is no less than this traditionprecisely what enabled the centuries-old Dutch Jewish community to flourish in the first placethat now stands before the law. 

Elli Fischer, who lives in Israel, is a writer and translator and blogs at

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


david moses pidcock on July 31, 2011 at 4:07 pm (Reply)
Killing With Kindness – or Ignorance?
Having spent many years in the meat industry and studying best practices in animal slaughter around the world - the swiftest and kindest method of dispatching an animal without pain is by cutting the two main carotid arteries in the throat. Providing the knife is razor-sharp the animal does not feel the cut (which is painless) as it does not respond for up to 90 seconds - all movements thereafter are involuntary. The whole purpose of stunning is to immobilized the animal to make it easier to dress the carcass and avoid slaughter-men being kicked thus allowing a faster throughput of animals. German research shows that even after stunning animals still feel the pain of being “flayed alive” not so following the non-stunning Halal & Kosher methods which are intended for humane reasons - they have nothing to do with ritual - Looks can, all too often, be deceiving.
New scientific findings – and the results presented are only a very first contribution – which show that the ritual cut causes a very rapid loss of consciousness have an immediate bearing only if the practice “ritual slaughter” comes under the heading of “causing pain” (articles 1 and 4 para. 1 TierSchG).


Is Islamic / Kosher slaughter cruel?
The question of how an animal should be slaughtered to avoid cruelty is a different one. It is true that when the blood flows from the throat of an animal it looks violent, but just because meat is now bought neatly and hygienically packaged on remote supermarket shelves does not mean the animal didn’t have to die? Non-Islamic Non-Kosher slaughter methods dictate that the animal should be rendered unconscious before slaughter. This is usually achieved by stunning or electrocution. The claim being that it is less painful to shoot a bolt into a cow’s brain, electrocute a sheep or to ring a chicken’s neck than to cut their throats swiftly with razor sharp knives? Simply to watch the procedure does not objectively tell us what the animal feels.
The scientific facts
A team at the University of Hanover in Germany examined these claims through the use of EEG and ECG records during slaughter. Several electrodes were surgically implanted at various points of the skull of all the animals used in the experiment and they were then allowed to recover for several weeks. Some of the animals were subsequently slaughtered the Halal way by making a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries of both sides together with the trachea and oesophagus but leaving the spinal cord intact. The remainder were stunned before slaughter using a captive bolt pistol method as is customary in Western slaughterhouses. The EEG and ECG recordings allowed to monitor the condition of the brain and heart throughout.
The Halal / Kosher method: With the Halal/Kosher method of slaughter, there was not change in the EEG graph for the first three seconds after the incision was made, indicating that the animal did not feel any pain from the cut itself. This is not surprising. Often, if we cut ourselves with a sharp implement, we do not notice until some time later. The following three seconds were characterized by a condition of deep sleep-like unconsciousness brought about by the draining of large quantities of blood from the body. Thereafter the EEG recorded a zero reading, indicating no pain at all, yet at that time the heart was still beating and the body convulsing vigorously –but involuntary - as a reflex reaction of the spinal cord. It is this phase which is most unpleasant to onlookers who are falsely convinced that the animal suffers whilst its brain does actually no longer record any sensual messages.
The Western method: Using the Western stunning method, to the observers, the animals were apparently unconscious after stunning, and this method of dispatch would appear to be much more peaceful for the onlooker. However, the EEG readings indicated severe pain immediately after stunning. Whereas in the first Halal/Kosher example, the animal ceases to feel pain due to the brain’s starvation of blood and oxygen – a brain death, to put it in layman’s terms – the second example first causes a stoppage of the heart whilst the animal still feels pain. However, there are no unsightly convulsions, which not only means that there is more blood retention in the meat, but also that this method lends itself much more conveniently to the efficiency demands of modern mass slaughter procedures. It is so much easier to dispatch an animal on the conveyor and to skin and dress a carcass if the animal is not kicking or moving. Evidence given by operators at the old Abattoir in Sheffield, in England, admitted that they could process many more carcasses when animals were rendered “inactive” by the captive bolt – “at the end of the day” said Mr. Jack “it’s all down to economics and time cards”. Furthermore, it has been reported that some women undergoing Caesarean section, although having been immobilized were unfortunately not anesthetized and experienced all the pain and suffering but were unable to speak or indicate their plight.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham