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Shehita – slaughter - ritual

In Jewish tradition, the consumption of meat is allowed provided that the animals are slaughtered during a codified ritual: shehita (or chekhita). This technique is described in detail in the Torah and is founded on the constant principle of respect for animal life. Therefore, ritualising the death of animals is a way of limiting their suffering and consequently honouring the living.
Shehita – abattage - rituel
© Getty Images/Menahem Kahana - The ritual slaughter of chickens by Orthodox Jews during the Kaparot ceremony the evening before Jom Kippur, Jerusalem, 2014

Blood, the first forbidden food

The origins of the Jewish ritual slaughter practised today lie in the forbidden food described in the Book of Genesis. After the Flood, man was granted permission to consume animals, but only under certain conditions: Blood was forbidden from the very beginning. As the symbol of life, it is considered to be the seat of the soul (nefesh). Dam (blood) and Adam (the human being) have the same root, thus eating blood would be tantamount to eating your fellow man and absorbing the animal’s life, because ”blood is the life force” (Torah, Deuteronomy XII, 27). By refraining from perpetrating this symbolically aggressive act, humanity is reminded that it is forbidden to cause suffering. So, during ritual slaughter, the animal must be bled completely. Ritualising death in this way enables the soul, contained in the blood, to be separated from the flesh. By slaughtering and preparing meat like this, the follower acknowledges that feeding oneself is not to be taken lightly but involves a serious action, that of putting an animal to death. It should therefore be carried out with respect, avoiding suffering as far as possible. This respect extends beyond death, in the way the meat is prepared and consumed (cacherout).

How shehita is performed

The ritual slaughterer (shochet) is considered to be a learned man who elevates the animal to a higher status, making it available for consumption through an act considered as a sanctification. He must have obtained the ability to slaughter (kabbala) and must follow the very specific rules which codify shehita. According to Jewish law, the animal must be alive, in good health and must not be injured at all at the moment of slaughter. Should this not be the case, it is declared unfit for consumption. Stunning and anaesthesia are not permitted, as they render the animal unfit for consumption (nevela). It is this rule in particular which has provoked controversy. However, in some Jewish abattoirs, stunning is allowed. The animal must be immobilised. Nowadays, a casting-pen is increasingly used, a narrow box in which the animal is restrained, immobilised on its back with its neck outstretched and unobstructed. After a blessing by the shohet, the animal is slaughtered with a swift, steady back and forth action, severing the two carotid arteries as well as most of the trachea and the oesophagus. The incision is made according to specific, stringent rules to guarantee a speedy execution and limit the animal’s suffering. The knife used is called a halef and is given a slow, thorough inspection before and after each slaughter. If the blade has any imperfections, however tiny, after the bleeding, the animal is declared torn (trefa) and may not be consumed. The meat is then washed with water and covered in salt to absorb the residual blood. Certain veins and arteries as well as the sciatic nerve must be removed. The meat is then said to be kosher and can be consumed.