Kashrus is a multi-faceted discipline, a set of Mitzvos that has served to maintain the uniqueness of the Jewish people since the time of Matan Torah. By maintaining the K'dushah (holiness) of what we eat, we elevate the K'dushah of our N'shomos. Indeed, Chazal teach us that, by eating something that is not Kosher, we damage our spiritual nature (M'tamtem es Ha'Lev). The Kashrus of meat is one of the most basic elements of a Kosher diet, and its preparation is governed by some of the most complicated and sensitive Halachos. As such, maintaining the standards of local Sh'chitah (Kosher slaughter) has always been one of the key responsibilities of the local Rabbonim in each Jewish community. Even our enemies have recognized its importance - Sh'chitah was often one of the first religious services that were banned when attempting to destroy a Jewish community.
In the days before refrigeration, fresh meat could not easily be stored or shipped and, historically, every Jewish community maintained a local Sh'chitah to meet its needs. Recognizing the critical and exacting nature of the laws of Sh'chitah, Halacha delegates special responsibilities to the local Rabbonim to oversee the standards of the local Sh'chitah. Today, however, the meat industry has consolidated its operations to the point where large slaughterhouses process meat far from where it is consumed, and many Jewish communities have therefore lost their local Sh'chitah. As such, large Kosher slaughterhouses provide for the needs of many communities throughout the United States and Canada. In the city of Montreal, however, we are fortunate to have been able to maintain the traditional concept of Sh'chitah under the direct oversight of the local Va'ad Ho'Rabonim, ensuring that the meat available to the Jewish community in Montreal indeed meets the highest Kashrus standards.
The processing of Kosher meat is an intricate process, and a basic understanding is important to appreciate its importance and sensitivity. Kosher meat must be derived from Kosher species of animals and birds. Kosher animals must be ruminants (those animals that chew their cud) and have split hooves. The most common sources of Kosher meat are beef and sheep, although deer and bison enjoy some popularity. Kosher birds are non predatory species for which we have a Kosher tradition, common examples include chicken, turkey, ducks and geese. The fact that an animal or bird is "Kosher", however, is but the tip of the Kashrus iceberg.
Every Kosher animal or bird must be slaughtered in the prescribed manner. The Torah states "v'zavachtah … ka'asher tzi'visicha" - "and you shall slaughter" … as I have commanded you" (D'varim 12:21) - that the Torah she'Ba'al Peh (the Oral Law) is the repository for the details of Sh'chitah. According to Halacha, each animal must be healthy and slaughtered by a Sho'chet, a Rabbi specifically trained in the intricacies of Sh'chitah. The process of Sh'chitah involves the use of an incredibly sharp, perfectly smooth blade (known as a Cha'lef) to sever the trachea, esophagus, and neck arteries of the animal as quickly and as smoothly as possible, thus ensuring that the animal does not suffer. Several factors can invalidate a Sh'chitah. First, the Cha'lef must be perfectly smooth and free of nicks, and is therefore checked by the Sho'chet immediately before and after the Sh'chitah. If a nick is found after the Sh'chitah, the animal is not considered Kosher. [In the case of poultry, it is impractical to check the Cha'lef after each bird. The Cha'lef is generally checked after several birds - but if a nick is found, all of the birds that had been slaughtered between the last check and the discovery of the nick are considered non-Kosher.] Second, if the animal moves its neck during the Sh'chitah, the animal is also rendered non-Kosher since the smooth cutting of the Sh'chitah has been compromised. Ensuring the stability of the animal is not an easy task, since Halacha prohibits the "stunning" of the animal prior to slaughter, a practice common in non-Kosher slaughter. Since painstaking care is taken with each Sh'chitah to ensure that it is done properly, the processing line operates more slowly than non-Kosher kill, which typically involves merely shooting the animal in the head.
Another critical requirement in the Kosher slaughter of an animal is ensuring that it is healthy. If certain internal organs are damaged, the animal is considered a Treifah (plural, treifos) [literally, "torn"] and is not considered Kosher. The Bo'dek (inspector) therefore checks certain internal organs (e.g., the lungs) of each animal after Sh'chitah before the animal can be considered Kosher, a process known as B'dikah. [The term "treifah" technically refers to an animal that had been damaged in certain ways. In common usage, however, the term "treif" means "non Kosher" for any reason.] Since healthier, higher quality animals are less prone to defects that would render them treifos, only the highest quality animals are typically used for Kosher Sh'chitah. Although such animals are typically more expensive, their meat is of a much higher quality. Indeed, many non Jewish people prefer Kosher meat for precisely this reason.
When inspecting an animal to ensure that it is not a treifah, most of the attention is focused on the status of the lungs, since they are the organs most commonly compromised. A punctured lung would render an animal not Kosher - "treif", a condition usually detected by the Bo'dek feeling the surface of the lungs while they are still inside the thoracic cavity. Generally, a puncture in the lung would cause a mucous lesion or scab to form that would temporarily occlude the hole, allowing the lungs to continue functioning for a period of time. Halacha, however, recognizes that such a "patch" - known as a sircha - is only temporary, and will eventually break down and the animal will sicken. Halacha therefore considers animals with certain types of sirchos to be treifos, and are not considered Kosher. The Bo'dek therefore feels the surface of each lobe of the lung to verify that it is "smooth" and free of major lesions. He then inflates the lungs to ensure that no tiny punctures remain undetected.
In the case of beef, however, certain types of sirchos might be acceptable according to the customs of the Ashkenazim but be considered objectionable to Sephardim. According to Ashkenazic custom, a lightly-attached sircha that can be easily removed from the lung may not be indicative of a puncture at all. If the Bo'dek can remove such a sircha without creating a hole in the lung (which is verified by inflating the lung and immersing it in water to check for escaping air), the animal may still be considered Kosher according to Ashkenazic tradition. It is not, however, considered "Glatt" (from the German word for smooth), the default requirement according to Sephardic tradition. Animals that meet this, more rigorous criteria are called "Bais Yosef Glatt", referring to the opinion of the Bais Yosef (Rabbi Yosef Karo) who requires it. It should be noted, however, that this Ashkenazic leniency applies only to beef - veal and lamb must meet a Bais Yosef requirement according to all opinions. Regardless of the types of sirchos involved, however, B'dikos are very rigorous inspections. Depending on the quality of the animals in a given lot, a Sh'chitah is generally considered very successful if only 30-60% of the animals pass such inspections. Some animals, such as milk-fed veal, are raised under conditions that tend to weaken their health, to the point where perhaps only 10% of the animals shechted actually pass inspection as Kosher! Those animals that cannot meet these demanding standards must be sold as non-Kosher, thus limiting the amount of Kosher meat available.
It is interesting to note that, just as the original meaning of the word "treifah" has been expanded beyond its technical scope, another word relating to Sh'chitah has received far greater currency than its limited technical connotation. Today, the common use of the term "glatt meat" connotes a product that meats a "high Kosher standard". This usually means that, in the case of beef, any sirchos that are found are small and limited in number (two or three), a standard that was accepted as "glatt" by many Poskim in Europe. It does not, however, mean that the animal that had a completely smooth lung! Although most major Kashrus organizations use only "glatt Kosher meat", the term is used to imply adherence to a very high standard rather than to the narrow definition of the word.
Special requirements for Kosher meat do not end after Sh'chitah and B'dikah, however. Although the Torah permits the meat from properly shechted Kosher animals, it prohibits fats found on the flanks and certain internal organs (e.g., the kidneys and intestines) of domesticated animals (e.g., beef and lamb). Such fats are known as Chelev, and must be removed since their consumption is subject to one of the most severe Biblical prohibitions (Kares - an early death). In addition, the Torah prohibits the eating of the Gid Ha'Na'sheh (the sciatic nerve), and one must therefore "porge" (remove) this nerve before eating the hind leg. While we may not deal with the Halachos of Gid Ha'Na'sheh on a regular basis (see below), the faithfulness of the Jews of K'ai-Feng Fu, China to the rules of Gid Ha'Na'sheh earned them the sobriquet of "The Pluckers of the Sinew"!
The removal of Chelev and the Gid Ha'Na'sheh - known as Nikkur in Hebrew ("Treiboring" in Yiddish, derived from the Czech) - is complicated and tedious, and special training is required to be able to do it properly. Since the Gid Ha'Na'sheh and most of the Chelev is found only in the hind quarters of the animal, the custom developed in most Jewish communities outside of Israel to eat only meat from the front of the animal, thereby avoiding the concerns of ensuring that all forbidden fats and nerves in the hindquarter are properly removed. Such an arrangement is feasible in countries where a large non-Kosher market exists, especially since the non-Kosher market considers meat from the hindquarter as more tender and desirable. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef zt"l, the first (and last) Chief Rabbi of New York City, instituted this custom in the United States in the late 1800's. Many of Rabbi Yosef's efforts to improve the standards of Kashrus in the New World were resisted by the established "Kosher" meat market, and went unappreciated in his lifetime. Indeed, the aggravation and calumny to which he was subjected brought him to an early death. His lasting achievement in this field, however, was the successful promulgation of the policy to avoid the use of the hindquarter, thus ensuring that issues of Gid Ha'Na'sheh and most of the Chelev in the animal would not pose a significant concern to the Kosher-observant community.
In Israel, where they do not enjoy the luxury of disposing of half of the animal to a non Kosher clientele, specially-trained M'nakrim (those trained in Nikkur) process the hindquarter for Kosher use. [The front section of the animal is still subject to a different type of Nikkur to remove the small amount of Chelev that it contains as well as certain large blood vessels, see below.]
Interestingly, the prohibition of Chelev applies only to domesticated animals ("B'hemos", such as beef and sheep. Wild species of Kosher animals ("Cha'yos"), such as deer, are not subject to the rules of Chelev, although they are subject to the Halachos of Gid Ha'Na'sheh. The status of the Chelev of buffalo is questionable, since a buffalo may be the "Koy" that Chazal consider a Sa'fek (questionable status) of B'hemah or Cha'yah (see Bi'kurim 2:8 and Tiferes Yisroel s.k. 38). As such, we are Machmir (stringent) to prohibit its Chelev since it may be a B'hemah, and to require Ki'suy Ha'Dam (the covering of the blood) since it may be a Cha'yah. [Kisuy Ha'Dam is a Mitzvah that applies when slaughtering Kosher birds and wild animals. Before beginning the Sh'chitah of these species, the Sho'chet places a layer of earth or sawdust on the floor, onto which the blood spilled during the Sh'chitah collects. After the Sh'chitah, the Sho'chet covers the blood with another layer of earth or sawdust, thereby fulfilling the Mitzvah. This Mitzvah does not apply, however, to the Sh'chitah of domesticated animals.]
The next step in the processing of Kosher meat is the Nikkur of the small amounts of Chelev in the front section of the animal (generally located on the ribs closest to the hindquarter, the diaphragm and liver), and the removal of free blood from the meat. The Torah prohibits us from eating blood, and we therefore take two approaches to ensure that free blood no longer remains in the meat. The first step is to remove all of the large arteries and veins, where the blood coagulates after slaughter, a process that is also referred to as Nikkur. [Bruised meat or other coagulated blood must also be removed.] The second step is to purge the meat itself from extraneous blood. This is generally accomplished by a process commonly known as Kashering. This process involves soaking the treibored meat in cool water for one half hour, covering it with coarse salt and letting it drain for one full hour, and then carefully rinsing it three times to remove all remaining salt. Halacha tells us that this process is sufficient to remove all prohibited blood, after which the meat can be cooked and eaten. An important consideration is that this type of Kashering must be done within three days of slaughter. After that point, the blood is considered to have dried to the point where it is too "set" in the meat to be removed through soaking and salting (see Y.D. 69:12). In situations where there is a need for meat to be kept for a longer period of time before Kashering, it may be soaked in water for half an hour before the three days have elapsed. This soaking of the meat serves to prevent the blood from setting, allowing for the three-day period to start again (a process that can be repeated, if necessary). Some authorities rule that, under certain circumstances, merely "washing" the meat is sufficient for this purpose (see Ta"Z, ibid., s.k. 33 and Aruch Ha'Shulchan, ibid., s.k. 77). Most authorities, however, do not rely on this opinion, and require a full soaking of the meat for half an hour. [The question of whether there is a three-day restriction on frozen meat is the subject of much discussion amongst Poskim (see Aruch Ha'Shulchan, ibid., s.k. 79 and Igros Moshe Y.D. II:42). Most Kashrus authorities, however, require the soaking and salting to take place within three days even if the meat is to be frozen.]
An alternative method of Kashering involves broiling the meat, a process that is not subject to the three-day restriction. From a practical perspective, however, the mass broiling of meat is not an efficient means of distributing the product, and virtually all commercially processed meat is Kashered by soaking and salting. In addition, meat that is Kashered by broiling after the three-day period may not be subsequently cooked. In cases where health considerations proscribe the use of salt, special arrangements can be made to Kasher meat by broiling. Broiling is, however, the only method by which liver can be Kashered, since liver contains too much blood for soaking and salting to be efficacious. [According to most opinions, broiled liver must be treated as broiled meat, and if not broiled within three days of Sh'chitah it may not be subsequently cooked.]
As we have seen, the processing of Kosher meat involves many more considerations than those involved in the processing of non-Kosher meat, from the type of animal chosen for Sh'chitah to the inspections and processing until it reaches the consumer. Indeed, the quality of Kosher meat and the products manufactured from it, is generally recognized as significantly higher than non-Kosher equivalents. While the horrors evoked by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle are thankfully no longer found in modern meat packing plants, many of the meat trimmings routinely used in non-Kosher sausage (e.g., ears, cheeks, esophagus linings) do not make their way into Kosher sausage due to the impracticality of maintaining their Kosher status in a Kosher meat plant. Kosher sausage contains only skeletal meat, and many non-Kosher consumers insist on Kosher product for this reason, despite its higher cost. The Torah tells us "tizbach v'achaltah ba'sar k'virkas Hashem E'lokecha" - "you shall slaughter and eat meat according to the blessing of Hashem" (D'varim 12:15). By working to maintain the highest standards of Kashrus in the meat we eat, we ensure that it is indeed the source of blessing that Hashem has intended.
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