"For centuries, it was not uncommon practice in Europe to torture animals before slaughter, beating them with knotted ropes and even skinning them alive, in the belief that this would improve the flavor of the meat." (Diane Ackerman, "A Natural History of the Senses," page 147 – This was cited in "The Vision of Eden" which also cites other examples of cruel slaughter of animals in other parts of the world.
The classical Kabbalistic work, "The Palm Tree of Devorah" by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero states: "One should not uproot plants unless they are needed or kill animals unless they are needed. And one should choose a humane manner of death for them using a carefully inspected knife, in order to be as compassionate as possible" (chapter 3). The humane manner of death he is referring to is the Torah's mitzvah of "shechitah" - the taking of the animal's life through a carefully designed method which is very quick and which is designed to avoid tzaar baalei chayim - causing needless suffering to living creatures.
The Sefer Ha-Chinuch, a classical work on the mitzvos states: "The reason for shechitah being done at the throat and with an inspected knife is in order not to cause needless suffering to living creatures (Mitzvah 451).
A number of years ago, an elderly rabbi in my Jerusalem synagogue - a Holocaust survivor - told me the following story: He grew up in a rural area of Czechoslovakia among non-Jewish peasants, and when a Christian holiday was approaching, the peasants would gather pigs and slowly torture them to death with an inserted, twisting knife in each pig, as they had a tradition that this slow process improved the flavor of the meat. The howling of the suffering pigs could be heard at a great distance; thus, on the days of the slaughter, the Jewish families in the area would stay in their homes and close their windows, as they could not bear to hear the cries of the suffering pigs. These Jewish families abhorred such cruelty; moreover, their own tradition has a number of mitzvos which require them to avoid or alleviate tzaar baalei chayim.
The Ramban, in his commentary on Genesis 1:29, explains that the carefully designed method of shechitah enables us to avoid tzaar baalei chayim. The Ramban adds that the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim is ordained by the Torah; thus, we recite the following blessing before shechitah:
"Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who has commanded us regarding shechitah."
A leading sage and halachic authority known as the Chasam Sofer, explains the words of the Ramban in the following manner: When we take an animal's life for food, we say a blessing of thanksgiving for the mitzvah which requires us to do this in a compassionate manner. (Chasam Sofer, Responsa, Orach Chayim 54 – cited in the notes of the ArtScroll edition of the Ramban's commentary)
More information on shechitah is available in "The Vision of Eden" – a book by Rabbi David Sears which presents a Torah perspective on animal welfare and vegetarianism. This book also cites scientific studies which indicate that shechitah is the most humane method of killing animals.
Dr. Temple Grandin is an expert on animal welfare who is greatly respected in animals rights circles, and although she has been very critical of some of the modern methods of treating animals just before slaughter, she respects the guiding principles of the ancient method of shechitah. A Jerusalem Report article about her views by David Cohen states:
"An occasional meat-eater herself ('I need the protein'), Grandin has no problem with the guiding principles of kosher slaughter, which dictate that the cattle be killed with a sharp knife, causing a quick death with no pain. Properly administered, she has written, any slaughter plant is 'much gentler than nature,' where animals die from starvation, predators, or exposure." (Jerusalem Report, June 13, 2005)
The Jerusalem Report also mentions that when Dr. Grandin, who is not Jewish, was holding an animal that was undergoing shechitah in a restraint chute that she helped design, she said, "I felt an overwhelming sense of peacefulness, as if God had touched me through the sacredness of the ancient ritual" (Ibid).
The source for the mitzvah of shechitah is found in the following words:
"You may slaughter from your cattle and your flocks that Hashem has given you, in the way I have commanded you" (Deuteronomy 12:21).
The verse states that Hashem commanded us to slaughter the animal in a specific way, but the instructions on how to do this procedure are not mentioned within the text, for they are part of the Oral Torah – the Divine explanations which were given to Moses and which Moses taught to the People of Israel. As "The Vision of Eden" states: "The instructions to which the verse alludes to were taught to the entire nation of Israel by Moses at Mount Sinai, and have been preserved through an unbroken chain of transmission down to the present day." This serves as an example of how we need the Oral Torah in order to fully understand the Written Torah.
The Torah gives human beings limited dominion over the earth and its creatures; thus, human beings are permitted to use the earth, its plants, and its creatures for their needs; however, this use must be in accordance with the guidelines of the Torah which are designed to prevent needless exploitation of the earth, and to prevent needless suffering to other creatures.
The People of Israel were also commanded to further limit this dominion on "Shabbos" – the Sacred Seventh Day. For example, we cannot plow or harvest on Shabbos; in fact, we cannot take a leaf off a tree. In addition, we cannot cause our animals to work on Shabbos, as they are to experience restful contentment on this sacred day. It is also forbidden to take the life of any creature on Shabbos, unless that creature is posing a life-threatening danger. For the observance of Shabbos is one of the ways in which we proclaim to the world the following message:
"To the Compassionate One belongs the earth and its creatures, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it" (Psalm 24:1 – Targum).
Have an Uplifting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Regarding human dominion, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: "His mission is not to make them all entirely subservient to him. The earth and its creatures may have aspects that are beyond the sphere of his control, and in these respects they serve their own purpose." (Commentary on Gen. 1:26)
2. In "The Vision of Eden," Rabbi David Sears writes: "The humane handling of livestock immediately prior to slaughter is also required by halacha. For example, an animal should not be slaughtered in the sight of another animal, and restraining the animal should be done as carefully as possible." As Rabbi Sears reminds us, Jewish tradition requires that the "shochet" – the one performing the act of shechitah – be a person of good moral character who reveres Hashem, and who has demonstrated mastery over all the relevant laws and procedures of shechitah.
3. Rabbi Sears also discusses the methods used in modern factory farming – a system which began in the United States – and he explains why some of these methods are not in harmony with the teachings of our own tradition. As Rabbi Sears points out, the Jewish people did not invent this vast system, nor do we control it. And I would like to point out that we are not the main consumers, as we are only a tiny fraction of one percent of the world's population, and in the United States, we are slightly less than 3% of the population. Nevertheless, most of us are connected to modern society and its food industry, and we therefore need to be aware of the problems; moreover, we should support solutions or alternatives that are in harmony with the teachings of our Torah.