This week's parashah reviews the animals whose meat is "kosher", that is, "proper" for consumption by those who seek to maintain the brit/covenant with God. It's a list that is familiar to many: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, buffalo . . .); water-bound creatures must have both fins and scales (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cod, scrod, tilapia, sea bass, trout . . . ); and birds must not be birds of prey (turkey, chicken, geese, ducks . . . ).
Clearly, those who commit to following the guidelines of kosher eating have plenty to eat!
When it comes to mammals and birds, however, meeting the criteria described in our Torah reading this week is not sufficient: in other words, a Big Mac, even without the cheese, is not kosher even though the burger is beef (meaning meat cut from a mammal with a split hoof that chews its cud). There is a further step that is required: kosher slaughter / shechita.
Kosher slaughter is designed to render the animal unconscious before it has time experience pain or panic from an inability to breath. In one forceful, smooth, pass of the knife, the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery, jugular veins and vagus nerve are all severed. In order to be certified as a "shochet", a ritual kosher slaughterer, people go through rigorous training and supervision before they are allowed to work on their own.
As the shochet stands before the animal to be slaughtered, he (usually he) recites the following blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.”
The shochet's blessing, our extra effort to locate and purchase kosher meat, the blessing we recite before we eat that meat ("Baruch atah Adonay, eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro." Blessed are You, Adonay our God, for everything exists by God's word.), are all meant to keep us mindful of the fact that a life God created has been sacrificed for our nourishment and pleasure.
These days, we find our meat packaged in neat little plastic packages: it is so easy to lose the connection between the ground beef in the package and the animal from which it was cut. (Hence, the cuts of beef chart, above.)
These days, we are inundated by packaging, advertising, expert advice of all kinds, all funded by huge food-producing corporations. How easy to fall into the trap of believing that cookies come from Nabisco, chips come from Wise and fish sticks comes from Gorton's . . . . our tradition, our framework of kosher eating keeps fresh in our minds the truth that our nourishment comes from God. Conagra, Kraft, all those huge food-producing corporations would be out of business without the nourishing plants and animals God placed on this earth to sustain us.
So, no, there is nothing anachronistic about the laws and observance of kosher eating . . . I'd say we need them now more than ever!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.