How humane is stunning an animal before slaughter?

September 9, 2019 / Leave a Comment

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The subject of kosher slaughter is one of those topics that have been widely debated in Europe since the 1930s. Animal rights groups have often spoken out against Jewish and Islamic slaughter (Halal), which they believe is cruel and barbaric.

Among the newest regions to come out against kosher slaughtering, two states in Belgium now insist that any kind of ritual slaughtering must first stun the animal before it is killed. The European Union held that the animal ought to be unconscious by the time it is slaughtered, to minimize its pain.

From an ethical view, both Jews and Muslims stress the importance of minimizing animal suffering. Most Orthodox rabbinical certification organizations have long maintained the view that no form of stunning may take place before slaughtering the animal. Most Halal authorities agree, but some scholars allow nonpenetrative stunning before slaughter.

Both religious communities argue that stunning does not destroy the brain tissue, but it does stop its functioning. Jewish law does not specifically prohibit this, but the consensus of most Jewish scholars is that stunning kills the animals most times, which would render the animal “nevelah,” which is an animal that had died from natural causes, which cannot be consumed by Kosher observant people.

While there is no direct prohibition against this in Judaism, most Jewish authorities do not accept this method.  This is most likely because the stunning is done in such a way that it actually kills the animals in many instances.  There are various modes of stunning.  Electric shock is commonly used in slaughtering pigs and poultry.  Jewish authorities have disapproved of this method for several reasons.

*        It is debatable how “painless” this method actually is.

*       Logistically, this method would dramatically slow down the process of kosher slaughter, resulting in a much higher cost for kosher meat

*        Electric -shock is a potential danger for workers at the plant

*         The use of chemical agents or gas could toxify the meat, rendering it too expensive for consumption.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons why stunning is frowned upon is because the Nazis spearheaded this attempt during the 1930s under the guise of “protecting animals,” but in reality their motivation was to cripple the Jewish community.

Given the return of anti-Semitism in Europe today, it is difficult  not to say this too is a veiled attack against both Jews and Muslims under the guise of humanitarian concerns for animals.

Despite these objections, it is important to note that one of the premier Orthodox scholars of his time, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, (Author Of Seridei Esh. 1884-1966); whose name still evokes only the highest admiration among Haredi and non-Haredi Jews, made the case that stunning is “theoretically” permitted. He was the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of the Hildesheimer Seminary of Berlin during the days of the Nazis.

The German and other European rabbis debated this topic. In one letter, Weinberg sought to form a consensus and thought the rabbis would permit it. However, Rabbi Chaim Ozer beat him to the punch and prohibited it. In short, R. Yechiel Weinberg did not wish to sow contention within the Jewish community and so he opted to remain silent on this matter.

Truthfully , if done properly, kosher slaughter is no worse than any other method of slaughter. But there was a time when the animals had to be shackled by chains, and this practice often resulted in making the animals trefeh (unkosher) because of broken bones. Dangling on these chains ten feet in the air can frighten animals into harming themselves.

Fortunately, because of the outcry of Jews wishing a more humane method, a special pen was made where the animal remained on the ground level. I have seen these pens, when I once studied to be a shochet after my ordination in New York, 1976. Fortunately, in July 2018, the largest U.S. kosher certifier announced that it would no longer accept meat slaughtered with the “shackle and hoist” method. The Orthodox Union (O.U.) told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that it expects that all slaughterhouses to be certified by the O.U.

The issues regarding stunning remains too complex to answer. We still don’t have a definition of death that everyone can agree to. Anti-Semitism is making a comeback in Europe and elsewhere across the world.

A personal note:

I recall taking part in an international animal rights conference and I was asked about ethics regarding kosher slaughter.

At the time, I pointed out that: “From an animal’s perspective, there is no such thing as a painless way to slaughter animals. Many non-kosher slaughter houses still club animals to death in this country. If you wish to be compassionate toward animals, do the animals a favor—refrain from eating meat.”

Now when laboratory-made meat is  a reality, perhaps we will live to see the words of the prophet Isaiah become true, “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9).

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

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