‘Cutting edge’ shechita classes support charitable initiative

Participants in a Skype class on shechita — slaughter of animals according to the laws of kashrut — watch and listen via Skype (running on the laptop in foreground at right) to Rabbi Chaim Loike, a rabbinic coordinator with the Orthodox Union in New York. The class meets once a week at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. Those learning shechita plan to be able to donate their services to provide kosher meat to financially distressed, observant families in the area. From left are Jerry Esrig, Mickey Ariel, Ethan Schuman, Dan Vianello (in background), Rabbi Howard Graber and Buddy Adler.

BY ELAINE K. ALEXANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“Cutting-edge plus cutting edge.” That’s how Dr. Ethan Schuman describes a new initiative for nine local men to learn — via Skype, an online videoconference program — how to slaughter livestock according to kashrut, Jewish dietary law.

The class meets for about one hour each week over an eight-month period at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion in Olivette.  The men taking part in the course (shechita by women is untraditional, but not explicitly proscribed) plan to donate their services and the cost of the livestock to financially distressed, observant families in the local community.  

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The classes are being taught by Rabbi Chaim Loike, a rabbinic coordinator with the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union of New York.  Schuman, a local dentist who lives in Olivette and already has prior training in shechita, will conduct classes for the local students with knives and sharpening stones.

During a recent class, Schuman and others were scrunched in an entryway at NHBZ, watching Rabbi Loike on the screen of a laptop set on a chair in front of them. Using Skype, class participants are able to hear Loike and see him on a computer screen, and Loike is simultaneously able to see and hear them in the OU’s offices in New York City.

Schuman, who has for 10 years been the hazzan (cantor) at NHBZ, initiated the program after noticing the efforts of a local donor-activist who regularly helps feed a group of underprivileged, Orthodox families. “People are hungry, and I thought of organizing cash donations,” says Schuman, “but then I did the arithmetic.” To provide two chicken meals for a dozen or so indigent families over Shabbat (when for an Orthodox person it is a mitzvah to eat meat), the weekly cost would be about $360. But most of the cost of a chicken ready for the kosher kitchen is in the multiple stages of preparation: the shechita, the salting and soaking process to remove all traces of blood, and the packaging and labeling—all under qualified supervision. 

Schuman realized that training local residents how to dispatch and process fowl to be frozen and distributed later to impoverished families would be a more feasible alternative.

 

Navigating the complexity 

of kashrut

It is important that the shokhet, the person who dispatches livestock for the kosher table, be rigorous in his choice of animals. In addition to his expertise in shechita, Loike’s specialty is in the identification of kosher birds or fowl. He was drawn into the study of kashrut and kosher birds while a student at Yeshiva University, when he successfully applied for a grant to videotape and otherwise record elder authorities, most of them then in their 90s, on identification of kosher birds. (In general, laments Loike, during the last half-century, because of the Shoah, a vast body of knowledge about kosher-permissible livestock has been ebbing away.)

Identifying kosher birds is complex. In the Torah, 24 species of birds are explicitly forbidden. But by the time of Maimonides, the iconic 13th century scholar of Jewish law, Judaism had lost the ability to match these names to actual species. Meanwhile, the Torah gives no conceptual guide for birds comparable to the “must have scales and fins” for water animals or “must have split hooves and chew its cud” for those on land. 

It is subsequent texts including the Talmud, the Shulkhan Arukh and the writings of the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, which have become references on bird anatomy relative to kashrut.

With birds, there is a general taboo against a doraesse—which roughly translates as “predator”— a bird that can stand on or lift its food to its beak with its feet to take bites of a live animal. 

As is clear from Loike’s lectures and the 800-page text he has provided to the St. Louis class, God and kashrut are in the details. Internal anatomy counts more than outward appearance. A bird’s name cannot be trusted for identification beyond a particular geographic locale. And one kind of a species, for instance, quail (and its eggs) will be kosher and another will be taboo.

Most critical is a community’s mesora, a tradition either to permit or forbid a certain kind of bird. Loike relates that in European communities, it was traditional for Jews to have an annual meal of exotic fowl, purely for the purpose of preserving the mesoras.

 

Looking to do good 

Before enlisting Rabbi Loike to teach the classes by Skype, Schuman gained the approval of local, Orthodox clergy: Rabbi Avi Bloch (chief shochet of St. Louis), Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt (Agudas Israel of St. Louis), Rabbi Yosef Landa (regional Chabad director), Rabbi Hyim Shafner (Bais Abraham), Rabbi Moshe Shulman (Young Israel), Rabbi Ze’ev Smason (NHBZ), Rabbi Aaron Winter (Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha Congregation), and Rabbi Zvi Zuravin (executive director of the Vaad Hoeir).

Among class participants are Andrew Adler, a freshman at Crossroads College Preparatory School, who is taking the class with his father Irving “Buddy” Adler; Dr. Robert Hellman, an anesthesiologist at the Surgery Center of Belleville, Ill.; and Dr. Michael Ariel, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, all of Young Israel congregation.

Until he is 18 years old, Andrew will be only be able to practice shechita with supervision. But he is eager to complete the classes. “For only one hour a week,” he said, “look how much good you can do.” 

Hellman sees kosher meat as a significant aspect of kashrut and is interested to delve into this extensive, but largely unknown body of Jewish knowledge. 

Schuman—who has gone on missions to struggling Jewish communities in Cuba, Kenya and Romania where he has served as shokhet — stresses that within a Jewish community a shokhet holds a position of “great trust.” Because shechita requires meticulous attention to detail, the shokhet often works side-by-side with a second who helps in observance of kosher law. For least possible sensation to the animal, the knife must be continuallly inspected for flaws in the cutting edge. After the animal has been dispatched, it must be examined to verify its health. The shokhet must be a shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant, literally: guardian of the Sabbath) and should regard the Torah as holy scripture.  If the shokhet or a vendor is known to have falsely represented meat as kosher—even once—he is considered to have forever broken faith with kashrut.