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Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism Concerning Food

 

17.  Ritual Slaughter of Animals

 

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

Ritual Slaughter of Animals

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

Sacrifices are to be eaten where the Lord's name will dwell (the Temple in Jerusalem). But those who live too far from there may slaughter animals as the Lord commanded and eat within their gates as much as they desire.[1]

 

When the Israelites conquer Canaan and the other lands that are to become the land of Israel, the Lord commands them to destroy all the places and objects of worship of the inhabitants so that they will not participate in idol worship (polytheism) or be invited by an idol worshiper to eat of his sacrifices.[2] (Editor’s note: This passage from Exodus is cited by Maimonides in concluding that ritual slaughter performed according to Israelite law by a heathen is not valid.)

 

 

Ritual Slaughter of Animals

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

Any animal or bird that is to be eaten, but not fish or flying insects, must be killed according to the specified procedures of ritual slaughter (shehitah).[3] The requirement for ritual slaughter is stated in Torah (Deuteronomy 12:21) where it says that animals of the herd and the flock shall be killed as the Lord commanded and as much as is desired eaten within a person’s gates. The detailed procedures of ritual slaughter were given to Moses and handed down in the Oral Law*, rather than in the Torah, so they need to be explained.[4]

 

Before performing ritual slaughter, it is necessary to recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.” However, if the blessing is not recited, it is still permitted to eat the meat.[5]

 

Ritual slaughter, which can be performed while the animal is either standing or lying down, is achieved by cutting the neck, preferably through the throat, back and forth with a knife.[6] The goal of the ritual slaughterer is to sever both the windpipe and the gullet, but if only the major portions of both the windpipe and gullet of an animal are cut through, the slaughter is still valid. For a bird, only one of these two passages has to be mostly cut through for the slaughter to be valid.[7] In order for a ritual slaughter to be valid, the cutting tool must be sharp, smooth and without even the smallest indentation. Acceptable cutting instruments include metal knives, flints, pieces of glass, reeds, nails and teeth.[8]

 

If a ritual slaughter is not valid, then the meat obtained from it is nebelah – the same as if the animal had died by itself. Therefore, as discussed on a previous page entitled An Animal that Died by Itself or was Torn by Other Animals, the punishment for eating a quantity of this meat the size of an olive is flogging.[9]

 

A ritual slaughter may be performed at any time of the day or night.[10] However, a person who intentionally performs ritual slaughter on the Sabbath is subject to the death penalty.[11] This is just a specific example of the general law that intentionally performing prohibited work witnessed by others on the Sabbath is to be punished by stoning to death[12] (but only if the person is warned, as discussed on a previous page, Forbidden Foods – General Rules). For slaughtering on the Day of Atonement, the punishment is flogging[13] though the general rule is that consequence of intentionally performing prohibited work on that day is excision (karet)[14] (which entails a flogging). If idolatry (polytheism) is the purpose of slaughtering an animal, then the death penalty, which is the general penalty for idolatry, applies.[15]

 

The slaughterer, unless on a ship, should not allow the blood to fall into the sea or a river because others might think that the slaughterer is worshipping water by making an offering to it. Similarly, allowing the blood to fall into a container of clear water might appear to others as an offering to the image in the water and is, therefore, to be avoided.[16] Slaughtering an animal in the name of a planet, star, mountain, river, sea or similar thing or with the intent of using its blood or fat as an offering to an idol, even if such intent arises only after the slaughter is completed, renders the slaughter invalid.[17]

 

A woman or a slave who is an expert on the procedure can perform a valid ritual slaughter,[18] as can a minor, a confused drunkard, an insane person or a deaf-mute, as long as the procedure is performed correctly as ascertained by a competent witness.[19] An apostate Jew who intentionally violates a commandment of the Torah may perform a valid ritual slaughter but not if that Jew is an idol worshiper (polytheist), someone who openly violates the Sabbath or someone who denies the validity of the Torah and the words of Moses.[20] If a ritual slaughter of an animal is performed by an idol-worshiping heathen it is invalid. The commandment in the Torah that the Israelites must destroy all the objects of worship of the people who they conquer in the promised Land of Israel so that the heathens will not invite an Israelite to eat their sacrifices (Exodus 34:15, cited on this page, above) is intended as a warning against eating animals slaughtered by heathens. The Sages expanded this prohibition and decreed that ritual slaughter even by a non-Jew who is not an idolater (such as a Muslim) is invalid.[21]

 

As discussed on a previous page, An Animal that Died by Itself or was Torn by Other Animals, it is forbidden by the Torah to eat meat that was torn from a living animal or bird by another animal. Moses was told by God at Sinai that this prohibited meat (terefah) is not limited to meat torn by other animals but includes meat from animals in eight categories, seven of which are not mentioned in the Torah. These eight categories are clawed (derusah), perforated (nekubah) in certain organs, missing (haserah) parts of a lung or a leg, removed (netulah) – missing certain body parts, split (pesukah) in a certain spinal cord membrane, torn (keru'ah) in a certain place, fallen (nefulah) so that an organ was crushed and fractured (sheburah) in certain bones.[22] Maimonides describes in great detail what each of these eight categories of prohibited terefah entails and what procedures to use to determine whether meat falls into any of these categories.[23]

 

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*The Oral Law and the Written Law are explained on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 

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Laws of Religion is a project of the Religion Research Society.

 

Updated October 16, 2016

 

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Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

●  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Deut 12:11-21

[2] Exod 34:11-15

[3] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 1 (pages 506M 259Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 3 (pages 506-508M 260Y)

[4] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 4 (pages 508M 260Y)

[5] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 2 (pages 506M 259Y)

[6] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 9 (pages 510M 261Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 2, sec 7 (pages 520M 266Y)

[7] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 9 (pages 510M 261Y)

[8] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 14 (pages 512M 262Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 19 (pages 512M 263Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 21 (pages 514M 263Y)

[9] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 2 on Forbidden Foods, Ma’achalot Assurot; Chapter 4, sec 1 (pages 316M 169Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 3, sec 18 (pages 536M 274Y)

[10] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 28 (pages 516M 264Y)

[11] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 29 (pages 516M 265Y)

[12] MT Book 3, The Book of Seasons, Sefer Zemanim; Treatise 1 on The Sabbath, Shabbat (Shabbos); Chapter 7, secs 1, 7 (pages 122-126, 130-132M 40,42Y)

[13] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 1, sec 29 (pages 516M 265Y)

[14] MT Book 3, The Book of Seasons, Sefer Zemanim; Treatise 3 on The Tenth of Tishri, Sh’vitat Asor; Chapter 1, secs 1-2 (pages 150-152M 257Y)

[15] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 12, sec 7 (pages 620M 313Y)

[16] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 2, secs 5-6 (pages 520M 266Y)

[17] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 2, secs 14-16 (pages 524M 268-269Y)

[18] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 4, sec 4 (pages 542M 277Y)

[19] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 2, sec 12 (pages 522M 268Y)

[20] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 4, sec 14 (pages 546-548M 278-279Y)

[21] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 2, sec 22 (pages 528M 270Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 4, secs 11-12 (pages 546M 278Y); see also MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 10 (pages 262-263Y)

[22] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 5, secs 1-2 (pages 550M 280Y)

[23] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 5, sec 4 (pages 552M 280Y) – Chapter 10, sec 10 (pages 608M 306Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 11, sec 1 (pages 610M 308Y); MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 3, Laws Concerning Shehitah (Shechitah, Ritual Slaughter); Chapter 11, sec 3 (pages 610M 308Y) – Chapter 11, sec 15 (pages 616M 311Y)