by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
Kosher meat. Kosher meat is meat from a kosher animal that’s been slaughtered according to Torah instructions, checked for certain problems, had forbidden parts removed, then soaked and salted.
Kosher animal. Split hooves and chews it’s cud, meaning cow, buffalo, bison, deer, gazelle, antelope (there are a few others) – but generally today just cow. Or kosher fowl, identified by Torah and mesorah, including chicken, duck, goose, turkey, dove / pigeon, quail, and a few others – but generally today chicken and turkey.
Slaughtered per Torah instructions. A trained expert slaughterer performs the slaughter by a single razor sharp knife draw across the neck, causing instant death. A single nick on the knife that can cause any tearing of flesh (and accompanying pain to the animal) renders the slaughter invalid.
Forbidden parts removed. A few particular veins, nerves and fats are not permitted or are designated for donation to the Holy Temple (not currently in existence) only – and are therefore not permitted to be eaten. These parts must either be carefully removed, or a whole part of the animal simply avoided (common in industrial meat processing, selling the back half to non-Jews who have no such restrictions.)
Checked for certain problems. In regular kosher, certain organs are checked for disease or damage (the liver, the intestines, the stomach). If perforations or disease is found, the animal is not kosher. In glatt or mehadrin kosher, the lungs are also checked for tumors. If none are found, the animal is rated “halak”, the highest level of kosher. If small ones are found that can be removed and the lungs are not damaged in doing so (they remain whole and inflatable), the animal is “glatt/mehadrin kosher”. This is considered an extra stringency, a fence around the Torah, but has become the norm among the orthodox Jewish community over the last 40 years.
Soaked and salted. The Mishna directly describes the procedure for washing, soaking and salting the meat (for removal of blood, a forbidden food). The Gemora, Shulchan Aruch and Rema add details and timings to fully understand this procedure and it’s application.
There are concerns with the full industrialization of the Kosher meat industry. In past generations, the quality of the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, was the ultimate concern in the production of kosher meat. Why? Besides a mistake (such as improperly drawing the knife or improperly sharpening the knife) causing the loss of a chicken or a whole cow, if the shochet found a problem after slaughter (while checking the organs, for example) – then he has to inform the family or customer that his animal is not kosher and he’s up for a total loss.
Because of this, it was always critical that the shochet be Yira Shemayim, a religiously observant man with a fear of Heaven, meaning he would fear the sin of giving people non-kosher meat more than the loss of income or reputation from either stating a mistake or declaring an animal non-kosher after slaughter.
Today in industrial kosher meat production it’s not the shochet who checks. In assembly line fashion, one shochet prepares knives, one slaughters, one checks knives, one checks the outside of the animal (some cows are given surgeries to improve their health – that may render them non-kosher), one checks inside organs, one checks lungs. It is these shochet-bodkim, the ritual slaughterers that check for problems, who declare an animal non-kosher and must be Yira Shemayim.
Today there are various rumors of problems in the kosher meat industry. Word from experts doing the jobs is that most of these problems involve volume and corresponding pressure (to declare animals kosher). Production lines may run as fast as 50 – 100 cows per hour. When the lines are set up well, the workers are doing all the prep work, and multiple checkers have properly divided the work, a line can move up to 70 cows per hourly and still maintain glatt kosher standards.
If a line is moving faster than this and/or all the other factors aren’t aligned perfectly… then there is no way all the checks are being performed thoroughly.
The difference is between the glatt or mehadrin checks, which require extra thoroughness and extra time, and the regular kosher checks – which are more straightforward (though still require proper attention).
This means in cases where the rumors are true, in a reasonable percentage of the cows a consumer may end up with kosher instead of glatt kosher meat – according to the strictest halachic (Jewish law) definition.
The good news is, that’s what fences around the Torah are all about. That’s exactly why we apply extra stringencies such as glatt kosher – so when things don’t work out as well as they should…we’re still kosher!
The bad news is we expect better of our kosher meat producers. We expect when buying glatt kosher that we’re getting full glatt kosher standards, according to the strict definition (that’s what glatt kosher is all about) every single time.
Is this a real problem? My experts, some of the most experienced glatt kosher ritual slaughterers in the world, say absolutely yes. And it’s not some “weak” companies or brands or “weak” hashgachot (supervising agencies). But it’s not a problem, G-d forbid, of people being served non-kosher. By the standards of a few generations ago, our kosher products are of a good level and rarely face real questions of kosher versus treif (not kosher). Rather it’s kosher according to the strictest definition versus kosher according to a general or permissive definition.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant and demand better. The only way to keep the standards high and keep the pressure on for 100% compliance is to make sure the kosher providers know we expect it.
Be an informed customer. Ask your rav and ask the supervising agencies, are they supervising the volume and pressure on the shochetim (the ritual slaughterers) and the bodkim (the checkers)? Don’t be afraid to make some calls to make sure your kosher meat is the level you expect and are paying for. But also don’t freak out about some people with extreme opinions running around saying “it’s all treif, burn your pots!”