Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it more humane to stun animals before slaughter?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: We’ve always bought kosher meat but my teenage son says it surely must be better to stun animals before slaughter and rabbis ought to adapt practices to modern times.  What is the best way to respond to him? 

Rabbi Naftali Brawer: In common parlance the word treif is applied to anything that is not kosher. Pork and shellfish for example are treif, as is a kitchen or a restaurant in which non-kosher items are prepared and cooked. The original meaning of the word, however, relates to one specific area of kashrut, that the animal be healthy and uninjured at the time of slaughter. 

The word treifah literally means “torn” and the term is found in Exodus 22:30. The Mishnah delineates numerous diseases and blemishes that render an animal a treifah (Chulin 3).  

After an animal is ritually slaughtered, a specially trained bodek, or examiner, will cast a critical eye over the butchered carcass to determine that there are no internal aliments that might render the animal treif. A perforated lung, for example, would render the entire carcass treif. In such a case, the carcass would then be sold on to a non-kosher meat supplier, often at a loss. 

This is one of the reasons why kosher meat is so expensive. Adhesions on the lung are somewhat more complicated in halachah, which is why some prefer to only eat glatt meat. Glatt means “smooth” in Yiddish and it refers to a lung or other internal organ without even a hint of a blemish. 

This background is important for understanding the issues relating to stunning animals before slaughter. Stunning an animal by firing a captive bolt into the brain or by electric shock is likely to render the animal treif by causing damage to its brain. Such methods cannot be used to produce kosher meat.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that the use of an anaesthetic gas prior to slaughter would not in theory be problematic as there is no requirement for the animal to be conscious at the time of slaughter. However, such gassing is also known to cause distress to animals in the 30 or so seconds that it takes for them to lose consciousness. 

The underlying assumption is that stunning is a more humane way of killing an animal. But this is not necessarily the case. Often stunning is ineffective the first time around and the animal must then be subjected to it all over again. Shechita severs the trachea, the jugular veins, the oesophagus and the carotid arteries all in a single swift cut. The rapid loss of blood renders the animal unconscious almost immediately.

Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation


Rabbi Jonathan Romain: He may be right.

It is noticeable that when kashrut is detailed in Leviticus chapter 11, no reason is given for it. Nor is there any mention of how the slaughter should take place. It is only subsequent rabbinic tradition which outlines the method we now call shechita and it is only there that the suggestion arises that one of motives for kashrut is causing the least possible pain to animals.

This principle is a noble one and underlies the Jewish approach, and there is no doubt that shechita has been far superior to other methods of animal slaughter for centuries.

However, as the ethics of wider society caught up with Jewish tradition, there have been instances where we have changed our methods to maintain the principle of minimising animal distress in the light of modern perspectives. A prime example occurred some 30 years ago during the outcry over the harness regularly used for shechita, which turned cows upside down in the abattoir. It may have been easier to slit their neck that way, but it was unnatural and frightening for the cows to be hoisted in the air and turned on to their back. 

The then Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, responded by banning the device, arguing that it was just a process and not intrinsic to the principle of kashrut, while the feelings of animals had to be considered.

A religious crossroads is looming in the distance, for which we have to prepare. The various methods of stunning have not yet been perfected. Sometimes they are very effective and save animals pain, sometimes they either do not work or are administered wrongly, leaving animals immobile but conscious, and even more terrified. 

There is not yet incontrovertible evidence that stunning is better than shechita, but if (or, rather, when) that times comes, we will need to weigh the moral principle of animal welfare against methods that may be centuries old, but might no longer be as validly Jewishly as before.

In that case, we should say the insistence an animal be healthy and free from blemish applies immediately before slaughter, which includes pre-stunning. This would allow Jews to both keep an important ritual observance and maintain their ethical integrity. Failure to take that step would cause a very uncomfortable chasm between the two. It would also guard against shechita being subject to attempts to prohibit it legally. 

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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