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Thoughts on becoming a shochet

Thanks to Andrew Kastner for this powerful guest post on his decision to train to be a shochet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer. It’s easy to talk in the abstract about getting in touch with one’s food, but significantly more difficult to actually take the responsibility of doing so into our own hands….

Earlier this year, I began training to be a shochet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer. As a rabbinical student who is passionate about culinary traditions, I felt that I was profoundly disconnected from the source of my food. Influenced by Maimondes’ dictum, which states, “Anyone who desires to eat meat must take the responsibility to procure it”, I felt that the challenge, though daunting, could help me relate to my food and the source of life in a more meaningful way.

After weeks of studying Jewish legal codes relating to schitah, the rabbi informed our small group that he would be bringing a few chickens to our next class. Later that week when we met, the rabbi opened the cardboard box holding three young birds.

The rabbi showed us the proper way to hold the bird and then asked me to be the first student to perform schitah. The encounter happened so quickly, a small incision was made, and then in my hands, I felt the life of the chicken depart. The intensity of the experience caused me to cry. At first I felt guilty; facing the responsibility of taking this creature’s life was a heavy weight to burden. But I believed that continuing to train as a shochet would be a model for me to do teshuvah, a return to the source of life and connect me to my food in a more meaningful way.

That night, still shaken, I prepared Shabbat dinner for my wife and me. I was apprehensive to eat this kosher chicken, which for the first time, I had brought to our table by my hands. Having signed up for a local CSA (community supported agriculture) earlier in the year, we decided to serve our bird with the greens and vegetables that we had pickup up from the farm the day before. To us, the meal seemed clean; the growers, procurers and consumers having been more closely connected than usual in this age of global commerce and industrialized food. I felt a deep sense of holiness eating this Shabbat meal and a heightened gratitude that I wanted to share with my community.

I believe that food is a means to help us cultivate a consciousness of the moment. As I continue my training as a rabbi and practice as a shochet, my goal is to bring people closer to what they eat, helping to frame their relationship with Jewish significance.

Andrew Kastner is a third year student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

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18 Responses to “Thoughts on becoming a shochet”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Thank you, Andrew, for sharing this post (and thank you to JCarrot for publishing it.) I’m moved by your description of your response to your first experience performing schitah.

    I know that when we eat food from our CSA I feel strengthened in a sense of holy connection to the land where we live and the community we live in. I wish you that same blessing in your journey toward becoming a shochet (and a rabbi!)

  2. Adam Says:

    Thanks for your post. It’s holy work you’re doing: getting to the source, sanctifying food, cultivating gratitude.

  3. Tovah Says:

    Really enjoyed this post – Thanks.

  4. Judith Gottesman Says:

    Sorry, but as someone who believes it is our duty as Jews to protect all of God’s creatures which is why my vegetarianism is part of my kashrut, I find this whole article incredibly disturbing. It’s horrifying to me to see how people can justify and numb themselves to such senseless killing of innocent creatures, and even go as far as to deem them holy acts.

  5. Jonathan Bornstein Says:

    I am a member of Rav Weiss’s kehilah in Riverdale. I have been giving thought about learning shechita. How does a lay person go about it?

    JABornstein at Gmail dot com

  6. Avrum Shaprio Says:

    I really appreciate what you are learning , as so many Jewish people depend on Rabbonim for Shilot,(questions)that only Wisdom from our forefathers and G-D, has provided. The Gift of eating Meat was given to us By the Allmighty, for our use, ofcourse not to abuse but use the most Humane way possible with utmost care and thought. May HaShem Bless you and your Family.

  7. Jim Says:

    How old are you? All of the stories I’ve read of Shochets never mention when they began their training. How long does the training last? What is the youngest you have ever heard of someone beginning such training. Please contact me at dagan75@hotmail.com

  8. Julian Says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is all too easy to become detached from our food. I am 46 an can remember, as a boy, standing with my father Z”l as he koshered our meat and my grandmother Z”l as she explained that the fully formed egg inside the chicken was meaty and had to be “koshered” too.

    My children have seen none of these things since the London Beth Din require All meat to be koshered before sale. Reading about it in a book is not the same.

    One of my teachers, who was also a shochet told us that the day he didn’t feel affected by what he was doing he would stop performing shechitah.

  9. David Wharton Says:

    Andrew,
    I thank you for the sharing of your experience with us. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my respect for The Chosen People and the Traditions are most deep.
    I am endeavoring to begin a farming tradition, and am most respectful of the Kosher tradition. As this will be a small operation, I will more closely be able to manage the livestock selection and development.
    Your expression of your feelings after performance of this duty are greatly appreciated.
    May the God of Abraham richly bless you
    David

  10. Joel Says:

    I am a Jewish farmer in northern WI and would like to find a way to process my animals for kosher consumption. I, unlike the author of this piece, would like to find someone else to do the shchita. I think the Jewish community should be encouraging of more people to study to become shochets because I am unable to find anyone to assist me. I am also in agreement with the author that we are all too far removed from the raising and slaughtering of animals and the issues that are seen with poor quality meat and misstreatment of animals are most certainly affecting the kosher market as well as the non-kosher. If anyone reading this can help me find a way to help I would appriciate a reply joel@jjwservices.com

  11. Yisraela Says:

    I really appreciate Andrew’s experience, from the intesive learing, the practical application, the tears, and eating with the farm produce. How can we possibly understand our ancestors if we do not strenghthen our physical relationship with the earth and that The Holy One, Blessed be He, provides us. This gives us true authenticity, especially when so filled with the kavannah that Andrew is. As a woman who would like to shecht my own chickens, I envy the education you are getting.

  12. Elana Meyer Says:

    We agree with your article and we share your enthusiam for the highest quality, humanly raised meat. We are searching for a shochet that would travel to Portland Oregon. We have grass fed sheep and cattle. Thank you. Elana Meyer

  13. Andy Kastner Says:

    It has been a number of months since I have checked this post and I was so touched to find such thoughtful comments.

    Elana, I would be happy to try and help you find a shochet who can travel to Portland. Feel free to contact me at andrewkastner@hotmail.com

    Many blessings,
    Andy

  14. Kimberly Says:

    My husband and I have a small sheep farm in Maine. We honor our animals and would like to find a shochet to assist us with our “harvest” of lambs in the fall 2010. We are Christians, but I try to maintain our diet according to God’s laws in the Old Testatment, because I beleive that he gave us these laws to protect us and keep us healthy. I want no part us the slaughter house processes in this area. I invite anyone who might have insight or knows of a shochet in Maine to please contact me. Thank you.

  15. Alexander Says:

    See this link for (reportedly) translations of excerpts of Rav Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook’s letters regarding Schechita. You probably have seen it, but if not, I think you will appreciate it. http://orot.com/shehitah.html
    Kol Hakavod

  16. Amy Says:

    Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your first experience with shechita.

    The sad truth is that we subject our poultry to unspeakable treatment from the day they’re hatched. Five years ago we made the decision to keep laying hens of our own. After any considering person has witnessed what hens do – squabbling, scratching, spreading their wings, dust bathing, rolling and preening – it is virtually impossible to think about them spending the entire course of their lives in an 18″ cage, unable to spread their wings or roll over.

    I applaud your decision to take a responsible and ethical stand on eating animals. For a variety of reasons, the answer is not to stop eating meat, but to engage in responsible animal husbandry – providing our beasts with a good life as well as a good death. Kashrut demands that we consider both factors.

  17. Eunice Says:

    I am so grateful to find an account of kosher slaughter that is not both sensationalism and anti-Semitism.

    When I was a little girl I watched my uncle slaughter about 6 calves at a time for a kosher market. He was very careful that the animals were not upset; he insisted that I stay well away from the kill floor so that the calves would not be anxious or frightened.

    When the calves had been led in and were accustomed to standing in their assigned spot, he walked from behind the calf, up to the head and made a quick cut. He then walked around to the back of the next calf, up to the head, and made a quick cut.

    The calves made no sound; they did not even flinch. They continued chewing their cuds. I noticed that soon their eyelids seem to become heavy; they kneeled down, still chewing, and eventually laid their heads down as if in sleep.

    After allowing sufficient time for death, he hung them up by their hind feet to continue draining the blood and to began the normal procedure for slaughtering an animal.

    To me, this is the intended method for kosher slaughter. I believe that greed has caused the process to be speeded up so that, while it may actually obey the letter of the law, it defies the spirit of the law.

  18. Karen Says:

    Hello Andrew, my husband is from a long line of butchers (shochet). His greatgrand father was a Shochet in Germany but eventually because of the dangers of the environment of Anti-semitisim, they became secular but continued with generations of butchers in the method of kosher slaughter. They had there own meat market until the late 1980′s. My husband grew up with this way of life but decided it wasn’t for him as the huge meat plants took over. He went on to a different career and to college. Now he is very interested in learning to be a Shochet an believes he needs to do this for himself, G-d and his family. How does he do this since he is not a Rabbi.
    Thank you
    Karen

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