Friday, July 8, 2011

Shechitah: A Guide for Evolution

[Click here for this week's three-minute Toronto Torah video from our Beit Midrash]

We realized very late this week that we were missing an article for our weekly Toronto Torah, so I was enlisted to draft a quick piece. I'm posting it here because I know I have some Daf-learning readers who may enjoy the Chullin-related material, and because a disruption of my schedule like that requires that I save time somewhere - like by doubling it as a blog post:

One might be forgiven for thinking of shechitah (kosher slaughter) as a dry topic, mind-numbing in its emphasis on minutiae. Indeed, the sage Rav (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1) argued that the point is obedience, and there is no inherent value in those fine points. Rav said, "Why would G-d care whether one performed shechitah from the front or back of the neck? The mitzvot were only given in order to refine [G-d's] creations."

Others would disagree, though. Many chachamim, and particularly the mystics, have contended that the design of each element of a mitzvah involves deep arcana and is of cosmic importance. And beyond that, our masters and mentors, particularly among the chassidim, have attached ethical and moral lessons to the most dry legal codicils.

In a striking example, Rav Yaakov Yechezkel Greenwald, author of "VaYaged Yaakov" and Pupa Rebbe until his passing in 1941, taught lessons in personal evolution based upon the five central potential disqualifications in an act of shechitah:

Shehiyah (pausing)
Shechitah is disqualified if the shocheit pauses during the act. So, too, we who would improve ourselves must act with alacrity, not pausing and not allowing ourselves to be distracted. It is not for naught that we are encouraged, "Those who are energetic rush to perform mitzvot first." Or as Pirkei Avot warns, one should never stall and say he will study when he finds free time, for with such an attitude he will never have free time.

Derasah (pressing)
A shocheit must slice an animal's trachea and esophagus in a back-and-forth cutting motion; if he becomes impatient and presses down into the neck, the shechitah is disqualified. In the same vein, we must be on guard against impatience with our own growth. We are expected to learn patiently, taking time and making certain that we truly understand the Torah we study. Further, we are expected to work on our character and our intellect simultaneously; one who sacrifices his personal growth in pursuit of rapid intellectual growth is guilty of derasah, pressing and trampling upon important components of self-development.

Chaladah (tunneling)
The shechitah knife must be visible to the shocheit as he cuts; tunneling into the neck so that the knife is hidden from view disqualifies the shechitah. Similarly, we must make sure not to hide our self-improvement from the public. Legitimate concern for modesty, or for embarrassment, might grow and cause us to go underground with our growth, but our commitment to HaShem and to Torah must include pride in our beliefs. As the Tur wrote (Orach Chaim 1), "One must be bold like a leopard, and not reticent before those who would mock him." If all who are committed to Torah will plead modesty, the result will be a world devoid of visible Torah.

Hagramah (veering)
Shechitah must be performed within a specific vertical space along an animal's neck, and veering out of that space invalidates the shechitah. The same applies to our development - a Jew must recognize that certain sites are better suited for growth than others. Rabbi Akiva warned his son (Pesachim 112a) not to set up his studies in the town square, lest passersby distract him from his learning. Pirkei Avot instructs us, "Go into exile, to place of Torah study." For a practical example: Our homes are comfortable, certainly, but they are as filled with distractions as the town square; better to go to a beit midrash or shul to study.

Ikkur (uprooting)
There is some debate regarding the proper definition of ikkur; students of Daf Yomi will recall Rashi Chullin 9a and Rosh Chullin 1:13 as essential sources. Rav Greenwald chooses to explain ikkur as shechitah with a flawed knife, such that the trachea or esophagus is pulled rather than sliced. Comparing the act of shechitah with our actions of self-improvement, Rav Greenwald adjured us to aspire to flawlessness in our actions, since each defect will affect our results.

Rav Greenwald saw in shechitah and its laws a metaphor for the work we do in evolving our best selves, slaughtering our old identities and replacing them with a new and improved version of ourselves. Pairing energetic alacrity with patient care, being unabashedly public in our commitment, selecting our venues for growth wisely, and demanding a commitment to excellence at all times, we will perpetually create ourselves anew, each day better than the last.


  1. Nearly entirely cross-posted to Aspaqlaria, along with my gilding the lily.

    Also repeated on Avodah, but that hasn't reached the archive yet.

  2. Really good mussar post! Pretty good pun, too ('in that vein...').

    Thanks for sharing this.