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Why Jewish ritual slaughter bans are unnecessary — and harmful to Jewish life

Greece’s interference with ritual butchering methods could decimate its already small Jewish population.

An Orthodox rabbi checks his knife in a kosher slaughterhouse in Csengele, Hungary, on Jan. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)

(RNS) — Yet another country has enacted a law that will greatly burden its Jewish citizens.

Following a decision last December by the European Court of Justice that European Union member countries are not precluded “from imposing an obligation to stun animals prior to killing,” Greece has banned shechita, the Jewish ritual method of slaughtering animals and poultry for food.

Shechita involves the swift severing of the trachea, esophagus and major blood vessels in the neck, and must be done to a live, physically uncompromised animal. Pre-slaughter “stunning,” purported to be a humane practice, involves either gassing, administering a strong electric shock or shooting an iron bolt into an animal’s skull — intended to render the animal senseless.

When performed before shechita (or, according to some Muslim authorities, before dhabīḥah, the essentially identical Islamic counterpart of shechita), such stunning renders the animal nonkosher (or nonhalal). 

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Ironically, the EU court’s move came on the heels of the political union’s release of a document titled “EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life (2021-2030).” The 46-page paper, amid other measures, reiterated the union’s recommendation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in education and teacher training.

Significantly, though, despite its aim of “fostering Jewish life,” the document made no mention at all of shechita bans, one of the most important bars to allowing Jewish communities to exist, much less thrive. 

Several EU countries — Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Slovenia — and some Belgian regions require stunning animals before slaughter. (The Netherlands and Poland had imposed such bans but reversed them on the grounds of religious freedom; Poland retains its ban for meat intended for export). 

And now, Greece has joined the club.

There are only a few thousand Jews living in Greece today, but depriving them of kosher meat has the potential to decimate even that small population. And it will certainly dishearten those Jews and make them feel that their religious needs are unimportant to their government.

Which is arguably true. Western European countries, despite their sensitivity to animal welfare, have had no restrictions on shechita since the end of World War II. (During the war, Germany and all the countries under Nazi occupation banned shechita entirely.) They recognize the importance of “ritual slaughter” to their Jewish and Muslim communities and value religious rights.

As does the United States, which not only permits shechita but has actually codified the fact of its humane nature in federal law. The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act of 1978 not only permits shechita but also states explicitly that it is a humane method of slaughter.

And humane it is. Judaism forbids causing animals gratuitous pain. 

Shechita immediately deprives the brain of blood, effectively rendering the animal unconscious. An article, “Physiological Insights into Shechita,” published in the British peer-reviewed journal Veterinary Record on June 12, 2004, concludes that “after a review of the physiological issues involved and the experimental data, it is submitted that shechita is a painless and effective method by which to … dispatch an animal in one rapid act.”

The famed animal handling expert Temple Grandin wrote of shechita that “the animals don’t even feel the super-sharp blade as it touches their skin. They made no attempt to pull away.”

And so, the enactment of pre-stunning requirements is not only onerous to Jews who observe kosher laws, it is scientifically unwarranted. 

In the wake of the recent Greek Supreme Court ruling, the chairman of the European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based group representing hundreds of communities across Europe, noted how some of the same countries that have pledged to protect their Jewish communities from antisemitism have no problem depriving those communities of kosher meat. Laws and decisions like the Greek one, he said, constitute “rank hypocrisy.”

Pascale Falek, a European Commission official who was involved in promoting the EU’s combating antisemitism strategy paper, said that she can “understand” Jewish concerns and that “the European Commission and the European Union as a whole need to find a balance between freedom of worship” and other concerns, including animal welfare.

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That balance, though, is not a difficult one to strike, as the laws of England, Spain, Germany, Canada, Mexico and other countries, among them the United States, evidence. Because there is simply no challenge to animal welfare posed by the practice of shechita.

What is undeniably challenged, though, is Jewish life, by the imposition of rules that are unnecessary and that inevitably result in preventing law-abiding citizens, by simple virtue of their practice of their faith, from living normal lives. 

And being prejudicially and unjustifiably portrayed as less concerned than their fellow citizens with animal suffering.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization. He blogs at The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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