That the role of a modern rabbi in the Western World is far different than that of the rabbi of Eastern Europe is rather obvious. The typical 19th century Polish rabbi, for example, did little pastoral work, did not deliver sermons, raise money for the shul, nor officiate at bar-mitzvas. His time was primarily taken up with learning, teaching and paskening shailot, answering halachic queries[1], something many modern-day rabbis have little time for[2]

But even in areas of Jewish law, much has changed. When my grandmother, z”l, had a shailah regarding a chicken, she (had the zechut) to take the chicken to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l. He, she would often tell me, would spend a few minutes in friendly chatter, before paskening for her. I imagine most people reading this devar Torah have never had a shailah on a chicken, and surely have never kashered one. Yet old habits die hard. 

When I studied for semicha, we began with hilchot shechitah, the laws of slaughtering animals. While kashrut was at one time the bread-and-butter of the local rabbi, it is for many rabbis of today a rather minor part of their work, with most aspects of kashrut  being dealt with long before the food reaches the kitchen. Of course, for the 19th century rabbi, there was little need to learn hilchot gerut, the laws of conversion, and questions regarding technology and Shabbat were the stuff of science fiction[3]

Yet with Daf Yomi reaching masechet Chulin, it is time to begin once again with hilchot shechitah. “Hakol shochtin, all can slaughter and their slaughter is good with the exception of a cheresh, one who is developmentally delayed[4]; a shoteh, a mentally ill person; and a katan, a minor. And anyone who slaughtered with others watching over him, it is a kosher slaughter” (Chulin 2a). 

The Mishna clearly states that anyone can shecht an animal as long as we can be confident that they can do so properly. The reason a cheresh, shoteh and katan are invalid has nothing to do with their personal status per se and everything to do with the fact that unless someone is watching them, we cannot be confident they shechted properly. Regarding their shechitah, we cannot apply the rabbinic presumption “that the majority who are involved in shechitah are experts”, a presumption that allows one to pretty much eat from any animal that was shechted, even if we do not know who it was who slaughtered the animal. Besides knowing how to shecht, pretty much the only other requirement is that one be Jewish[5]

The Gemara presumes that the Mishna’s use of the phrase “hakol”, all may shecht comes to include people who I might otherwise have thought would not be allowed to shecht

The Gemara presents five possibilities as to whom these people may be, and the list is a rather surprising one. Rava bar Ulla teaches that the Mishna includes one who is tameh, ritually impure. While there is no reason to require purity in the slaughter of chulin, non-sacrificial animals, the Mishna is referring to those who eat all meat “in purity”—apparently common during Temple times. While this was done as a precaution, lest one accidentally come to eat sacrificial meat in a state of impurity, it serves to link the mundane act of eating with the holiness of the Temple. 

Abaye argues that the Mishna comes to include even a Kuti, a Samaritan, whose shechitah is perfectly fine provided an observant Jew serves as a mashgiach to ensure it is done properly. The Kutim were very far from what one would call observant Jews, as they rejected much of Jewish law including the prohibition of lifnei iver, being an enabler. They would not hesitate to serve a Jew non-kosher food, seeing it as the responsibility of the one eating to verify the kashrut of the food. But since they themselves would never eat non-kosher food, we can eat from their shechitah—provided an observant Jew watches them slaughter. Amazing!

Abaye’s contemporary, Rava, goes a step further and argues that a Kuti’s slaughter is fine even if no one is watching over him (or her) when they slaughter the animal. All that is required is a yotzei v’nichnas, that an observant Jew walk in and out as they please such that the Kuti, not knowing when the mashgiach might show up, is afraid to improperly shecht the animal. 

Rav Ashi goes a step further, allowing the shechitah of a Jew who does not even keep kosher himself—provided such is rooted in lust as opposed to spite. This mumar, apostate, has nothing against kashrut per se, but is unwilling to make any special efforts to keep kosher. Thus, if one provides the knife to this pork-eating Jew, he would be happy to slaughter it properly and eat kosher food. And so we, too, may eat of the food.

Ravina takes an almost opposite track altogether, arguing that the Mishna comes to include those who are well versed in the laws of shechitah—something unlikely to be the case regarding mumrim and Kutim—but are not known to have any experience actually slaughtering animals. In another version, Ravina claims the reverse, namely that the Mishna comes to include those who have experience slaughtering, but are ignorant of its laws. 

The Gemara explains why each of these Amoraim reject the views of their colleagues. But that they held such views in the first place is—I imagine for most people—quite shocking (it is for me), and in actual practice today, the communal standards are much stricter[6]


[1] The Chasidic Rebbe provides a third model of leadership, serving as a spiritual leader, and offering guidance on the most personal of issues.

[2] And this is how it should be. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the great Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin and later Rabbi of Brisk, famously noted that the role of the rabbi is to help the widow, the poor and the orphan; in other words, the rabbi has to be willing to close the Gemara. The stories of Rav Chaim’s chesed to all—including those hostile to all things religious—are legendary. Rav Chaim himself agreed to take up his rabbinic post on condition that he would not be required to speak or to pasken halachic shailot! For the latter function, the city of Brisk hired Rav Simcha Reigur. I wonder how many rabbis today could get hired with such stipulations.

[3] To see a fascinating letter from Rabbi Soloveitchik to Dr. Samuel Belkin, President of Yeshiva University, regarding the need for an vastly updated semicha program to meet the needs of the American rabbinate, see Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City: Ktav Pub., 2005), 93-105. 

[4] A cheresh is usually translated as a deaf-mute. Here, I am following what I heard from Rav Herschel Schachter that in prior times a deaf mute could not be taught and thus, was in fact developmentally delayed. Thankfully, today that is no longer the case regarding a deaf-mute.  

[5] This is not as obvious as it seems. Generally, only that which must be done lishma requires that it be done by a Jew. And shechitah need not be done lishma. For this reason, a non-Jew can build a sukkah, even though the Jerusalem Talmud claims that a bracha must be recited when building a sukkah. 

[6] Missing from this list is any mention of women. This, for the simple reason that it is clear that from a halachic standpoint, a women can be a shochet(et). The first law of hilchot shechitah in the Shulchan Aruch is that everyone, including women, can shecht. Whether in practice women should be allowed to shecht has been the subject of debate for hundreds of years, and is a subject we will leave for another time.