Parshat Re’eh: What is Shechitat Chulin?

“Since the place that Hashem, your G-d, has chosen to dedicate to His name is far from you, you may slaughter your large and small cattle that Hashem has give to you, in the manner that is commanded. And you may eat in your gates to the extent you desire.” (Devarim 12:21)

During the sojourn in the wilderness, the slaughter of animals was strictly controlled. Animals could not be slaughtered freely and eaten. Instead, animals were only slaughtered as sacrifices. A person wishing to slaughter an animal for personal consumption offered it as a Shelamim sacrifice. A portion of the animal was offered on the altar. A portion was distributed to the Kohen. The remainder was consumed by the individual offering the animal.

This restriction was not a hardship in the wilderness. The entire nation camped around the Tabernacle – the Mishcan. It was not a burden to bring an animal to the Mishcan for sacrifice. However, Moshe is preparing the nation for its entry into the land of Israel. In the land of Israel, this restriction would be onerous. It is not realistic to require that the slaughter of every animal be performed at the Mishcan or Holy Temple. The Torah acknowledges this problem. In response to this issue, Moshe announces the creation of a new institution – Shechitat Chulin.

What is Shechitat Chulin? In the wilderness as slaughter – shechitah – was performed as part of the process of sacrifice. Shechitah was not performed merely to prepare meat for consumption. Shechitat Chulin is the slaughter of meat for personal consumption. Shechitat Chulin is non-sacrificial slaughter.

Not all meat is prepared for consumption through shechitah. Cattle, venison and fowl require shechitah. However, for fish there is no equivalent of shechitah. We are permitted to eat certain locusts. These creatures do not require shechitah in order to be consumed. This raises an interesting question. Why is shechitah limited to specific species? Why is there no form of shechitah for fish and locusts?

The Talmud discusses this issue. The Sages explain that the exclusion of fish from shechitah is based on a passage in the Torah. Bnai Yisrael complain to Moshe. They are dissatisfied with their diet in the wilderness. They subsist on manna. The availability of meat is limited. Hashem responds that He will provide the nation with meat. Moshe is astonished. He says, “Even if the cattle and sheep are slaughtered, will it suffice them? If all the fish of the sea are gathered will it be enough for them?”[1] The Talmud explains that a careful analysis of this pasuk reveals that shechitah does not apply to fish. Moshe uses the term shechitah – slaughter – in reference to sheep and cattle. However, in discussing fish Moshe does not refer to shechitah. Instead, he adjusts his phraseology. He describes the fish as “gathered”. This indicated that fish merely need to be gathered. Shechitah is not required.[2]

The Talmud does not discuss the basis for excluding locusts from shechitah. Maimonides provides a basis for this law. First, Maimonides explains the exclusion of fish from shechitah. He quotes the Talmud. Fish are excluded because they are “gathered” and not “slaughtered”. Then, Maimonides extends the Talmud’s reasoning. He explains that the term “gather” is also used in reference to locusts. This reference is not found in the Torah. It is pasuk in the Sefer Yishayahu. The Navi uses the phrase, “a gathering of locust”. Maimonides concludes that this association of locusts with the term “gather” is the basis for their exclusion from Shechitah.[3]

Rabbaynu David ibn Zimra – RaDvaZ – discusses Maimonides’ position in his responsa. RaDvaZ explains that Maimonides’ position is difficult to understand. Maimonides extends the reasoning of the Talmud to locusts. He maintains that because the term “gather” is used in reference to locusts, they are excluded from Shechitah. This is a difficult line of reasoning. The term “gathered” used in reference to fish does imply that shechitah is not needed. The pasuk juxtaposes fish and cattle. The pasuk states that cattle must be slaughtered. Fish must merely be gathered. However, no such distinction is made in the case of locusts. The Navi is not distinguishing between locusts and other creatures. The passage is not dealing with shechitah. Therefore, the use of the term “gather” in reference to locusts does not seem to imply that they are exempt from shechitah. [4]

How can we explain Maimonides’ position? It seems that, according to Maimonides, the Talmud is not merely indicating the source for excluding fish from shechitah. The Talmud is providing an insight into the basis for this exclusion. The Talmud is explaining that there is a basic difference between fish and the animals that require shechitah. Animals requiring shechitah are slaughtered individually. They are not gathered or consumed in balk. In contrast, fish are generally gathered in nets and consumed in quantity. It is true that this is not the case for every species of fish. Some fish are individually caught and consumed. However, the overall characteristic of this genus is that it is gathered and consumed in quantity. This distinction is the basis for the exclusion of fish from shechitah. Animals that are – in general – individually slaughtered require shechitah. This criterion dictates that cattle and fowl require shechitah. Fish do not meet this criterion. Therefore, they do not require any form of shechitah.

We can now understand Maimonides’ extension of the Talmud’s reasoning to locusts. These creatures are also not slaughtered or consumed individually. They are gathered and consumed in quantity. This is demonstrated by the pasuk in the Navi. Locusts do not meet the criterion for shechitah. Therefore, they do not require any form of shechitah.

RaDvaZ offers an alternative explanation for the status of locusts. An introduction is needed to understand his rationale. The Torah permits the consumption of specific species. Other species are prohibited. The status of each species is determined by its characteristics. The Torah – in Parshat Shemini – discusses the various species that are permitted and prohibited. The discussion concludes with this pasuk. “This is the law concerning mammals, birds, aquatic creatures and lower forms of terrestrial animals.”[5] The Torah outlines four categories of creatures – mammals, birds, aquatic creatures and lower forms of animals. Locusts are members of this last category. RaDvaZ explains that locusts are mentioned after fish. Fish do not require shechitah. Therefore, locusts are also exempt from this requirement.[6]

RaDvaZ’s reasoning is difficult to understand. This passage is not dealing with shechitah! Why should the order of this passage influence the requirement of shechitah?

It appears that, according to RaDvaZ, the passage is delineating a hierarchy of creatures. In this hierarchy, mammals are at the highest position. They are followed by birds, fish and then the lower creatures. RaDvaZ maintains that this hierarchy is fundamental to understanding the requirement of shechitah. Only the higher creatures require this special treatment of shechitah. Creatures that are lower in the hierarchy do not receive this distinctive handling. Fish are too low in the hierarchy to require shechitah. Locusts are even lower in the hierarchy. Therefore, they too are exempt from the requirement of shechitah.

“This is what you must do if your blood brother, your son, your daughter, your wife, or your closest friend secretly tries to convince you, and says, “Let us go worship a new god, previously unknown to you or to your fathers.” (Devarim 13:7)

This passage introduces the discussion of the Maysit – the missionary. This is an individual who attempts to convince others to worship idols of some other deity. The Torah explains that this person attempts to undermine the spiritual perfection of the Jewish nation. No mercy is shown the Maysit. This person is executed.

Throughout our history, we have been confronted with individuals, institutions and governments that have attempted to convince us to abandon our Torah. We have been subjected to forced conversions, expulsions and other forms of religious coercion. At other times, force was replaced by polemics and efforts to proselytize. Bnai Yisrael have consistently resisted all of these various efforts. These many attempts to corrupt the Jewish people have generated a vast quantity of fascinating accounts and narratives. Many of these accounts retain their relevancy and timeliness. One of these involves Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Zt”l.

Rav Chaim was traveling on a train. A missionary entered his coach and sat next to two Jews. The missionary engaged these Jews in a conversation regarding religion. In the course of this conversation, the missionary acknowledged that the Sages of the Talmud rejected Jesus’ Messianic claims. However, the missionary insisted that this rejection is not credible. He claimed that one of the greatest Sages of the Talmud – Rebbe Akiva – believed that Bar Kochva was the Messiah. Rebbe Akiva was wrong. The missionary argued that this error proved that the Sages of the Talmud are fallible in their analysis of Messianic claims. Therefore, their rejection of Jesus’ claims is of little consequence.

At this point, Rav Chaim interrupted the conversation with an amazing claim. He exclaimed that Rebbe Akiva was not wrong. Bar Kochva was the Messiah! The missionary was astounded by this claim. He could not believe that Rav Chaim could make such a ridiculous assertion. The missionary eagerly explained that Bar Kochva could not have been the Messiah. Bar Kochva had died without saving the Jewish people!

Rav Chaim had been waiting for this response. He countered immediately. If Bar Kochva’s death proves that he was not the Messiah, then death disqualifies any claimant from consideration as the Messiah![7]

[1] Sefer BeMidbar 11:22.

[2] Mesechet Chulin 27b.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shechitah 1:3.

[4] Rabbaynu David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) Responsa, volume 1, number 4.

[5] Sefer VaYikra 11:46.

[6] Rabbaynu David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) Responsa, volume 1, number 4.

[7] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim, pp. 154-5.