East and West
As pointed out in an earlier article (An Unusual Shailah), the Torah enshrined animal rights thousands of years before the Western world dreamt of such a concept – the first animal-rights law was legislated as late as1821. In theFar East, however, pro animal legislation existed as early as the third century BCE. For example, we find King Asoka ofIndia recording on a rock inscription: “I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.”
In consequence, the first anti-slaughter legislation was enacted not in the West, but in theFar East, where Kings Bayinnaugn and Alaungpaya of Burma prohibited Muslim slaughter in the six-teenth and the eighteenth century, respectively.
Once the West climbed onto the bandwagon of animal rights, little time was lost in proving that its mercy was of higher rank than that of the Jews. By 1855, the Swiss cantons of Aargua issued a ban against shechitah on the grounds that it caused unnecessary animal suffering, and an initial ex-emption of the Jewish communities of Endingen and Lengnau was rescinded twelve years later in 1867. Similar to anti-shechitah agitation ever since, the Swiss shechitah ban had anti-Semitic undertones and was meant to discour-age Jews from immigrating to this haven of human rights.
The Swiss ban was the opening shot of a battle that has swung back and forth for the last century and a half, gaining considerable support from anti-Semites who utilize animal rights for their own dark purposes. Indeed, were it not for the western principle of freedom of religion, the chances are that kosher schnitzel would be an endangered species in the entire Western world.
Thanks to this tension between religious and animal rights and evidence that shechitah is no less painless than stunning and other techniques, the shechitah ban is restricted to a handfulof countries including Iceland, Nor-way, and Sweden and most recently New Zealand, and furthermore, the ban is generally indirect – not outlawing shechitah altogether, but imposing anobligation to stun animals beforehand.
Rav Chaim Ozer
No better proof of the intimate connection between anti-shechitah legislation and anti-Semitism exists than the vicious outbreak of anti-shechitah bans before and during World War II when human rights reached an all time low. In a famous letter, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski writes that since the decrees are motivated by opposition to the To-rah, Jews must avoid forbidden meat to the point of messirus nefesh, and also warns that failure to keep away from forbidden food might lead to destruction as severe as the Churban.
He begins by describing the spiritual damage wreaked by the anti-shechitah decree that had been in force in Poland for three years.
“Even after World War I, which caused much destruction in the nation’s sanctity… kashrus retained its force like a flint rock and even the poorest Jew did not dream of bringing treif into his home…,” he notes. “However, this is the third year since the law limiting shechitah was put in force and throughthis the amount of available kosher meat has become very limited. This has caused an upheaval in the Jewish people. The foundation of kashrus has greatly weakened for many reasons. With fear of competition removed, meat dealers raised the price of kosher meat drastically, and on the other hand, many Jews opened meat stores where treif meat is sold, some wicked ones among them selling treif meat as if it is kosher.” Rav Chaim Ozer writes that this situ-ation led to a downward spiral – once Jews began eating non-kosher meat, the government had an excuse to outlaw shechitah altogether, and thus, “Thegreatest responsibility for this rests upon the shoulders of those who made others sin, may their memory be an eternal disgrace, who pursue Klal Yisro-el. For due to them, those in the govern-ment too have found an excuse, saying the Jews are not careful about kashrus and most of them eat treifos, and this was a large cause of the outlawing of shechitah.”
The letter describes desperate measures taken to stem the flood including a rabbinical convention held in Warsaw where a fifteen-day abstention from meat was invoked, and observed even by people who ate forbidden meat be-forehand. In addition, the rabbis of Vilna issued a strict cherem against anyone daring to sell treif in the guise of kosher meat, and Rav Chaim Ozer encourages that this action be emulated in every place in order to save the Jewish people from destruction. He finally warns that the situation demands messirus nefesh, and that failure to rectify the situation might end in destruction.
“Besides the Torah warning against eating neveilos and treifos with many negative commands in addition to the issur krissus of cheilev and blood, at atime like this when the intent of many of our enemies regarding this decree from which they gain no benefit, is only to cause us distress and cause us to transgress our religion, we are obliged in this to the point of messirus nefesh,” he writes.
“Avoiding forbidden food and nev-eilos and treifos is a special segulah toguard us from the hand of all those who rise up against us and to save us from every distress as is stated in the Sifra, Parshas Kedoshim, ‘”You shall differentiate between the clean animal, etc. and I will separate you from the nations to be mine.” If you are separate from the nations, you are mine, and if not, you are of Nevuchadnezer and his friends.’ “At a time of wrath like now, when the hatred of the nations is like a stormy sea, and not only towns and communities, but complete countries of Jewish settlement are being destroyed, heaven forefend, and uprooted from their place in terrible raging fury, and Gehenna is open at every step, and we need heavenly mercy every second…
“Written and signed Isru Chag Pesach 5699, Vilna. Chaim OzerGrodzinski.”
In the end, there was no need for the Polish Sejm to outlaw shechitah, as the Nazis, infamous for their paradoxical love of animals and hatred of humans, did the job after invading Poland, issuing a declaration against shechitah in newspapers and street notices on the 26th of November. Although a handful of German cities and states had outlawed shechitah in the past, the Nazis were the first to impose the ban over the whole of Germany and impose it on their conquered territories as well.
Later in the war, when the Warsaw Ghetto Jews saw that their destruction was imminent, they filled metal boxes and milk cans with a selection of diaries, documents, and papers, and buried them in the hope that people might re-cover them after the war. This Ringelblum Archive, as it is known, includes the report of an anonymous shochet who operated with tremendous messirus nefesh during the early days of thewar. He begins by describing the situation in his home town ofPrushkov nearWarsaw.
“Sadness fell over the town when notices forbidding Jewish slaughter appeared… People began shechting at night in cellars by the light of tallow candles… On one occasion, in the middle of shechitah, after hearing that there were police in the courtyard, we hid in a corner of the cellar, covered in straw and hay, making ourselves invisible and lay like this for a few hours in the cellar until we heard that the danger had passed.
“We felt better after managing to make contact with the Polish police. In return for a fat week’s salary, they not only did not report us, but guarded us as well. The police chief became a permanent visitor in the shochet’s home, where he ate, drank, and received his weekly salary. He transported the shechitah knife to a place of shechitah, and returned it together with a portion of the shochet’s meat to his home. Matters reached the stage that the police re-quested to shecht even more so that they could receive more bribes. Connections with German policemen who had tasted Jewish money became even better than with the Polish police and obviously, their protection was even more effec-tive… The Polish police chief and the German policeman would arrive together to receive their salary from the shochet.”
After the Jews of the area were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, the shochtim secretly shechted in the village ofMallik nearWarsaw and the meat was transported to the ghetto by car at great risk.
“One night when I was returning to Warsaw in a truck loaded with meat, my knife with me,” he writes, “the vehicle was halted by police and they entered to conduct a search. When we saw them, our hearts stopped beating and all our limbs became paralyzed from fear of death; we saw that all was lost. One courageous person among us had not lost hope and offered the police a bribe; I cannot describe our joy when we saw the five hundred zehuvim in the police-men’s hands…”
“The shechitah in the village of Mallik came to an end,” he concludes. “We also reckoned that it would be cheaper to bring live animals and shecht them in the place and made an agreement with Polish policemen who agreed to keep guard by the gate where the largest shechitah took place until it was finished. So matters have been arranged until this day.”
At the war’s end, the victorious Allies immediately annulled the Nazi anti-shechitah decrees and the taint of Nazibrutality has clung to anti-shechitah legislation ever since.
(Sources: (1) Huberband, Rav Shi-mon. Kiddush Hashem, records of the Holocaust taken from the Ringelblum Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. Zachor Publication, 5727. (2) Kossovski-Sha-chor, Yaakov. Igros Rav Chaim Ozer. Bnei Brak, 5760.)