Part of the Torah reading this week deals with the dietary laws. It gives us a general principle, "lo tochal kol to’evah" – "do not eat any disgusting thing" (Deut. 14:3).
The traditional translation of "to’evah" is abomination. This word comes a number of times in the Torah. Idol worship is an abomination. Offering a donation derived from unethical activity is an abomination. Sexual sins are abominations.
Sometimes the word "to’evah" is strengthened by the addition of the Almighty’s name, e.g. when we find the phrase "to’evat Hashem", an abomination unto the Lord.
If we want to define a "to’evah" in more detail, it helps to suggest "t-a-v" (to be erroneous, abhorrent) as the root. Amos 6:8 says, "meta’ev anochi et ge’on Ya’akov", "I abhor the pride of Jacob" (i.e. the things in which the people of Jacob take pride).
The Hebrew word "to’evah" indicates that things which some people flaunt are basically disgusting in the eyes of God; if God doesn’t like them, neither should we.
MEAT-EATING & SHECHITAH
The Divine plan was originally that we should be vegetarian. God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food" (Gen. 1:29).
After the Flood, meat-eating was permitted as a concession to human weakness.
Rav Kook says, however, that in the messianic period "people and animals will not eat flesh. No-one will hurt or destroy another living creature. People’s lives will not be sustained at the expense of the lives of animals" (cf. Isa. 11:7).
In the here-and-now meat-eating is clearly permitted; the sidra explicitly says, "When you shall say, ‘I will eat flesh’, because your soul desires to eat flesh, you may eat flesh" (Deut. 12:20).
However, there are limitations. Only certain animals, birds and fish may be eaten; the blood must not be consumed; and the method of slaughter must be "as I have commanded you" (Deut. 12:21).
The authorised method of slaughter of animals and birds is shechitah. In a religion like Judaism which stands for humanity and compassion in every sense, and kindness to animals in particular, it is axiomatic that the prevention of pain to animals is crucial to the manner in which the shochet operates.
The animal must be conscious and sound, and prior to shechitah must not have suffered any injury.
The method of slaughter is by a single cut of the neck. The knife is set to exquisite sharpness, with a perfect edge free from the slightest notch or flaw, and examined for any unevenness before the slaughter of each animal.
One swift movement of the knife, which causes no pain, severs the trachea, oesophagus and carotid arteries, which ensures practically instantaneous unconsciousness.
The animal is held for shechitah in a casting pen. No specific method of casting is demanded by Jewish law so long as no injury is done to the animal and it is in a position which enables shechitah to be carried out.
Among the eminent scientists who endorse the humanity of shechitah, Professor Harold Burrow of the Royal Veterinary College, London, stated in 1960:
"No form of slaughter, involving as it does the shedding of blood, presents a pretty sight to the onlooker and one is afraid that this aspect of the question is bound to prejudice the judgement of the man-in-the-street.
"The severance of the large vessels which supply practically the whole of the blood to the brain obviously leads to the immediate loss of awareness on the part of the animal both of its surroundings and of any painful stimuli. This precludes any possibility of cruelty entering into Jewish ritual slaughter. The actual process of severing these blood vessels occupies only a fraction of a second and is much too rapid to involve any measurable degree of pain.
"Having witnessed the Jewish method of slaughter carried out on many thousands of animals, I am unable to persuade myself that there is any cruelty attached to it. As a lover of animals, an owner of cattle and a veterinary surgeon, I would raise no objection to any animal bred, reared or owned by me being subjected to this method of slaughter."
Lord Horder declared that shechitah "is fraught with less risk of pain to the animal than any other method at present practised".
Sir Ian Clunies Ross, chairman of CSIRO, stated in 1956: "I agree entirely with the views expressed by such distinguished physiologists, medical men and veterinarians as Lord Horder, Professor Leonard Hill, Sir Charles Lovatt Evans and many others that shechitah, or the Jewish method of slaughter of cattle, is, when the Weinberg casting pen is employed, as humane a method of slaughter as any other, and one which induces almost instantaneous insensibility.
"Those who oppose this method of slaughter are actuated, no doubt, by humane motives; they are, however, ill-informed of the physiological facts."
LOOKS & BOOKS
The opening challenge of the sidra is, "Re’eh" – "Look well and note well what choices you have before you!"
Every moment of every day we are all confronted with decision-making. The biggest decisions are whether to choose the path of life or the path of death.
The earthly human decisions are whom to marry and why and when. Financial decisions are part of the list – decisions about income, decisions about expenditure.
We have to make decisions about what career to follow and what to do with ourselves when we decide to retire.
The Torah understandably expects us – in every instance – to look wisely and choose well.
There are people to whom we can go for advice, but the Jewish preference is to look at the right books and find hints and hallmarks. The best book is the Torah itself.
Rabbi Dr.Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com