Today’s Torah portion presents us with the laws of Kashrut—specifically what animals we can eat and what animals we must not eat—and then it tells us (Lev. 11:43-44) why we must follow these laws: “Do not make your souls an abomination…for I am Hashem your Gd, therefore sanctify yourselves and then you will become holy as I am holy, so do not make your souls impure.” It’s a soul thing. What we eat and how we treat our bodies impacts our souls.
The Ramban, Nachmanides, offers a powerful insight here as to why we must be kosher: “The reason the Torah forbade us these animals is that...in the future [after we die], the Holy One, blessed be He, will speak with each person of Israel.” So how could a Jew contaminate his mouth with foods that Gd has forbidden him to eat, and then use that mouth to speak to Gd? Why should you keep kosher? Your body is a receptacle for your soul. The Torah tells us to make it a fitting home for your soul so it may properly fulfill its task in this world.
Perhaps this is why the most distinguishing feature of the Jew has always been his diet. Whether in Berlin, Vilna, Minsk, Chicago, Johannesburg, Morroco or Jerusalem Jews maintained a holy diet. The spice may have been different, but it was always kosher.
There’s the story of the Cardinal who sat beside a rabbi at a community dinner. They had been friends for many years. During the dinner the Cardinal noticed that the rabbi was only eating the salad. He turned to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, when are you going to come into the 21st century and eat like the rest of us do? There’s no longer any danger of trichinosis from not cooking pork sufficiently. Get with it my friend. When are you going to join the 21st century and eat pork?”
The rabbi thought for a minute and then answered, “I’ll eat pork at you’re your wedding monsignor, at your wedding!”
However, eating the right animals doesn’t yet constitute eating kosher. The animals must be properly slaughtered so they suffer the minimal amount of pain. How is this accomplished? By a trained shochet who slaughters the animals. I have been told that there are less than 300 shochtim in America. These are unsung heroes who make it possible for Jews to eat kosher. The shochet uses a special knife called a chalif. Who makes this special knife? There are only 3 people in America who make these knives: one lives in NJ, one in Baltimore, and one—Rabbi Moshe Yurman—lives in Brooklyn.
Shira Telushkin in the Internet magazine, The Tablet (3/25/14), has a fascinating interview with Rabbi Yurman. She writes: There are countless ways to screw up killing a kosher chicken. You could hesitate, for a moment, halfway through the chicken’s neck—the knife must be drawn across in one fluid motion, and the slightest pause can render the slaughter unkosher. You could accidently tear the chicken’s trachea or esophagus, instead of slicing both in one clean sweep, as Jewish law requires. Your blade could nick on a grain of sand embedded in the neck—any nick found on the blade invalidates the animal…While an experienced kosher slaughterer can kill thousands of chickens a day without error, a beginning student might have a success rate of just over 3%.
Rabbi Moshe Yurman, 65, hasn’t screwed up a kosher chicken in decades. He slaughtered his first animal at 18 and has since butchered innumerable goats, cows, chickens, sheep, peafowl, pigeons, bulls, American bison, and buffalo: If it’s kosher, he has probably killed it…
The knife, known as the chalif, is the most important tool of the shochet. The chalif must be handmade and kept exquisitely sharp. In industrial kosher plants, a bell rings every three minutes reminding shochtim to check their knives. If a nick the size of a hairsbreadth is discovered, all animals killed since the last inspection are deemed not kosher. There are different knives for different animals. For chickens, the blade is about five inches long. A lamb, 8 to 12. A full-sized cow would need at least an 18-inch blade…The ideal shechitah knife is roughly 2/3 the size of the animal’s neck…
Owning and maintaining a set of knives is a matter of pride for a shochet, and each one—like a high-end chef—brings his own knife to work, no matter how large or professional the plant. The typical shochet can maintain his blade, but if he needs a new knife he comes to Yurman’s home in the Midwood area of Brooklyn…
Yurman’s home is alive with knife-making. There are sharpening stones on bookshelves, scraps of steel in the kitchen, and drawers full of knives under the family computer...His steel comes from Switzerland. A quarry in Arkansas makes his polishing stones…To sharpen a knife requires between 2 and 7 stones, each one upgrading to a new level of fineness. A perfectly sharp knife could last for more than 20 animals, if it doesn’t hit anything hard, like a bone…
“How difficult is it to sharpen a knife?” I ask.
“How difficult is it to play piano?” he responds. “To play saxophone? To play violin?”
Knife sharpening is so hard because the knife must strike the stone at exactly the same place and same angle every time. Hence the hours of practice for aspiring shochtim.
Yurman makes around 15 knives a year. A 5-inch chicken knife sells for under $200, and a full-size beef knife can be anywhere between $400 and $650. I ask how many he sells. “Very few. Very few.” 5 a year? He nods his head and shrugs his shoulder. “It is not really a money making-venture as much as it is a service to the community”…
Being a knife-maker gives Yurman a community beyond shochtim. He attends knife shows, populated by hunters, skinners, and collectors, to make new contacts and meet old friends. “Everybody, every kind of person is there,” he says. “Some are into martial arts, some are into decorative knives…
At one of these knife shows he was introduced to a doctor who was experimenting with how the material of the knife affected healing rates in human surgeries, comparing grades of steel and obsidian. He asked Yurman to sharpen his scalpels, and together they worked in the hospital, documenting the effect of knives on human skin. “That was exciting,” Yurman tells me. Another time, he made a connection with Temple Grandin, the famed designer of slaughterhouses, and together they created a knife with a disposable blade for Muslim slaughterers, who are often untrained in knife sharpening. Like all teachers of kosher slaughter, Yurman trains his students in the Muslim-owned poultry shops that dot Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey…the Muslim community quietly and to little fanfare works out arrangements with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish slaughterers who need space for their students…because the Jewish slaughter houses have moved to places like Iowa and Colorado—far from areas of large concentrations of Jews.
We hear so much today about religious fanaticism and extremism. Who would believe that Ultra-Orthodox Jewish slaughters are trained in Muslim slaughterhouses—quietly, with no fuss, and no publicity? Who says that Jews and Muslims can’t work together?
Isn’t this a fascinating article? It’s good to know that there are artists like Rabbi Moshe Yurman in the Jewish community who devote their lives to making knives that are works of art, enabling us to fulfill the mitzvah of eating kosher.
And so the next time you order some kosher meat at Quality Kosher or at the supermarket, pause for a moment and think of Rabbi Yurman of Brooklyn and the other 2 like him in this country who supply all the shochtim in this country with their knives carefully and conscientiously, so that, through them and through those who work with them, we are able to carry out this mitzvah in purity and with devotion. Think also of all the men and women who work tirelessly on behalf of Jewish life and seldom get any recognition at all—like Jewish Day School teachers who work longer hours for less pay or the thousands of volunteers that keep our worthy Jewish institutions functioning. These are the unknown heroes of Jewish life. May their work be blessed, and to this, let us all say: Amen!
Rabbi Mark Kunis