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©2004 by Bezalel Naor


In a letter datelined Jaffa, 7 Tevet 5669/1909, Rav Kook describes to his disciple, Benjamin Menashe Levin, the custom that was prevalent in the Moroccan abattoir, as was related to him by a recently arrived shohet (ritual slaughterer) from Maghreb (Morocco):


He has found employment here [Jaffa] with the Sephardim. It was a discovery for him that the sh[ohet] ub[odek] (slaughterer and inspector) has to do the actual slaughtering. In Maghreb this is not the case. There the hakham (sage), who would be the analog to our sh[ochet] ub[odek], inspects the knife, and then passes it to a tabah (butcher). The butcher knows but the five laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter): shehiyah, derasah, haladah, hagramah, and åikkur. He slaughters, and after the hakham inspects the lung of the animal. With that, the work of the hakham is concluded.

I will tell you the truth. This arrangement finds favor in my eyes; it conforms more to the spirit of Yisrael Saba (the Jewish People). It goes against the clear emotions of the heart that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar), a spiritual man, should be permanently engaged in the taking of animals’ lives. Though shehitah (ritual slaughter)—and in general the consumption of animals—remains a necessity in this world, nevertheless, it would be fitting that this work be done by men who have not yet evolved to the level of refinement of feeling. The educated ethicists, on the other hand, should be supervisors (pekidim) to insure that the killing of the animals be not barbaric, and that there enter into this entire area of meat consumption an ethereal light which might one day illumine the world. This [light] is truly contained in the laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter) and tereifot (unfit animals), as is well known to us. (The footnote refers to Rav Kook’s essay, Afikim ba-Negev, published in Ha-Peless [Poltava, 1903], chaps. 8, 10.)

(Igrot Rayah, Vol. I, p. 230)

Rav Kook’s remark that the actual slaughtering should not be done by a sensitive person but rather by someone of more coarse emotions, may have its source in the mystical work Zohar. It is a well known fact that in olden days when sacrifices would be offered, the intial act of shehitah or slaughtering the animal could be performed by a zar, a person other than a kohen (priest descended from Aaron). The commandments of the priesthood commenced with receiving the blood in a vessel. The Zohar takes this a step further: Not only was the slaughtering acceptable if performed by a person other than a kohen—the slaughtering should not be performed by a kohen. The reason the Zohar gives for this prohibition (which is not standard Halakha or Jewish law) is that the kohen represents the attribute of hesed (love); therefore he should not be involved in the taking of life which is an act of din (judgment). See Zohar III, 124a; Rabbi Reuben Margaliot, Nizuzei Zohar ad locum; Rabbi Abraham Mordecai Alter of Gur, Mikhtevei Torah (Tel Aviv, 5747/1987), p. 108 (Letter 74).


Therefore, one is surprised when presented with the next several letters in which Rav Kook encourages his son Zevi Judah, a most sensitive soul, to learn the theory and practice of shehitah (ritual slaughter). Let us preface these letters with a bit of biographical background. In the year 1914 Rabbi Zevi Judah went to Europe to pursue secular studies. His ≥sponsor,≤ so to speak, was Rabbi Dr. Isaac Auerbach of Halberstadt, Germany. In Halberstadt, Rabbi Zevi Judah continued his Talmudic regimen while pursuing the field of mathematics and the study of European languages. Eventually, due to the outbreak of World War One, Rabbi Zevi Judah was forced to relocate to neutral Switzerland. Over a series of several letters we see Rav Kook goading his son to learn the discipline of shehitah. These letters span the years 1916-1917:

“It would please me if you would learn the work of slaughtering, in theory and practice, to fulfill the words of the sages. (If you could also learn circumcision, I would be very happy.) (According to the Talmud, Hullin 9a, a talmid hakham or Torah scholar must learn three things: writing, ritual slaughter and circumcision.—BN)

After looking into the future regarding justice for all animals, we recognize the steps prerequisite for the physical and spiritual world to ascend in order to reach the lofty goal, one of which is the theory of shehitah with all of its minute laws. Those very minutiae are what will bring about the holy light, the light of higher justice for the souls of all living creatures. It is a holy work to observe them [i.e. those laws] willingly and joyfully.” (Igrot Rayah, Vol. III, p. 48)

“Have you begun the study of shehitah, the use of the knife? Have you slaughtered fowl? I would be pleased if you would learn another one of the three things that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) must know (Talmud Bavli, Hullin 9a). (Ibid., p. 49)

“I am pleased that you agree to study shehitah. I accept that you delay the study until after the holidays of Tishri. These days do not afford the tranquility necessary for one starting this expertise, especially if he be a poetic soul.

Regarding circumcision, it was but a suggestion. If you have the opportunity and the capability, it would be very worthwhile to fulfill the words of the sages regarding these three things by which a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) is distinguished. To my chagrin, I did not merit to this because of several obstacles.” (Ibid., p. 53)

“Let me know the state of your health and your eating habits. Do you eat meat in general or just fowl on the Sabbath, or perhaps during the week as well? How do you feel? Do your eating habits suit your physical and psychic health?” (Ibid., p. 69)


“It is several letters now that I have forgotten to inquire whether you are practicing shehitah. How does the matter appear to you? How do you relate to this holy work? For sensitive, thinking people, it requires will power, strength of character blessed with patience.” (Ibid., p. 79)


“Regarding your eating, my main concern is that you be exceedingly careful that your abstinence from eating meat not cause any weakening of your physical and psychic strength. Do not be captivated by those who Òskip over the mountainsÓ (a reference to Song of Songs 2:8—BN) within the movement for the prevention of cruelty to animals. It would appear that most of them have within the depths of their spirit a misanthropy and all the characteristics that accompany it. The proof of this is the place this movement occupies in the dark camp of the antisemites. Though there is room for this spark of light [i.e. animal welfare] to penetrate at times the great of spirit who aspire to holinessÉThe holy concept of uplifting the soul of the animal and the sparks of holiness, which is one of the mysteries of the Torah (razei Torah), contributes much more to the fortification of the human ethic, and to the wellbeing of all life, all existence, than anything that might be contributed by a spiritless compassion with its weakness and its anger combined.” (Ibid., p. 82)


(Rav Kook alludes to the Lurianic kabbalistic teaching that by consuming meat within a context of holiness, man raises the sparks of holiness contained within the animal to a higher level.—BN)


“Congratulations! I was overjoyed that you successfully completed the study of shehitah on a practical level. Beloved are the words of the sages who counted shehitah among three things that a talmid hakham (Torah scholar) is required to learn (Talmud Bavli, Hullin 9a).

Sensitive souls see the holy evolution of the world; generations progress according to a Divine plan. They rise up from the deep abyss to lofty heights of holiness. After several generations in which mankind went down from its greatness, from its specialty among life forms, from its ≥zelem Elohim≤ (image of God), Noah was permitted to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). Afterward, the world was further uplifted by the soul of Israel, which was instructed as to the kosher species and the method of killing wrapped in holy mysteries (razei kodesh)äIt is precisely these pathways that uplift all, man and beast togetheräFrom the North, from whence comes bad, will appear the light. [In Kabbalah, the North is associated with the attribute of judgment, din or gevurah. The slaughter of many, but not all, of the sacrifices took place in the north of the Temple.—BN]äGirded with stength (gevurah), full of love (hesed), we evolve to the love of all creations.

My profound thanks to Rabbi Dr. Asher, who prepared and instructed you in the work of shehitah.” (Ibid., pp. 119-120)


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