Processions, Debates and Curbstone Encounters Part II

Article by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways.

The boycott of 1910 was one dramatic episode in a twenty-year struggle over kosher meat that engaged meat wholesalers, retail butchers, shochets (ritual slaughterers), the Orthodox rabbinate, and thousands of ordinary Jews, especially in East Baltimore. In the first decades of the twentieth century, conflict over kosher meat was a familiar topic. Today, that contestation is little remembered and poorly documented. However, sufficient evidence survives to give us access to the trajectory and meaning of the protracted struggle over kosher meat. Here is that story.

Part II: The Issue of Rabbinic Authority

Missed the beginning? Start here.

In 1896, one Herman Schwartzberg drew up a contract between a kosher butcher in Baltimore, Levy Edlavitch, and a shochet, Isaac Salowitschick, for the latter to slaughter cattle for the former at a fixed price per animal. Edlavitch ended his agreement with Salowitschick after two local Orthodox rabbis claimed that the shochet was not competent to carry out his duties. Only if the shochet brought a certificate from the objecting rabbis would the butcher retain the shochet.[1]

The dismissed shochet promptly sued the butcher in local court for breach of contract, asserting that he was both competent and certified by a recognized rabbinic authority. The plaintiff claimed certification from a Russian rabbi and also from “Rabbi” Schwartzberg, who was himself a practicing ritual slaughterer – but only of chickens. Three expert shochets testified in court on the rules of schechita (ritual slaughter) and on the matter of rabbinic authority. In rebuttal, Salowitschick argued that “as there was no chief rabbi in Baltimore, any one of the rabbis was competent to pass upon the qualifications of the ‘schochet.’”[2]

Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, from “The Jews of Baltimore.” JMM 1999.121.1
Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, from “The Jews of Baltimore.” JMM 1999.121.1

The next day, however, Rabbi Schepsel Shaffer of the Greene Street Congregation expounded in court on the rules of shechita, declaring that a rabbi had the authority to forbid a shochet from practicing “for no other reason than his not having asked permission of a rabbi to practice his calling.” Moreover, Schaffer testified, written agreements between a shochet and a butcher were impermissible – the shochet must be “amenable only to the rabbi, who is his superior.”[3]

Rabbi Abraham Levinson, one of the two complaining rabbis, then testified. Rabbi Levinson stated that two written notices had been sent to the shochet demanding that he stop work. The rabbi also stated that two months before those notices sent a list of “recognized” shochets had been published in order to restrict entry into shechita, “as there was not enough work to support all who might wish to engage in it.” The plaintiff’s attorney countered that a “combine” of shochets controlled all the work of slaughtering for Orthodox congregations in East Baltimore and that the rabbis were paid to prohibit other shochets from practicing their trade. However, in his instructions to the jury, the judge indicated that the shochet must be subject to “the authority and official sanction” of the local rabbis and that any rabbi might prohibit a shochet from exercising his office.[4]

Testimony in the case – which received extensive, detailed coverage in the Baltimore Sun – revealed real gaps in the certification process and divergent interests among rabbis, shochets, butchers, and consumers of kosher meats. To remedy the situation, two years later in 1899 an association of Orthodox rabbis was formed to assume supervision over all kosher slaughter in Baltimore. Where previously shochets were retained by the wholesale butchers, the employment of all ritual slaughterers would now be supervised by the newly incorporated association, to which all the local Orthodox congregations were parties.[5]

Continue to Part III: The Butchers Go on Strike


[1] “Scientific Slaughter,” Baltimore Sun, 3 April 1897, p. 10. “Mosaic Butchering,” Baltimore Sun, 6 April 1897, p. 10.

[2] “Mosaic Butchering”

[3] “Shulcan Orech Read,” Baltimore Sun, 7 April 1897, p. 10.

[4] “Shulcan Orech Read.”

[5] “To Supervise Slaughtering,” Baltimore Sun, 10 June 1899, p.12.

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