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Ritual slaughter

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Ritual slaughter is the practice of slaughtering livestock for meat in a ritual manner. This may be prescribed by a religious dietary laws, notably Jewish Shechita and Islamic Ḏabīḥah, or performed as a spectacular cultural practice, as in bullfighting.

In Animal sacrifice in general, the ritual aspect predominates over the food production aspect, but since typical animal sacrifices also yield meat consumed by the sacrificers, a clear line cannot be drawn between ritual slaughter and generic animal sacrifice.


Walter Burkert in Homo Necans discusses animal sacrifice as arising from the anthropological transition to hunting. With the domestication of livestock, the hunt was gradually replaced by the slaughter of livestock, and hunting rituals were consequently transformed to the context of slaughter.

In antiquity, ritual slaughter and animal sacrifice was one and the same. Thus, as argued by Detienne et al. (1989), for the Greeks, consumption of meat not slaughtered ritually was unthinkable, so that beyond being a tribute to the gods, Greek animal sacrifice marked a cultural boundary, separating "Hellenes" from "barbarians". Greek animal sacrifice was Christianized into slaughter ceremonies involving Greek Orthodox Christian ritual.

Ancient Egyptian slaughter rituals are frequently depicted in tombs and temples from the Old Kingdom onwards. The standard iconography of the ritual involves a bull lying fettered on the ground with the butcher standing over it cutting its foreleg. The scene is attended by a woman and two priests.[1]

Modern Practice


Bullfighting and Running of the Bulls is still widely practiced in Spain and many Spanish influenced ares of the Northern Mediterranean and Latin America. It is a modern adaptation of ancient ritual slaughter supposedly imported by Roman soldiers who worshiped Mithras. Bullfighting generates heated controversy in many areas of the world, with supporters arguing that it is a culturally important to celebrate the origin of meat and the courage of food-animals who would otherwise be slaughtered industrially and in secret, while animal rights groups argue that it is merely a cruel blood sport.

Jewish Shechita

Shechita (Hebrew:שחיטה) is the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds according to Jewish dietary laws.[2] The act is performed by drawing a very sharp knife across the animal's throat and allowing the blood to drain out. Islamic dietary laws require a similar procedure.

The animal must be killed with respect and compassion by a "shochet" (ritual slaughterer), a pious Jew who has in mind the life of the animal as he draws the knife across its neck. The animal can be in a number of positions; when the animal is lying on its back, this is referred to as shechita munachat.

Islamic Ḏabīḥah

Ḏabīḥah (ذَبِيْحَة) is the prescribed method of slaughtering all animals excluding fish and most sea-life per Islamic law. This method of slaughtering animals consists of a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries of both sides but leaving the spinal cord intact. The objective of this technique is to more effectively drain the body of the animal's blood, resulting in more hygienic meat, and to minimize the pain and agony for the animal.[3] Detractors, most notably animal rights groups, contend that this method of slaughter 'causes severe suffering to animals'.

Modern bans

Bans on ritual slaughter have been proposed or enacted in a number of European countries, from the late 1890s onward. The issue is complicated by allegations of antisemitism and islamophobia.

The initial ban on kosher slaughter in modern Europe originated in the late 19th century in 1897 in Switzerland. Later bans were enacted in Bavaria in 1930, in Norway, Germany and Sweden in the mid-1930s.

Debate on the issue has shifted over time such that modern debate focuses primarily on balancing concerns for animal welfare with concerns over limiting freedom of religion.[4]


Ritual slaughter is practiced in various African traditional religions. Zulu slaughter rituals have led to controversy in South Africa.

Monica Hunter in her 1936 study of the Mpondo people of the Transkei described the ritual:

"When speaking to the ancestors was finished Sipopone [one of Hunter's informants] took the sacrificial spear of the umzi [homestead], passed it between the forelegs of the animal, and between its back legs, which were tied, then stabbed it in the stomach over the aorta muscle. The beast bellowed horribly, and lay in agony for about five minutes before it died."

The bellowing of the animal is supposed to represent communication with the ancestors. (David Welsh 2007 [1])


  1. Eberhard Otto, An Ancient Egyptian Hunting Ritual, Journal of Near Eastern Studies (1950).
  2. Deut. 12:21, Deut. 14:21, Num. 11:22
  3. Halal/Haram/Zabiha, ISNA Halal Certification Agency.
  4. Transcription: Ritual Slaughter Ban, Living on Earth, republished by Vegans Represent June 10 2003, accessed September 18 2006


  • M. Detienne, J.-P. Vernant (eds.), The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, trans. Wissing, University of Chicago Press (1989).
  • Roy A. Rappaport , Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (1969, 2000), ISBN 978-1577661016.

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