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Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 13:53 UK

What is a kosher chicken?

The Magazine answers...

Michael Sophocles at butcher stall

As insults were traded among contestants on the losing team in this week's Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar berated the contestants for not knowing what a kosher chicken was.

It had to rank as one of the most peculiar spectacles in the history of the BBC reality game show, The Apprentice - a full-blown barney about what is and isn't kosher. Contestants in this week's episode had been flown to Marrakech in Morocco and instructed to bargain for a number of items on a shopping list, including a kosher chicken.

The losing team was penalised because the chicken it had bought was not kosher. Sir Alan, who is Jewish, was affronted by the lack of knowledge among team members about the meaning of kosher, and was particularly scornful of contestant Michael Sophocles who bought the chicken yet claimed to be "a good Jewish boy" on his application to the programme.

Chicken killed with a single cut across the neck
Killing needs to have been by a shochet, using a knife called a chalaf

Kosher is the term most people would associate with food conforming to Jewish law, but the word to describe the actual method used to slaughter animals is shechita.

According to the Torah - the body of written Jewish laws - the laws of shechita were given to Moses at Mount Sinai, and must be followed if Jews wish to eat meat. As Shimon Cohen, from Shechita UK, an information resource on Jewish religious animal slaughter, explains: "It is absolutely the only method used, according to Jewish law. Eating kosher food is the foremost principle of being an orthodox Jew".

Shechita is performed with an extremely sharp knife, known as a chalaf, making a single cut across the front of the animal's neck, severing several arteries in order for it to bleed to death (as Jews are forbidden from consuming blood). Mr Cohen confirms that "this principle is the same, whether for a bird or a cow".

Advocates of shechita argue that this is the most humane form of slaughter, with the animal being rendered unconscious by the procedure. But opponents say the practice of stunning an animal before slaughter is more humane.

Halal confusion

For the Apprentices, the task of finding the right person to perform shechita would have been particularly difficult in a predominantly Muslim country like Morocco.

Only a shochet can perform shechita. He (never she) must be trained both religiously and physiologically. In England and Wales, he must have his licence renewed every year by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim (unlike other slaughtermen in the UK who are covered for life).

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Since as far back as 1928, shechita has been protected by various pieces of legislation in UK law. A change in the rules in 1999 set out that for animals to be killed according to religious requirements, it must be in an approved slaughterhouse.

Back in Marrakech, Michael's attempts to procure a kosher chicken in fact resulted in the team buying a halal chicken - a killing in accordance with Muslim holy law.

The two types of religious slaughter, halal and shechita, are similar, in that both involve cutting the animal's throat. However, the most obvious difference between the two is that the latter does not require any kind of ritual blessing.

If Michael and the rest of the team had realised this they would have known that what they were buying was definitely not kosher.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Why is anyone supposed to know about kosher, halal and shechita stuff. Although I have heard them banded about, why am I expected to know about it, as it does not add anything to my life.
David, London

Ancient rituals are fascinating aren't they? I often wonder if in 2000 years time a religion will exist that believes cattle over 30 months should not be eaten, and any chicken kept in a cage is somehow unclean, and only those that live free can be eaten. Anyone have any insight into what the practical origins of the Kosher 'system' might have been?
Stephen Willis, Somerset UK

My seven-year-old Catholic daughter knows that Halal is Muslim and Kosher is Jewish. The contestants on The Apprentice should be ashamed of their ignorance.
Dave, Altrincham

Even if the chicken was halal - under Islamic law a prayer is required before the slaughter, of course different to the Jewish law. But there is a ritual blessing.
Billy Dedat, Leicester



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