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 for certification. You could drop the knife, press down too hard, obscure the point of incision, lose control of the bird. 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 percent.
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.
Yurman got into animal slaughter for the knives. In addition to being a shochet, or slaughterer, he is one of only three ritual knife-makers in the United States. There are fewer than 10 worldwide.
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, eight to 12. A full-sized cow would need at least an 18-inch blade. The same goes for a bull. A buffalo could exceed 19 inches. The ideal shechitah knife is roughly two-thirds the size of the animal’s neck.
Fewer than 300 men kill all the kosher meat sold in America, and they typically move every few months, working at plants in Iowa and Colorado, or outside the country in Canada, Mexico, and Uruguay. 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. Choosing a knife is intimate business.
It takes Yurman under five seconds to take a bird, slash its throat, and turn its body upside-down into a metal cone to be drained of blood; facts about slaughter he shares without hesitation. But ask him a personal question—like, say, how he learned to slaughter animals—and he will only laugh and wave his hand, refusing to answer. The first time he crafted his own knife? “Nobody wants to know that.” How many knives he owns? “Too many,” he’ll say. “You don’t want to know.”
“Here, feel this,” Yurman says as he hands me a narrow knife with a 19-inch blade and a beautiful cherry-wood handle. I am in his living room, and the table is spread with knives. They are all different lengths and widths, their handles a range of colors. I take the knife from him. The handle is stamped H.W., the knife-maker’s initials. He died in 1974, Yurman tells me, and now his son makes chalif knives in New Jersey. The son and Yurman are two of the three knife-makers in America; the third lives in Baltimore.
The old blade is very narrow, slimmed by heavy use, and clearly too coarse to be kosher. I run the sharp edge along the broad side of my thumbnail, as shochtim are trained to do. Yurman guides me to the top half-inch of the blade, which is in particularly poor condition. It feels rough, like a crumbly Cheerio. He then hands me a newer looking, 12-inch knife, used for goats, sheep, and small calves. “Here, try this one. You’ll see the difference.”
My fingernail glides so quickly across the knife that it feels like ice. There is absolutely no friction. He finds me a piece of untreated steel in the kitchen, to keep as a token. “I was looking for one with a hole, so you could make it a necklace,” he says. He jokingly offers to make me a knife with a pink handle.
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. Yurman and his wife have seven children, all married, and judging from the smiling pictures all around us, a ton of grandchildren. Sitting on a stack of papers is a thick, green piece of curved glass, an old sharpening stand for a razor blade. “That was given to me by an old shochet,” he says. “A curiosity.” Seven knives lie on the lace tablecloth in the living room, next to a stack of sacred Hebrew books. There are 13 more in a nearby drawer.
The knives are kept in an assortment of materials; some blades are wrapped in cloth, others have leather holders, some are neatly bound in paper towels. The colors of the handles are coded to the different types of steel Yurman is testing out: blue, orange, white, wooden, aluminum. His steel comes from Switzerland. A quarry in Arkansas makes his polishing stones; he visited once, to ascertain the quality, and now he orders the stones over the phone. To sharpen a knife requires between two and seven 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. The fat in the blood also dulls the blade.
“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 five-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.” Five 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.”
Given the slow pace of sales and the healthy size of his inventory, the community could probably be fine if he stopped for a while. Shechitah has never demanded a specialized knife-maker, only trained shochtim. In Europe, shochtim historically used local blacksmiths. Rabbi Chaim Loike, a rabbinic coordinator at O.U. Kosher who teaches shechitah classes to rabbinical students at Yeshiva University, describes Yurman’s knives as a work of art, with all the implications of what this means: appreciated, but something of a luxury. “He really makes his own knife,” says Loike, explaining that many shochtim buy pre-made knives and then shape them into the legal requirements of the chalif. This is precisely what Loike does for his students, ordering knives through a man who gets them from Portugal, and then shaping them to satisfactory sharpness. But Yurman starts from scratch.
Knife-making is a multistep process. Once the basic width of the steel is set, Yurman sends it in for heat treatment, which hardens the steel. Yurman then cuts out the shape of the knife from the steel, handle included. After this, it gets sent to the grinder, who bevels the blade, meaning he indents the sides so they slope inward. Then the polisher polishes it. Yurman has cultivated relationships with these people for over 20 years, and he is very picky about their quality. “What do I do? I pick the steel, I pick the grinder, I pick the heat treat, I pick the handle, I pick the polisher. The inventory that I keep is all in the basement.”
“Can I see the basement?” I ask.
Yurman laughs deeply. By this point I know what that laugh means: I’m not getting anywhere near that basement.
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. Are they interested in shechitah? Some more, some less. Some don’t want to talk to you, some aren’t interested in killing animals, some think it’s cruel, some would rather shoot them—they think that’s not cruel—but certain people have their theories, and we discuss theories. I have one friend, and I say to him, ‘Daniel, we have 200 people in the room now, do you think five of them in the room understand what we’re talking about?’ And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ We discuss where the soft and the hard should meet in the knife, the balance. There is a theory to everything—I have a whole discussion with various shochtim, which side of the animal should we be standing on when you slaughter.”
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. Once the domain of kosher slaughterhouses (the United Nations is built over a defunct kosher slaughterhouse), New York now has a slaughter industry that is dominated by the Muslim community, which quietly and to little fanfare works out arrangements with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish slaughterers who need space for their students.
I ask Yurman how he got into slaughtering. “The steel is what really got me into it,” he says. But when I ask what got him into steel, Yurman becomes guarded again: He throws his hands up, raises his shoulder, and shakes his head. Four times he tries to answer but can’t. I wait for 30 seconds.
“Forget about that,” he says. “That, that, that’s, that’s, that’s … we’re not gonna get into that area.”
His voice has gotten smaller and he refuses to look at me.
But not everybody makes knives, I prod. “That’s true. Most people who make knives use one steel; I have a whole fan of different steels,” he says with some pride in his voice. Then shakes his head. “Because that’s just how I do it.”
I ask one more question before I leave: “Why do you make knives?”
This time, he is silent for close to a minute. “Same reason ladies go buy clothing,” he says. “There is always something, next year’s season, next year’s color, next year’s steel. I can’t put it in any other terms.” I leave the knife-maker with his knives.
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Shira Telushkin is a student at Harvard Divinity School, studying early Christianity and monasticism.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.