Reviewed by Mordechai Djavaheri
The aspiring shochet spends much of his time alone with his stones, sharpening and polishing his knife, only to be pogem it and start again. Mastering this skill has no shortcuts. Practice and the right tools are the only way to succeed. In Esek Hashechitah, Rav Dovid Shaffier, a seasoned professional shechitah instructor, knife maker, and sharpener, presents his method to his students on how to sharpen a shechitah knife (“chalif”) successfully using the appropriate angles and whetstones. This is not the only way to sharpen a shechitah knife (he aims for an uneven blade, for example, where as others prefer a 50:50 sharpening each side equally), but in effort to keep the student from trying to incorporate too many different ideas from different teachers, it’s important to have a clear comprehensive mehalech to follow.
The level of sharpness and smoothness, methods of holding the stone and checking the knife differ from culinary knife and tool sharpening when it comes to Shechitah. Shechitah knives need to start from the coarsest grit whetstone (#220 for example) and continue gradually and patiently to the highest grit natural finishing stones (10,000+), with care, precision, and the right maintenance tools for the knife and stones. It’s not enough to test for pegimot by cutting newspaper, when an animals life is on the line. The fingernail check and all of its facets need to be mastered to check for pegimot. Professional sharpeners have fancy sharpening setups with sink bridges and mats and sharpen with two hands on the knife, but the shochet in a slaughterhouse or stable does not have that luxury. Instead, he has to master the right body posture and hand position to hold his knife in one hand and whetstone in the other. Sushi may eventually dull a knife, but it doesn’t bear the risk of corrosion from all the blood and fat that can seep into the scratches on a knife and eventually ruin it. Shochetim don’t use honing rods or leather strops, either. Rav Shaffier gives a rundown of everything the shochet needs to do and not to do to succeed in this labor of love between man and his knife.
Broken down into well organized sections, the content is easily navigated by the reader. Topics covered include the different grits of whetstones, how to sharpen on them, when to switch from one side to the other, how to develop and remove a burr, how to prepare a new knife, how to check a knife, and advanced sharpening techniques to make a knife last longer and avoid the terror of constantly sharpening a well used knife.
Esek Hashechitah is a fast read but will take many months to master for the beginner, I’m sure. The content is fantastic, sharp, one could say, but not so smooth. The work is clearly still a draft meant to be handed out to students and not ready for widespread distribution. In addition to professional editing, it could benefit from more pictures and diagrams. Although it already has a few, some of them are of poor quality, and others would still be beneficial, such as what pegimot and scratches on a knife look like, corrosion, etc. Plus, a list of preferred whetstone brands and vendors would be helpful.
All in all, shechitah is not a clean or pleasant smelling trade, and the new shochet has to be mevater on his comfort for the sake of Hashem’s Mitzvah. Overlooking some lack of polish, Rav Shaffier’s Esek Hashechitah is the razor sharp starter guide that every new shochet needs to save himself a lot of time on YouTube and get the most out of his knife and stones.
Esek Hashechitah can be purchased on Amazon.
Learn about R’ Shaffier’s training course at The Kosher Cut.
Mordechai Djavaheri is a member of the Kollel L’Hora’ah at Yeshivat R’ Yitzchak Elchanan and teacher of Torah in YU and Great Neck, NY.