VINELAND, NJ — Rabbi Elimelach Teitelbaum drew the knife slowly down the edge of the nail of his little finger. He seemed to listen for any irregularities in the blade he had honed to a painless precision.

It had to be sharp and smooth. It must cause as little pain as possible to the birds in the next room.

With Rosh Hashana last week and Yom Kippur beginning tonight, September is a busy month for Rabbi Teitelbaum and the 17 other rabbis who work at Vineland Kosher Poultry, New Jersey's only kosher poultry slaughterhouse, where 18 rabbis slaughter about 25,000 chickens a day.

At Vineland Kosher Poultry 18 rabbis slaughter about 25,000 chickens a day.

"Strictly kosher people don't eat any other chickens," said Esther Raab, co-owner of the business with her husband of 45 years, Irving. "For the big conventions, we send [the chickens] by air." Chickens killed in South Jersey have graced tables in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, as well as countless kosher tables in the New York and Philadelphia areas, she said yesterday.

According to Rabbi Menachem Genak of the Orthodox Union in New York City, Vineland Kosher Poultry is one of three slaughterhouses that cover 95 percent of the national market for kosher chickens. The others are in Mifflintown, Pa. and Livingston Manor, N.Y.

But it all starts with Amish farmers, Irving Raab said. They raise the chickens without antibiotics or growth hormones.

And rabbis watch over the operation, early in the chicken's life.

"The rabbis go out to the farm to see the chickens vaccinated, and the needles should not touch bone and hurt the chicken," her husband added.

When a new session of slaughtering begins, the rabbi prays silently over the first chicken.

The slaughtering, based on Torah passages, is likewise meant to be considerate of the birds, which are six or seven weeks old when they are killed. To qualify as kosher poultry, birds must be healthy enough to have lived another year if they were not slaughtered. No ailing bird can qualify.

Each time a rabbi begins a new session of slaughtering, he prays silently over the first chicken, Irving Raab said.

"He says a prayer that with God's permission he will kill the animal for human use. He must cut all the [blood] vessels on one side [of the neck], and if not, it's not kosher." After the rabbi's swift cut, the bird's windpipe must be visible or else it does not earn the kosher tag.

The rabbis, who wear covers over their beards to keep clean, work a half-hour, then rest a half-hour. "They have to rest their hands so they can be steady, or else they get too tired," Esther Raab said.

After 40 years in the chicken business, she knows its finer points. She and her husband emigrated from Poland, through Germany, in 1950, had a chicken farm in Vineland for several years, and began their business about 20 years ago.

Once the chicken is killed, it is moved by conveyor belt through a maze of machines that remove its extraneous parts. The processing removes as much blood as possible from the birds.

"A Jew is not allowed to eat blood or use hot water in a scalder, which makes the blood coagulate," said Charlie Smith, who manages the processing for the Raabs.

The birds are washed three times, then packed in salt to further draw out blood, then packed in ice. Most are shipped to New York and Philadelphia. The process use about 150 employees and 200,000 gallons of water a day, Irving Raab said.

"If [the wing] was broken before [slaughter], it's not kosher, because the bird died with pain."

Many of the birds killed yesterday were to be eaten before the beginning of Yom Kippur, a fasting holiday. The chicken eaten the night before the fast is blessed before being killed, as a sacrifice for sins, Esther Raab said.

The chickens that bear the kosher tag don't just have to pass inspection by the Department of Agriculture. They have to get the approval of the rabbis, who check to be sure there are no irregularities in the bird's organs and that none of its bones have been broken.

"They're stricter than the USDA," Smith said. "If they look at a bird and see its wing was broken, they have to see if it happened before the bird was slaughtered or it it was done by the equipment. If it was broken beforehand, it's not kosher, because the bird died with pain."


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