Sunday morning, a few hours before the Yom Kippur fast, many Jews will perform the Kapparot ritual and will wave a soon-to-be slaughtered chicken around their heads. This ancient Jewish custom, which is meant to transfer divine punishment to the soul of a chicken, has been around for generations. Recently however it has encountered opposition by animal welfare groups and even some rabbis.
First a few words about the practice and its purpose. According to tradition, the father of the house takes a male rooster and the wife takes a female chicken. Each of them holds the animal in his or her right hand and recites a number of verses.
Afterwards the chicken is transferred to the left hand and is waved around the head three times while the person recites: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death while I enter and proceed to a good long life, and to peace.” The chicken, which is immediately slaughtered, symbolizes the man’s sins and dies instead of him.
Demonstration in Tel Aviv (Photo: Tamar Hagai)
Over the years, many Jews have adopted a substitute for the chicken- a piece of pottery that is then smashed or money that goes to charity. However there are still many that do not have mercy on the chickens. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, from the Reform Movement, claims that this custom bespeaks a lack of compassion and mercy, attributes that generally characterize the Jewish people.
“Slaughtering chickens is an unfit custom that goes against Jewish feelings regarding animals”, he explains. “Judaism has always emphasized that the concepts of atonement, soul searching and repentance are dependent on an inner spiritual endeavor that man undertakes to correct his ways. The concept of Kapparot shifts the emphasis to external ritualistic expressions”.
Kariv contends that the ritual slaughter of the chickens, and the hardships they encounter on the way, cause unjustified suffering. “Anyone who walks through the markets can see that the manner in which the chickens are held before the Kapparot is insufferable. There is no veterinary supervision and no concern for the feelings of these poor creatures.”
Additional objections to the ritual killing of chickens come from animal welfare societies. Dozens of “Anonymous for Animal Rights” activists demonstrated at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv against this ‘cruel abuse’ of chickens.
“Save lives and not a life for a life” and “Don’t add another sin to your crimes” were just some of the placards waved at the demonstration. The demonstrators received a frosty reception from the vendors who threw water on them and asked them to disperse. An additional demonstration took place in Jerusalem.
“It does not make sense that we are asking to purify ourselves on Yom Kippur through the slaughter of a helpless animal,” says Chedva Vanderbrook, a board member of the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Ritual slaughter (Photo: Dudi Vaknin)
“Waving a slaughtered chicken around the head is a pagan custom that should be abolished. The slaughter poisons and hardens man’s heart. It is absurd that people are asking for life by taking the life of another creature, especially when Kapparot can be done with money”.
Vanderbrook, a social worker by profession, claims that in light of the welfare crisis in this country it is better to think of more efficient ways to practice Kapparot: “Needy people, who once received the slaughtered chicken, would today prefer a cooked and prepared chicken, and would always prefer money. In many cases the chickens are not given to poor people, but are cruelly tossed to the side."
As a child, Vanderbrook experienced Kapparot and to this day, she claims that she will never forget the sights and sounds.
“We would buy chickens a few days before Yom Kippur and they would wander through our garden,” she retells, “Before Yom Kippur the butcher would arrive and I would go to my room and hide under the covers in order to not hear the cries of the chickens. It was a difficult and cruel experience. Children who are exposed to this custom either become cruel adults or are traumatized.
Vanderbrook agrees with Rabbi Kariv that it is not just the slaughter that is unacceptable, but also the manner in which the birds are treated.
“Next to my house in Jerusalem there are chicken cages scattered around without water,’ she tells ‘The chickens are brought to the slaughter in cramped cages without water in the broiling sun. Half of them die on the way. No one thinks that these poor creatures deserve to live on the way to their death.
“Unfortunately I think that it will be very hard to eradicate this custom in the Ultra-Orthodox community” Vanderbrook pessimistically summarizes, “But I am appealing to traditional people who customarily perform Kapparot and am asking them to stop. Greater rabbis than myself have requested to end this practice.
"Rabbi Yosef Karo, for example, wrote that this custom should be abolished. The Ramban expressed similar ideas and Rabbi Kaduri - who was a vegetarian-, said that it could be given up. Rabbi Aviner said that it is preferable to use money for Kapparot and that the slaughter is not kosher due to the treatment of the chickens.”
Despite this many people will still choose to continue slaughtering the chickens. One can hope that they will try to prevent any abuse on the way to the slaughter. The chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, explains that Jewish ritual slaughter is the least painful way to kill chicken or cattle.
According to him, kosher Jewish slaughter is “ done in a way that the chicken feels no pain”. When it comes to the custom of Kapparot, Rabbi Eliyahu says that one must be very careful in how one handles the animals, and “that one should take extreme care not to harm them”.
“The Torah does not forbid the use of animals for work or for food, but the Torah does teach us to be considerate of them and forbids cruelty towards animals”, he stresses. “This is a very important commandment; Judaism preceded the world by 3000 years in regard to its concern for animals.”