Rabbi Is Embarrassed By Religious Jews Using Swinging Chickens as Sin Absorbers

Rabbi Adam Frank, based in Jerusalem, is a little embarrassed by Judaism’s chicken-twirling tradition.

For those not in the know, Kapparot is a Jewish ritual, performed on the eve of Yom Kippur, in which a self-identified sinner swings a live chicken over his head three times, while reciting “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement.” What does that do, you ask?

It transfers the person’s sins to the doomed bird.

I swear I’m not making this up. Afterwards, the chicken is slaughtered — and YHWH, we are left to infer, is just pleased as punch.

Frank says that the whole thing bothers him because he’s seen the birds get neglected, starved of food or water, in the days before it’s even time to swing and kill them. Also, he says,

“Christianity took the idea of sacrificing a live something for the sake of humanity and Judaism finds that an anathema, and yet kapparot is that very thing — transferring sins onto a chicken and sacrificing it.”

Good point. But most of all, I was heartened by this objection of his:

“This issue has become one that’s in the public eye, and if it’s an issue that reduces people’s respect to Jews and Judaism, and it is not one that is mandated by Jewish law, which kapparot isn’t, then it is something that needs to really go to the side of history and be reevaluated.”

It reduces people’s respect for Jews and Judaism. Yes, Rabbi, I’m sure it does. Kapparot is, on its face, hilariously primitive and dumb. It’s also an epic moral cheat to use a chicken as a sin absorber. In almost any other context but religion, the practice wouldn’t just be seen as strange; reasonable people would probably agree that a habitual chicken twirler is a serious candidate for the mental ward.

What Frank’s comment says to me is that, yes, it is worth it to call out the folly of religious rituals such as these. It works (sometimes at least), because even clergy members, whose identity and source of income are thoroughly wrapped up in the traditions of their chosen faith, can get flustered by spiritual expressions of their flock that the rest of the world quickly deems bizarre and laughable.

For their sake and ours, let’s keep laughing.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    I just find it weird that he is calling out this one sacrifice ritual when historically this practice is not unusual for Judaism. I mean this is the religion whose medical policy was telling you which animals to kill to “cleanse” yourself. I know that they don’t do burnt offerings any more, but it is weird to see one complain about something that would probably still be occurring if there was a temple.

    • Terry Firma

      “…would probably still be occurring”?

      Kapparot is held all over the place in conservative Jewish circles, year after year. Read the article in the Jerusalem Post, linked above. “A back alley in the market area of Jerusalem’s Ultra Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood was filled with stacks of small plastic cages, cramming at least 5 chickens each, all for the purpose of the kapparot ceremony.”

      If this crap was a thing of the past, the good Rabbi would not have to call for its abolition.

      • Raising_Rlyeh

        I realize that, but I meant the burnt offerings that were officially connected to the temple.

    • guest

      but that was in a different dispensation…wait, wrong religion.

  • the moother

    Why is it that we find the image of the dead, naked chicken acceptable but it’d be a horror if the same photo was taken of the same bird, fully feathered, with it’s neck slumped over the plate?

    I, for one, would have preferred the latter. It would better show just how obscene and stupid the act of kapparot is.

    • badgerchild

      What’s horrible about a dead chicken? Only in the era of plastic-wrapping and grocery-shopping can we be horrified by such a thing. The horror is not the dead chicken. The horror is the fact that modern people abuse animals because they were abused by a religion.

      • The Other Weirdo

        I once told a coworker during a corporate cookout(complete with a spitted pig) that she should totally bring the kids around and explain to them where their food really comes from. She was horrified at the idea.

        • badgerchild

          I actually wondered out loud to my mom once (we were cutting grocery store chickens into serving bits) if kapparot wasn’t a game that a Jewish housewife made up in order to make chicken slaughter and preparation more “fun”. I actually know women who will buy only boneless chicken from the store because cutting up a chicken in their kitchen is “ew”. I wouldn’t put it past them to go slightly psychotic if they were forced to live on farms.

        • eric

          The sad things is, there’s nothing particularly horrifying about having this conversation…as long as you start early. If you don’t have it early, though, I can see how it could be a problem.
          Kids pick up on adult cultural quirks. If you treat ‘animals eat animals’ as a fact of life, so will they. They’re only going to treat it as some shameful secret if you treat it that way first.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

            When you grow up with cats, you get an early introduction to the idea that food used to be living animals. *shrugs* ‘s the way nature is, and until there is a meat substitute that has the flavor and texture of meat, I’ll happily eat dead cow, pig, chicken, turkey, buffalo, tuna (raw), salmon, eel… but I won’t touch octopus.

      • the moother

        Well, thanks for understanding the entire point of my post… And thanks for translating it for me… And thanks to the three others who upvoted the translation instead of the original.

    • guesta

      Because we eat dead, naked chickens for dinner? Most of us, anyway. Mmmm, chicken.

  • L.Long

    Rlyeh is correct and the rabbi should be embarrassed by almost ALL the jewish religious traditions! Most of them are all pretty silly if not down right stupid (ie no elevator button pushing). Using rope to fence off a larger house area so you can work outside, and many many more. Sucking a mutilated babies penis is not silly it is just plain insane stupid BS.

    • 7Footpiper

      The “work” of a Mohel is not just BS, it’s sick and contains more than just a hint of paedophilia. If any normal person was to take up such a task their family and friends would look at them as more than a little sick and yet when done in the name of religion it’s given a free pass.

      • 7Footpiper

        After a little more research I feel a bit of clarification is required. A Mohel is a circumciser, whether he performs the task with or without sucking off the foreskin is irrelevant to his title. While I regard circumcision as unnecessary and barbaric it’s worth pointing out that my previous post was aimed squarely at he ones who do go around sucking off newborn infant boys.

    • guest

      No elevator button pushing? Really?

      • allein

        Only on the Sabbath. It counts as “work.”
        So they set the elevators to stop on every floor instead.

        • L.Long

          And getting out of bed uses muscle power which is ‘work’ as well but they choose to ignore that little problem.
          Like all religious – nitpicking hypocrites.

      • L.Long

        Also it has a spark when the button is pushed which is fire and also forbidden.

  • badgerchild

    The people I know who do this actually don’t use a chicken. They swing money above their head, then give the money to charity. The aunt of a friend once freaked out because a coin escaped the lot due to too-vigorous swinging by the uncle, and she had to scour the house looking for the “sin-infused” coin.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Wait… So, she freaks out by the presence of a “sin-infused coin”, but is willing to give the money to someone else? How is that supposed to help?

      • Bitter Lizard

        She must be the old lady from the movie Drag Me to Hell.

      • Roy Gamsgrø

        I reacted to that as well.

        Isn’t giving that “sin-infused” money to the needy rather… Cruel?

        • badgerchild

          (shakes the commentariat by the shoulders) You. Are. Applying. Logic. To. A. Religious. Ritual. :) lol…

          That said, remember that charity itself is a religious ritual in Judaism, and that presumably purifies the money. I guess.

        • Katarn

          as long as they are gentile they have no hope anyway right?

          • badgerchild

            Channeling my grandmother: “Gif gelt to a goy charity? Vat’s dat? You vant I should cut off my hend?”

          • The Other Weirdo

            I don’t think that’s true in Judaism.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      I love stories like that because you can’t make that shit up.

  • Art_Vandelay

    and it is not one that is mandated by Jewish law, which kapparot isn’t,
    then it is something that needs to really go to the side of history and
    be reevaluated.

    Great…now tell us about all the embarrassing shit you believe that is supported by Jewish law.

  • islandbrewer

    Gosh, we always just used baking soda.

    Wait, that’s for odors, not sin. I’m sure it works just as well.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    Sheesh, they should be embarrassed. Leviticus 16 clearly says that you transfer your sins onto a goat, not a chicken!

    • islandbrewer

      Pffffft! Goat, chicken, whatever. In the talmud we can just say the chicken is a kind of goat, like a crocodile is a kind of fish.

      • badgerchild

        Swinging a crocodile over your head, now there’s a mental picture.

        • islandbrewer

          It’s reserved for only the most heinous of sins.

          • Castilliano

            What do hyenas have to do with this?

            • badgerchild

              Don’t be silly. Can you imagine cages full of hyenas in a back alley in Jerusalem, waiting patiently to be swung overhead and slaughtered?

              OK… OK… it’s all so absurd that a statement that would have branded you as nuts in yesterday’s blog comments won’t crack a yawn today.

        • busterggi

          Clearly you don’t know any Australian Jews.

      • suzeb1964
    • Stev84

      That’s where the term scapegoat comes from,

      And the rabbi is of course correct that Jesus is nothing but a human scapegoat.

  • Roy Gamsgrø

    So, you use a chicken for small sins.

    I guess you upgrade to a turkey for bigger sins, and for the real whoppers you use an ostrich?

    • The Other Weirdo

      That’s exactly how it works.

      • badgerchild

        I’m imagining some large, strapping Jewish college boy like my nephew drafted into doing the ostrich-swinging, and the ostrich objecting strenuously to such cavalier treatment. Made my morning. :D

  • Brian Westley

    I’d use a rubber chicken.

    “I’m rubber, you’re glue”
    “Sins bounce off me and stick to you.”

  • Bitter Lizard

    So theists are blaming chickens for the bad stuff they do now. I guess there weren’t any atheists handy.

    • The Other Weirdo

      It’s not blame. It’s “I did something wrong, but I can’t stand the guilt or the stink-eye my neighbours are giving me, so let me disembowel the nearest chicken and fondle its entrails. There… I feel so much better now.”

      • Bitter Lizard

        By “transferring the sin” it would seem they would also be “transferring the blame”. I’m guessing all that sin is what makes chicken so delicious.

        • The Other Weirdo

          I don’t know the details, but I don’t know that there is necessarily a link between “sin” and “blame”.

    • Terry Firma

      “So theists are blaming chickens for the bad stuff they do now. I guess there weren’t any atheists handy.”

      You fool! Don’t give them any ideas! I would hate to get swung over a sin-infested believer’s head and then butchered. Plus, my life insurance probably won’t even cover that.

      • Bitter Lizard

        I thought life insurance was supposed to cover “Acts of God”?

        • The Other Weirdo

          But not those of His idiot followers.

  • Drakk

    Does anyone think maybe this practice started out as an ancient reductio ad absurdum rebuttal to the nonsensical xtian dogma, and over the centuries it got taken out of context in the most ironic way possible?

    • badgerchild

      No… I rather imagined that the Christian idea of human sacrifice was a horrid echo of animal sacrifice in the Temple.

      • guest

        That’s made pretty explicit in the scriptures, isn’t it? There’s a reason Jesus is compared with a lamb and said to have died somewhere around passover. Although in his case, it’s the humans who eat the sacrificial flesh and not Gawd.

    • Yoav

      The concept predate christianity and likely originates from the ceremony described in Leviticus 16:9-10.

  • trj

    Funny how in religion transferring your sins to innocents and avoiding personal responsibility is considered to be perfectly justifiable.

    What kind of morally bankrupt god allows such a system?

    • badgerchild

      Most of them.

      • trj

        Indeed. We humans love to invent ways to avoid responsibility for our actions. And the priests receiving the offerings on their god’s behalf don’t object.

  • Matthew Baker

    So what is the best sauce for Sin Chicken?

    • randomfactor

      For venial sin chicken or mortal sin chicken? There’s quite a difference in the spices. Especially if you want to curry favor with the Almighty.

      • tsig

        I’d think you’d want something hot to remind you of hell.

        is there such a thing as a kosher chicken?

        • badgerchild

          Absolutely, but not until it’s slaughtered.

          Before that, it’s too hard to for the mohel to hold the chick down. No. I kid.

      • islandbrewer

        Extra upvote for “curry favor.”

      • Deus Otiosus

        I read “curry favor” as “curry flavor”. Was that intentional? Because now I want an order of curry flavored sin chicken.

    • allein

      Gravy and mashed potatoes.

      • allein

        Come to think of it, I think that’s what I’ll be requesting for my birthday dinner…

    • guest

      Puttanesca for sexual sins.

  • eric

    a self-identified sinner swings a live chicken over his head three times, while reciting “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement.” What does that do, you ask?

    Make the chicken lay deviled eggs? ;)

    • Terry Firma

      Goddammit, I wish I’d thought of that! Have an upvote.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      • Bitter Lizard

        sigh I’ll get eric a chicken.

        • Hat Stealer

          He needs one after that joke.

    • busterggi
  • baal

    I keep reading Kapparot as Kakarot. It doesn’t make that much less sense to me.

    • Mike De Fleuriot

      At least Goku sacrificed himself for everything and never asked to be praised for it. (Multiple times)

  • Mitch

    What I’m taking from his quote is that the practice is only embarrassing because it’s now publicly known and the public is losing respect for Judaism because of it.

    Would he still be embarrassed if no one knew about all the chicken-swinging shenanigans going on in the Jewish community?

    • Mairianna

      Or what if it WAS Jewish Law? Would it still be silly??

      • Mitch

        I think it would. Whether it’s a law or simply a tradition, absurd things will still be absurd.

    • Terry Firma

      Most likely, no. That was sorta my point. Shine a light on bullshit, and make fun of it — and with any luck, given enough people willing to take a step back from common superstition and then laugh about it, said bullshit will gradually vanish.

  • Beet LeRace

    Cool, I’ll add this to my pre-lunch routine — swing my lunch bag around, transfer my sins to my fruit cup & leftover pizza before sacrificing them to Mr. Belly.

    Salvation has never been easier! OR TASTIER!

    • The Other Weirdo

      No, I’m pretty sure you need a Sin Eater to eat your lunch.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    I think this tradition should be kept and used by all religions, with just a minor change. The more sins you’ve committed, the larger the animal you have to swing round your head. Can you just imagine all those rcc priests trying to swing an elephant around their heads. To make it even more interesting, they should be required to kill the animal only using their own body, no aids allowed.

    Come on, it’s hardly any more stupid then what’s being done already and it would be fun to watch.

    • Stev84

      I think blue whales are required for that

  • ZenDruid

    I think it’d be nice if the Wahhabis and Salafis could pick up the habit. I feel for the chicken, but it’s still more “civilized” than killing a daughter or sister as a scapegoat.

  • Mario Strada

    The Rabbi may be embarrassed, but I am sure the chicken is even less pleased.

  • guest

    Let’s give him some credit for caring about animal welfare even a little, and also for this quote:

    “Judaism takes seriously the idea that we have to do the hard work,
    the painful, emotional toil of finding out what we did wrong in the past
    year and repairing it with people.” Giving people an out by
    transferring sins onto something else, he says, is misleading and
    defeats the whole purpose.

    Trying to repair things you’ve done wrong is eggsactly what I’d like people to do in any society. Let’s hope his flock listens to him and this feather-brained practice is confined to history. Otherwise people will think jews are cracked in the head and tell them ‘the yolks on you!’

    • Mitch

      Chicken puns. Chicken puns everywhere. How fowl of you.

  • McAtheist

    Am I the only one who thinks kapparot should involve an actual parrot? Or did I watch too much Flying Circus’ as a kid?

    • busterggi

      But never a dead parrot!

  • busterggi

    So kapparot is basically Jewish voodoo. Good to know that there is one stupid ancient practice Christianity didn’t steal.

  • Robster

    Are the chikkins kosher?

  • Colin Rosenthal

    Kapparot always makes me think of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NemkBVSnUt0

  • RaeRae

    actually i had first heard about this when animal rights activists protested because of the open air slaughter of the chickens when the Orthodox Community did it in NYC

  • Abe Nemon

    As a former orthodox Jew myself, I feel like there is a lot of misinformation being spread on this thread in the service of having a laugh at the expense of orthodox Judaism. (And by all means, have a laugh, but let’s not misrepresent people.)

    First of all, a Mohel does not molest children. He simply cuts the foreskin (an utterly inessential part of one’s member); and if you are born into the religion you will have been far too young to even remember this supposedly traumatic event. (And if not, well I certainly wouldn’t go through with that, but to each his own.)

    Moving on: Nobody “swings” anything when they do kapparos. It’s a religious ritual, not a spectator sport. Modern Orthodox Jews will circle a bundle of money around their heads and make a blessing. Hasidic Jews will use live chickens. With a chicken, someone slowly moves a live chicken in a circle around one’s head, and the person makes the above mentioned blessing. The chicken is then slaughtered with a rapid cut through the jugular vein (in accordance with Kosher law) and dies instantly (although for several minutes the after-reflexes of the nervous system cause the dead carcass to spasm and flap its wings. Anyone who has witnessed animals being slaughtered will be familiar with this sight, though it was rather shocking when I first saw it as a young’un.) The chicken is given to feed a poor family. (Although, as this Rabbi points out, in large communities as in Brooklyn a lot of the meat gets wasted.)

    Regarding orthodox Judaism: It is, in its way, a very charming way of life. In part this is due to it being a much more ritualistic culture than Christianity, more analogous in many ways to the pre-Christian religions of the Greeks and the Romans, in which every aspect of daily life was infused with a divine significance, and which demanded countless strange (yet somehow compelling) customs and laws one had to follow in order to recognize that. (Orthodox Jews to some extent regard Christianity as a tacky cop-out religion for people who couldn’t hack it under the burdens of being the Chosen People.)

    I offer this information not to defend all aspects of the customs of orthodox Judaism, but only to illustrate that what is being caricatured here is a culture that I–for one–have always found far more rich and interesting than that of Christianity, which has always seemed to me–and I think many orthodox Jews would share this sentiment–as something of a joke.

    To me, Christianity started out as the populist version of Judaism. If Jews are the ritualistic old mystics with the elaborate mythologies and lineages of kings, Christianity is the bratty younger brother who says, “Screw all your rituals! Praise Jesus!” In many ways, Christianity was a sort of populist, anti-intellectual, anti-”elite” reaction to Judaism and paganism. Christianity, in other words, was the Tea Party of the Roman Empire.