The Kapparot Problem

This Friday, as Yom Kippur begins, some orthodox Jewish people will practice a ritual called “Kapparot” (also spelled “Kaparot” or “Kaparos”) in which they’ll swing a live chicken around their heads three times in order to transfer their sins to it. Because that makes perfect sense. Afterwards, they’ll slaughter the chicken and supposedly donate it to the poor (though the chicken is often just disposed of).

I’m vegetarian, but what drew me to this issue wasn’t the slaughter (maybe I’m just immune to that by now)… it was that the swinging of the chickens around the head is arguably causing them pain. As this video suggests to those practicing the ritual, “You have been told that holding a chicken by its wings that way will make the bird calm and relaxed. This is not true! The bird is terrified…”

What makes this ritual particularly puzzling is that a chicken isn’t even required. You could easily just substitute a small bag of coins instead. So why not just do that? It makes no sense to me.

As it turns out, there’s a group working to end the use of chickens in this ritual, appropriately called the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos (which is part of a larger organization called United Poultry Concerns).

Karen Davis is the founder of the group and I asked her a number of questions about the ritual via email. Our edited exchange is below:

How did this tradition even begin?

Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or in the Talmud. The custom is first discussed by Jewish scholars in the ninth century. They explain that since the Hebrew word gever means both “man” and “rooster,” punishment of the bird can be substituted for that of a person.

However, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, several prominent Jewish scholars strongly opposed Kapparot during the Middle Ages. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, one of the foremost Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen superstition. This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro, a major codifier of Jewish law, who called it “a foolish custom” that Jews should avoid. These rabbis all felt that Kapparot was a Pagan custom that had mistakenly made its way into Jewish practice, perhaps because when Jews lived among Pagans, this rite seemed like a korban (sacrifice) to some extent.

… the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, also practiced Kapparot, and most Hasidic communities are still in favor of keeping the custom as part of their traditions. Some Jews also feel that, although this is not officially a sacrifice, it keeps the concept of sacrifice alive in preparation for the rebuilding of the Temple.

[Note: A more detailed version of this answer, written by Dr. Richard Schwartz, can be found here.]

How do we know the chickens are being treated inhumanely when there’s no sound or movement coming from them?

The fact that there is virtually no sound or movement coming from the six-week-old Kapparot chickens trucked from New Jersey to New York in transport crates stacked in the streets tells us that these birds are so deeply traumatized by artificial breeding, rough handling, physical immobilization in the crates, lack of food and water, and perhaps physical injury and illness as well, that they are in a condition of inanition and learned helplessness, i.e., pathological exhaustion, chronic fear, and recognition that there is nothing they can do to help themselves.

Kapparot practitioners in New York hold the chickens suspended by their wings often for long periods of time. Chickens (birds) are not physiologically designed for their wings to carry their weight and, thus, their being held with their wings pinned backward and their bodies and legs hanging down unsupported is one of the cruelest abuses they suffer in the Kapparot situation.

What happens to the chickens after they are used in the Kapparot ritual?

Though claimed by the rabbis to be fed to “the poor,” thousands are simply thrown dead and alive into plastic garbage bags often thrown into dumpsters to be hauled away by city sanitation workers to the landfills at taxpayers’ expense. We have witnessed this in Brooklyn year after year, and it was videotaped in 2013 by Lori Barrett, a lawyer who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the largest Kapparot sale & slaughter site is located.

Are these rituals limited to specific groups of Jewish people?

While many (probably most) practitioners are Hasidic, not all are. Some are Conservative, others Modern Orthodox, etc.

What do supporters of the ritual say to defend their use of chickens?

Rabbi Shea Hecht of the Lubavitch community, whose father began trucking chickens to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1974 and whose family is regarded as the leading cause of the growth of using chickens for Kapparot in the U.S., told NPR in this September 2009 report:

“The main part of the service,” he says, “is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, ‘Oops, you know what? That could have been me.'”

In short, Rabbi Hecht, and probably many (though not all) other Kapparot practitioners who use chickens, enjoy the experience of making and watching a helpless creature suffer and die “for them” (be punished in their stead for their sins). They like the control and are gratified by the pain and suffering they can inflict with impunity in the guise of religion. Obviously it is not necessary to cause needless suffering and death in order to improve yourself — just the opposite.

Why don’t they just use bags of coins instead of the chickens?

As I just mentioned in the example of Rabbi Hecht, many Hasidic rabbis insist on swinging and slaughtering chickens for Kapparot instead of swinging bags of coins for symbolic atonement and charity: there is a liking for the slaughter, the power, the blood. As human psychology, it is about the desire to have an innocent victim (Lamb of God, Scapegoat, Jesus Christ, Thanksgiving Turkeys, Experimental Animals, Young Boys sent to war to be slaughtered) suffer and die for oneself/community/nation/society. It’s about the age-old system of belief in cleansing/purifying/expiating sins, vices and diseases by transferring them to an innocent victim or class of victims.

In addition, Hasidic communities/members will rarely depart from/defy what their specific rabbis tell them to do. Even if a member personally winces or objects, he or she won’t speak up publicly. These communities live strictly defined lives like the Amish, Jehovah Witnesses, and other extremely insular groups. Women are not respected as persons in their own right. Fear of being shunned/ostracized, having no other options or imaginings but to conform, stay, and obey, are motivations.

Finally, the temples that do the ritual are said to make a lot of money from it — purchasing chickens very cheaply at a few cents on the dollar, and “selling” them to practitioners for a lot of money.

(For the record, I am not Jewish or religious. I grew up in a family that attended the Methodist Church down the street from us, but religion never influenced me as a worldview. No religion even if proven “true” would reconcile me in the slightest to the way things are.)

Is the ritual common outside of Brooklyn?

Kapparot with chickens takes place in several other places, including:

Jerusalem (Israel)

Lakewood, New Jersey (a Hasidic town)

Baltimore, Maryland

Potomac, Maryland

Florida

The Bronx and Rockaway, New York

Los Angeles, California

It has also been reported in South Africa, and I assume it continues to be practiced by Hassidim in Eastern Europe and Russia.

How has the Hasidic community responded to your pleas? Has the use of chickens gone down since you began this campaign?

According to Boro Park Brooklyn resident & Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos member Rina Deych, at least one Brooklyn rabbi responded to our pleas. Specifically, Rabbi Moshe Snow of Temple Beth-el in the heart of Boro Park urged his congregation to use money instead of chickens.

I’m obviously no fan of religious rituals, but this one seems completely unnecessary. Considering there’s a religiously-approved alternative that doesn’t involve chickens, it’s hard to justify using them.

***Update***: The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos just recently “filed an order at the Supreme Court of Kings County to enjoin Brooklyn residents from organizing, conducting or participating in the kaporos events involving chickens…” New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind says this is a violation of religious freedom.

(Image via Dubova / Shutterstock.com)


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