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September 25, 2012 2:26 pm

Use Fish, Not Chicken for Kaparot

avatar by Eliyahu Federman

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Chickens. Photo: wiki commons.

Thousands of Orthodox Jews are preparing to swing live chickens over their heads before Yom Kippur, symbolically transferring their sins to the chicken. The chicken is then slaughtered and donated to the poor for consumption. This practice is called ‘Kapparot,’ which literally means “atonement.”

Using fish, money or chickens are acceptable methods of performing this expiation ritual. Using a live creature has the impact of allowing one to appreciate his or her own life and the life of the animal. A deep appreciation for animal life is fostered by seeing an animal slaughtered so that man can survive.

This chicken swinging ritual is controversial both in terms of the practice potentially leading to animal cruelty and the view by many leading rabbinical authorities that the practice should be avoided because of its superstitious nature.

Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Code of Jewish Law, called the practice “heathen, foolish and superstitious.” Other Rabbis especially Kabbalists like Rabbi Isaac Luria encouraged the practice of using a live creature for Kapparot.

Another common objection to the practice is based on the Jewish principle that one is forbidden to engage in tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (causing unnecessary pain to animals). While the ritual itself does not necessitate animal cruelty, the pragmatic outcome may result in the unnecessary suffering of chickens:

Because modern kapparot chickens are trucked into the city from long distances, often in open trucks exposed to the weather and without adequate food or water, the question of … cruelty to animals …. has become an … issue. The birds may also suffer while they are being handled for sale or during the ceremony, because many urban Jews are unfamiliar with the proper, humane way to hold a chicken. (Which should be with a hand above and one below the bird, supporting the weight of the body, not held with the wings painfully pinned back, as is done at some kapparot centers.) In some places in Israel and the United States, chickens are sold on street corners for this ceremony, and not every merchant takes proper care of his chickens during this period. The birds are frequently cooped up in baskets, and some merchants neglect to give them sufficient food or water. In some cases, the caged chickens have been left out in the rain or under the hot sun with no shade or shelter, or simply abandoned in warehouses and left to starve if not sold in time for the ceremony.

Notions of animal cruelty do not apply to fish under Jewish law, so by using a fish for the Kapparot ritual one would avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal yet still have the benefit of using a live creature for the ritual. Jewish law does not recognize fish as an animal for the purposes of animal cruelty laws. (See Beis Yehudah ×‘יור”×“ סימן ×™” where all opinions say you can cut a piece of fish when it is alive and no one says it is tsa’ar ba’alei chaim. Therefore it must be that there is no tsa’ar ba’alei chaim for Fish). Also ritual slaughter does not apply to fish, therefore it is understood that fish don’t experience the same kind of pain as an animal.

Another advantage of using a fish is that you avoid the concerns of rabbinical authorities that were critical of using chickens. At the same time you are respecting those authorities that said Kapparot should be done on a live creature.

Chickens are required to be slaughtered in a particular method for them to be deemed kosher. In contrast, fish do not require a particular method of slaughter, so by using fish you offset the concerns of the animal being rendered non-kosher due to an improper slaughter procedure.

At this Yom Kipur’s Kapparot, consider using a live fish instead of a live chicken. You will avoid potential animal cruelty under Jewish law. You will be respecting Halachic authorities that were critical of using chickens while also respecting those that encouraged doing the procedure on a live creature. You will also avoid concerns that your animal was slaughtered improperly. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

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  • Mary Finelli

    There are many sacrifices that people can make to express their gratitude for life. To be meaningful, a sacrifice should be of something desirable to the person that they deprive theirself. Sacrificing an animal who is viewed with such disregard as is the case with the chickens used for kapparot is an insincere “sacrifice” and makes a mockery of the ritual.

    A loving being would not want a sentient creature to be stressed, terrified, manhandled, killed or in any other way harmed as a token of appreciation. Just as it was acknowledged that human sacrifice is wrong, the same is true of sacrificing any sentient being. (Scientific evidence shows that fish are, in fact, sentient, and the reasoning given for instead using them is a blatant attempt to flout the spirit of the custom.) It is antithetical to the very concept of morality and the goodness that religion is meant to impart in us.

    Using live animals for kapparot is barbaric, and disgraces the Jewish religion. Sensible alternatives to sacrificing animals would be the sacrifice of money or material goods (which can be donated to a charitable cause), or desired foods such as sweets or snacks. There is no justification for causing harm to innocent others, most especially in the name of religion.

  • Ronnie Steinau

    I am appalled to learn that the Algemeiner is so callous as to suggest using one sentient being instead of another in the kaporos ritual. If notions of animal cruelty do not apply to fish under Jewish law and it is understood that fish don’t experience the same kind of pain as an animal, I highly suggest that the rabbis take a look at science and the neurophysiology of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. The kaporos ritual can be beautiful and cruelty to any live creature can be purposefully avoided as money is offered as a humane and compassionate avenue to perform kaporos.

    Ronnie Steinau
    Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos

  • Regarding swinging live goldfish in plastic bags of water: First, this would be a completely wasteful exercise, since thousands, tens of thousands or more plastic bags would be used for this needless “atonement” behavior. Environmentally, the plastic bag idea is totally irresponsible.

    Second, where would all these plastic bags full of goldfish go after they were waved over observers’ heads?

    Third, children and adults alike, having no understanding of or regard for animal life, as the chicken swinging and conversations with Hasidic practitioners drearily show, would be poking holes in the plastic bags, squeezing out the water, and laughing as the fish strangled slowly to death on the concrete, unable to breathe out of their aquatic element.

    Fourth, this proposed scene of mountainous piles of goldfish in plastic bags waiting to be swung, then twirled over people’s head, then Dumpstered, stomped on, etc. combines something demonic with something demented to the point of pathology. One is left speechless reading such proposals, and having attended five chicken kaporos ceremonies in Brooklyn in the past 2 years, and having watched a ton of video footage of these “chicken” rituals in Israel, Los Angeles, and NY, I wonder if the human species will ever, as some wistfully hope we are doing, “evolve.”

    Replacing suffering, mistreated chickens in kaporos rituals with plastic bags filled with thousands or millions of sentient water creatures degrades the idea of spirituality and “cleansing” into something that exceeds even hideousness. It degrades the animals being forced into these ridiculous exercises and it degrades human beings.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns and a founding member of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.

  • If you swing a small fish (e.g., gold fish) over your head while it is in a bag of water you will avoid concerns of the fish suffering while the ritual is performed.

  • No animal should be forced to suffer and die for a human being (“man”) to appreciate the gift of one’s own life. There is something missing in a mind that needs to inflict pain, fear and death on a helpless creature in order to feel alive and give thanks. Replacing suffering chickens with fish is a terrible idea. For heavens sake! A live fish out of water is undergoing the agony of slow suffocation because the fish cannot breath. It is like you or I being pulled into the water and drowning. Please learn something about the commonalities of neurophysiology of mammals and birds and fish before suggesting the one needless cruelty be replaced by another. Is it so difficult to be kind to an animal instead of always looking for a way to bring pain and suffering and death to our fellow creatures? Try peace for a change, please.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns