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October 14, 2016 6:20 am

The Battle for Kapparot and Jewish Tradition

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The controversial kapparot ritual for Yom Kippur. Photo: Gady Munz via Wikimedia Commons.

The controversial kapparot ritual for Yom Kippur. Photo: Gady Munz via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past few months, animal rights activists in the United States have focused their attention on the pre-Yom Kippur custom of “kapparot.” Here in Los Angeles, protesters disrupted a kapparot gathering at the Hebrew Discovery Center, run by Rabbi Netanel Louie. Meanwhile, in New York, aggressive protesters picketed kapparot sites across the city. At one location in Crown Heights, the demonstrators, frustrated at their inability to prevent kapparot, began chanting, “Animal holocaust” and, “Murderers: Wake up, you’re oppressed!”

There is no question that kapparot is a controversial custom, even among the most traditional Orthodox Jews. Carried out before Yom Kippur, the ritual involves a live chicken being waved around a person’s head, as he or she recites a formula symbolically removing their accumulated sins and transferring them to the chicken. The chicken is then killed and given to the poor.

Kapparot originated in the Babylonian Jewish community approximately 1,500 years ago, and has been fiercely debated by rabbis ever since. Senior rabbinic authorities dismiss kapparot as a paganistic rite that diminishes the seriousness of the High Holidays by giving the impression that by uttering a few words over a chicken, one can circumvent the entire repentance process. Later rabbis were concerned that the huge numbers of chickens requiring ritual slaughter in such a short period of time would inevitably lead to some not being slaughtered correctly. They argued that the danger of feeding poor Jews with non-kosher chickens was surely a far greater concern than a questionable custom not prescribed by the Torah or Talmud.

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As a result of these objections, an alternative kapparot method using coins instead of chickens became increasingly popular. Indeed, the vast majority of those who perform kapparot today use coins, and the money is later distributed to charity. My own German Orthodox tradition is not to do kapparot at all. Although I was aware of the custom growing up, my first exposure to it — in both chicken and coin form — was when I went to post-high school yeshiva.

At our synagogue in Beverly Hills, we held an orderly kapparot session on the morning before Yom Kippur, using half-dollar coins. The issue of the animal activist protests came up, but there are surely those in the Orthodox community who quietly sympathize with the protesters, and agree that waving a chicken over your head in a symbolic ritual is tantamount to animal cruelty — something that is strictly forbidden by Jewish law. It has also emerged that many of the chickens never make it to the poor; instead they are abandoned in trashbags as everyone rushes to get home and prepare for Yom Kippur.

So what are we to make of the attempts to halt this practice in the United States? In August, a state lawsuit — “United Poultry Concerns vs. Bait Aaron, Inc.” — was filed in California to prevent any group, including Hebrew Discovery Center, from holding kapparot events; the suit was ultimately dismissed. A federal lawsuit — “United Poultry Concerns vs. Chabad of Irvine” — met with greater success. Filed on September 29, it resulted in a temporary restraining order against Chabad of Irvine’s kapparot plans, with the order being lifted with only hours to spare before Yom Kippur began. The attorney acting for Chabad of Irvine, Hiram Sasser, pointed out that kapparot “is protected by the First Amendment, so the temporary restraining order should never have been issued.”

He’s right. The erosion of First Amendment rights in this country is something that needs to ring alarm bells for all of us, even if the target happens to be kapparot. While I cannot condone the wanton abuse of animals, I also know that every chicken we eat has gone through a disorientating process leading up to its death. But the law is followed to minimize any suffering; that is how we can eat chicken. If kapparot is done in such a way that it minimizes any suffering to chickens, and those who do kapparot ensure that the chickens are subsequently used for charitable purposes, even though I do not personally participate in kapparot, I will fiercely advocate on its behalf to any detractor.

As to most of the detractors — their objection is not against kapparot; it is much broader than that. Using animal rights as a pretext, their real objection is to religious individuals carrying out hallowed customs that harm no one while giving meaning and depth to countless lives. Kapparot is just the thin end of the wedge. Shechita (ritual butchering) and circumcision are next, and I have no question these warped individuals also wish to impose their skewed values on our synagogues and day schools by insisting that we adopt practices to accommodate contemporary human rights ideals and social policies that run counter to our faith.

In this week’s Torah portion, the language is very flowery and poetic. In one pasuk (verse), the Torah refers to those who rebel against God as “a nation that is vile, and unwise.” These two definitions seem completely unrelated. There are those who rebel because they are vile, and there are those who rebel because they are unwise. Why the need for both?

Commenting on this phrase, the prolific 19th century Polish rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, said: “If the nation were wise but vile, perhaps we could reason with them. If the nation were foolish but righteous, perhaps we could educate them. But when the nation is both vile and unwise, the cause is lost!”

Those who oppose kapparot, and whose hatred of rites and ritual transcends common sense, are immune to both logic and education. Our only chance of victory is to recognize them for what they are. We cannot give an inch in the battle for our rights to religious freedom. The battle for kapparot is as important as the battle for shechita and circumcision.

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  • Rabbi Jonathan Klein

    I don’t believe that “slippery slope” arguments work in this situation, as suggested in the last paragraph:

    “Those who oppose kapparot, and whose hatred of rites and ritual transcends common sense, are immune to both logic and education. Our only chance of victory is to recognize them for what they are. We cannot give an inch in the battle for our rights to religious freedom. The battle for kapparot is as important as the battle for shechita and circumcision.”

    Animal rights advocates are rightly concerned with the Tzaar Ba’alei Chayim that exists in the way that Kapparot with chickens is practiced, at least in LA and New York. They have legitimate concerns, especially in California where state health codes prohibit the consumption of animals that were killed in spaces without a slaughterhouse license; to our knowledge, there is not a single slaughterhouse license that has been issued to a Kapparot enterprise in the past five years in California, probably ever. Thus, not only does Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim arise when these farm animals are handled incorrectly in urban settings off the farms, but also the city’s sanitation is picking up hundreds of pounds of dead chicken carcasses, which means N’veilah and Bal Tashchit are in play as well.

    One need not be an animal rights activist to object to Kapparot as it is practiced. In fact, given our longstanding discussion on the topic–with meat eaters and mohalim (to the point of the last paragraph) among those objecting, I might add–it very well might connote a true commitment to joining the centuries of learned debate on the matter. In fact, to preserve our nation, it behooves us to actually demonstrate our commitment to halakhah and to question that which is so abhorrent to so many, a manifestation of our very own internal moral compass.

  • mikey248

    Kapparot is yet another of the stupid detritus acquired by Ashkenazim during their sojourn in pagan Europe.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ashkenazic tradition should be abandoned entirely in favor of Sephardic tradition, which is far more accurate and authentic and far less pagan-influenced.

    Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim routinely violate the Torah prohibitions against adding to the law to the point of absurdity.

    Kapparot is a perfect example of missing the forest for the trees (cruelty to animals, failure to plan ahead to gift the chickens to the poor).

    And Kapparot is now acting as a Hillul Hashem.

    However, ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim don’t care about these far more important Jewish principles, as they are way too focused on the picayun.

    They need to focus on how to become known for Kiddushim Hashem, knowing the order of priorities and principles, and recognizing and eliminating accumulated pagan influences.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    This is the season for teshuvah. Teshuvah means recognizing and acknowledging the wrong things you have done. Kapparot is one of those, and it is a tradition that is perpetuated solely for the sake of tradition. The cruelty involves not just the procedure itself but also the conditions under which the chickens are often kept leading up to it. We should be talking about Jewish law here, especially tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, and not using some secular American law to justify this shanda. Pulling the antisemitism card again won’t work.

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