Early morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews will be gathering to hold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their head while chanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens will be ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.
Kaparos, literally atonements, which has been performed in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Chabad House and at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, is one of the strangest-looking customs in Jewish liturgy. It is done to inspire repentance and to impress upon its adherents the seriousness of Yom Kippur. However, the practice has inspired the ire of animal rights groups, who consider it cruel to the chickens, and many are urging that Jews who practice this custom do so using money instead, which is an acceptable substitute.
Kaparos is not a mitzvah but a post-talmudic minhag (Jewish custom). It originated sometime during the middle ages. The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were the same, a man's sins -- and his punishments -- could be symbolically transferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of the Temple, people bought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."
Today, some people perform kaparos by swinging a bag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity.
Yet, kaparos is not a substitute for repentance, and it should not be assumed that someone could achieve penance and absolution by having a chicken take the rap for all their transgressions.
"The chicken does not replace me," said Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schmukler, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who arranges kaparos with chickens at Yeshivat Ohr Elchonon Chabad. "The chicken is an innocent chicken. The chicken will not take the sin away from me, but what the chicken does is impress upon me, that what is happening to the chicken [should be] happening to me and this will arouse in me feelings of teshuvah [repentance]. Watching the chicken get slaughtered awakens you to the physical gravity of Yom Kippur."
Schmukler said that using chickens for kaparos is a deep and mystical kabbalistic custom, that combines the maximizes the forces of chesed (lovingkindness) in the world.
"Early morning is a time when God's middos hachesed [kind attributes] shine, and the reason we slaughter the chicken is to oppress the powers of gevurah [restrictions]," he said. "Blood is a symbol of anger, because when you are angry the blood goes to your face, and when we take the blood out a chicken, we make a tikkun [spiritual correction] and sweeten the energies of the world. This is what kaparos is on a spiritual level."
But animal rights activist feel that kaparos produces particularly sour physical energy. Los Angeles kaparos locales are often the site of protests and demonstrations against the way the chickens are handled. These activists say that the chickens are cooped up in cages that are too small, without enough air or water, and that chickens are often harmed before they are slaughtered in the general chaotic atmosphere of the kaparos ceremony.
"Typically, we get a whole lot of letters [protesting kaparos] from grass-roots animal-rights groups at this time of year," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCA), a law-enforcement organization. "The theory is if you swing the chickens around, then you can use the chickens to eat. But if the swinging around causes them injury and suffering, then they are no longer qualified for kosher slaughter.... People have found suffering chickens with their necks broken but still alive. We wish that it would stop. While we are constantly assured that they are swung gently, it doesn't preclude accidents."
Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a Virginia- based organization that, according to their Web site, is "dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl," said that her organization has been lobbying the SPCA and rabbis for years to intervene and require some basic humane treatment of kaparos birds.
"It is great if people choose a compassionate alternative, and instead of twirling a chicken they toss up a coin instead," said Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
But Schmukler says that the really proper way to do kaparos is with chickens, and that the protesters are wasting their time.
"People slaughter and eat chickens all over the city," he said. "What is the difference [between us and them]? They should go to packing houses and demonstrate there."
Kaparos with chickens will take place at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, 7215 Waring Ave., Los Angeles, on Sunday, Oct. 5, 6 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (323) 937-3763.