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Jewish Journal

New Years Resolution: Ethical Kapparot

by Rob Eshman

September 25, 2009 | 6:32 pm

A sign on Pico Robertson

Now that it’s almost Yom Kippur, the kapparot stands along Pico Robertson are in full bloom. Here’s a sign I saw for one of them, set up in the parking lot of a building at Pico and Shenandoah.

Kapparot is a ceremony that takes place in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur during which Jews swing live chickens above their heads while reciting a chant that symbolically transfers their sin onto the bird: ““This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”

It is a custom now confined largely to the Orthodox or Hasidic community.  Other Jews who observe kapparot do so symbolically by transferring money to charitable causes.

But around LA and other big cities, you can still find plenty of places to swing a chicken. And you’ll recognize them by the stench, the shrieks of the birds, the stealthy, guilt-clouded atmosphere at which these men (mostly it’s men) carry out a duty they know most people find cruel, and which indeed inflicts a measure of absolutely superfluous cruelty on animals destined to die.  A kaparot area resembles nothing so much as the seediest strip club, where men slink in and out, compelled by a force they can scarcely understand.

This week we published on line a terrific piece by Dr. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns that took issue with the practice from the point of view of animal welfare.  Read it, then let’s discuss how by 5771, Los Angeles can be the first Jewish community to find a meaningful ethical replacement for live chickens at kapparot:


Kapparot is a ceremony preceding Yom Kippur in which many Orthodox Jews, especially in the Hasidic world, swing chickens around their heads while reciting a chant about transferring their sins symbolically onto the bird:

The chickens are then slaughtered and may be given to the poor. The idea is that when practitioners swing chickens slated for slaughter, they’re supposed to regard the slaughter of the bird as a substitute for the punishment that God in “strict justice” would mete out to them instead of mercy. Rather than the sinner, the innocent chicken suffers “strict justice.” This idea of the role of the chicken contradicts assertions that chickens used in Kapparot ceremonies are treated with compassion.

Documentation of Kapparot ceremonies shows that the birds are seldom if ever treated humanely. On the contrary, prior to the ceremony, the chickens are packed in crates, often for days without food, water or shelter. Birds not used have been found abandoned in their crates when the ceremony was over. Practitioners often stand around chatting with fellow observers while holding a chicken with the wings pulled painfully backward and the legs dangling, as if the bird were an inanimate object instead of living, feeling being.

This way of holding chickens is painful and potentially injurious to them. It is particularly painful given that the main types of chickens used in Kapparot ceremonies are young “broiler” chickens about six weeks old. These birds have been bred to grow many times faster and larger than normal chickens. As a result, they are susceptible to painful joint degeneration, crippling lameness, and heart attacks reflecting genetic infirmities incurred in the quest for meat production. In his paper “Pain in Birds,” Dr. Michael Gentle cites the “widespread nature of chronic orthopaedic disease in domestic poultry,” and Dr. John Webster, professor of animal husbandry in the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science, points out that these birds “have grown too heavy for their limbs and/or become so distorted in shape as to impose unnatural stresses on their joints.”

Shown pictures of chickens being held with their wings pulled back by Kapparot practitioners, Dr. Ian Duncan, Professor Emeritus of Poultry Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, wrote that “holding a domestic fowl with the wings pinned back as shown will be painful. It will be extremely painful if the bird is held in this position for some minutes.” Dr. Nedim Buyukmihci, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, observed that “the manner in which the man is holding the chicken, with the wings pulled back, puts the chicken at risk for ligament and tendon injury, possibly even bone fracture.”

Opponents of the use of chickens in Kapparot ceremonies point out that their use is not required by the Torah or the Talmud. Most Kapparot observers swing money for charity as a gesture of atonement, repentance, and goodwill. Swinging money in a handkerchief, which maintains the tradition of giving charity to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in prayer books, including the Artscroll Siddur, which is used in many Orthodox synagogues.

In the 16th century, a Code was devised to offer practical guidance in the application of Written and Oral Laws. This Code, known as the Shulchan Aruch, is considered authoritative within Orthodox circles. In it, the concept of tzaar baalei chaim - the mandate not to cause unnecessary pain to any living creature - is affirmed: “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.” In other words, the concept of tzaar baalei chaim includes a need not only to avoid causing pain to animals, but also to show them compassion.

For these reasons, we urge Jews and others who care about animals to disperse the kindness message in Jewish teachings that encourage compassion for animals. We urge that Kapparot observers use money instead of chickens, and that rabbis incorporate the cruel facts about the use of chickens in Kapparot ceremonies, and how to have a compassionate ceremony, into their Rosh Hashanah sermons. While reducing the suffering of the chickens is possible, genuinely compassionate treatment of the birds is not compatible with their use in these rituals, which do not require them. Even in communities where religious traditions are strong, customs can evolve to a higher standard of justice and compassion for all of God’s creatures, and this is what opponents of using chickens in Kapparot ceremonies are asking for.

Karen Davis, PhD is president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. For more information, visit www.upc-online.org.

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