For many Jewish students, September is a busy month where we balance heading back to school, shul, plus a smorgasbord of activities and family gatherings related to the High Holidays. Coming off the fun and freedom of summer, September can feel jarringly busy; we don’t always have time to stop and think about the customs and traditions of this season or how we relate to them.
One of these age-old customs is kapparot, or the transferring one’s sins to a chicken that is passed three times around one’s head. The chicken is then slaughtered and is either donated to charity or sold for tzedakah.
The custom is still popular in Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, communities here and in Israel, where live chickens are sold on the street for the purpose. This custom has been under fire from many animal rights and Jewish advocacy groups for its brutality against animals.
Although the custom is not part of my own Jewish community, it concerns me that it is still practiced when Jewish law allows more humane ways of performing the ritual. This concern only grew after I spent my summer volunteering at The Wild Bird Fund. Located in the heart of New York City, The Wild Bird Fund caters mostly to rehabilitating and caring for injured and sick birds. With Yom Kippur approaching, I dove back into researching the history of Kapparot and its possible alternatives.
Kapparot is definitely one of Judaism’s more eccentric traditions related to Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday for repentance and atonement. According to scholars, Kapparot originated from pagan traditions and is rooted in folklore, with some going so far as to claim that it started as a bribe to Satan to keep him from punishing Jews for their transgressions over the past year.
There is no mention of the practice in the Tanakh or Talmud. It has, however, been compared to a custom described in Leviticus involving two goats sacrificed as a “sin offering” before every Yom Kippur. These two goats, one for God and the other for the demonic angel Azazel, is the origin of our modern colloquial use of the word “scapegoat.” Today, Jews don’t practice this custom, due to not having the Temple, but kapparot lives on with a different ritual — and a different animal.
This custom has faced deep opposition from secular animal rights organizations as well as religious and political leaders. Unsurprisingly, PETA opposes the practice, but it isn’t only secular animal rights activists speaking up. In 2013, Amir Peretz, former Israeli Minister for Environmental Protection, and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, went on record condemning the practice with the use of animals.
A chicken is not even necessary for the custom, as the mitzvah can be equally fulfilled using money. “The Torah prohibits Jews from causing any unnecessary pain to living creatures, even psychological pain,” says Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Segal. “It says in the Book of Proverbs, ‘The righteous person considers the soul of his or her animal.’ We value Jewish tradition enormously, except when it collides with the fundamental principles of our Torah.” To avoid unnecessary suffering, some traditions must change.
During my time at the Wild Bird Fund, I have cared for chickens, quails, hawks, and even squirrels. I have come to realize how animals–which most people would consider to be food–have real emotions and feelings. Would you swing your dog to atone for your sins? Hopefully, the answer is no. Then why would you do this to a poor chicken, which according to many scientific studies has the same level of emotional intelligence as a dog? In the 21st century, there is no reason or purpose for torturing chickens and killing them, especially when there are perfectly acceptable alternatives.