During the ten-day period starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, Jews seek God’s compassion and ask for forgiveness for transgressions during the previous year so that they will have a happy, healthy, peaceful year. Yet, many Jews perform the rite of kapparot (in Ashkenazic Hebrew kappores or in Yiddish, shluggen kappores) in the days before Yom Kippur, a ritual that involves the killing of chickens.
Kapparot is a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. First, selections from Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited; then a rooster (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is held above the person’s head and swung in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “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.” The hope is that the fowl, which is slaughtered after the ritual and is then to be donated as charity to the poor for food, will take on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.
There seems to be an inconsistency here because of Judaism’s strong teachings about compassion to animals and because the rite can be carried out in a rabbinically approved way without using and then slaughtering chickens. The psalmist indicates God’s concern for animals, for “His compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). And there is a mitzvah-precept in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: “And you shall walk in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person considers the soul (life) of his or her animal.”
Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of animals when they were shepherds. Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the ten thirsty camels of Abraham’s servant Eliezer. Many Torah laws involve proper treatment of animals. One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together.
Animals, as well as people, must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath day. The importance of this concept is indicated by the fact that it is in the Ten Commandments and by its recitation every Sabbath morning by many Jews, as part of the kiddush ceremony.
In summary, the Torah prohibits Jews from causing tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, any unnecessary pain to living creatures, even psychological pain. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator, eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals: “Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.” (Horeb, Chapter 60, #416)
In view of these strong Jewish teachings, fortunately there is a substitute kapparot ceremony that is widely practiced by many observant Jews. Money, perhaps equal to the monetary value of the fowl, is substituted for the rooster or hen. The money is put into a handkerchief which the person swings three times around his or her head while reciting a modified saying: “This money shall go to charity, and I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
Hence, the heightened sense of repentance can be kept, and perhaps even enhanced, since no bird has to die or suffer for our sake. This substitution, which maintains the tradition of giving charity (the substituted money) to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in many prayer books, including the Artscroll Siddur, which is used in many Orthodox synagogues.
Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or in the Talmud. Jewish scholars first discuss the custom in the ninth century.
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica (Volume 10, pages 756-757), several Jewish sages strongly opposed kapparot. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, one of the foremost Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen superstition. This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro, who called it “a foolish custom” that Jews should avoid. They felt that it was a pagan custom that mistakenly made its way into Jewish practice, perhaps because when Jews lived among pagans this rite seemed like a korban (sacrifice) to some extent.
However, the Kabbalists (led by mystics such as Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) perceived in this custom mystical significance which strongly appealed to many people. This greatly enhanced the popularity of the kapparot ritual down to the present day.
Some Jewish leaders opposed kapparot because they felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person’s sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings. For, if the ritual could remove a person’s sins, what would be the need to observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?
The birds suffer before and during the kapparot ritual, violating the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim. Generally the birds are sold on street corners for the ceremony, and not every merchant takes sufficient care of the chickens during this period. The birds are frequently cooped up in baskets, and many merchants neglect to give them sufficient food or water. In some cases, crates of chickens – 12 to 16 to a crate – are stacked up to 10 high. Feces, urine, blood, and pus from open wounds (due to rough handling and transport) fall onto chickens beneath the ones on top. The chickens are often dehydrated and starving, and when they are finally yanked out by their wings, often the wings break. This makes the birds treif and unhealthy, so that many birds are discarded rather than being donated to the poor for food.
In recent years, rabbis have increasingly urged Jews to practice kapparot using money rather than chickens. For example, Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, stated, “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully and indeed in a far more halachically acceptable manner by using money as a substitute, as proposed by many Jewish authorities.
In summary, while the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur period is filled with concepts, prayers, and actions that relate to the importance of rachamim (compassion), the message of using chickens for kapparot to those who take part and those who view it (including children) may be just the opposite, a lesson of insensitivity to the feelings of other living creatures.