A Plea Against the Custom of Kapparot

kapparotRabbi Yonah Bookstein, an Orthodox Rabbi in Los Angeles, pleads with the Jewish community to stop using chickens for the kapparot ritual. He says using chickens for kapparot violates four different Torah laws: tzaar ba’alei hayyim, creating nevailah, ba’al tashchit, and dina d’malchuta dina.

I know I’m probably going to offend some people, probably Jewish people, but when I saw this, I felt it necessary to make the information public on my blog. I generally support the right of the Jewish community to define and practice their own traditions, but as Rabbi Bookstein points out, not only does this practice directly contradict the Torah, but it is obviously cruel to the animals and has no hope of atoning for sins or benefiting the community in any way.

I had this conversation with my Pastor last week. He lived in Israel for fifteen years, so he’s witnessed this practice many times.

But if you are a Christian or are otherwise not familiar with this practice, you may be asking what Kapparot is and what’s the big deal. Jewish Virtual Library is just one place that provides the answer:

Kapparot is a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. It is practiced by some Jews shortly before Yom Kippur. 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 then donated 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.

You can click on the link and read more of the details, and it’s to the credit of the creators of this content on Jewish Virtual Library that they list the significant objections to this Yom Kippur tradition, which does not appear in either the Torah or the Talmud.

The following video is about four minutes long and I think Rabbi Yonah Bookstein makes his case well. Be warned that some of the images in the video are graphic.

Addendum: September 11, 2013: According to VirtualJerusalem.com, there is a small but growing movement among Orthodox Rabbis and others in the Jewish community protesting this practice:

Last week, the recently elected Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, warned kapparot organizers that the failure to treat animals decently is a violation of religious law.

And a number of other prominent rabbis have expressed concern that the ritual, in which chickens are hauled into dense urban centers by the truckload, makes it virtually impossible to adhere to the principle of “tzaar baalei chayim,” which prohibits inflicting suffering on animals.

Given that there are other appropriate methods of satisfying the kapparot requirement, such as waving money instead of chickens, it seems more reasonable and more in keeping with Jewish tradition to finally set aside the practice of using poultry.

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10 thoughts on “A Plea Against the Custom of Kapparot”

  1. This is a good example (and an easy one to spot) about what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

  2. Only a small number, among the Orthodox, practice this ritual. Of course you could expect a fellow Californicator to stand up for PETA, because crazy is in the water. That is why you can’t get foie gras here anymore, and many employment producing businesses were shut down. I’m sure he gets along fine with those who claim circumcision is mutilation. So, does he plan to get the government to shut them down too?

  3. Actually, I don’t have a problem with Rabbi Bookstein’s point of view. I don’t think he’s being extremist as PETA often is, but rather, espousing principles in the Torah that prohibit cruelty to animals. Also, the custom has no basis in either Torah or Talmud, so how can anyone say this practice actually achieves atonement? On the YouTube video, Rabbi Bookstein was appealing to the Orthodox Jewish community, not the government.

  4. I didn’t say I agreed that this practice held any merit. But if you lived here, you would be sick of the pseudo-moralists and their attempt to control the lives of others. Once PETA gets wind of this, you can be sure the government will get involved, like the idiots with the foie gras law.

  5. Kapparot is an archaic, superstitious practice that many great rabbis have protested for centuries. Frankly, if PETA shut it down, then PETA will have been good for something. Kindness to animals is a Jewish value.

  6. Shalom, Chaya — I share your concern about extremist pseudo-moralists who seek to over-control others’ behavior and invalidate their liberties, but I think you’re approaching Rabbi Bookstein’s appeal with an over-reaction that mischaracterizes it. His approach is not unbalanced, and his appeal is more like the SPCA rather than PETA. He is advocating mainstream Jewish positions about kapparah, kashrut, neveilah, Jewish jurisprudence, and longstanding Torah interpretations about humane treatment of animals, as against a custom that arose in a manner comparable to some practices of modern pseudo-charismatic Christians. Someone should have spoken out about it long before this, but at least he is doing so now. The only positive value I can see represented in this custom is its reflection of an ancient Torah principle about the significance of blood in substitutionary animal sacrifices for kapparah. But, as Rabbi Bookstein correctly points out, the procedure is incorrect and out of its proper context, thereby invalidating it even conceptually and metaphorically.

    I suspect PETA has already been aware of this practice, but they do choose their battles and this one would pit them squarely against the First Amendment of the US Constitution upon which they also rely. It seems to me that there are also already sufficient laws on the books regarding the handling of poultry that could be applied against various aspects of the current practice without impinging on the actual religious aspect, just as there are halakhic rulings that should be enforced as Rabbi Bookstein suggests. I rather doubt that anyone who values the viscerality of the kapparah ritual would be willing to replace the chicken with money, but they might well be encouraged to insist on proper healthy standards of poultry handling and shechitah, as well as the tzedakah of feeding the poor afterward, not to neglect a better simulation of Temple sacrificial practice in preparation for its soon restoration.

  7. Actually, I lived in California, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Orange County, from 1976 to 1994, so I have a pretty good idea of how life goes there. I hear it’s gotten quite a bit more crazy in the last 19 years or so.

  8. We lived in OC from 1988 until 1990, for dh to attend grad school, then moved down to San Diego County because it was cheaper and nicer. Most of the crazies are in Northern CA and L.A., to the point that some have suggested separating the two in regard to electoral votes. PETA owns animal shelters that kill animals, while it protests against use of animals (95% rodents.)

    So both the guy who spins the chicken around his head and the guy who protests this have something in common. They are seeking to establish righteousness, to bridge that divide between themselves and their Maker, but doing so according to their own design.

    Thanks James, your articles make me think :)

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