Wings and Prayers

From the flurry of e-mails and calls to Agudath Israel and other Orthodox Jewish organizations, it seems that some advocates for humane treatment of animals have concerns about the pre-Yom Kippur custom of Kapparos.

They are troubled by the fact that many Orthodox Jews – predominantly in the haredi, especially the Hassidic, world – use chickens in the ceremony, during which the bird is lifted and waved around the head of a supplicant. (Many Orthodox Jews use money instead of birds.) The advocates say that chickens are mistreated before and after the ceremony and that the ceremony itself abuses the birds. They are not happy either, with the ultimate fate of the chickens, which are slaughtered and given to the poor.

As it happens, while a chicken is not injured or traumatized by being held and waved, there have indeed been situations where chickens, before or after the Kapparos ceremony, have not been treated with the sensitivity to animals’ comfort that halacha mandates. That is inexcusable; and concern that birds used for Kapparos be treated properly was one of the reasons nearly thirty leading haredi rabbinical authorities issued a proclamation two years ago enjoining their followers to patronize only approved vendors of Kapparos.

One of the recurrent themes of the anti-chicken-Kapparos crowd’s communications, though, is that the custom itself is “primitive.” The activists assume – and it is an assumption mistakenly made by many others (including The New York Times a few years back) – that sins are somehow transferred from the supplicant to the bird.

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

Even when actual animal sacrifices were a mainstay of Jewish life, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance. It still does.

There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts when it comes to taking responsibility for our actions. Repentance is the only effective remedy for sin, though it is an amazing one. For it accomplishes much more than a simple apology; it has the power, Jewish sources teach, to actually reach into the past and change the nature of what we may have done. As such, we are taught, teshuva is a “chiddush,” a concept that defies simple logic and expectation. And for erasing iniquity, it is indispensable.

So what’s with the chickens?

Well, the definitive primary Jewish legal text, the Shulchan Aruch, notes the custom of Kapparos, but disapproves of its practice. The authoritative glosses of the Rabbi Moshe Isserles, though, which present normative Ashkenazic practice, note that the custom has its illustrious defenders, and maintains that where it exists it should be preserved.

The custom’s intent and meaning are elucidated in the widely accepted commentary known as the Mishneh Brurah, written by the renowned “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan. Citing earlier sources, he explains that when one performs the ritual, he should consider that what will happen to the bird – its slaughter – would be happening to him were strict justice, untempered with G-d’s mercy, the rule. As a result, the supplicant will come to regret his sins and “through his repentance” cause G-d “to revoke any evil decree from him.”

So it seems that the Kapparos-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on atonement, intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds.

Similar to Kapporos is the Rosh Hashana custom of Tashlich, which is likewise commonly misconstrued as a magical “casting away of sins.” The practice of visiting a body of water and reciting verses and prayers, however, has no such direct effect. It, like Kapporot, is an opportunity for self-sensitization to our need for repentance. The verse “And cast in the depths of the ocean all of their sins,” prominently recited in the prayers for the ritual, is a metaphor for what we can effect with our sincere repentance and determination to be better in the future.

As Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling writes in his classic work known as the “Ta’amei Haminhagim,” or “Explications of Customs,” Tashlich reminds us that the day of ultimate reckoning may be upon us far sooner that we imagine, just as fish swimming freely in the water may find themselves captured suddenly in the fishmonger’s net – and that we dare not live lives of spiritual leisure on the assumption that there will always be time for repentance when we grow old.

All too often we moderns tend to view ancient Jewish laws, customs and rituals as quaint relics of the distant past evoking, at most, warm and nostalgic feelings of ethnic identity.

But, as a closer look at Kapporos and Tashlich suggest, there is a world of difference between Tevya’s celebration of “Tradition!” for tradition’s sake and the deep meanings that lie in the rites and rituals of Jewish religious life.

Jewish practice is laden with profound significance that speaks to us plainly and powerfully, if only we choose to listen, to confront our spiritual selves, to do teshuva – with or without the help of chickens or rivers.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission with the above copyright notice appended. This essay, in a different form, was first published in 2002.

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13 Responses

  1. Joel Rich says:

    An interesting study would be not what the S”A and Rama say, but what do the people doing it think?

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Most people prefer legs to wings. But in order to harmonize the two, “Yekum pulkan min shemaya”.

  3. Shua Cohen says:

    > “So it seems that the Kapparos-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on atonement, intended to stir feelings of repentance…”

    >> In our generation we have, it would seem, a terrible challenge maintaining proper kavannah during normative davening. The “shlugging kapparos” events have so much of a circus atmosphere about them — especially with the combination of live chickens and gleeful children — that it has come to resemble (r”l) some kind of macabre petting zoo.

    Perhaps, no longer living in the agrarian environment of Eastern Europe, where farm animals were a familiar part of daily life, we have misguidedly continued a minhag in an environment which is not only not conducive to “spurring meditation on atonement,” but which makes a mockery of the original intent of the ritual.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    There has long been an alternative method (and a text to go with it) to do the kapparos ceremony with money, designating it for charity. This would seem to be the best method today for all concerned, including the poor who receive the charity.

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “The activists assume – and it is an assumption mistakenly made by many others (including The New York Times a few years back) – that sins are somehow transferred from the supplicant to the bird.”

    – while it is easy to dismiss the assumption in understanding as mistaken (primitive?) you can surely understand why one would “assume” this given the language recited (zeh hatarnegol yelech lemisa, va’ani …) and that which is taught to us in cheder. So let’s not make it like the Times are the amei ha’aretz (amaratzim, for the amei ha’aretz)

  6. DF says:

    Despite it’s flaws, and recognizing Shua Cohen’s point (above), Kapporos is still an ancient custom that must be preserved. It is only done once a year, and for many it is the one practice that really instills the point that we are now in the 10 days of Teshuvah.

    The “cruelty to animal” crowd overdoes it, too, let’s not forget. For many such advocates (and they do not speak for the public at large), merely seeing chickens kept in a crate is enough to arouse their activisim, even though billions of chickens are kept and transported in similar environments around the world. And there is no evidence that a chicken feels “pain” in the few seconds in which it is twirled around the head. It is probably the raucous crowd scene and the “slaughterhouse” feel of blood and feathers that makes kapporos seem worse than it is to these activists. Perhaps a nod to current hygienic standards is in order, but not wholsesale dispensation with such a cherished custom.

  7. Phil says:

    “The advocates say that … the ceremony itself abuses the birds. ”

    I did not grow up seeing this ceremony, but I did see pictures of it in magazines. I always thought the bird was whipped around the persons head. I guess the photographer thought that blurring the action would look cool. Or look cruel.

  8. Raymond says:

    This is definitely one of the most embarrasing customs in traditional Jewish life. I know my wishing it to be abolished will not make it so, but I also can choose to not participate in it.

  9. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I also prefer doing it with money. Another problem of doing it with chickens is that the pressure on the shochet of very large numbers of people in a crush for long hours increases the percentage of treifos. The ideal is that the chickens should be given to poor people or Torah institutions for their pre-YK meal. This will either cause the people to inadvertently eat less than scrupulously kosher chickens or waste the chickens, not in the spirit of the practice. Most people today find the practice repugnant, and when you take kids to see it today I feel that it brings out their less charming midos. I could be wrong and I could be an old fuddy-duddy, but that’s the way I see it.

  10. tzippi says:

    To those who find it repugnant, picture yourself back in a small shtetl, with the chosen chicken waiting in your backyard till the kaparos procedure, then brought to the shochet for slaughtering. Kaparos then was just a minor detour in the life of your standard chicken.

    Is there a case to be made to abolish such a long standing minhag? Maybe. Maybe though the case could be made to vet your kaparos establishment in advance, and if it doesn’t meet some as yet to be established standards, to use money in good conscience.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    My problem with Kaparot is no different than those sages of yore who felt it was an alien custome imported onto the corpus of halacha or minhag. There seems to be a divide today and in days gone by between rationalists and those who find a need for short cuts, magical formulas, segulas, red strings, amulets,etc. My wife was born and raised frum from ancestors who were always frum,even in America of 100 years ago. When we took a private tour of th Galil ten years ago, the guide spent day one taking us to graves, on day two my wife refused to visit more graves. To her, normative Judaism and Eretz Yisrael is more than praying at graves. On the other hand, on that same tour I took a baal teshuva friend along on the Tunnel tour and he was only interested in finding the place closest to the Holy of Holies and praying, he was not intersted in anything else.
    Kaparos appeals to the later more than the former. Maybe both are part of our heritage but not for the same people.

  12. tzippi says:

    I should mention that my family’s custom has always been to use money. But there is a wonderful explanation and defense of the classic custom to use a chicken in Rabbi Munk’s The World of Prayer, vol. II. He stresses that there is no absolution involved, rather, like a sacrifice, the fate of the animal is to bring home what we may deserve, and inspire us to true penitence. Well worth the read.

  13. Miriam says:

    I am always most taken by the need to maintain a minhag, and the horrific chilul Hashem it causes here in Monsey. Two years in a row the organizers have been fined; for blood fathers, feces, and waste that has gone into water runoffs.

    Oh, but I always forget..Chilul Hashem is not something we talk about, unless some major story breaks, and it’s never the subject of an asifa when things go horribly wrong in klal yisrael. As long as all the skirts are 4 inches below the knee, we can shame G-d anyway we want.

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