Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has called for more humane treatment of chickens
used in the Kapparot ceremony performed by many religious Jews every year
shortly before Yom Kippur.
The ceremony, the name of which means
“atonement,” involves taking a chicken and lifting it above one’s head three
times in a circular motion while reciting a prayer, after which the chicken is
slaughtered and frequently given to a charity for use in the preparation of
meals for the needy.
However, concerns are frequently expressed about
suffering caused to the birds before and during the ritual.
group Let the Animals Live
recently wrote a letter to Lau on the issue, saying
that every year the organization receives complaints about the treatment of
chickens intended for the ceremony. It added that the birds can be left for
hours and even days in small cages, frequently without food and water, and often
outside in the sun.
In a letter directed to anyone involved in the supply
of chickens or facilitation of the ceremony, as well as anyone performing it,
Lau said that mistreatment of the birds would constitute a mitzva performed
through committing a sin.
“I am turning to those accustomed to preserving
the traditions of their fathers by doing Kapparot
with an animal to remind them
of the holy obligation that exists throughout the year to refrain from causing
suffering to animals, to prevent any unnecessary pain and suffering to animals
to ensure their delivery in a fitting manner and to ensure appropriate treatment
of them,” Lau wrote in his letter.
“If they are not treated in an
appropriate manner, it is clear this would be a ‘mitzvah through a
transgression, which was not the intention of the sages in the mitzvah of
. Therefore it is incumbent on traders and those fulfilling [the custom]
to be especially strict in this regard.”
The ceremony is meant to
symbolically transfer one’s sins onto the chicken, although the practice is not
mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud, and is believed to have originated among
Jewish communities in the 9th century in Babylon.
It can, however, be
done with money – donated to charity afterward – waved above a person’s
Several important rabbinic figures have opposed the practice,
including the 13th-century Spanish sage Nahmanides and Rabbi Yosef Karo, a
15thcentury scholar who lived in Spain, Turkey and Israel and is renowned for
his comprehensive guide to Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruh
Karo wrote that
the tradition of using a chicken for Kapparot
should be avoided, out of a
concern that it was originally a non-Jewish practice.
authorities from Ashkenazi communities nevertheless approved of the custom and
ruled that it should be continued.
Lau concluded his letter by saying
that atonement is only obtained by repenting one’s sins.
“My prayer is
that we will be able to fulfill [the precept that] anyone who is merciful toward
God’s creations will himself merit the mercy of He Who Dwells on High.”