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.

Animal rights 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 Kapparot. 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 head.

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.

Rabbinic 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.”

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