Recently, animal rights groups have launched campaigns worldwide against the pre-Yom Kippur kapparot ritual. Beyond catchy newspaper headlines, like “Groups cry foul over mass chicken slaughter,” the controversy adds another historical chapter to this disputed custom.

In its contemporary version, a person waves a chicken over his head while reciting confessions of sins for which he deserves death. He then offers the chicken as a substitute, slaughters the animal in accordance with regular kashrut protocols and donates the bird to the poor.

As with many traditions, kapparot emerged in the early medieval period as a folk custom that scholars only later attempted to understand.

Authorities questioned the origin and meaning of the ritual, along with other seasonal customs like the consumption of sweet foods on Rosh Hashana, which appeared as an attempt to manipulate one’s fate or judgment (Otzar Hageonim Yoma 62-64).

Historically, the custom of kapparot had several variations. In some locales, a bean sprout was planted in a palm wreath two to three weeks before Rosh Hashana On the eve of Rosh Hashana, the plant was waved seven times over the heads of each child in the home and was then thrown into a river (Rashi, Shabbat 81b). In other areas, the custom was performed by all individuals, children and adult, before Yom Kippur, but with different types of animals. The rich preferred horned animals because they were associated with the ram from the binding of Isaac (Rosh, Yoma 8:23), which ultimately replaced Abraham’s son on the sacrificial altar (Pesikta Rabati 47).

Ultimately, the chicken became the predominant animal used for kapparot, in part because it was cheaper. Equally significant, one Hebrew name for chicken is gever, which also means a person (Yoma 20b). As such, the chicken was seen as an appropriate substitute for the condemned penitent, with roosters used by males, hens used for females and additional birds used for pregnant women. In some places the entrails were thrown on top of a person’s house to feed birds, which was seen as an act of kindness to those creatures (Bach OC 605).

This ritual enjoyed widespread popularity amongst scholars and laity alike, especially in Ashkenazic lands (Orhot Haim, Erev YK). Yet some harshly criticized the custom as a foreign ritual akin to idolatrous practices (Darchei Emori). Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret, for example, successfully protested the local version of this custom, which included killing one chicken for each child in the house and then hanging the chicken head along with garlic on the doorpost (Shu”t Rashba 1:395).

Following his lead, Rabbi Yosef Karo banned the practice (OC 605:1). Rabbi Moshe Isserles, however, contended that its antiquity proved its legitimacy. Furthermore, the Arizal and other mystics attributed redemptive value to this practice (Sha’ar Hakavanot, Drushei YK), with some later Sephardic decisors further contending that the practice was entirely legitimate if one donated the chicken to charity (Shu”t Radbaz 2:640). While a few decisors continued to raise reservations (Pri Hadash 605), the dominant position endorsed the practice on the condition that its practitioner engage in true introspection and repentance (Yehaveh Da’at 2:71).

The climax of the ritual is the confessional, in which the penitent lays his hands on the animal, exclaims his guilt, and declares the chicken his substitute for the death penalty.

While some demurred at the similarity to the Temple rite, others believed that there was no fear of confusing kapparot for a formal sacrifice (MB OC 605:8). Indeed, a few sources (Mahzor Vitry 1:339) highlighted the parallels to the Biblical Yom Kippur ceremony (Leviticus 16) in which the high priest laid his hands in confession on a goat that was then thrown off a desert cliff (hence the term “scapegoat”). According to Maimonides, this goat was not a formal sacrifice but rather a symbolic gesture to distance ourselves from our sins (Guide 3:46).

In the 15th century, Rabbi Ya’acov Moelin suggested that one could “redeem” the chicken with money to be given as charity since monetary donations would be less embarrassing.

Others noticed that the mass killing of chickens in a short time span caused errors in ritual slaughter, rendering the food not kosher. As such, some decisors suggested entirely replacing the chickens with fish (Shlomei Mo’ed p. 55) or money (Hayei Adam 144:4). The latter alternative appears in many High Holiday prayer books. Rabbi Haim David Halevi further noted that the entire enterprise of organized mass killing contradicts the historical notion to refrain from slaughtering before the New Year as an act of increased mercy on God’s creatures (Aseh Lecha Rav 3:20). In this spirit, and given increased accusations of mishandling of the chickens, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recently argued that we should err on the side of treating animals kindly and use the charity alternative, thereby preventing this request for mercy from becoming an act of cruelty.

The author, online editor of “Tradition” and its blog, Text & Texture (Text.Rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

JPostRabbi@yahoo.com

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