During the 10-day period starting on Rosh Hashana and ending on Yom Kippur,
Judaism’s holiest day, Jews seek God’s compassion and ask for forgiveness for
transgressions during the previous year so that they will have a happy, healthy,
peaceful year. Yet, many Jews perform the rite of kapparot (in Ashkenazic Hebrew
“kappores” or in Yiddish, “shluggen kappores”) in the days before Yom Kippur, a
ritual that involves the killing of chickens.
Kapparot is a custom in
which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. 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.”
hope is that the fowl, which is then supposed to be donated as charity 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
There seems to be an inconsistency here because of Judaism’s strong
teachings about compassion to animals and because the rite can be carried out in
a rabbinically approved way without using, and then slaughtering
The psalmist indicates God’s concern for animals, for “His
compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). And there is a mitzva-precept
in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: “And you shall
walk in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals
is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person considers the soul
[life] of his or her animal.” Moses and King David were considered worthy to be
leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of animals
when they were shepherds.
Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the
patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the 10 thirsty camels of
Abraham’s servant Eliezer. Many Torah laws involve proper treatment of animals.
One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and
a weak animal together.
Animals, as well as people, must be permitted to
rest on the Sabbath day. The importance of this concept is indicated by the fact
that it is in the Ten Commandments and by its recitation every Sabbath morning
by many Jews, as part of the kiddush ceremony.
In summary, the Torah
prohibits Jews from causing tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, any unnecessary pain to
living creatures, even psychological pain.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,
an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator,
eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals: “Here you are
faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting
unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the
pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours,”
(Horeb, Chapter 60, #416).
In view of these strong Jewish teachings,
fortunately there is a substitute kapparot ceremony that is widely practiced by
many observant Jews. Money, perhaps equal to the monetary value of the fowl, is
substituted for the rooster or hen. The money is put into a handkerchief which
the person swings three times around his or her head while reciting a modified
saying: “This money shall go to charity, and I shall go to a good, long life,
and to peace.” Hence, the heightened sense of repentance can be kept, and
perhaps even enhanced, since no bird has to die or suffer for our sake. This
substitution, which maintains the tradition of giving charity (the substituted
money) to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in many
prayer books, including the Artscroll Siddur, which is used in many Orthodox
Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or in the Talmud.
Jewish scholars first discuss the custom in the ninth century. According to the
Encyclopedia Judaica (Volume 10, pages 756-757), several Jewish sages strongly
Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, one of the foremost
Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen
This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nahmanides) and
Rabbi Joseph Caro, who called it “a foolish custom” that Jews should avoid. They
felt that it was a pagan custom that mistakenly made its way into Jewish
practice, perhaps because when Jews lived among pagans this rite seemed like a
“korban” (sacrifice) to some extent. However, the Kabbalists (led by mystics
such as Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) perceived in this custom
mystical significance which strongly appealed to many people. This greatly
enhanced the popularity of the kapparot ritual down to the present
Some Jewish leaders opposed kapparot because they felt that people
would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony
of kapparot can transfer a person’s sins to a bird, and that his or her sins
would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish
For, if the ritual could remove a person’s sins, what would be
the need to observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? The birds may suffer while
they are handled. In some places in Israel and the United States, the birds are
sold on street corners for this ceremony, and not every merchant takes
sufficient care of the chickens during this period. The birds are frequently
cooped up in baskets, and some merchants neglect to give them sufficient food or
water. In recent years communal and rabbinic leaders were placed in the position
of publicly apologizing for the mistreatment of chickens used for kapparot and
the wastefulness of slaughtered chickens sometimes discarded on the eve of Yom
It should also be noted that the chickens have generally been
raised under cruel conditions on modern factory farms.
Hence, while the
Jewish tradition is filled with concepts, prayers, and actions during the Rosh
Hashana-Yom Kippur period that relate to the importance of “rachamim”
(compassion), the message of kapparot to those who take part and those who view
it (including children) may be just the opposite in some cases, a lesson of
insensitivity to the feelings of other living creatures.
The author is
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island and author of
Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and
Who Stole My Religion?
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