pidion kapparot 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An ancient ritual that has survived the opprobium of some of the most prominent halachic authorities is facing a modern activist movement, as animal rights groups challenge the pre-Yom Kippur practice of "kapparot."
The practice was being carried out across the country this week, as it has been for years.
On a hot afternoon in a semi-shaded alley of Jerusalem's Mea She'arim open-air market, two jaundiced hens squawked in the clutch of a stooped haredi man as he scuttled after an escaped rooster with his free, outstretched hand.
"He's getting away!" yelled the man's pregnant wife, just before he grasped the rooster.
Clasping the necks of the three fowl with both hands, the man swung them counterclockwise around his wife's head. His faint incantation reflected the hope of devotees who practice kapparot, which is to transfer their sins onto the swinging fowl: "This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace."
On the alley's stone walls, high above the tall stacks of plastic cages, most brimming with live fowl and covered in excrement, posters advertised the chickens' price: NIS 50 to donate a chicken to charity; NIS 55 to take a chicken home. Beneath one of these signs was the room to which throngs of haredi men had brought their birds for slaughter. Its ceiling was covered in feathers, and blood leaked from the platinum table behind which the chicken-slayer stood. Children looked on unperturbed as their parents dispassionately delivered flittering fowl to the slaughterer's short blade.
The haredi shohet, his smock slathered in feathers and blood, grabbed the birds in the same manner each time. He first clasped their wings behind their backs, then pulled them supine and yanked their heads further back. He plucked a tuft of hair from their necks, slit the newly bare patches, pinched their beaks shut, and dropped them headfirst into one of the table's 21 open receptacles. Most of the birds continued to jerk and struggle, sometimes for well over a minute, before being placed on a mechanized defeathering rack, declawed, and gutted.
Scenes like these draw protests from critics such as the group Anonymous for Animal Rights, who protest not only the slaughter itself but the manner in which the chickens are raised and held prior to slaughter.
"Sometimes the chickens are held for hours or even for days in crowded cages without food or water," said Reut Horn, a spokesman for Anonymous for Animal Rights.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger responded to such criticisms in a press release on Wednesday. In his statement, Metzger called on local rabbinates to protect the poultry used in kapparot and underscored the Torah's requirement to treat animals with respect.
Yet animal rights groups like Anonymous and Hakol Chai believe scriptural evidence bolsters their arguments against the kapparot ceremony entirely. Hakol Chai points out that kapparot is not mentioned in either the Torah or the Talmud.
Quoting the Encyclopedia Judaica, Hakol Chai's Web site states, "Several Jewish sages strongly opposed kapparot. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, one of the foremost Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen superstition. This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro, who called it 'a foolish custom' that Jews should avoid."
Others contend kapparot has deep roots in Jewish scripture.
"Look, the idea of sacrificing an animal in place of yourself - the scapegoat - exists in the Torah," said Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber of the Department of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. "The original scapegoat was a national scapegoat.
Kapparot is a personal scapegoat - scapegoat or scapechicken, whatever you wish to call it. But the practice of kapparot as we now know it dates from the Gaonic period, roughly the 7th or 8th century CE."
For Yossi Cohen, visiting with his wife and children from Winnipeg, Canada, and participating in kapparot for the first time, the sacrificial aspects of the practice were less important than the traditional and the philanthropic. "It's something I've always seen in photographs but never in real life," Cohen said. "So how can you not participate in that? It's not as if they're taking the chickens and throwing them in the garbage can. Many people, like us, will give them to charity."
Joe Krauss, a young Orthodox man visiting Mea She'arim from London, said he planned to practice kapparot in the early morning before Yom Kippur.
When asked what he thought about Hakol Chai's claim that the Ramban opposed kapparot, Krauss said: "It's the first time I heard about this. I don't think he thought that. I really doubt it. But there are other ways to do it. You don't have to do it with a chicken."
Hakol Chai spokesman Tali Lavie agreed with that statement. "We don't think you need to kill innocent animals to redeem yourself," he said. "The public can do other things that do not harm animals and still have their religious necessities fulfilled. You can give money, not chickens, to children."
Anonymous for Animal Rights led a protest against kapparot in Tel Aviv's Carmel market on Wednesday. "A lot of people that sell these chickens, they poured water on us," said Anonymous's Horn. "In the end, their violence against animals becomes violence against human beings."
Horn said few of the protesters were secular. "The objection to kapparot is coming from the religious people themselves," he noted. "At Yom Kippur we ask for mercy for ourselves. It's absurd that we behave so unmercifully to these creatures."