Kapparot: Why Thousands of Chickens Will Die Today in Controversial Ancient Ritual

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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a chicken ahead of the Kapparot ceremony in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on September 17, 2018. THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

As Jewish communities worldwide gear up for Yom Kippur—the holiest day in the Jewish calendar—thousands of chickens will die as part of a controversial atonement ritual.

The Kapparot is a traditional ritual whose value has been disputed and debated within Jewish communities for hundreds of years and for a variety of reasons. Modern opposition to the ritual slaughter of chickens is largely motivated by dismay with the cruelty to the animals involved. Though the campaign to change the ritual has garnered more attention in recent years, the practice persists.

The rite has its roots as far back as the 6th century. It is thought to have gained prominence as an alternative to the sacrifice of scaepgoats in Jerusalem's Holy Temple, destroyed in 66 AD. 

Each year on the eve of Yom Kippur, chickens—roosters for men and hens for women—serve as stand-ins for devotees to atone for their sins. As each performs the ceremony and swings a bird above their head three times, the worshipers recite a prayer asking God to allow them to atone by slaughtering the chicken.

This complete, the animal is killed. The chickens are slaughtered in accordance with kosher tradition and the carcases are often given to the poor, for a pre-fast or fast-breaking meal. It is also thought that performing the rite could protect people from any misfortune or danger in the coming year, the chicken already having taken on the burden, The New York Times reported. 

But the ancient ritual has faced criticism, both from animal rights activists and senior Jewish religious leaders. Many believe the tradition is both cruel to the animals and an unnecessary and archaic element of the Jewish religion.

Each year, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Israel appeals to religious groups to help change the nature of the event, calling on worshipers to donate to charity in place of chicken slaughter. Last year was no different, and the group sent out a public appeal for Israelis to show “mercy and compassion to animals” and donate to charity in place of chicken sacrifice.

GettyImages-855215710 Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men swing chickens over their heads as they perform the Kapparot ceremony in the Jewish neighborhood of Beit Shemesh west of Jerusalem on September 28, 2017. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

The organization said: “The chickens used for atonement are raised in extremely crowded conditions, brought under inhumane conditions to those who follow the custom, and are often left to wait long hours without food and water, until their slaughter.”

It added that not all even survive long enough to take part in the ritual. “Some of them dehydrate and die in agony while waiting and some of those who survive till the end continue to expire and twitch in agony until finally succumbing to their death,” the appeal said.

The group pointed out that debate exists over the ritual even within the senior leadership of Judaism. Prominent rabbis, including the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, have spoke out against the practice. As it is a tradition rather than a religious law, many Jews consider the act unnecessary. It is considered acceptable to instead donate the monetary value of the chicken, removing the need for the slaughter. 

Such opposition has existed throughout Jewish history, even from Judaism's most widely celebrated theologians. The 15th-century rabbi Yosef Karo, for example, remembered for his extensive guide to Jewish law named the Shulhan Aruh, was an opponent of the Kapparot. His main main point of contention with it was that it is too similar to pagan animal sacrifice practices. 

GettyImages-613743470 An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy looks at slaughtered chickens during the Kapparot ceremony in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on October 10, 2016. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

But many orthodox religious groups proudly continue the tradition. Chabad, one of the world's largest orthodox Jewish Hasidic movements and a global religious organization, suggests the act “provides a valuable perspective on our position of privilege in [god’s] world. Animals lived and died in order for us to live. It behooves us to live altruistically, honestly, devoutly and wisely, as only humans can.”

The group also believes that seeing an animal slaughtered in one’s place could move one's conscience, and “can have a profound effect on one’s attitude going into the day of Yom Kippur.”

The dispute has followed the Jewish diaspora across the world and activists are also trying to end the mass slaughter in Brooklyn, New York, traditionally home to a large Jewish population. The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporas group filed a lawsuit against New York City to stop the practice in 2015, though it was dismissed the following year.

The group had argued that the process was “barbaric” and that the dead and dying animals presented a significant public health challenge. In past years, as many as 50,000 chickens have been killed during the Kapparot rituals in Brooklyn.

Israeli judges have also been asked to rule on the practice. Earlier this month, the country's high court rejected an appeal from former Interior Minister Avraham Poraz and a group of Tel Aviv City Council politicians to halt the slaughter of chickens for Kapporat. The appeal was dismissed on technical grounds, with the justice castigating the appellants for filing it a mere four days before Yom Kippur and not providing sufficiently detailed legal grounds for their plea. 

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