Holy-Days

Holy Days: Wings and Prayers

by | Oct 7, 2019

From the flurry of e-mails and calls to Agudath Israel and other Orthodox Jewish organizations, it seems that some advocates for humane treatment of animals have concerns about the pre-Yom Kippur custom of Kapparos.

They are troubled by the fact that many Orthodox Jews – predominantly in the haredi, especially the Hassidic, world – use chickens in the ceremony, during which the bird is lifted and waved around the head of a supplicant. (Many Orthodox Jews use money instead of birds.) The advocates say that chickens are mistreated before and after the ceremony and that the ceremony itself abuses the birds. They are not happy either, with the ultimate fate of the chickens, which are slaughtered and given to the poor.

As it happens, while a chicken is not injured or traumatized by being held and waved, there have indeed been situations where chickens, before or after the Kapparos ceremony, have not been treated with the sensitivity to animals’ comfort that halacha mandates. That is inexcusable; and concern that birds used for Kapparos be treated properly was one of the reasons nearly thirty leading haredi rabbinical authorities issued a proclamation two years ago enjoining their followers to patronize only approved vendors of Kapparos.

One of the recurrent themes of the anti-chicken-Kapparos crowd’s communications, though, is that the custom itself is “primitive.” The activists assume – and it is an assumption mistakenly made by many others (including The New York Times a few years back) – that sins are somehow transferred from the supplicant to the bird.

Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.

Even when actual animal sacrifices were a mainstay of Jewish life, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance. It still does.

There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts when it comes to taking responsibility for our actions. Repentance is the only effective remedy for sin, though it is an amazing one. For it accomplishes much more than a simple apology; it has the power, Jewish sources teach, to actually reach into the past and change the nature of what we may have done. As such, we are taught, teshuva is a “chiddush,” a concept that defies simple logic and expectation. And for erasing iniquity, it is indispensable.

So what’s with the chickens?

Well, the definitive primary Jewish legal text, the Shulchan Aruch, notes the custom of Kapparos, but disapproves of its practice. The authoritative glosses of the Rabbi Moshe Isserles, though, which present normative Ashkenazic practice, note that the custom has its illustrious defenders, and maintains that where it exists it should be preserved.

The custom’s intent and meaning are elucidated in the widely accepted commentary known as the Mishneh Brurah, written by the renowned “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan. Citing earlier sources, he explains that when one performs the ritual, he should consider that what will happen to the bird – its slaughter – would be happening to him were strict justice, untempered with G-d’s mercy, the rule. As a result, the supplicant will come to regret his sins and “through his repentance” cause G-d “to revoke any evil decree from him.”

So it seems that the Kapparos-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on atonement, intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds.

Similar to Kapporos is the Rosh Hashana custom of Tashlich, which is likewise commonly misconstrued as a magical “casting away of sins.” The practice of visiting a body of water and reciting verses and prayers, however, has no such direct effect. It, like Kapporot, is an opportunity for self-sensitization to our need for repentance. The verse “And cast in the depths of the ocean all of their sins,” prominently recited in the prayers for the ritual, is a metaphor for what we can effect with our sincere repentance and determination to be better in the future.

As Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling writes in his classic work known as the “Ta’amei Haminhagim,” or “Explications of Customs,” Tashlich reminds us that the day of ultimate reckoning may be upon us far sooner that we imagine, just as fish swimming freely in the water may find themselves captured suddenly in the hungry fishmonger’s net – and that we dare not live lives of spiritual leisure on the assumption that there will always be time for repentance when we grow old.

All too often we moderns tend to view ancient Jewish laws, customs and rituals as quaint relics of the distant past evoking, at most, warm and nostalgic feelings of ethnic identity.

But, as a closer look at Kapporos and Tashlich suggest, there is a world of difference between Tevya’s celebration of “Tradition!” for tradition’s sake and the deep meanings that lie in the rites and rituals of Jewish religious life.

Jewish practice is laden with profound significance that speaks to us plainly and powerfully, if only we choose to listen, to confront our spiritual selves, to do teshuva – with or without the help of chickens or rivers.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission with the above copyright notice appended.
This essay, in a different form, was first published in 2002.