By Sruli Schochet – Los Angeles
This time of year always waxes nostalgic for me. The incessant electricity in the air that surrounds the High Holidays. I can vividly recall, as a young boy, being woken by my father a”h in the early morning hours of erev Yom Kippur, driving to a kosher slaughterhouse in downtown Toronto, to participate in the kaparos ritual. The shrieks of my sisters, when the chicken legs dangled too close to their hair, still rings in my ears. Needless to say, I have always made a point of doing kaparos with chickens with my own family.
However, this ancient and holy tradition is under attack. It has gotten much worse of late. What started off as some protesters holding signs, has ballooned into civil suits being filed in courts across the nation. Just this past year, a Federal judge in Los Angeles put an injunction in place, against Chabad of Irvine, from doing kaparos with chickens until a hearing, taking place the day after Yom Kippur, was held.
To make matters worse, many Jews, under the pressure and guise of “what will the nations say,” have started applying pressure to do away with this holy custom as well. Last year, whilst taking my kids to a store, I observed a friend doing kaparos with his family in an alley-way, out of the back of a pickup truck, furtively glancing to and fro, like a modern day Marrano. But at least he was making the effort. Many people, in cities such as Los Angeles, have stopped doing kaparos with chickens altogether, emboldened by the encouragement of some contemporary Rabbis.
Upon perusing the myriad of articles as to why these organizations and some modern-day rabbis feel this custom should be banned, they tend to regurgitate the same basic arguments. It is important one understands the reasons for this important and holy custom and how to combat its detractors.
Many scholars over the years, such as the Rashba, Ramban and R’ Yosef Cairo, have all opposed the notion of kaparos, especially with chickens. We should finally listen to these holy Rabbis of old.
Answer: It’s important to note that the source for kaparos pre-dates all those commentaries. The earliest source for kaparos can be found in Gaonic literature (Otzer HaGeonim, Yoma pg. 62-64). Furthermore, the custom appears to have originated in Ashkenazic circles and was widely accepted. Every single source quoted in opposition to kaparos was a Sephardic Rabbi. There are many customs that Sephardim and Ashkenazim differ on. To quote a Sephardic Rabbinic authority in order oppose an accepted Ashkenazic custom, is misleading at best.
Lastly, the Rashba in his responsa (sec. 395) opposing kaparos, notes that “he has heard from many high standing individuals who come from the land of Ashkenaz (Germany) that all the Rabbanim of that country observe the custom of kaparos.”
In Judaism, there are often individual opinions opposing this or that. The Judaic judicial system is set up as such that we follow the majority. There is no dispute that the majority, if not all, of accepted halachic Ashkenazic Rabbanim were for and indeed practiced the kaparos ceremony. Furthermore, most Sephardim have adopted the practice of kaparos today as well.
It appears like we are conducting “magic” and it smacks of darkei emori (the way of the pagans).
Answer: I always find it ironic that the very same modern day Rabbis opposing kaparos for its pseudo-magical implications, have no issue with doing mass Tashlich ceremonies with their communities. Tashlich cannot even be found in the literature of the Rishonim and has its earliest known source in the customs of the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Moelin, Germany, 1365-1427). Somehow, this holy custom of Tashlich, with it’s no less “magical appearance” of casting our sins into water containing fish, does not offend their sensitive proclivities. The real reason is simple: it’s not about the seemingly peculiarity of the custom, but rather the ostensibly innocuous way it is carried out. In Judaism, we don’t refrain from following our millennia old holy customs simply because of concerns of how it may look to outsiders.
There are alternatives to using chickens. Why don’t we just use fish or money and this way everyone is happy?
Answer: It’s important to note that in Shulchan Aruch (sec. 605) it does not mention using anything but a chicken or rooster. In Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (sec. 131) and the Alter Rebbe’s Shulcahn Aruch (sec. 605:1) it brings down that IF you cannot acquire a chicken, then you can use other living creature that were not used for sacrifices in the Temple, such as a goose and some say even a fish. The only time money is mentioned is with regard to redeeming the chicken for money and giving the money to poor people (to avoid embarrassing them- since money can be distributed in a more subtle manner). The Chayei Adam (143:4) is basically the only contemporary halachic source that mentions just using money outright, but also mentions that the appropriate custom is to use a chicken.
The necessity for a chicken is directly tied into the symbolism of the entire ceremony. The Hebrew word “gever” can mean both “man” and “rooster.” There are kabalistic connotations and connections between the two that takes place during kaparos.
Furthermore, just as a sin offering in the Temple was to serve as a reminder that if one is not careful, it can be them that is put to death, G-d forbid, thereby inspiring the person to repent, the kaparos serves as a reminder that through repenting, G-d will bestow his mercy upon us (Mishna Berurah, sec. 605:2).
Lastly, kaparos with a chicken symbolizes the four methods of capital punishment that a Jewish court can implement. The chickens neck is pulled back (strangulation); the neck is cut (decapitation); the chicken is cast on the floor (stoning); the chicken is cooked (burning). Needless to say, using fish or money negates many of the symbolic lessons of kaparos. To accomplish all the proper spiritual implications and ramifications, using a chicken is a sine quo non of kaparos.
Many of the chickens are not treated well and after slaughter end up in the garbage. This is both cruelty to animals and ba’al tashchis (needless waste).
Answer: There is no question that animals needs to be treated in a humane manner. It is a very important principle and fundamental tenant of our Torah. However, using this as an excuse is just a red herring. We eat chicken on a regular basis with nary a thought of how it got there. So long as it comes neatly packed in the freezer section of our kosher store, we are content. Our sensitivities were not offended, because we didn’t need to watch the process required to get it there. However, take a moment to see what a kosher chicken slaughterhouse looks like. Then take a look at a non-kosher one. The process at either location is gory at best. It is not a pretty picture any way you slice it (no pun intended).
However, the manner in which the livestock are treated at a kosher slaughterhouse is light years better than their non-kosher counterparts. The way chickens are treated at kaparos is no better or worse then what happens at any chicken slaughterhouse on a daily basis.
Yet, we smile with satiated delight when we eat our delicious shabbos chicken, without giving it a second thought, but somehow kaparos is the guilty one. In this regard, at least PETA is more intellectually honest and consistent than these Rabbis opposing kaparos – they don’t ever eat chicken!
While Judaism disagrees fundamentally with the philosophy of organizations such as PETA, one can at least respect their consistent stance. But if you are not vegan or vegetarian, then every “humane” excuse for not doing kaparos just went out the window.
What about the waste? What of the fact that many places throw out the chickens? To be sure, there is no question that it is better that the chicken gets kashered and used. However, as noted above, Shulchan Aruch discusses how it’s better to redeem the chicken for money and distribute that money to the poor. Thus, if the chicken get thrown out but the money goes to a charitable cause, the proper process of kaparos is fulfilled.
Here in Los Angeles, there is really no excuse not to do kaparos with a chicken. Chabad of S. Monica provides community kaparos annually, and kashers every single chicken. You can even watch them do it! Not only do you get to conduct this holy and special custom with your family, but it’s a great educational experience to teach your children about real kashrus and how it works. The chickens get used by the Chabad House throughout the year and do not go to waste.
Furthermore, the last few years they have used an area that is zoned to house and slaughter chickens, so there are no legal issues either – except by those that are always looking to disrupt our holy traditions.
The real claim (goal)
My friends, this is not just about kaparos. When a Jewish custom is under attack, even something as innocuous as the color of our shoelaces – if challenged on a religious level – one needs to even give up one’s life defending it (Sanhedrin 74a). The same people that want to do away with kaparos, want to do away with shechita, with circumcision, with anything that they feel offends their concept of “humane.”
If we don’t take prophylactic measures now to fight this, unify in a mass showing of attending kaparos, ensuring that our holy traditions will not be pushed aside, we may G-d forbid be sitting around in twenty years wondering how we let things get this far.
Martin Niemöller a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor may have said it best:
When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
We need to draw our line in the sand: we don’t march to the beat of people who put humans and animals on the same pedestal. Our holy Torah tells us (Genesis 1:26): “And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth.” We follow our holy Torah and its ancient traditions, those passed down to us by our righteous Rabbis. If we don’t unify now, who will be there to defend it for our children and grandchildren?
Just as the Almighty gave the rooster the “understanding to differentiate between day and night” may He bestow His understanding and wisdom upon us to make the right choices, fight the proper battles, until the ultimate triumph of good over evil, with the coming of Moshiach, speedily, Amen.