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Kaparot with chickens?! Isn’t that violent?

Sarah Baumol

Shevat 5779 | January 2019
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She'ela

My husband’s family performs the Kapparot ceremony on the Eve of Yom Kippur with chickens. In my family we did it with money. He would like me to join with him and his family. I have gone along with all of his customs, and am fine with that. I heard that using chickens for Kapparot might be halakhically problematic and would like to know what the Halakha is.

Teshuva

The word “kapparot” means atonement. All Jews are expected to atone for their sins of the past year during the High Holiday period – especially the ten days of repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The custom of slaughtering a chicken on Erev Yom Kippur for Kapparot is an ancient one, dating back at least to the time of the Gaonim in the 5th century, if not earlier. A persons holds a chicken over their head and turns it around, while reciting:   “Zeh Halifati, Zeh Temurati, Zeh Kaparati” (“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement”). The chicken is then given to the Shochet who will perform the ritual slaughter and either goes to a poor family, or money is given to the poor and the chicken is used by the owner.

The custom of Kapparot was prominent throughout the Ashkenazic countries; it first spread to the Sephardic countries in the medieval times, middle to late 12th century. It was not accepted by many of the Sephardic adjudicators of that time, such as the Ramban (Nachmonides), and his disciple the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet). The Rambam, (Maimonides, 12th century Spain and Egypt) does not mention it in his “”Mishne Torah”, codex of Jewish Law, and therefore the Yemenite Jews, who follow the Rambam’s traditions do not perform the Kapparot at all.

The Shulchan Aruch (Rabbi Yosef Karo 1488-1575) writes (Orech Hashulchan 605) that the custom should not be performed, while the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isseles) in the addendum to this paragraph writes the opposite, giving the background as well as the details of how to fulfill this custom using a chicken. Most of the Ashkenazic Rabbis (Tur, Magen Avraham, Taz, Bach, MIshne Brura, Orech Hasulchan) agree with the Rama. The Baal HaTania (Rabbi Shneur Zalma of Ladii, 19th century, and the first Rabbi of Chabad) writes that this is an important custom, and it is the accepted norm in the Chabad community.

Sephardic Rabbis, starting with the Arizal, (Rabbi YIzchak Luria of Safed 16th century), and later Rabbi Yosef Chayyim (19th century), otherwise known as the Ben Ish Chai of Bagdad, as well as the great Rabbis of Aleppo followed this tradition as well. In the more modern times – late 20th century, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu includes Kapparot in his halakhot of Yom Kippur, while Rabbi Ovadia Yosef discourages his followers from using a chicken, and encourages them to use money.

The Rabbis who discouraged and even forbade Kapparot had several reasons.  First of all, the Ramban and the Rashba referred to it as “Derech Haemori”, a gentile or pagan custom and there is a prohibition against following gentile customs– known as “Chukot Hagoim”. This is a severe prohibition that, according to most Poskim, is defined as a religious ceremony or custom, which has no apparent reason or logic and was learned or copied from the gentiles, or idol worshippers. The Talmud quotes several examples of such customs. The Ashkenazic Poskim refute this by explaining that there is reasoning to Kapparot with examples in the Torah of similar acts, and therefore we cannot say that we copied this custom from the gentiles.

Other reasons that were used to try to discourage the Kapparot ceremony were logistical ones, such as that the necessity to perform the ritual slaughter (shechita) of so many chickens on one day might result in many of them not being kosher due to flaws in the “shechita” process itself.  There are several suggestions by the Mishna Brura, the Orech Hashulchan and others regarding performing the Kapparot ceremony by bringing a “shochet” to one’s home, or doing it on an earlier day during the ten days of Repentance. The Shochet is also required to check his knife more often to ensure that it has no flaws.

During the past 40-50 years, there have been claims that Kapparot is cruel to the animals, and therefore should be forbidden. This is answered by several Rabbis in the following way – the main result of shechita is that the animal feels no pain and therefore it is the most humane way to slaughter an animal for the purpose of food. There is a biblical prohibition of cruelty to animals (Tzaar Baalei Chaim) and yet the Torah commands us to sacrifice animals, as well as permitting their ritual slaughter in order to eat them. Of course the animal should not be treated poorly prior to the Shechita.

On the other hand, there are two strong reasons in favor of the custom of Kapparot:

1 – The Hebrew word for a male chicken – Gaver, is the same as the word for a man. The idea is that when we watch the chicken being slaughtered we understand that perhaps it was us who deserved this, and hopefully   because of our repentance and prayers, G-d will forgive us and give us another year of life.

2 – There is a biblical mitzvah of “Kisui Hadam”, the covering of the blood with earth, a mitzvah which most people never experience. On the eve of Yom Kippur we want to accrue as many mitzvot as possible, and this is a rare one.

In addition there are Kabbalistic reasons behind this custom.

As you can see there are supporters of both Ashekanzic and Sephardic Rabbis halakhically supporting tradition of Kapparot, as well as those who discourage it. If this is an important tradition to your husband and his family, there is no halakhic barrier to joining them.

Sarah Baumol

is a graduate of Hilkhata, Matan's Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a certified Meshivat Halakha. She is also a graduate of Matan's Talmud Institute, and has an M.A. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. Her responsibilities in Matan include coordinating the Daf Yomi daily shiur as well as the weekly Tzurba Halakha program.