Thursday 17 September 2015

060) Kappores - With or Without a live chicken?

There is much controversy around the issue of using live chickens for the performance of Kappores [1]. I have always opted for the traditional way of performing kappores with a rooster, explaining to ‘detractors’ that there is no significant difference between kappores and normal shchita (kosher slaughtering), in that a shochet (slaughterer) is anyway present at the ceremony and performs a normal regulation shchita afterwards. So if you eat chicken, you may as well do kappores.

But the kappores ceremony does raise a number of practical challenges. The fact is that in reality there is often the possibility that chickens will suffer before and during the process of the ceremony. Sometimes the chickens are held for hours or even days in tightly packed cages where they wait without food or water. Furthermore, the people performing the rite are not always schooled in the correct manner in which to hold a chicken, and can cause pain if not break bones of the chicken while rotating it around the head.

Let’s take a look at some classical views regarding this issue:


The first mention of the practice of kappores is by Natronai ben Hilai, a Gaon in the academy of Sura, Babylonia at around 850 C.E., who says that although it is the practice of Babylonian and Persian Jews, it is of non -Jewish origin.


The original version of  the Shulchan Aruch before censorship.
According to Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, “We should stop this custom, because (as the Mishna Berurah[2] explains) it resembles the ways of the Emorim (darkei haEmori - who practiced magic, superstition and witchcraft).”[3]  
This rather outspoken view, against what Rabbi Karo also calls a ‘foolish custom’, is significant because he was a major halachic codifier.

The interesting thing is that although his statements against kappores appeared in the first 18 printings of his work, somehow in the 18th century they got censored and omitted (and to a large extent are still omitted in some modern day publications).[4]

The Ramban[5] also opposed the custom of kappores stating it was of non-Jewish origin and that there can be no ‘vicarious sacrifice’ outside of the Temple in Jerusalem. He called those who performed the rite ‘idol-worshippers’.


In stark contrast to the Rabbi Yosef Karo, the Ramo (representing the Ashkenazi community) mentions that the custom is in fact very old and has roots going back to the Geonim.[6] He says that historically all Ashkenazi countries upheld this custom as well as, surprisingly, even the Sefardic countries (who seemed to ignore Rabbi Yosef Karo who wrote primarily for Sefardic communities). Therefore, he maintains that we should not change this custom, as it is well rooted deep within our past.

The Mishna Berura[7]  explains away the objection that the custom may be similar to ‘black magic’, by saying that the ‘transposing of sin’ is not necessarily a foreign concept to Judaism, as some Rishonim equate it to the offering of a sacrifice (for an inadvertent sin in Temple times), where the sin is also said to be ‘transposed’ or ‘exchanged’.  
The Hebrew word gever can mean both man and rooster; hence a rooster may substitute for a man.


The Chaye Adam acknowledges the fact that the custom of Kappores is deeply rooted within our tradition, but suggests that it has assumed a status of importance that it never had before. He says “It has become ingrained in the hearts of the masses that all of the atonement of Yom Kippur depends upon it. It is almost as if Kappores and eating matzah are of equal importance. The masses think that without a rooster they will not attain atonement on Yom Kippur.”[8]

The Chaye Adam continues to say that because the chickens push against each other in large numbers (as would happen in a kappores ceremony which is usually performed in large gatherings requiring large numbers of chickens), and the slaughters are usually overburdened and tired with ‘grimaced faces’, and chances are the knives are not checked for sharpness as often as they should – there is a reasonable possibility that people would be eating non kosher (neveilah) chicken. Then he says “If people would listen to is better for them to swing money around their heads. This was indeed the custom of earlier generations.”[9]


Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi[10] adds a further dimension to the discussion by introducing the concern for cruelty to animals (tzar ba’alei chaim).[11] He writes “And why, particularly on the eve of the holy day do we need to be cruel to animals...and slaughter them without any mercy, at a time when we stand to request life for ourselves from the living G-d.”

No one can argue the fact that the use of live chickens for kappores is a very well established custom. It is also well supported by our mystical tradition. Therefore those who follow that custom certainly have precedent upon which to rely. 

I was happy to read in a local advertisement for kappores, “Please make every effort to handle your chicken in the most careful and sensitive way as to avoid harming or hurting the chicken.” The kappores in our community is taking place under the guidance of a civic animal protection organisation.

At the same time those who wish to use money in lieu of chickens also have very good (historical and ethical) precedent.

While it is true that the ‘cruelty to animals’ principle can be overridden when it comes to a ‘vital issue’ concerning the community; And while it is also true that a well established custom like kappores may be indeed be considered a ‘vital issue’;  - There is, however, the halachik permissibility to use money instead of chickens and still perform kappores appropriately. This means that the use of chickens may no longer be considered a ‘vital issue’.[12]

Thus there is a strong case for the use of money as a substitute for (and maybe even a preferential way to perform) kaporres, as opposed to using live chickens.

I’m still going to do kappores this year the old fashioned way, with a rooster, the way I have always done it in the past. But I am richer knowing that some say it is rooted in paganism, and is a silly custom which should not be perpetuated, and may have involved a degree of censorship by interested parties, and may even be idolatry, and may if I am not careful cause hurt to an animal, and it may not be right to ‘slaughter without mercy’ on the day before we ask for life– at least I have that knowledge and information clearly in my head and am under no illusions.

This state of tension between knowledge and belief is, according to the Kotzker Rebbe, the truest form of spiritual experience.

At least with regard to kappores I might just be a 'rational mystic'.

[1] Kappores (or atonement) is a pre-Yom Kippur custom of ‘swinging’ a chicken around one’s head, whereby the chickens are said to symbolically take on the sins of the individual performing the rite. The chickens are then kosher slaughtered and either eaten or given away to the needy.
[2] Orach Chaim 605,1.
[3] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 605,1 (in the name of the Rambam and Rashba).
[4] See Kotzk Blog 53) Hey, Teacher Leave the Text Alone (UPDATE).
[5] Nachmanides 1194 – 1270.
[6] The period of the Geonim immediately followed on from the Talmidic era, and preceded that of the Rishonim.
[7] Orach Chaim 605,1.
[8] Chaye Adam klal 144,4 and brought in Mishna Berura 605,2 and Kaf HaChaim 11.
[9] As the Magen Avraham 81,2 writes in the name of Rashi.
[10] 1924 – 1998. He served as the Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. His Aseh Lecha Rav is a collection of responsa. (As an aside, Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi was the first rabbi to issue a prohibition against smoking).
[11] Shut Aseh Lecha Rav vol 3, p.67.
[12] I thank my friend Ori S. for drawing my attention to this argument, which he saw
 in the writing of one of his teachers.

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