A Yom Kippur of Mercy or Cruelty?

September 26th, 2011


Some Jews have a medieval custom to sacrifice a chicken before Yom Kippur, “kaporos.” One grabs the chicken’s legs while pinning its wings back and swings it around one’s head. These chickens are packed into crates before this procedure and then usually sent to be slaughtered after. Others are often just left in crates to die.

It would be difficult to claim that this practice actually enhances one’s moral and spiritual sensitivities in anticipation of the Day of Atonement. In fact, many Jewish legal authorities today agree that this practice is completely inappropriate.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem and prominent Religious Zionist leader, spoke out against this cruel custom: “Since this is not a clear duty but rather a tradition, and in the light of the kashrut problems and cruelty to animals…it is recommended that one should prefer to conduct the atonement ceremony with money, thus also fulfilling the great mitzva of helping poor people.”

Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Beyond the objections…of the Ramban, Rashba and the Bet Yosef to the custom of ‘kapparot,’ and beyond the warnings of rabbinic authorities such as the Chayei Adam, Kaf HaChaim, Aruch HaShulchan and the Mishanah Brurah regarding the halachic infringements involved in using live fowl for this custom, the latter also desecrates the prohibition against ‘tzaar baalei chayim.’ Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully and indeed in a far more halachically acceptable manner by using money as a substitute.”

The primary purpose of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) is to connect more deeply with G-d and to improve ourselves. Taking on a cruel practice and harming an innocent creature has no place in Jewish life. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition of harming animals) is a Torah prohibition that requires that we cultivate virtue and that we prevent suffering.

Today, there is a substitute for harming animals. One can allocate money to the poor as an alternative to the sacrifice. Sacrifice ended with the destruction of the Second Temple 2,000 years ago, and there is no adequate justification for bringing it back in this context. 

At this time of year, we should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures it in the name of piety. Yom Kippur is a time for teshuva (growth and change).

The Midrash explains profoundly that teshuva was created before the world was created. Rabbi Joesph B. Soloveitchik explains that this demonstrates that free will and the possibility of profound self transformation exist before nature. We are not determined beings; we are free. When we engage in teshuva, we transcend our nature.

In this light, I would suggest that one reason to inflict pain on the animal in this custom is because some believe that the animal soul has won over in them and thus they must transfer their sin onto another animal creature. If we believe that we, on some level, are free, and not determined like an animal, and are spiritually beyond the strict confines of nature then we need not beat the animal instinct out of us. We consist of nature but we can transcend it. We need not beat the animal inside of us or outside of us to find freedom and improvement.

We need not be afraid to abandon a custom that some have taken on when a higher ethical sensitivity exists. For example, in the mid 20th century, observant Jews bought processed foods without hekhsherim (kosher certification). Today, most observant Jews have committed to purchasing only foods certified as kosher. We abandoned a looser custom since we have more options today. Another example of this is the absence of the customary sheep’s or fish’s head on the Rosh Hashanah table today. We remain content with carrots and fruit to fulfill the practice of eating certain foods as a good sign (siman) for the New Year.

This Yom Kippur, we must have the courage to reflect on our customs and practices to ensure they are promoting life and love and not just tradition for its own sake, without regard for its impact on others. 

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