Every year on the day before Yom Kippur scores of Jews, most of them charedim (ultra-orthodox), all over the world perform the ritual of kapparot. This rite symbolically provides atonement and traditionally consists of taking a chicken and waving it over one's head three times while reciting the appropriate text. After which the chicken is shechted and the meat donated to the poor. This Jewish custom dates back to the Middle Ages and has always been surrounded by much controversy. In the past the main controversy surrounding it was the halachic (legal) legitimacy of the practice within Judaism. While that argument still stands, today the greater tension revolves around the animal welfare issues surrounding kapparot. This controversy plays out yearly on the week before Yom Kippur as protests break out on the streets as well as in social media and Jewish Magazines demanding an end to the medieval practice. But are these protests based on legitimate concerns or are people simply upset because the oft-maligned charedim are killing animals for food in the open instead of keeping it hidden like everybody is used to? So let’s look at the main animal welfare concerns surrounding kapparot and see what we come up with.
1. Waving the chicken around is cruel and hurts the chickens.
We’ve all seen that picture of a charedi guy who seems to be wildly swinging a chicken around his head during kapparot. But the truth is that I’ve never met anybody who actually does this violently or has seen it done in such a manner. Sure, when you have thousands of people that have never held a chicken before handling live birds some of them are probably not doing it so well but the custom is to gently rotate the chicken around one’s head and not to violently swing it. In many slaughterhouses chickens often break their wings and legs because of rough handling so while there are always welfare concern when live animals are being handled it’s clear that the concerns here are certainly no greater than those at a normal slaughterhouse.
2. Chickens aren’t provided adequate shelter from heat and not given access to food and water before slaughter.
In terms of food it’s actually normal practice to not feed chickens for up to 24 hours before slaughter. This ensures that their intestines or free feces and facilitates better food safety for the finished product. I’m sure the hunger isn’t fun for chickens but this is a necessary aspect of slaughtering them. Chickens going without water, being overcrowded and allowed to overheat all constitute much more legitimate and serious welfare concerns but are all also present when bringing animals for slaughter at a normal facility. Again this is not about kapparas but rather about general animal welfare no matter what the context.
3. Unused chickens are left to die while many of the chickens that are killed are simply thrown in the garbage instead of being donated to the poor.
Of all the concerns over kapparot these are some of the most worrying to me. If chickens are being left to die and their meat not being given to charity, as is sometimes the case, than that would certainly render the whole practice worthless in those instances. This is a cruel and wasteful transgression of Jewish law, which forbids both causing needless suffering to animals and wasting precious food.
4. Kapparot are unnecessary and therefor cruel.
While some halachic thinkers disapprove of this practice and believe that it must be done on coins instead, others including the preeminent Jewish thinker, the Sulchan Aruch, are permissive of the practice. When done correctly the chickens are killed in a manner with no significant difference to what is done in a slaughterhouse and the meat is donated to charity. If you have a problem with killing animals for food than it would make sense that you are against this practice. But if you believe it okay to kill animals for food and also believe that it is important to be tolerant of other Jews, even if you disagree with them, than there is no legitimate reason to be radically against kapparot. Most Jews that come out so vehemently against kapparot would label themselves and liberal and accepting but being accepting doesn’t mean just doing it when it’s convenient for oneself. It means coming out of one’s comfort zone and accepting even those things that might feel foreign and strange.
After looking at the different issues it’s clear that while many of the welfare concerns are overblown some serious issues do exist, but does this mean that the practice must be stopped? I would argue that the answer is definitely no. These issues must be confronted through outreach to the community as well as oversight of those providing kapparah services. I myself put together kapparot for some members of my Jewish community two years ago. While I didn’t personally find the practice particularly meaningful I was happy to help those in my community that do. Facilitating the experience for my friends was fulfilling and I made sure to use high animal welfare standards and donated the organic heritage chickens to charity.
Ensuring such high standards for the for the few chickens I killed in Boulder, CO is much easier than it would be for the masses in Jerusalem and L.A. but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If all those Jews that speak out against kapparot every year put their energies into outreach, education and enforcement of high animal welfare instead, there could actually be improvements in the way this is practiced. But instead people simply bemoan charedim and fruitlessly call for them to end a practice they obviously have no intention of giving up. So this year, if you practice kapparot make sure that the chickens you are buying come from a reputable source that treats their chickens well and will donate the meat to charity. And if you are worried about those not doing things right, instead of aimlessly calling for an end to kapparot, take action to ensure better animal welfare standards in the future.
About the blog:
Welcome to The Kosher Omnivore's Quest! My old blog on kosher slaughter, kosher meat, and animal welfare. For new content check out my new website, The Kosher Cut™. There you'll find: blog posts about shechita and related topics, educational slaughter presentations, kosher slaughter training, and a selection of high quality professional kosher slaughter equipment.