Monday, September 24, 2012


(Extracted from my book Man & Beast, and re-posted from two years ago. Sorry for the absence of original posts; I've been busy with hyrax, ibex, oryx, addax, and aurochs.)

On the days preceding Yom Kippur, some have a custom to designate a chicken as a scapegoat for their own sins. They recite a statement designating it as such while passing it around their head, and the bird is then slaughtered. Many have the custom of then giving the chicken to the poor. (Some have the custom to use money for the procedure instead.)

Two of the early authorities, Rashba[1] and Ramban,[2] strongly protest against this custom, considering it to fall under the prohibition of “following the ways of the Emorites.” The Shulchan Aruch likewise disapproves of this custom.[3] However, Rabbi Moshe Isserliss, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that since this is an ancient custom that has widespread support, one should not dissuade people from it.

But what of the aspect of causing suffering to the birds? There is no real reason why it should be any different to any case of slaughtering a chicken to eat. Passing a bird around one’s head can certainly be done in a way that does not cause undue distress, although unfortunately inexperienced people may not know how to handle it in such a way.

The bigger problem lies in how the entire process is commonly facilitated nowadays. In pre-war Europe, a person would simply take a chicken from his yard, or from the local farmer. Today, the chickens are packed en masse into crates and shipped to city centers where they wait for people to take their turn in performing the kapparos process. This commonly results in the birds being kept in horrifically cramped conditions without food, water or shade.

While it is permitted to cause suffering to animals for material or spiritual benefit, the suffering in this case is quite needless. It would seem that causing needless suffering to animals is a Biblical prohibition that far outweighs the value of a custom. Furthermore, it would seem to fundamentally negate much of the significance of the kapparos ritual. The Tur states that after slaughtering the chicken, there is a custom to throw its innards on the roof for birds to eat. Taz[4] and Aruch haShulchan[5] state that the reason for this is to show compassion for other creatures and thereby to earn Divine compassion.[6] On the eve of the Day of Judgment, when there is a special need to earn Divine mercy, it is surely counterproductive to inflict needless suffering upon creatures.

Fortunately, in recent years, people have gradually become sensitive to this issue, and positive steps are slowly being taken to rectify this situation.


[1] Shailos U’Teshuvos HaRashba 1:395.

[2] Cited in Orchos Chaim, hilchos erev yom hakipurim 1.

[3] Orach Chaim 605:1. Several other objections to this custom are given in other works, such as that the great volume of birds being slaughtered under rushed conditions is likely to lead in disqualifications in the slaughtering process.

[4] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[5] Orach Chaim 605:4.

[6] Others say that it is because the chicken may have benefited from stolen foods and therefore we must limit our benefit from it.


  1. The Gra opposed both Tashlich and Kapparoth.

    I do neither.

  2. There is a custom in certain circles to kick the head of the chicken after doing kapparos. The "kick" is intended to be a light one, and is symbolic. It is supposed to symbolize how we would/should/deserve to be treated for our sins were it not for Hashem's mercy in forgiving us and for the chicken serving as the recipient for the punishment due to us.

    I would think that instead of kicking the chicken’s head, even if it is a “gentle kick” we should cradle the chicken in our arms and gently thank it for its sacrifice on our behalf. But then again, I'm just a crazy lover of animals.

    In any case, if you are going to use live chickens for this minhag, it is an opportunity to teach children and others kindness, by researching and educating people on how to hold the chicken in a way that causes it the least amount of discomfort. Maybe we can change the world one fowl at a time.

    Gmar chasima tova to all.

  3. > designate a chicken as a scapeGOAT

    Then it should be a scapeCHICKEN, yes?

    I've often wondered about the incompleteness of the kapparos ritual by those who act like using a chicken is Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai. Do they then take the chicken home and slaughter it like in the old country? How is a perfunctory wave with no further connection to the chicken reproducing the ritual as our fathers did it in the Beis HaMikdash (kidding)?

    Myself, I bought a toy chicken for the ritual. The kids love it and I don't feel bad tossing her back into the drawer until next year when we're done.

    Have an easy fast.

  4. The whole process of Kapparos in American cities nowadays seems fairly cruel and I think it desensitizes us to the suffering of animals, which isn't a good thing.

    On the other hand, would the birds that are used in this process be in any better conditions had they not been picked for Kapparos? It seems to me that in general they are already in these miserable conditions to begin with and that they are still being prepared for consumption regardless. I could be wrong about that though.

    As for it being a non Jewish practice, sounds about right.

  5. Where I live (Monsey), there is a far more serious issue; chilul Hashem. Every year, there is a big kapparot center set up. The people who run it routinely violate local ordinances, leaving blood, innards, feces, feathers etc strewn about. the stench is awful. Chickens literally die in the crates from dehydration. Every year, the local non-Jewish population look upon this with sheer and utter disgust (who could blame them? It is disgusting). the health department levies fines, which are not paid but resolved politically, and people become more and more resentful of the Jewish community. Indeed Kapparot is a charming ceremony. It's symbolic value is huge. It always reminds me of the first Ramban in Sefer Vayikra, even though the Ramban opposed the practice. But it isn't worth the chilul Hashem it now causes.

  6. Last year, Rav Ovadia Yossef spoke out against the way the chickens were being treated. He came close to prohibiting the whole practice, he said "Maran forbids it" and then he himself wouldn't forbid it although he almost always goes with the Shulchan Aruch. He did say that if the chickens would be treated cruelly, one should use money.

  7. "Rabbi Moshe Isserliss, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, notes that since this is an ancient custom that has widespread support, one should not dissuade people from it."

    How many of the folks who rely on the Rema to justify kaporot will be wearing tefilin on Chol HaMoed?

    1. I do wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed and do kapparos, as did Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch. But in any event, that's not how halacha and minhag work, and you know it.

  8. For several years now, there have been annual demonstrations near the Chabad HQ at "770" against the practice of using chickens for kapparos, on grounds of cruelty. My daughter-in-law and her mother, members of the Schneerson family, were taking part in one such demonstration when they were approached by a heckler. A relative of theirs who happened to be present warned the heckler, "They're Bais Ha-Rav." The heckler backed off -- but I'll bet he still uses chickens.

  9. The fact is, poultry slaughtering is a messy business. Blood, feathers, squawking - to city dwellers who never see this, it just looks bad, no matter how it's done. There is no realistic way to transport the tens of thousands of birds from the farms to the cities, other than in crates. Even on the farms, and that includes the pleasant-sounding "free range" farms, the conditions are not much better.

    I'm all for kindness to animals (who isnt?) but whenever I hear this topic raised re kapporos, it just seems more of an artifice to attack traditional judaism, whilst hiding under under the convenient mantle of holiness provided by tzaar ballei chaim.


  10. "
    I'm all for kindness to animals (who isnt?) but whenever I hear this topic raised re kapporos, it just seems more of an artifice to attack traditional judaism, whilst hiding under under the convenient mantle of holiness provided by tzaar ballei chaim.


    You have it backwards. Traditional Judaism says that this activity is like Avodah Zarah, that it's not allowed, and possibly violates the prohibition of doing sacrifices outside of the Temple mount.

  11. One more argument that needs to be made here on the subject of Kapparos, and one I have never heard made by any Rabbi, and probably most important, is if you think you will be saved by a chicken, Lord have mercy on your soul, because no matter how many times one performs this ritual, at the end we all answer to and take reasonability for our own actions.

  12. @anonymous:

    Kapparot is not 'traditional Judaism'.

    It is a dubious custom of dubious pagan origins. It is often cruel to the animals. There is enough Rabbinic authority and precedent to abolish it.

    It should be abolished.

  13. I'm here to tell you that at least some of the opponents of chicken kapporos are not only sincerely motivated but 100% frum.

  14. Machon Shilo's Rabbi David Bar-Hayim opposes this negative custom.

  15. Any citation like this is probably common knowledge, but since it hasn't been quoted yet, I might as well quote it:
    The Wikipedia article on Kapparot (in Hebrew) cites Rashi in Gemara Shabbos (81b) that mentions a custom from the time of the Geonim of making a wicker flowerpot, planting beans in it, and then when it sprouts, waving it around your head on Erev Rosh Hashanah, saying "זה חליפתי" etc., and throwing it into a river--a sort of combination of tashlich and kapporot. It certainly removes the צער בעלי חיים aspect--probably the accusation of being of pagan origins as well.

  16. Dan - no doubt what you say is true. But others, including, I believe, RNS, are motivated more by what they think is a convenient way to bash orthodox traditions, and by extension, orthodox beliefs. (ot that no such beliefs dont deserve a good bashing.)


  17. Perhaps you could share the secret of your mind-reading skills?

  18. Completely superstitious non-sense, even Korbanos during Biblical times was a very questionable.

    Why would a God want/need Korbanos? Accordingly the Rambam thinks it was just a way to wean Israelite's away from idolatrous practices of the Goyim. But it was more of concession by God for a group of superstitious people.

    In one sense it's good we do not have a Temple and discontinued such practices.


    Rabbi Simon

  19. RNS - libi omer li. Or, alternatively, years of experience and learning to trust my intuition.

  20. Ah, the intuition of an anonymous person judging me unfavorably! Must be true, then.


  21. Anonymous: Now if OTHER people trusted your intuition that would be something else. But since you y of are anonymous we have no way of knowing.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  22. Stop this foolishness! Not only is it insanely cruel to the animal but it has absolutely NO redemptive value! If it did then we would not need Yom Kippur's prayers soliciting forgiveness for our sins because the "chicken brought redemption to us" before Yom Kippur! Some of our greatest giants, e.g., Rasha, Ranban and even the author of the Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Karo) have identified this act as "pagan." The greatest of poskim, RAMBAM, who elaborates on all of the 613 commandments in his Mishneh Torah, does not even mention this cruel practice. Again...STOP this foolishness. (May your fast be quick.) Efrayim Elimelech


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