Flock of traditional kaporos practitioners still active in Pittsburgh

Flock of traditional kaporos practitioners still active in Pittsburgh

It is hard to find information on the Internet regarding where or when the ritual of kaporos will take place in Pittsburgh. The hundreds of local Orthodox Jews who wave live chickens over their heads to atone for their sins during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prefer to fly under the radar.

Many non-Orthodox Jews have never even heard of the practice of kaporos, which is a Hebrew word for “atonement,” but the custom is at least 800 years old. According to some authorities, it evolved from an ancient belief that it was possible to transfer one’s own sin and guilt to another object or animal.

Individuals seeking redemption from their sins perform the ritual by waving a chicken overhead three times while reciting a prayer. The chicken is then slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut and donated to a charity to be eaten by the poor.

The practice of using chickens is, not surprisingly, controversial, and opposition to it dates back to the 13th century. Even Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the definitive code of Jewish law), came out against it. Because using live chickens was not universally accepted among scholars, the custom of using coins as an alternative to fowl developed.

The controversy exists today. Animal rights activists in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit last month challenging the ritual of kaporos, which, until last year, was very public there, according to a report in L.A.’s Jewish Journal. Booths for kaporos were set up in parking lots and in public alleyways in the populous Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and the ritual was promoted with large banners and barkers in chicken costumes.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, a New York-based organization, sued several rabbis and yeshivas in the neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Borough Park, asking the court to stop the slaughtering of the chickens on site that occurs as part of the ritual.

Compared to New York and Los Angeles, the practice in Pittsburgh is much more low-key. There are no banners, no people in chicken suits, and the actual slaughtering of the birds does not occur on site. Rather, hundreds of those in the know gather at a designated time and at a designated location, where they purchase live chickens transported to Pittsburgh from the David Elliott Poultry Farm, a kosher facility in Scranton. After the chickens are used for the ritual, they are transported back to the farm where the slaughtering occurs.

The Jewish Vegetarians of North America, a group that helps Jews embrace plant-based diets as an expression of Jewish values, is, not surprisingly, opposed to using chickens for kaporos, although its board of directors has voted not to prioritize an anti-kaporos campaign, according to Jeff Cohan, JVNA’s executive director.

“Kaporos is just one piece of a bigger problem,” said Cohan, who lives in Pittsburgh. The larger problem, he said, is the poor treatment of chickens by the poultry industry in a broader sense, and people’s consumption of chicken in general.

Still, Cohan said, “there is no justification for using chickens for kaporos whatsoever.”

Using chickens, he said, is a breach of Jewish values, including the many verses in the Torah that emphasize the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, or the proper treatment of animals.  

“Kaporos is a blatant violation of tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” Cohan said. “The birds [at poultry farms] are subjected to a terrible situation from day one. Kaporos then compounds the problem. Of course the chicken doesn’t want to be swung over someone’s head.”

Another problem with the custom, Cohan said, is that it is a chillul hashem, an embarrassment to the Jewish community.

“Anyone with eyes in their head can see it’s a cruel practice, and the secular media likes to show images of it,” he said. “That brings embarrassment and shame to the Jewish community. If we were swinging money over our heads and donating it to tzedakah, it would have the opposite effect in the media.”

Those who participate in kaporos in Pittsburgh, though, are mindful to perform it in a way that is humane, said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, spiritual leader of Chabad of the South Hills.

“It is of the utmost importance to treat animals humanely, and not to cause them any suffering,” Rosenblum said, adding that the chickens are not actually swung above people’s heads, but gently moved in a circle.

“The utmost care has to go into making sure that no pain or discomfort is inflicted upon the animal whatsoever. If there was any pain or discomfort, it would cancel out [the benefit],” he said. “Everyone has to be very careful not to bring harm to the chicken. We have to treat all God’s creatures with respect; otherwise, it is not in the spirit of the custom.”

Most people objecting to kaporos, Rosenblum observed, object to slaughtering chickens in general; kaporos itself does not cause the chicken any harm.

“The Torah condones the ritual slaughter and the eating of animals, and considers it a mitzvah,” he said.

Whether or not the custom brings embarrassment to the community is a matter of perspective, Rosenblum noted.

“Each group can interpret another group’s behavior to be shameful to the community,” he said. “We don’t invite the press, and we don’t make a big deal about it. The opposition is calling more attention to this than those who are practicing the custom.

“I think most people’s imagination of this custom and its actual practice are far apart from each other,” Rosenblum continued. “I would never cause any harm to an animal.”

But at least one Chasidic rabbi has given up using a live chicken in his practice of kaporos because he perceives it to be inhumane.

After 25 years of using a live bird for the ritual, Rabbi Eli Soiefer, of Monsey, N.Y., had a sort of epiphany while holding a chicken over his head.

“I was holding the chicken over my head with one hand, and had a siddur in the other hand,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt the consciousness of the chicken. I felt its pain, and its fear running through the top of my head and through my body. It felt to me like the chicken was communicating the message to me, ‘Please don’t do this any more, causing me suffering and anxiety. Do this another way.’”

Soiefer now uses money for the ritual, he said. He has also stopped eating meat.

Soiefer does understand, though, why many people prefer to use a live animal for the practice.

“There are things people do to help motivate and help visualize and internalize the message of the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Soiefer said. “One of those things is kaporos. They might think they have done some things over the past year that God would have punished them for. The sins are transferred to the chicken, and then it is killed in a kosher way, and it is given to a poor person. When they do it with a live animal, it becomes more real for the person.”

While ideally the ritual is performed in the gentle way described by Rosenblum, Soiefer said, in a busy area like New York, that is not the most common practice.

“The overwhelming number of people I know do not know how to hold a chicken properly,” Soiefer said. “They hold it by the wings, causing pain to the chicken.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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