Chicken out

Chicken out

It is always a delicate task to criticize a long-established custom, especially when that custom is infused with a sense of the sacred.

At least 1,200 years ago, and perhaps much earlier, a custom developed in the Jewish communities of Babylonia to symbolically transfer a person’s sins to an animal and then have the animal slaughtered. Over time, that animal became a fowl of some kind. Today, it is a rooster or a hen.

The live bird is grasped by the legs and torso, then waved three times over the head as a formulaic statement is made: “This is my substitute, this is in place of my [sin] offering, this is my atonement; this [bird] shall go to its death, and I will find a long and pleasant life of peace.”

This custom, known in Hebrew as kapparot (the word means expiations), seems to be loosely based on the Torah’s ritual of the scapegoat, but is not mentioned in either the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmud. It first appears in rabbinic writings of the 9th century.

At a time when Jews were living among pagans who offered sacrifices to their gods -and when Jews themselves still avidly yearned for a return of their own sacrificial cult – a case could be made for this custom, but it was always controversial. No less an authority than the 16th-century Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the definitive code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, referred to kapparot as a “foolish custom.”

It is more than that. Tormenting a live bird (including putting it on the floor and symbolically stepping on its head) would seem to violate Jewish law, which strenuously protects living creatures from such treatment.

For that reason, an increasingly large number of rabbis on all sides of the Orthodox world (where kapparot is the most prevalent) have come out against using live birds. They urge, instead, that people substitute money, which then is donated to some worthy cause.

We second this, as well.