This Sunday and Monday, a group calling itself “The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos” will be conducting two protests in Brooklyn, in an effort to end the practice of hoisting live roosters or hens over people’s heads as a way of atoning for sins. A formula is also recited: “This is my substitution, this is my exchange, this is my atonement; this rooster [or hen] will go to its death, and I will enter into and have a long and peaceful life.” (See article on page 8.)
From almost the beginning of this ritual in 9th century Babylonia, there have been authorities who opposed it on various grounds. In the 13th century, for example, both Nachmanides and Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham Aderet (Rashba) criticized the custom on various grounds, including its pagan overtones. “Minhag sh’tut zu,” “this is a foolish custom,” is how the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive code of Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Karo, characterized the ritual. Curiously, these words have been excised from more recent editions of the Shulchan Aruch.
Criticisms have gotten louder in recent years, not merely because the custom appears to be “foolish,” or “pagan,” or because it may emulate a Temple ritual, but because its detractors see it as cruelty toward a living creature. That is the motivation behind the Brooklyn protests on Sunday and Monday. The protests – to be held diagonally in front of the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum at 792 Eastern Parkway – are just a few buildings up the street from the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement at 770 Eastern Parkway. Chabad looms large in promoting “shlugging kaporos,” as the ritual is referred to in Yiddish. Several hundred chickens will be slaughtered in our own area by Chabad centers, and perhaps hundreds more in other parts of our community.
We support the demonstrations – not because we want to infringe on anyone’s religious practice, but because we are convinced that the practice itself violates Judaism’s strict code of tsaar baalei chaim, avoiding committing cruelty to living creatures.
There is a substitute for this “substitute.” If you wish to engage in this ritual, use money instead of roosters and hens. It is the humane way.