A Wing and a Prayer:
The Kapparot Chicken-Killing Ritual

In October, United Poultry Concerns adopted and helped find homes for some of the 900 young chickens who were left in cages in a garage in Brooklyn, New York. Seized by the ASPCA from the garage, where practitioners of the brutal “chicken swinging” ritual known as Kapparot or Kaparos (“atonements”) abandoned them, this group of chickens did not end up being “swung” and slaughtered to “transfer divine punishment to the soul of a chicken,” as happened to thousands of other chickens at the end of September – and as happens every year for six days before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement on October 2 – in sections of Los Angeles, New York City, Israel and other parts of the world where ultra-orthodox Hasidic (Chasidic) communities reside. The ritual was over for this year, and these birds were just leftover trash – until a neighbor heard their voices and called the authorities.

“It does not make sense that we are asking to purify ourselves on Yom Kippur through the slaughter of a helpless animal.” – Chedva Vanderbrook, Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ynetnews.com, September 28, 2006

Animal rights protesters and rabbis have both pointed out that Kapparot is not sanctioned or required in the Torah or the Talmud. It’s a medieval custom, not a Jewish law. In “Rabbis cry ‘fowl’ on ritual use of chickens,” Israeli journalists Neta Sela and Roi Mandel wrote an article for the Internet publication ynet.com (9.28.06) from which the following excerpt is taken:

“Sunday morning, a few hours before the Yom Kippur fast, many Jews will perform the Kapparot ritual and will wave a soon-to-be slaughtered chicken around their heads. This ancient Jewish custom, which is meant to transfer divine punishment to the soul of a chicken . . . [has recently] encountered opposition by animal welfare groups and even some rabbis.

“First a few words about the practice and its purpose. According to tradition, the father of the house takes a rooster and the wife takes a female chicken. Each of them holds the animal in his or her right hand and recites a number of verses. Afterwards the chicken is transferred to the left hand and is waved around the head three times while the person recites: ‘This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. The rooster [or hen] will go to its death while I enter and proceed to a good long life, and to peace.’ The chicken, which is immediately slaughtered, symbolizes man’s sins and dies instead of him.

“Over the years, many Jews have adopted a substitute for the chicken – a piece of pottery that is then smashed or money that goes to charity. However there are still many that do not have mercy on the chickens. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, from the Reform Movement, claims that this custom bespeaks a lack of compassion and mercy, attributes that generally characterize the Jewish people.

“‘Slaughtering chickens is an unfit custom that goes against Jewish feelings regarding animals,’ he explains. ‘Judaism has always emphasized that the concepts of atonement, soul searching and repentance are dependant on an inner spiritual endeavor that man undertakes to correct his ways. The concept of Kapparot shifts the emphasis to external ritualistic expressions.’

“Kariv contends that the ritual slaughter of the chickens, and the hardships they encounter on the way, cause unjustified suffering. ‘Anyone who walks through the markets can see that the manner in which the chickens are held before the Kapparot is insufferable. There is no veterinary supervision and no concern for the feelings of these poor creatures.’ . . .

“‘It does not make sense that we are asking to purify ourselves on Yom Kippur through the slaughter of a helpless animal,’ says Chedva Vanderbrook, a board member of the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. . . .

“Vanderbrook agrees with Rabbi Kariv that it is not just the slaughter that is unacceptable, but also the manner in which the birds are treated. ‘Next to my house in Jerusalem there are chicken cages scattered around without water,’ she tells. ‘The chickens are brought to the slaughter in cramped cages without water in the broiling sun. Half of them die on the way. No one thinks that these poor creatures deserve to live on the way to their death.

“‘Unfortunately I think that it will be very hard to eradicate this custom in the Ultra-Orthodox community,’ Vanderbrook pessimistically summarizes. ‘But I am appealing to traditional people who customarily perform Kapparot and am asking them to stop. Greater rabbis than myself have requested to end this practice. Rabbi Yosef Karo, for example, wrote that this custom should be abolished. The Ramban expressed similar ideas and Rabbi Kaduri – who was a vegetarian – said that it could be given up. Rabbi Aviner said that it is preferable to use money for Kapparot and that the slaughter is not kosher due to the treatment of the chickens.’” (The article with photos is available online at www.upc-online.org/kaparos/.)

Photo by Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Kapparot, in Los Angeles

“I drove to the Bais Yaakov High School last night to witness again the Kapparot ritual. A large crowd had gathered, including many children, in the backyard of the school. A truck with cages filled with chickens was parked in the back lot. Individuals were holding live chickens upside down, waving them over the heads of others. I observed frightened chickens with half of their feathers gone running loose. Children screamed as the adults ran after the chickens.” – Bill Dyer to UPC, Sept. 13, 2002

“Today between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., please join fellow activists to Name & Shame the organizers and participants in the bloody chicken sacrifice known as Kapparot. For 6 days until Oct. 1, morning to night, in front of adults, children and babies, these pitiful birds are first swung around the practitioner’s head. Then the vocal chords are slit so the chicken cannot scream in pain, and then, still alive, the writhing birds are thrown into a plastic trash bag while still walking and looking for a way out with the head clinging to a cut throat. To view this torture on video taken in 2005, go to: http://www.unevil.com/temp/RitualKill/. It takes about 10 minutes to download. – Action Alert from LA Activists Nazila Mah and Colin Walkeen, Sept. 27, 2006

Kapparot, in Brooklyn

“I am a member of the religious Jewish community here in Brooklyn, New York. This year I took several pictures of the deplorable conditions in which the birds were kept. I believe they receive no food or water for the week or so that they are in the possession of the retailers. They certainly receive no food or water over the Shabbat. One Kapparot station had the birds outside exposed to the rain on a Shabbat through Sunday. I personally saw birds dead in their crates. Birds were crushed. Birds were opening and closing their mouths, probably out of thirst. The retailer who sold me my birds – I took them directly to Angel’s Gate shelter on Long Island – tossed them into my box as if they were loaves of bread. The fact that most retailers didn’t even question me when I took pictures means that no one has made life difficult for them. It’s time to make life difficult for people claiming to be religious and doing this to animals.” – David Rosenfeld to UPC, Oct. 10, 2006

What Can I Do?

In all correspondence, please be professional and polite.

  • Urge the ASPCA to force the Hasidic rabbis in New York to comply with New York State Anti-Cruelty Law, Article 26, which states that animals must have fresh food, water and protection from the elements at all times and are not allowed to sit miserably in crates for a week or more without sustenance or shelter awaiting their cruel death. Politely urge the ASPCA to enforce the law and request a response:

    Edwin Sayres, President
    424 East 92 Street
    New York, NY 10128
    Phone: 212-876-7700, ext. 4603

  • In Los Angeles, ritual animal sacrifice is illegal under Municipal Code SEC.53.67: “No person shall engage in, participate in, assist in, or perform animal sacrifice. No person shall own, keep, possess or have custody of any animal with the purpose or intention of using such animal for animal sacrifice. No person shall knowingly sell, offer to sell, give away or transfer any animal to another person who intends to use such animal for animal sacrifice. ‘Animal sacrifice’ means the injuring or killing of any animal in any religious or cult ritual or as an offering to a deity, devil, demon or spirit, wherein the animal has not been injured or killed primarily for food purposes, regardless of whether all or any part of such animal is subsequently consumed.”

    General Manager of LA Animal Services, Ed Boks, was quoted in a PRWEB press release, Sept. 28, 2006: “Nowhere is the practice of Kapparot ever mentioned in the Torah. It is a pagan tradition that has been muddled into the religious practices of a small Jewish sect. Kapparot should have no place in the 21st century Los Angeles community.” Mr. Box is working with rabbis and government officials to stop Kapparot. Every concerned citizen is encouraged to contact Mr. Boks to express their support for ending Kapparot in Los Angeles. Rabbis and other members of the Jewish community, especially, are urged to send letter of support. Contact:

    Ed Boks, General Manager
    LA Animal Services
    221 Figueroa Ave. Suite 500
    Los Angeles, CA 90036
    Phone: 310-210-1683

  • Please write letters to local Jewish newspapers opposing Kapparot as a cruel custom that is not a Jewish law. United Poultry Concerns is preparing a “Wing & a Prayer” brochure for handout and will let you know as soon as it becomes available. For more information on Kapparot and a list of rabbis to contact, visit: www.upc-online.org/kaparos/. In addition, please visit: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/kapparot.html