Swinging No More

The Jewish Week published an article this week that examines: The Yom Kippur tradition of kaporot, the Jewish ethical food movement. Hazon and The Jew & The Carrot both get significant shout-outs. Read the full article here (or below).

Swinging No More
Kaporos and the new eco-kosher movement.
Steve Lipman – Staff Writer

Growing up out of town, in a non-Orthodox household, I never knew from kaporos.

chicken.jpgIt’s a post-Talmudic, pre-Yom Kippur custom in some traditional circles that involves swinging a live chicken three times over your head, reciting some verses that symbolically transfer your sins to the fowl — a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman — then leaving it behind to be slaughtered, in a kosher manner of course, and given to a needy family.

Kaporos is Hebrew for “atonements.” The custom is supposed to teach sensitivity for God’s creatures and awareness of one’s own transgressions. Orthodox, but a rationalist, I wasn’t interested. Then Tami called.

“Do you want to do kaporos with me?” she asked.

A native of my hometown, the product of a chasidic home, she was living in my haredi Brooklyn neighborhood several years ago, wanted to see what kaporos was like and wanted some company a few days before Yom Kippur.

I don’t remember the details, where the shluging (the Yiddish word for the process means to beat) took place (in some warehouse in an industrial part of Brooklyn, I think) or how much the chicken cost me (probably about $20.) I remember hearing a roomful of chickens; following the lead of a man who showed me how to grip the bird’s legs with both hands and wave it without hurting it; repeating some words; and thinking I didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t.

Apparently, I’m not alone. In the Days of Repentance each year a movement grows to discourage kaporos, urging the pious to substitute money in the symbolic expiation ceremony, such tzedakah being a valid, halachic practice. A frightened chicken doesn’t fulfill the Tishrei imperative of introspection, the opponents of kaporos argue. The chicken breasts or broth served pre- or post-fast may be kosher, these people argue, but the practice isn’t.

Opposition to kaporos, including a recent haredi panel in Brooklyn that examined the halachic efficacy of the procedure and issued a call to make it less offensive, is part of a wider trend in the Jewish world. In recent years, the definition of kashrut — which literally means fit or proper, not just OK to eat — is widely expanding in some circles, here and in Israel.

Other concerns, like the conditions in which the animals live and die, the treatment and payment of workers, and the wider environmental impact of the production chain are entering the discussion of what the Web site liberaljudaism.org calls “Ethical Eating. “This level of care is demanded of us by halacha [Jewish law],” states kosherconscience.com.

Some people call this “eco-kosher.” Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon (hazon.org), a New York-based Jewish environmental organization, prefers “Jewish food movement.” The movement is transdenominational, from Reform Jews to the Jewish Renewal Movement to Conservative Jewry, which is establishing a “hechsher tzedek” that will certify food on ethical grounds.

“A growing number of Orthodox Jews,” who are primarily concerned about ritual standards of kashrut, “are starting to care about the issue,” Savage says. He can cite traditional texts and Orthodox scholars who share his views.

Hazon’s jcarrot.org has become an on-line clearinghouse for movement members who, while not returning to the farm, are taking food-buying decisions into their own activist hands. The Torah and Talmud reflect people who lived on and cared for the land. As modernists, “we’ve been cut off from that,” says Savage. We think meat’s natural state is plastic-wrapped in a grocer’s freezer. We don’t think about the animals who give their lives for our meals.

That’s why Savage likes to talk about the azazel, the biblical scapegoat that is the theme of the Yom Kippur Torah reading. The reference should make us aware, he says. And that’s why Savage will have a goat slaughtered at Hazon’s second food conference at the upstate Isabella Freeedman Jewish Retreat Center in December. The shechting will force the conference participants to confront an animal’s reality, he says. His announcement of the planned slaughter has generated a storm of discussion on the Internet.

Savage, of course, is against using chickens for kaporos. The ASPCA in New York City confiscated hundreds of abandoned and starving kaporos chickens during the last two years. PETA this year called on the city’s Health Department to examine the conditions in which the animals are held. Having done kaporos once, I don’t do it with a chicken anymore. I can’t believe that the waving doesn’t scare or hurt the bird, no matter how gently I hold it.

On Erev Yom Kippur, I do kaporos with money instead. Now the only pain is in my wallet.

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9 Responses to “Swinging No More”

  1. Hillary Says:

    Excellent post! I’ve heard of kaporot but have never known anyone who has actually done it with a chicken. I didn’t know that giving tzedakah would suffice but I’m happy to hear there is an alternative. But I have a question. How does kaporot differ from Tashlich? Isn’t Tashlich throwing away your sins in the river. Are these redundant acts or do they have different meanings?

  2. Yehuda David Says:

    Interesting read, important information and well written. No critique of the post, but isn’t the idea of money notsomuch the same thing… When the chicken is slaughtered it ceases to be; therefore, the sins which were imparted onto the chicken cease to be. By that same rational, wouldn’t you be putting your sins in the money and then giving that to other people? Why not just give tzedakah?

  3. Michael Croland Says:

    By the way, some huge news re kapparot from Israel this week.

    Shas spiritual leader criticizes kapparot practices:
    http://www.haaretz. com/hasen/ spages/904102. html

    Petach Tikvah court rules kapparot ritual a violation of animal slaughter laws:
    http://www.haaretz. com/hasen/ spages/904943. html

  4. chillul Who? Says:


    Traditionally, (inasmuch as a kapparos tradition can be said to exist) the chickens are slaughtered and the meat given to the poor. (Just like tsedekah money)

  5. chillul Who? Says:

    In fact, it may have been that charity-element of the kapporos ritual which allowed it entry into Jewish practice, despite being a pretty out-there and paganistic thing to do – the tradition that “tsedakah tatsil mimavet” (charity rescues the giver from death) is an old one.

  6. Tikkunknitter Says:

    The question of kapporos seems another case of whether or not to follow, slavishly, the voice of the past. Tzedakah seems a rational modern solution to the profoundly disturbing features of what are (merely) tradition-al solutions to the questions raised by the holiday.

  7. miriam Says:

    I maintain a healthy suspicion of all religious practices that emerged in Europe under such heavy social oppression of Jews. It is really hard not to internalize power-victim roles.

    I think the practice of throwing bread into the water or somewhere outside carries a similar ritual feel and in this case birds (or fish or ants) get a treat.

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