The many controversies concerning chicken twirling

It’s chicken twirling season.

With Yom Kippur days away, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Rockland County have initiated their annual practice of Kapparot — the circling of chickens above their heads (three times) and the subsequent slaughtering of the fowl for charity.

The very, very old tradition holds that one’s sins are transferred — symbolically? — to the chickens.

bildeIt is an extremely controversial practice, here and in Israel, for several reasons. For outsiders, there are health and safety concerns. Within the Jewish world, many believe that the practice has pagan roots and should have been discontinued long ago.

In Rockland, my colleague Laura Incalcaterra reports that county health inspectors this week found health violations after visiting a makeshift chicken pen: “…including a strong, bad odor; a small amount of chicken feces and feathers on the ground; trash on the ground; and a trash bin without a cover…”

A letter from Thomas Micelli, the county’s director of environmental health, outlined seven steps for organizers to follow, including “…providing a trash bin to be replaced as it filled up; sawdust to make the cleanup of feces and liquids easier; disposable tarps to avoid the need for excessive cleaning; platforms so chickens in bottom cages don’t drown if it rains heavily; 30-inch-high wire fences for a secondary enclosure to help avoid chicken escapes; and daily cleanup.”

There are also all kind of ethical questions about how the chickens are slaughtered and whether the practice even conforms to Jewish law.

An Israeli court ruled in 2007 that the ritual may violate animal slaughter regulations. An Orthodox official worried that if people used blades that were not perfectly sharp, they were violating kosher laws.

This year, Israel’s small Conservative Jewish movement is aligning with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to oppose the ritual. “I’ll be telling people at the market that there is an alternative to the kapparot custom that does not involve cruelty to animals,” a Conservative rabbi said.

A rabbi who practices the ritual offers this: “Watching the slaughter of the chicken is supposed to make us think of our own mortality… A Jew is supposed to believe that if not for God’s compassion, his fate would be the same as the chicken’s.”

An explanation of the ritual on the website of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect concludes with this:

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The origins of kapores are unclear, but it was probably developed as a substitute for sacrifices which were no longer possible with the destruction of the Temple. Animals that had been used for sacrifices in the Temple could no longer be used for similar purposes outside. Chickens are used in kapores because they were not acceptable as sacrifices in the Temple. Kapores was not intended as a sacrifice.

The influence of Kabbalah gave the custom much of its mystical aura. There is some opinion that kapores is related to the use of a scapegoat in Temple times on which the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) placed the sins of the Children of Israel before sending the goat out to its death.

The reality is that there is no magic in kapores which transfers a person’s sins to the chicken. Even in the days of the Temple, sins were not magically transferred to an animal. The entire purpose of kapores is to create an experience that inspires a person to teshuvah , that is to return to G-d and to repent. All the sacrifices — and chickens — in the world will not result in forgiveness, unless teshuvah takes place.


Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.