Kapparot, Hebrew for Kaporos, is an annual Hasidic Jewish tradition that occurs during the first week of October this year. People who practice Kaporos believe that they are transferring their sins from the preceding year to a live chicken by sacrificing the chicken, thereby absolving themselves of those sins for the future. The Kaporos tradition causes thousands of chickens worldwide to suffer every year. This sacrificial tradition is performed just before Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that symbolizes the cleansing of one’s sins. Each person participating in Kaporos initiates the ritual by saying a prayer while swinging a chicken over his or her head in a circular motion. Afterward, the participants pay a butcher to complete the sacrifice. The butcher slits the chicken’s throat and shoves the chicken into a traffic cone set up to drain the chicken’s blood.
Numerous practitioners of the Kaporos ritual claim that the deceased chickens are donated to charities that provide food for the homeless; however, by walking around the areas where the ritual commonly takes place, it becomes clear that this claim is mostly untrue. Animal rights activists have observed many dead chicken bodies in garbage bags on the streets of Brooklyn, New York, among other cities. In some cases, activists have even discovered chickens that are still alive, trapped in closed garbage bags. In one astonishing example, activists recorded by Unparalleled_Suffering rescued a rooster that they later named Robin. Robin was found with his throat slit, still breathing. He was taken to the hospital immediately, which ultimately saved his life. He now lives a jubilant and natural life at Penelope’s Place, an animal sanctuary and rescue in Clarence, New York.
Activists plead annually with Kaporos participants, asking them to show mercy for the chickens by using money to perform the ritual instead of live chickens. However, most participants simply ignore the activists’ pleas. In recent years, animal activists involved with The Save Movement have sought to reduce chickens’ suffering by showing Kaporos participants how to properly hold the chickens while transporting and using them. These activists hope to at least provide some relief for the chickens even if they are unable to entirely prevent people from performing the inhumane ritual.
Fortunately, some chickens are spared from death by activists who intentionally rescue the animals. Rescuers catch the chickens running around in the street, jumping off trucks, and trapped in crates and garbage bags. The rescued chickens are taken to animal sanctuaries, which serve as places of peace for animals who have endured trauma. Upon arrival, the birds are treated for medical issues such as broken wings and injured feet. In addition, many of the rescued chickens arrive dehydrated and malnourished as a result of sitting outside, waiting to be killed, without food or water. Many chickens die inside their cages before anyone even uses them for the Kaporos ritual.
Jewish animal rights activist Rina Deych was one of the first people in the New York area to take action against the Kaporos ritual. “I started doing solo actions when my son was about eight or nine. He’s 34 now,” she says. According to Deych, Hasidic practitioners perform the ritual strictly based on their perceptions of Jewish tradition. She explains, “There is nothing mandating them in the Torah or Talmud that requires them to use chickens or even do the ritual at all. The problem is that it does appear in a work called Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, originally written by Rabbi Josef Caro, a Sephardic Rabbi from Spain, in the 1500s. In his version, the original one, the ritual is mentioned but he called it a foolish custom and said that it could be done with money, instead of a chicken. Rabbi Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi from Poland published a second version, and in his version, he omitted Rabbi Caro’s commentary that named it a foolish custom and promoted the use of chickens in the ritual. Many Ashkenazim – Eastern European Jews – mostly Hasidic, use chickens. Part of the problem is when you try to tell them that the ritual is not mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud, they insist it is because they consider Shulchan Aruch to be an extension of or related to the Torah. That is why I usually focus on the fact that the way the ritual is performed with chickens violates laws and imperatives in the Torah and Talmud, not the least of which is tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the Torah mandate not to cause unnecessary harm to animals.”
In response to the ongoing practice of Kaporos, Deych and others started a nonprofit organization called the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos in 2010. Other nonprofit organizations such as Jewish Veg and The Save Movement also have become involved in more recent years. These coalitions work together to organize direct and indirect actions to protect the chickens as much as legally possible.
During the week when the ritual annually takes place, the streets of heavily Jewish neighborhoods are often covered in blood and strewn with chickens’ feathers and body parts. Not surprisingly, the New York City Department of Health receives numerous complaints every year, with demands that it take action to address the public health hazard caused by the chicken ritual. In 2015, New York City attorney and animal rights activist Nora Marino even filed a lawsuit against the city, attempting to compel the NYPD and Department of Health to uphold the public health laws violated by Kaporos practitioners.The court, however, declared that the Kaporos ritual is legal on all counts.
Many animal rights activists plan to take action ahead of Kaporos this year, hoping to influence practitioners and government officials who have the power to make a change. Animal lovers who are aware of the disturbing Kaporos tradition want to see the practice wholly relegated to the past, out of mercy for these docile chickens who deserve nothing but respect and care.