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Kapparot and the Vegetarian

As the Bintel Blog reported the kapparot ceremony, during which sins are symbolically transferred to money or a bird ahead of Yom Kippur, has been causing some controversy in the U.Sm. Likewise here in Israel.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Tel Aviv-Jaffa is campaigning hard against those who perform the ceremony with a bird — usually a chicken — saying it is the height of cruelty. And leading figures from the Masorti (Conservative) Movement have become involved in the campaign, as reported here.

And though there’s no sign of campaigners getting anywhere in banning the ritual, there it seems that complains about the way it is sometimes carried out are having an effect. In Jerusalem this week, the scenes were much calmer than last year. Yes, there was much clucking and raising of chickens aloft in the air, but the operation was quite orderly.

Last year there was anger among many Jerusalem residents after kapparot venues operated with a general sense of disorganization and some chickens were abandoned post-ceremony but before the slaughter that usually concludes the rite. There were even rumors of some people ending up with “second hand” chickens — i.e. somebody else’s bird which already had that other person’s sins symbolically transferred on it but which went to receive a second batch of sins.

This year, municipal inspectors are out in force (kapparot started on Tuesday and will continue until mid-morning on Sunday). The municipality licensed sites, and kapparot is limited to these venues. There, chickens have to be purchased from certified coops. The chickens inside must have been transported in trucks authorized to transport live animals and kept in roofed cages in shady locations for a maximum of 12 hours.

Now it’s interesting seeing kapparot being done by the (veterinary standards) book. Last year in Jerusalem, any passer-by would have arrived at the conclusion that this is a chaotic and cruel practice. But this year, it’s a grayer area.

The strongest objections to poultry slaughter today come from those who object to the factory-farming conveyor belt methods. Many say that in bygone days when slaughter was more domestic and less industrialized, it was less cruel. One could argue that putting aside the fact that in some metaphysical sense it is carrying a load of sins, the chicken at kapparot may well come to a more dignified and less cruel end than its counterpart in a slaughterhouse. And every scrap of the meat is used — it goes to charity.

Also, kapparot done properly is very different to how most people imagine it. A few years ago, this writer, a vegetarian out of conviction for 15 years, was sent on a journalistic assignment to perform kapparot. I must stress that I developed no fondness for the ceremony, and once my expenses form came back with the unusual claim “one live chicken” approved, I was happy to leave the experience behind. However it left me with the impression that there’s a big gap between kapparot as widely-perceived and kapparot as actually performed (when done properly). I was surprised that there’s no wild swinging, but rather gentle passing of the bird above one’s head. In fact, it’s religiously-prohibited to treat the bird roughly, not just because of tzar ba’alei chaim, the halachic ban on mistreating animals, but because it’s destined for slaughter and then consumption, and any injury renders a bird non-kosher.

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