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Joseph Cohen with chicken preparing for Kapparot

The Cohen girls holding chickens.


“Kapparot” pre- Yom Kippur ceremonial chicken slaughter in Mea She’arim Arouses Halachic controversy, and challenges by animal rights activists

By Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

For Winnipeg’s Yossi and Aviva Cohen it isn’t that easy to travel overseas with their six children (ages 1 -12 ) in 2006. Their journey to Jerusalem over the High Holiday period wasn’t the easiest thing to maneuver but after packing up their total of 36 bags, they arrived in Jerusalem to participate in its special atmosphere for the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur period.

In Jerusalem’s Mea Shaarim neighborhood, many of the ultra-orthodox haredi community practice the ancient ritual  pre-Yom Kippur practice of “Kapparot”, which involves  the slaughtering of chickens with the idea of transferring one’s sins onto the swinging foul. The belief is that while the chicken goes to its death, the devotee who practices the ritual goes on to have a good life.   Yossi Cohen was aware of the “kapaparot’  ritual but had never had the opportunity to participate in it. As his wife Aviva Cohen explained “When we got to Mea-Shaarim’s open market there were hundreds of chickens in cage the sign said it was 5O shekel to donate a chicken to charity and 55 to take the chicken home.  We were told we would need 4 chickens for our family,”

The kapparot ritual involves a Jewish man taking live chickens, swinging them around his head and reciting the required declaration.  The chicken is then slaughtered by the ultra-orthodox shochet (butcher) who clasps the chicken’s wings behind its back, then pulls it supine and yanks its heads further back. The chicken’s neck is slit, the beak is shut and then the bird is dropped head first into a table with open receptacles. Often, the chickens continue to struggle and jerk, sometimes for well over a minute and then are placed on a machine that defeathers, declaws and guts them.

 The Cohen family was also not aware that the kapparot ritual they wished to participate in had become the object of much controversy when they set out to Mea-Shaarim .  The ritual slaughter drew protestors from animal rights groups in Israel who protested the slaughter itself as well as the manner in which the chickens are raised and held prior to slaughter.  This can involve holding the chickens in crowded cages for hours or even days without food or water. The animal rights groups point out that the kapparot ritual is not mentioned in either the Torah or the Talmud.  Additionally some Jewish sages, including Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, one of the 13 centuries foremost Jewish scholars felt the practice was a heathen superstition.  The Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro considered it to be a foolish ritual that Jews should avoid doing. Some protestors felt that since on Yom Kippur we are asking for mercy for ourselves and therefore it is wrong that we behave so unmercifully to others.  Supporters of the kapparot ritual believe it has deep roots in Jewish scripture, and that the idea of sacrificing an animal in place of oneself exists in the Torah. The practice of kapparot appears to date back to the Gaonic period in the 7th or 8th century CE.

When the Cohen’s arrived to conduct the chicken ritual, Nathan Thrall, a young reporter from the Jerusalem Post was present and wanted to interview participants about the controversy surrounding the ritual.  “It wasn’t surprising to me that I was interviewed by he reporter, Yossi Cohen says.  “I was the only one there who spoke English.  Everyone else around me was speaking Yiddish,” Cohen states.  Cohen’s thoughts about the ritual were published in the Jerusalem Post on Friday September 29th, 2006 (“Chicken ritual is foul, animal rights groups say”) where it was reported that for Cohen the sacrificial aspects of the ritual were less important than the philanthropic and traditional.   Cohen is quoted in the Jerusalem Post article as saying about kapparot, “It’s something I’ve always seen in photographs but never in real life…So how can you not participate in that? It’s not as if they’re taking the chickens and throwing them in the garbage can.  Many people, like us will give them to charity.” Animal rights activists maintain that people who want to give charity can give money without harming animals.

Aviva Cohen described the scene the Cohen family encountered in performing the “kapparot” mitzvah, “The chickens were live, smelly, and totally freaked out.  There were thousands of them in crates and people were walking all over them in baskets, boxes, by the feet, by the wings. Yossi brings us a crate of chickens, not nearly as cute as storybook chickens, and he got chicken poop all over his pants…wipes to the rescue…and then he picked them up and did kapparot for us all.  Our daughters Aliza [12] and Eli [10] had their own chickens and then Arie [7] got brave and held one too…Yaacov [ 3] was so terrified we had to peel him off my leg just to look at one.”

 As for the kapparot ritual itself, Yossi Cohen is just relieved that he didn’t foul –up or chicken out.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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