Dear Rabbi Simon,
Shana tova. I hope you had inspiring tefillah at Kesher on RH.
You may have seen the clips that are going round about the use of chickens for kaparot in New York. The way in which these chickens are treated is disturbing to me. Even if the conditions of keeping the chickens would improve, I still think that countless people swinging chickens is tza’ar baalei chayim (ie, violates the prohibition of causing pain to a living creature).
Although I have never done it with chickens, I have always been uncomfortable with the concept of kaparot. [See A/S siddur p. 722 for this custom.] On the eve of YK, while getting ready for the fast and a long day of prayer for atonement, it comes across as a shortcut. Circling chickens or money above one’s head while making a short declaration, gives me the impression that the fasting and praying become less important as all the sins have been transferred to the chickens/money.
When the chickens are then ritually slaughtered and/or the money given to the poor, I really feel it becomes a contaminated offering. Why do those unfortunate people have to become the recipients of everyone else’s sins?
The commentary in the machzor says it is an ancient custom, although not found in the Talmud. So where does it come from and why/how has it become so widespread?
Finally, why not just skip the kaparot but give money to tzedakah and focus on the vidduy (confessing one’s sins) and extended prayers of the day?
Thank you for your comments and insights.
TY for your Q.
The minhag of Kaparot is indeed attracting increased interest, much of it negative. You mention two issues, and allude to a third.
WRT tzaar baalei hayyim, this concern is mentioned in traditional sources, but only as a warning against certain excesses. The practice itself (the whirly-bird experience) is not regarded as a violation of this principal.
The problem of presuming that this ritual somehow takes the place of self-improvement, etc., is definitely a valid concern. The sources warn against imagining any such thing. It’s primary symbolism is to instil in one’s heart the sense of the evanesce of life, when the heavenly Books of Life and Death are open on the Holy Day ahead. The charitable aspect is just an accompaniment. But you are correct, that there can be some humiliation in the impoverished recipient thinking that his wealthy neighbour has transferred his sins to this chicken and has now sent it to him and his family to consume.
Perhaps for this reason, Rav Yoseph Karo (author of the Shulkhan Arukh), in Beit Yosef (OH 605), denounces the minhag and says it should be suppressed or ignored. His primary objection is that it seems a crass form of superstition of pagan origins.
Which takes us to your third concern: Where does this practice come from?
As Rema writes, it is mentioned in early post-Talmudic sources of the Babylonian Geonim. Rashba, Ramban and others rejected it, but the endorsement of the Rema, and perhaps more so the Ari, seems to have carried the day.
Bottom line: IMO there is good reason to eschew the roosters and just use money, bearing in mind that this is simply a symbolic gesture intended as a spur to meaningful self-improvement.
Rabbi Rashi Simon