My first memory of the custom of kapparot is from the second grade. All the children were assembled in the yard of the public religious school I attended to watch the school superintendent and the school rabbi carry out the ancient custom. It was the kind of recess from classes that happens only in religious schools.
Shaltiel, the school superintendent, held the rooster and the rabbi began to recite the blessing, but Shaltiel’s trembling hand failed him as he waved it in the air, and the rooster ran away as the girls screamed. In the commotion that ensued, the rooster succeeded in fleeing the school grounds, won a long, good life, and we got a morning recess that none of us will ever forget. Some sixth-graders even volunteered to look for the rooster, but never found him.
Twenty years later, the roosters I saw in the section of the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv where meat is sold had no salvation, as Shaltiel’s did. Last week, several closed wheeled cages were brought in, full of dozens of young roosters with glazed, sad expressions, waiting to die at the hands of a middle-aged man wearing a white robe after being waved three times over the head of a grumbling child or excited elderly person. On one side of the cage one could see the terrible spectacle, and on the other could be seen air-conditioned glass displays with fresh meat, meat that had belonged to their friends in the cage. A horrible end to a miserable life. From there, they would end up on a nice, big plate and we would end up with a blessing. As if.
We need to put this issue on the table. There is nothing Jewish about waving a rooster over someone’s head and then slaughtering it. It is not written anywhere, and many rabbis see it as an idolatrous act – a superstitious act with origins in non-Jewish sources, no less. As a religious person, it is hard for me to understand where people get the gall to ask the Creator of the Universe for life even as they take the life of another living creature. To take a living, eating and breathing creature, wave it over someone’s head while reciting a text full of pathos and solidarity such as “Human beings, who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, prisoners of poverty and iron, leave the darkness and the shadow of death and their chains are broken,” and then slaughter the creature in cold blood.
When I asked one of the people about to have the ceremony performed for himself why he did not use something else, he laughed and said, “What do you want me to use? Tofu?” The answer is yes. Tofu, or produce grown in Israel.
The Babylonian Talmud, the only source in Jewish religious law for this custom, hints at performing the kapparot ceremony with plants. If that was good enough for whoever began the custom, it is good for us as well. While it is true that the use of roosters takes place on the fringes of Judaism – most people who perform the ceremony use money which is then donated to charity – this fringe is ugly and cruel.
Just before Yom Kippur, of all times, we must not be cruel to other creatures. We cannot ask the Creator of the Universe for life and then cut short the life of another living creature. This custom needs to stop. Now.
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