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Chicken – The Rational Choice for Kaparos

kapBecause humans have an unquenchable need to find meaning in their actions, every year the Jewish media overflows with attempts to make sense of Kaparos. Many of these articles are poorly researched and filled with shoddy answers and misinformation. They often perpetuate the myths and pseudo-explanations surrounding Kaparos which does little more than provide fodder to the anti-chicken platform. This article will not attempt to answer the main questions, for that you will have to read up on your own. The current objective is to dispel some of those myths.

One favorite among the writers is: The minhag of kaparos is an old and controversial custom in Judaism, dating back to the times of the Gaonim. Controversial. That’s a strong word. Controversial invokes images of angry arguments and flared tempers. Chasidus, Mussar and Zionism were all controversial. Tefillin on Chol Hamoed, the get of Cleve and Shabsai Tzvi — we’ve had our fair share of controversy. But Kaparos? That is something that religious Jews have never fought about.

The minhag of Kaparos is mentioned favorably in hundreds of halacha sources. There is but one Rishon, quoted by the Mechaber, and less than a handful of Acharonim who voiced any opposition. Once the Rama sanctioned the minhag and the Arizal endorsed it there has never been any serious debate on the matter. Chicken Kaparos was practiced in every European country including Lita, Russia and Germany and even more intensely in the Sephardic countries. Over the ages there were scarcely a handful of cities scattered around the world that did not participate. From the Maharil to the Rama, from the Arizal to the Shelah, from the Gra to the Chayei Adom down to the Mishna Berura, all of the poskim upon whom contemporary Ashkenazic and Sefardic customs are based were in favor of the custom.

The anti-chicken campaign often lists the Rambam as opposing the custom. Someone may yet find a hint about Kaparos either pro or anti somewhere in the Rambam’s extensive writings. But to date it hasn’t been discovered. So why do they include him? As one writer put it, the Rambam was rational, Kaparos is irrational, the Rambam [must have been] against Kaparos.

The Chayei Adom takes a beating for his purported position on using money for Kaparos. He is quoted as saying, “it is common to use money that will be destined for charity for Kaparos.” Many writers tout this or similar phrases as proof that money can be used instead of chickens.

It is a pity that none of these writers bothered to check their source. The Chayei Adom (§143:4) dedicates a long passage in which he promotes the use of chickens for Kaparos. In the middle he expresses his annoyance with those who attach superstitious importance to Kaparos, people who believe that Yom Kippur and teshuva could not achieve atonement without some form of Kaparos. Unfortunately, to meet their objective these people would resort to using chickens even where proper shechita was unavailable. The Chayei Adom mocks this group saying that they would be better off copying the ignorant who have the boorish practice (emphasis the authors) of using money rather than stooping to non-kosher slaughter. That’s all he has to say about money for Kaparos — it’s a boorish practice.

The Mishna Berura (§605:2) addresses the issue of below par shechita by paraphrasing the Chayei Adom. “They can wave money over their heads and that will be a merit for them. But, someone who is able and wishes to do [Kaparos] properly should summon the shochet to his house.” The Mishna Berura clearly encouraged the use of chickens for Kaparos. He consoles those who do not have access to proper shechita and must do without Kaparos with the thought that avoiding poor shechita will serve as a zechus on the Yom Hadin. Both the Chayei Adom and the Mishna Berura advocated using chickens.

Please accept the challenge and check the quotes.

The anti-chicken people claim, “waving chickens overhead is darkei haemori because it is senseless and thus forbidden.” The Mishna Berura invokes the concept of darkei haemori—forbidden senseless custom—when explaining the position of the lone Rishon who opposed Kaparos. But, is waving money any more sensical? In fact, this Rishon was against all forms of Kaparos, including and even more so, money. Relative to darkei haemori money is a greater concern than chickens. One key factor in determining if a behavior is forbidden is whether there is a logical explanation why the person should perform the act (See Beis Yosef and Darkei Moshe beginning of Y.D. 178). Chicken Kaparos has a simple and straightforward meaning—watching the chicken die is a terrific incentive to teshuva. Does swinging coins overhead and dropping them into a pushka motivate the same? Someone has yet to provide a rationale for swirling money overhead. Besides, the mention of darkei haemori was to explain the opinion which we don’t pasken like.

Another favorite contention is the tzedaka argument. “If the purpose of Kaparos is to provide for the poor why not give them a dollar instead of a chicken?” If Kaparos were just an antic to raise money for the destitute, then why wave the chicken or money overhead? Do the needy gain more from a dizzy chicken or swirled coins? Chicken Kaparos was never intended as a tzedaka fundraiser, only as a motivator for teshuva. Giving the chickens away is a meritorious method for disposing of dead chickens. Although the idea of donating the used chickens is mentioned in the Tur (§605) and many other Rishonim it was never a universal practice and according to Kaballah is entirely unnecessary (see Kaf Hachaim §605:6).

Furthermore, if the purpose of Kaparos was to aid the poor, then a chicken is a greater help than money. A chicken—or food—is what the poor man really needs. According to the Gemara (Ta’anis 23b and Kesubos 67b) giving food to the poor is a higher form of tzedaka than offering plain money. Food eliminates one step and allows the indigent to benefit from the gift sooner. Money is helpful, but chickens are more so.

Chicken Kaparos is an ancient and universal practice that has survived the test of time. It has never been questioned or controversial. Money for the poor is appreciated, but it’s not of equal value to a chicken.

This year, as you prepare for the Yom Hadin propel yourself to greater teshuva by following in the footsteps of your ancestors and preforming Kaparos the rational way — with a chicken.

About the Author: Avrohom Reit lives in Brooklyn and is the author of the Tekufas Hashana series – halachic works aimed at elucidating everyday mitzvos. Books in the series include: Teka Beshofar – Mastering Shofar Blowing (Feldheim), Zeh Kaporosi – The Custom of Kaparos (Mosaica Press), Lekicha Tama – A Lulav and Esrog Buying Guide (Feldheim) and Chalutz Hana’al – A Concise Overview of the Mitzvah of Chalitza (author).

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14 Responses

  1. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim writes that the reason Hashem gave us the Mitzvah of Korbonos, is, because He wanted Klal Yisroel to do something for Him; and since all the Nations at that time were worshipping their gods with sacrifices, the easiest thing for the Yidden, to establish, would be Korbonos.
    Accordingly, in our times, that no rational Nation would serve their god by sacrificing animals, we shouldn’t either start such things.

  2. #1 You Min. According to you many of the taryag would be botel. . ZOZ HATORAH LO TEHEY MECHILEFES!
    u jump on the RAMBAM’
    Those who are against are influenced by the goyishe velt especially PETA. You jump on the RaMBAM’S bandwagon when it suits you. When it come to perishus like the Rambam paskens hichos yom tov and all poskim that bes din should appoint MORALITY POLICE to watch opposite sexes shouldnt mingle the you yell DARK AGES.

    We will continue this holy minhug!

    So the azuzeil will be botel…what else…i wonder what other mitzvos you chuked because theyrenoutdated

  3. @ader – You are incorrect for many reasons. First off, the Ramban vehemently disagrees with the Rambam that you are quoting and has many questions on him. I think the Ritva (not 100% sure it was him) actually tries to answer for the Rambam by saying that he wasnt really saying the real reason for it this but its just a way to make it easier for people to appreciate it.
    However, a bigger issue is that you are not reading the Rambam correctly. He never says we are trying to imitate what they were doing. It is the opposite. We purposely did things different than them to show we are not copying them. For example – he says we bring sheep because they used to worship sheep and didn’t kill them, therefore we purposely use sheep to discredit them. Same with goats (who they used to believe were actually demons – and so never killed them). He goes through every aspect of Korbanos and explains that it is precisely the opposite of what the other nations did.
    According to your logic that no rational nation would serve their god by sacrificing animals we should purposely kill animals.

  4. “Chicken Kaparos has a simple and straightforward meaning—watching the chicken die is a terrific incentive to teshuva. Does swinging coins overhead and dropping them into a pushka motivate the same?”

    This is a very good point. I have done kaparos with chicken and with money and the emotional impact of knowing the chicken will die definitely makes me more aware of my need to repent.

  5. #1 Ader: Are you also saying that when Moshiach comes we will not bring kobanos? Do you remove all the places in davening where we ask Hashem to restore the korbanos? Each Musaf, for example, we daven,
    ושם נעשה לפניך את קרבנות חובותינו תמידים כסדרם ומוספים כהלכתם.
    Chazal instituted those words. Do you disagree with Chazal?

  6. Maybe we should give the money we buy lulev to the poor too and so on etc…This whole debate just started recently by people who are influenced by the animal rights, from MO and down. Why YWN even brings this pilpul to put sfeikos in the temimes yidden when all tzaddkum and geoninm kedoshim past and present observed, observe, this holy minhug is beyond me.

    How can one say on money zeh lamoves veani lechayim tovim . That the reason for korben ‘ adam ki yakriv MIKEM korbon’see meforshai hatorah especially Alshich Hakodisk

  7. Correction to the above – I was looking at a different part of Moreh Nevuchim. He does write that the reason for Korbanos is that it would be too difficult to not have it as the whole world was doing it. My apologies.
    However, the first point still stands. Ramban is vehemently against this Shita and according to Ritva that is what the Rambam really meant.
    Additionally, virtually all Shitos (maybe not Rav Kook) hold that animal korbanos will be a part of the service in the Bais Hamikdash when Moshiach comes. This essentially debunks your theory.

  8. To #4
    You are looking at the Ramban in Vayikro where he brings down the Moireh Nevuchim; You have to look at the Moireh Nevuchim itself. Because this Ramban is actually bringing down a different piece altogether, where tha Rambam is saying, that ‘now that we are doing Korbonos which kind of animals should we use’, so he’s saying, ‘use that ones that will discredt other beliefs’.
    The Mifoirosh in the bottom of the Sefer ‘Ramban al Hatorah asks this Kasheh on the Ramban.

  9. Thank you Rabbi Reit for your wonderful article. One point I wonder about – you write that kaparos is merely a device to motivate a person to tshuvah. I don’t believe this is so. We have a long tradition of temurah, starting back when a ram was offered in Yitzchak’s stead, and following through with the korbanos. The concept of kapparos – corect me if if I err – is temurah and chalifa – a nefesh tachas nefesh. We ask Hashem to take the chicken in our stead, if we are sentenced to death.

  10. Ly do you really believe that? Why should hashem not punish you just because you killed a chicken? These are precisely the beliefs we are afraid of and why an article had to be written defending kaparot.

  11. Rabbi Reit refrains from dealing with another issue. The rough handling and often virtual torture of the chickens prior to ,during, and after the actual kaparos

    #1 #9ader,


    There were others over the generations who tried to resolve this. But, yes, in weltenshuang we have invariably looked elsewhere for guidance.

    The problems inherent in this position ,and many others,have always far outweighed for a “rational” person any overly convenient resolution it offers to those suffering post-modern ‘enlightened’ angst

  12. Rational Jew, yes I do. (I resent you thinking that I don’t really believe in what I claim to. Do you believe in what you wrote? Really?)

    I also believe that Hashem is not rational – He knows things we don’t. If the Torah gives us to understand that this is reality, I accept that at face value. And you?

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