Every year some stalwart traditional Jews in LA observe the Yom Kippur custom of kapparot, and every year there are completely justifiable protests and public revulsion in response.
This year is no different. As the Jewish Journal documented, Orthodox Jews in the Pico Robertson area brought in battery cages full of terrified chickens, stacked them in the sweltering heat, then followed the customary rite of holding the chickens over their head as they recited the kapparot blessing. Afterwards a kosher butcher slaughters the poor beasts. Some of the meat goes to the poor. But a good portion– hundreds and hundreds of birds– are trashed and dumped. It is the definition of a shanda— a shame.
And it doesn't have to be that way. The custom itself can be a meaningful part of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippor. During kapparot, a person's sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken. First, selections from the Bible are recited; then the bird is held above the person's head and swung– or passed– in a circle three times, while the following is spoken in Hebrew: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
The idea is that the fowl becomes the scapegoat, and takes on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.
Done right, it works like most rituals do– subjectively. You feel a bit lighter, a bit more on your way to starting a new year fresh.
But what if the act of mistreating these chickens is itself a sin? How can we avoid that?
Ever since I started raising backyard chickens, my answer has been– use them. You walk out to where your hens are–preferably at night, when they are drowsy and supple– pick them up gently, pass them over your head, recite the prayer, put them down– and donate the value of a hen to charity that day.
The birds don't mind at all– or if they do, no more than your dog minds having its paws inspected. To be blunt, in exchange for us putting up with their chicken poop, they have to put up with our bullshit. The key is no chickens are harmed in the marking of this teshuva, or repentence.
This morning, before I rushed to work, my wife Naomi said, “Wait, the chickens!” I went and got one, Nomi got her worn rabbi's book that of course has the kapparot prayers (you can look online). She recited as I held the chicken over my head, then hers. The chicken was nervous, but nervous is a very familiar chicken emotion. It was over faster than a shot of novocaine.
Today, the Jewish Journal reported that protesters successfully shut down the kapparot operations on Pico Robertson as of this morning. Next year, to save the chickens and avoid the needless battles, find a neighbor with a couple chickens, and ask to do kapparot. It will be one of those heartwarming cultural exchange moments— and for the break fast, you can eat fresh eggs, instead of dead pets.