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Kapparot – A Lesson in Empathy

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Each year, before the fast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, social and standard media explode in outrage at the Jewish custom of kapparot. The practice of taking a chicken, circling it over one’s head while a prayer is recited, slaughtering it and giving its meat to the poor is evidently too much for Western sensitivities to handle. I’d like to suggest that to some extent this yearly indignation is incredibly important and beneficial. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that any carnivore that regularly consumes meat products should be obligated to partake in the yearly kapparot ritual. Let’s face it, the American population loves its chicken. According to the National Chicken Council, the per capita intake of chicken in the U.S will be 90 pounds this year. If that number is correct it would mean that the U.S is projected to consume around 29 billion pounds of chicken this year. That is quite a poultry intake! However, while Americans are theoretically aware that their food was once a living creature, most are hardly aware of that fact on a conscious level. Ask an American to describe chicken to you and he’s more likely to describe the drumstick or thigh on his plate than a living, squawking bird. So while we love to ingest voluminous quantities of the fowl, we like imagining it as the packaged meat from Agri Star Inc. if you are a kosher consumer, or in a neat container from Tyson Foods Inc. for the non-Kosher consumer—not as a living breathing creature. In truth, though, this tremendous desensitization that the American and Israeli public has gone through is emotionally and psychologically unhealthy. For, while G-d in the Torah (Bible) permitted the consumption of meat, one should not callously view it as one's next dinner, but should feel pained at the need to kill a living creature—albeit for a good purpose. This mercy that one is to have towards all of God’s creatures is expressed in the verse (Psalms 145:9) “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are on all His works.” Indeed, it is because of this lack of feeling towards animals that the Talmud (Baba Metzia 85a) recounts the following about the punishment that befell the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Yehuda the Nassi : “A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under the Rabbi's coat, and lowed [in terror]. ‘Go’, he said, ‘for this is why you were created.’ Thereupon they said [in Heaven], ‘Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.’ ‘And departed likewise [due to his actions].’ How so? — One day the Rabbi's maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she attempted to sweep them away. ‘Let them be,’ he said to her; ‘It is written (Psalms 145:9), and His mercies are on all His works.’ They said [in Heaven], ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.’” When Rabbi Yehudah made the mistake of viewing the animal not as a living, breathing and feeling entity, he was punished. It was only when he had empathy towards the pain of a nest of weasels that once again God showed him compassion. In a sense, the practice of kapparot is an important experience that meat-eaters should experience themselves and impart to their children as well, so that they too should be imbued with a certain sensitivity towards God’s creatures. Rather than kapparot being an antiquated barbaric practice, it is a custom that is especially relevant, important and practical in today’s world where meat is bought in the supermarket—as it imparts crucial lessons before the yearly Day of Atonement. Annually, Jews the world over ponder the fragility of life and learn a message in humility before Yom Kippur. Traditionally, this practice is best done in the wee hours of the morning, and the intensity of the experience generally leaves a lasting presence throughout the day. Being part of taking a life helps one focus on the fragility of one’s own life. Connecting to the chicken in such a hands-on way, changes one’s general attitude towards the consumption of animals. While it is almost impossible to articulate in words the power of the kapparot experience, suffice it to say that it is always a powerful and meaningful experience. The feeling that this is your chicken that is somehow connected to the individual doing the kapparot leaves the person feeling that to a certain extent it is almost you yourself being slaughtered—the chicken's pain—is in a sense—your own. Knowing that the chicken will serve a good purpose and will be eaten by a poor person does much to assuage my inevitable chicken killing guilt. More so, it helps me have a healthy attitude towards eating fowl throughout the year. If I am not using the energy that I got from the animal for a positive purpose, how am I justified in killing God’s creature. Viewing the animal as a real creature places a burden on me to use the vitality I received to serve God. Because, if not, how dare I kill God’s creature?! The feeling of connection is so great, that as a girl, my sister did not consume chickens for a number of years after the seeing life taken at kapparot. I believe that this is an important lesson for children—and ourselves—keeping in mind that meat does not come from a package but from a living and breathing creature. In halakha, there is an interesting law concerning certain instances of capital punishment. Maimonides (Laws of Courts 15:1) states expressly that the witnesses who testified concerning the guilt of the accused, were actually the ones that carried out the execution. I believe this has a powerful lesson: If a person is willing to testify about a capital offense he should not do so lightly—he must himself be ready to carry out the sentence. The same can be similarly be said about the consumption of meat: if a person is ready to consume meat, he should be present, pained and empathetic about the killing of God’s creatures. This leads me to the yearly outrage about the kapparot practice. There are approximately 24 million chickens killed daily in the U.S, yet the media is not obsessed with discussing the slaughter of chickens 24/7. The reason is obvious: Out of sight is out of mind. Doing the kapparot in residential areas forces us to think about the unpleasant reality that the only way to consume meat is by killing a living creature. Accordingly, I’d like to express why I believe the yearly outrage at the custom of kapparot in actually positive. The Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Rut 25b) says the reason why the Torah mandates that one must send the mother bird away before taking her eggs is not only as Maimonides explains (Guide, 2:48) so that the mother will not be pained by the taking of her eggs, but in certain way the very opposite. When the bird cries for her eggs, this elicits a certain pain from God for His own children. God hears her call and has mercy on His creatures and on Israel. The same can be said with the yearly outrage at killing living creatures. Modes ponens, if the pain brought to animals deserves an outcry and our mercy—than surely the pain and suffering of human beings is exponentially more terrible, outragious and deserving of our sympathy. My God indeed be keen to the mercy and pain of the slaughter of his creatures and insure the Jewish people—and indeed all mankind—be inscribed for a year of blessings and goodness!

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1 Yaakov ben Chaim Tzvi = "This process is absolutely in no way a transference of sin to the chicken; as some misinformed people believe. Judaism does not believe in transference of sin which is one reason why Judaism rejects Jesus' death on the cross as atonement. This process however is designed to elicit a feeling of pain and remorse to the sinner that in God's eyes, it is we who are deserving of death and that pain and remorse causes our hardened hearts to soften and helps us atone for our sins. The original Korbanot [Temple Sacrifices] were designed to elicit the same feelings which is why they were only required for unintentional sins. If a person sinned intentionally and didn't care that an animal needed to die, they were not required to bring a sacrifice since they lacked remorse and were only required to atone through charity prayer and repentance."