Killing chickens to cleanse one’s sins: Yea or nay?

Kaparot chicken
Chickens rest in a cage behind Bait Aaron in Los Angeles, where they were being slaughtered for the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot on Friday.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Orthodox Jewish ritual of kaparot -- in which chickens are ritualistically twirled in the air and slaughtered as a way of transferring a person’s sins onto the dead animal -- is still practiced in some corners of Los Angeles.

Readers have noticed -- and most of them aren’t pleased.

Three reader letters on the ritual were published in Saturday’s paper, and many more were submitted over the weekend. Though the faithful who still participate in kaparot ceremonies have their defenders (one published letter over the weekend pointed out that we slaughter untold numbers of chickens every day without much protest), most who wrote -- including several who said they were Jewish -- were unequivocal in their condemnation of religiously sacrificing animals. Some of our secular readers held kaparot up as an example of what strict religious belief can make otherwise compassionate, reasonable people do.

Here are their letters.


Roberta Gillerman of Los Angeles says kaparot ceremonies are shunned by most Jews:

“The Orthodox ritual of killing chickens before Yom Kippur is a custom that has not been retained by the Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist streams of Judaism -- representing the vast majority of American Jews.  

“It has been replaced by a community experience called tashlich, where the participants throw their sins into the ocean. It is customarily held after the final Rosh Hashana service and has become a community bonding activity. 

“While all streams of Judaism are connected by the same principles -- one people, one God, the Torah, ethical action, holidays, history and repairing the world -- some customs vary.


“The primary goals of the High Holy Days are those of self-reflecting, understanding where we are missing the mark and making the effort to return to our best selves with God’s help.”

Susan Dalton of Redlands says Orthodox Jews are doing something noble here:

“I recently returned from a family road trip through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. I dare say if any of those folks knew some chickens were going to be slaughtered in a local parking lot and given to the poor, you would have had every person in a five-mile radius show up to help.

“Not only would they bring their homemade smokers and sauce, but they would serve it up on Styrofoam plates with mashed potatoes, greens and cornbread. They would personally hand it out to every hungry person who came with no questions asked.

“It takes a big heart to feed the hungry, and the Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles fit the bill. They are honoring their faith and feeding the hungry -- you might say they are killing two birds with one stone.”

Santa Monica resident Ralph Meyer questions the theology behind kaparot:

“The ultra-Orthodox rabbis who swing chickens in the air expecting that this will exculpate their sins violate Jewish law. They need to be reminded that their holy book, the Torah, mandates kindness to animals.

“This cruel practice is a superstition and not a part of the Jewish religion.”


Paul J. Burke of Palmdale zeroes in on the concept of sin:

“As sins are imaginary offenses against fictional characters, killing anything to expiate or absolve any guilt resulting from a ‘sin’ is just plain foolish. This isn’t to say that a sin can’t be a crime in reality, but offering a dead chicken as penance is Stone Age-ish at best.

“At least these unfortunate chickens go to feed the needy after the pointless ritual. I guess that’s better than lighting a candle, which merely warms up a church.

“It’s interesting to note that one may purchase several chickens upon which to transfer the guilt for many sins in the upcoming year. One plans a sin ahead of time?

“I recall another of those ancient religions that got into trouble selling sin relief.”


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