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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Time to Ban Kapparos?


Daf Yomi Chagigah 23

After losing all their family in the Holocaust, my grandparents a”h forsook their Judaism, almost entirely.  They moved as far as possible away from anything Jewish, settling in Australia and retreating to the Blue Mountains, nowhere near Jewish life.   They lived as regular Aussie immigrants, working hard to make a new life for their growing family, with little regard for spiritual pursuits.

Strangely, there was one custom, however, they still held dear.  Annually, just before Yom Kippur, they would take their children to a local farm and perform the customary kapparos.  Each member of the family would take a chicken and twirl it over their heads, beseeching G-d to atone for their sins. 

Each year, it seems, the kapparos rite comes under greater and greater fire from animal-rights activists.  ‘It’s cruel to animals,’ they say, ‘it must be abolished.’  This year, the activists have found a sympathizer in Tzohar, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic group that strives to build relationships between religious and secular Israelis.   Rabbi David Stav and his organization have condemned the practice, encouraging people to use money instead of chickens.

There are two biblical stages of purification in the mikvah.  First, one must immerse; and secondly, the sun setting over the individual completes the purification process.  In most cases, both conditions are necessary.  However, regarding the cohen who would prepare the ashes of the red heifer in the Holy Temple, only the first condition was required.  Nevertheless, the fundamentalist Sadducees maintained that even that cohen required the ‘sunset provision.’ 

We learned in a Mishnah:  They would intentionally make the cohen who burned the ashes of the red heifer impure, in an effort to expose the falsehoods of the Sadducees.  For the Sadducees would say that the task must be performed by one who had purified and had the sun set upon him.

Tosfos explains that they would have someone who was not pure come and touch the cohen, thereby rendering him impure.   He would then go to the mikvah (first stage) and continue on with his Temple service without waiting for sunset.

Listen to the lengths to which we must go sometimes to demonstrate against those who wish to undermine traditional Judaism.  In order to show everyone that the Sadducees were wrong, we would intentionally make the poor cohen impure!  What a sacrifice on his part for the sake of upholding tradition!

Opposition to kapparos is not a new phenomenon.  Already in the 13th century, Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet famously declared it to be a pagan practice.   And so for those who are opposed on those grounds, there is ample support in the sources.

But that being said, I don’t see anyone demonstrating against the mezinka dance or wearing black to a funeral, just a couple of the myriad examples of “Jewish” rituals that have crept in from the societies around us.   For the most part, those who oppose kapparos take their stance not due to its disputed origins, but on animal rights grounds.

When handled properly, kapparos reflects no greater insensitivity to animals than regular shechitah (ritual slaughter).  Abolishing the tradition of kapparos on the grounds of cruelty to animals is a step towards a total ban on shechitah, G-d forbid.  And those who stand at the helm of the battle against kapparos know that a victory in this round will bring them one step closer to their ultimate goal.

Kapparos may make you squeamish.  You may find it bizarre and uncomfortable.  But sometimes, says the Mishnah, we need to make ourselves a little impure, in our efforts to combat the Sadducees.    
Haven’t tried it before?  Go and check it out for yourself before joining the ranks of the naysayers.  My experience has only ever been one of respect to the chickens.  And it’s a wonderful opportunity to show my kids that Yom Kippur is upon us and we need to tangibly do teshuvah (repentance), not just pay lip-service as we stand in shul.