Chicken-Waving: Superstition or Holy Custom?
Each year at this time, the Kaparot ceremony using a chicken arouses controversy. A prominent rabbi is quoted calling the Yom Kippur atonement custom a “mere superstition.”
Headlines in the Hebrew media say that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a well-respected rabbinical authority within much of the religious-Zionist sector, called the custom a “superstition.” The custom involves waving a chicken over one’s head three times and saying, “May this chicken be an atonement for our sins… This chicken will go to slaughter, and we will be inscribed for peace and long life.”
The Animal Rights Society wages a public campaign each year at this time against the custom, which is still widely practiced in Sephardic and Hassidic communities. The society received a letter from Rabbi Aviner this year in strong support of its position. The dean of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in the Old City of Jerusalem and the co-Chief Rabbi of Beit El wrote that the custom should not be practiced: “Since it is not a clear obligation, but rather just a custom, and because of problems with kashrut [regarding the slaughter] and cruelty to animals, and in light of the words of the rabbis [who forbid it] quoted above, it is better to use money as an atonement and thus support the poor.”
He wrote that though the custom is hundreds of years old, “there have been Sages who were not pleased with it, such as the author of [the classic Code of Jewish Law] Shulhan Arukh himself, who wrote that it is a ‘custom of the Emorites,’ or in simpler words, a superstition.”
It should be noted, therefore, that the headlines announcing that Rabbi Aviner called the custom a “superstition” are misleading, in that he simply quoted Rabbi Yosef Karo, the 15th-century author of the Shulhan Arukh. In fact, however, even Rabbi Karo did not write that it was a superstition, but merely said the custom should not be followed; in his Beit Yosef commentary, he quoted an authority who quoted Nachmanides as saying it was a “custom of the Emorites.”
The late Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, similarly wrote in his well-accepted series of Halakhic works, Aseh Lekha Rav: "Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are about to request compassion for ourselves from the living G-d?”
Click here to listen to Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, founder of the Ohel Moshe Torah center in Ramat Beit Shemesh, discuss this topic and others with Israel National Radio's Tamar Yonah.