One of the customs of erev Yom Kippur, the day before the fast, is the mystical Kaparot ceremony, carried out by prescribing a circular motion three times above a person's head while saying a prayer that symbolically "exchanges" the object above his head for him.
Symbolically, the switch absolves a person of transgressions and the punishment for them, by transferring them to another object which takes his place. This is, of course, a wish that must be accompanied by true repentance, tshuva.
Traditionally, a chicken was held while doing the motion, and it was then ritually slaughtered, cooked and eaten. If the family could afford it, it was given to the poor as a good deed . Alternately, many people would hold coins that add up to multiples of the number eighteen, whose letters spell out the world for life in Hebrew, and then give the money to charity, the most prevalent method today.
"This is in exchange for me, this is my substitute, this will go to charity [or be slaughtered] and I will be granted a good and peaceful life," says the penitent while tracing the circles.
In recent years, animal rights groups have complained that holding the chicken above a person's head is cruel, a charge dismissed by the Orthodox Jews, mostly Hassidim, who adhere to using a chicken when performing the custom, since they say the chickens are in no pain. If the rights groups feel that slaughtering chicken is inhumane, they counter, that has nothing to do with the ceremony and is a different issue entirely. The rights groups complain that the chickens are kept in inhumane conditions before the ceremony, and the argument goes on.
Collel Chabad in Jerusalem has come up with an organized method to make sure the chickens are used for a good deed: The chickens used in the Kaparot ceremony will be sent to a local soup kitchen after their slaughter, an act that will allow needy people to have a much-needed and appreciated meal. After all, since there is a chicken for each member of the family, most can probably give some of them away.
“The chickens used by people here for Kaparot will go to needy people, most of whom are Holocaust survivors who receive meals from us every day,” said Mendy Bloy, Chairman of Colel Chabad in Jerusalem.
“I think this is the best thing that people can do right before Yom Kippur to make sure that needy people and Holocaust survivors have food for the holidays,” he added.