Friday, October 2, 2009

Orthodox Ritual of "Kapparot:" Transfer Sins to Live Chicken

SEPTEMBER 26, 2009
Jerusalem, Israel

I spent my afternoon in a state of constant and indescribable confusion. Rewind a few hours:

I am walking beside the Tower of David, just outside of Jaffa Gate. Suddenly, I am accosted by a group of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys, one of which is clasping a live chicken to his chest. He thrusts the chicken at me. “NO Hebrew!” I exclaim, hoping to deter them. Still, they seem intent on having me hold their chicken. "LO Lavrit!" ("NO Hebrew!" in Hebrew) I do not know what to do, and our verbal communication is limited to very basic vocabulary. His "English" and my "Hebrew."

The boy shoves the poor chicken, reluctant but compliant, into my arms. I stand there in a perplexed daze with the chicken. I must have looked very confused, because the boy took it upon himself to elaborate: “Chicken,” he states, pointing to the mysterious unknown creature I have cradled in my arms. He then points up. “...Head.” His face lights up with a satisfied smile. A little alarmed and not knowing whether I should be offended, I hand the chicken back. “Mish faHma!” (“I don’t understand" in Egyptian Arabic) I have a vague hope that he might understand Arabic. No such luck.

I walk the perimeter of the Armenian quarter, round the corner toward Zion Gate, and find myself surrounded by booths. Each booth is complete with a pair of orthodox Jews, a donation box, and a live chicken. As I continue toward the “Kotel” (Hebrew name for the “Western Wall”), the booths begin to multiply in number. I observe one particular booth at which a lady had made a donation. She stands with her head bowed as one of the booth attendant’s takes a live chicken out of a box. He raises it over her head and mutters what appears to be a quick prayer. Donor walks away.

I found an old article entitled “Orthodox Call on Sinners to Give Chickens a Fairer Shake” in the Jewish Daily Forward that sums it up pretty well: “the ritual in question is kapparot, a practice generally performed during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which a live chicken is swung over one’s head in a gesture of transferring one’s sins of the past year onto the animal.”

This practice is one of violent controversy and has been denounced by PETA as a "gross violation of animal rights."

“At the August 6 meeting in the synagogue of the Novominsker rebbe, more than a dozen religious heavyweights — including Rabbi Aryeh Kotler and Rabbi David Zwiebel — considered evidence that the chickens may have been mistreated in past ceremonies and acknowledged that the problem rose to a level that could violate rabbinic law.”

“The move was particularly notable because it came in response to complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In recent years, the animal rights group has come to be viewed as an adversary to the Orthodox community, with PETA run-ins leading more often to the butting of heads than to conciliatory gestures.”

The latest commentary on the PETA vs. “Kapparot” controversy: “In general, I don’t think that PETA is taken very seriously in the Orthodox community, or in any civilized society,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “But that doesn’t mean that they won’t on occasion bring up something that is worth being brought up.”

One PETA advocate went so far as to describe the Jewish practice of Kapparot as a genocide, calling it a “shoah.” The word “shoah” (“catastrophe” in Hebrew) is usually used in reference to the Holocaust.

As the night progressed, I make my way back over to the Kotel for the annual prayer that takes place on the last midnight before Yom Kippur. The crowd is unbelievable, and security is very tight. A little past midnight, a man on a loudspeaker sings Jewish prayer. The crowd follows. It is a very moving experience, and I am fortunate enough to have gotten it on video.

The entire Jewish quarter is a lively party, crowded beyond belief, and pulsates to the beat of House techno music.

I stay until around 3:30 AM, celebrate with a Bacardi Breezer, and call it a night.

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