The title of my recent Shabbas Shuvah drashah was “Learning How to Be Human From the Animals” – admittedly a bit out of the box, but the point of the drashah was to illustrate that if we learn from the Torah how to be concerned for the welfare and fair treatment of animals, we can become better people for it. It is a lesson that should be learned even – or especially – during the Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.
There are many mitzvos in the Torah that concern the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim, inflicting pain on animals, leading most poskim to conclude that tzaar baalei chayim is a Torah-based violation. Of all the sources I cited, my favorite was the commentary of the Daas Z’keinim on the prohibition to plow with an ox and a donkey together (D’varim 22:10). The Daas Z’keinim explains that it is unfair to the donkey to plow alongside the ox, as the ox chews its cud and the donkey does not. The donkey notes this and thinks that the ox is still eating while he was given nothing.
What sensitivity! How considerate the Torah is for the feeling of the naïve donkey. Do we not need to be at least as concerned for the sensitivity of our fellow human being? Do we not have to extend this sensitivity as well to all of Hashem’s creatures?
The problem is, that like so many mitzvos today,
Kapparos has become commercialized
and subject to all the abuses of commercialization
That brings us to the discussion of the mitzvah of Kapparos and the way it is handled today. The custom of Kapparos has its roots in the Geonic period, dating back to the 10th century. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 605:1), interestingly, was not happy with the minhag and called for it to be dropped. However, the Rema defends the practice, as it was a well-established one that should be upheld. The Mishnah B’rurah (605:2) explains the concept behind the practice, which is to symbolically declare that as humans we are subject to our failings and deserve to surrender our lives, but we substitute the chicken instead. Therefore, we sway the chicken over our head and declare the chicken will go off to die while we pray for long life. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor. The Mishnah B’rurah was not thrilled in his time with the practice, as many of the shochatim were overworked and did not carefully adhere to all the demands of kosher slaughter. He suggests an alternative method of using money to be given to charity instead of the chicken.
Personally, I was always more comfortable using money. I just could not get into the minhag of using chickens. Nonetheless, for those who do use chickens, that custom, like all Jewish customs, should be maintained. As the Rema writes, “It’s a minhag vasikin, a longstanding custom,” and should not be dismissed.
The problem is, that like so many mitzvos today, Kapparos has become commercialized and subject to all the abuses of commercialization. We have seen many reports in the print and electronic media of abuse of the chickens before they are actually used for Kapparos. I have seen these abuses myself. Chickens are left in the heat with no water in the most awful cramped conditions, as they remain in the back of the huge transport trucks. Now let’s be clear: The vast majority are treated well. Let us also be clear that much of the criticism comes from animal rights organizations, which often have a leftist, anti-religious, and sometimes anti- human agenda as their subtext. For example, in 1991, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wrote a letter (of which I have a copy) to “His Excellency” PLO Chairman Arafat asking him that he refrain from using donkeys on missions to blow up buses filled with Israelis, as it is unfair to the donkey. In other words, killing the humans on the bus was no problem. Using humans for suicide missions? Not a problem, either. But donkeys? Oy, vey!
But we dare not shy away from the fact that, yes, there is indeed a problem of mistreatment of the chickens in too many cases – so much so that Agudath Israel issued a statement imploring people to be very careful with the treatment of the birds.
There is a fascinating Orach Chayim HaKadosh (D’varim 14:18) that explains that there are some mitzvos in the Torah that may cause a person to become cruel. Therefore, the Torah promises that if done with the right intention and in the correct manner, Hashem will grant the person a special blessing of compassion. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l, in Sichos Musar (pg. 424), explains that even in the performance of a mitzvah, one needs to be on guard not to become mired in cruelty or unwarranted zealotry.
The same is true for other mitzvos as well. The sale of lulavim and esrogim comes to mind. Naturally, we hope that the merchants are honest and not overcharging. But what about the mess that is left up and down Main Street? The beautiful mitzvah of the arba’ah minim leaves us in a state of disgrace, as the Yom Tov begins with pedestrians in Kew Gardens Hills wading through streams of discarded lulav boxes and all kinds of casings and wrappings. What’s the whole mitzvah worth if the net result is a massive chilul Hashem?
The Kapparos issue is a serious one. It cuts to the heart about how sincere we are about all the mitzvos we perform. Do we do them because we are concerned for our relationship with Hashem or is it a matter of keeping up with a trend, regardless of what other mitzvos we trample on in the process? If it’s the latter, I wonder who will bring a kapparah for the kapparah shlugger?
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.