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The High Holy Days began last night at sunset with Rosh Hashanah, and Jews all over the city are preparing to observe their holiest week of the year in a variety of ways.
For some local Jews, those observances include kapparot, a ceremony in which a Jew will circle the chicken above his head three times before the chicken is slaughtered and donated to charity. Next week, the day before Yom Kippur, the parking lot at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad High School will be covered off with a tarp. The students from Esther Bnos High School will join the Yeshiva Chabad students, along with any other members of the orthodox Jewish community who wish to practice kapparot, Symbolically, kapparot transfers the person’s sins to the animal, as part of a cleansing process at the start of the new year on the Jewish calendar. The ritual can also be performed with a fish, or with money, which is also given to charity.
In recent years, kapparot has been a source of some controversy. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has protested the practice, and some call the ritual illegal, noting that Los Angeles municipal code also outlaws animal sacrifice for religious purposes, even if the animals are consumed afterwards.
Many Jews also disavow the practice, or instead conduct the ritual with money. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, a conservative Jew and executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he had never seen kapparot performed, and doubted more than five of the 320 rabbis on the board practiced it.
“I don’t believe in it,” Diamond said. “When people ask me about it, I recommend they do an alternative ceremony. There are legitimate concerns about how the chickens are kept beforehand. My grandfather was a kosher slaughterer. He was familiar with animals, and when he did the ceremony, I’m sure he was quite capable of doing it humanely. Today, most of us are very far removed from farms and slaughter.”
Diamond added that the Board of Rabbis has no official position on the ceremony, and respected the practices of all of its members.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, an orthodox rabbi at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, said some members of his congregation practice kapparot, while others do not. Korobkin said he practiced the ritual with 18 quarters or dimes held over the head in the same way the chicken would be, and then donated to them charity, as atonement for the past year’s sins.
“The idea of creating surrogacy is theologically part of the Yom Kippur service,” Korobkin said. “I think in L.A. coins are a lot more common than using a chicken or a fish. I just use coins because I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I don’t want to hold a chicken over my head. I think anytime someone uses a live animal in the course of a religious ritual, people get up in arms. But it’s not done in an inhumane fashion. It’s not different from any other chicken that’s eventually slaughtered.”
Still, the practice of kapparot remains prevalent in the Chabad community, including at local schools, where students begin to perform the ritual at age 13. Marsha, an employee at Yeshiva Elchonon Chabad who declined to give her last name, said a local rabbi delivers chickens to many of the schools and places of worship in the area. Poor families who participate will take chickens home, and the rest will be donated to charities.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cunin, director of Chabad of Larchmont, said there were years when he had performed the ceremony with coins instead of a chicken, but there was, he said, a difference in the spiritual experience. He recalled the first time he remembers seeing kapparot, when his father performed the ceremony at a slaughterhouse.
“I saw him approach the chicken, and he looked very serious, and I could tell something important was happening,” Cunin said. “He was crying as he slaughtered the chicken. Why did God create us in a way to have to take the life of a carrot or a scallion or a chicken? Wouldn’t it be less problematic if we didn’t have to eat? But there’s something very special when we eat food. We’re recreating life at every moment, because the food becomes part of us.”
Cunin also offered a practical reason for using a chicken instead of coins.
“Money is important, but people cannot digest a dollar,” Cunin said. “Right before Yom Kippur, we need to make sure that the most needy people have something to eat. One of the main reasons chickens were used was to make sure everyone had food before the fast on Yom Kippur. It was given to the needy so everyone would have a chicken in their pot. A lot of people are very proud, and don’t want to say they have no food in the house.”
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