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If You Need a Chicken for Kapparot, They’ll Swing By
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If You Need a Chicken for Kapparot, They’ll Swing By

A controversial Yom Kippur ritual gets a coronavirus twist.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

The ancient Jewish ritual of kapparot is practiced before the Yom Kippur holiday. Getty Images
The ancient Jewish ritual of kapparot is practiced before the Yom Kippur holiday. Getty Images

Need a chicken to purge your sins but can’t leave the house because of Covid-19? Crown Heights has got you covered.

A Brooklyn-based, Chabad-Lubavitch-run charity is offering home delivery of chickens needed for the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kapparot. Practioners symbolically transfer their sins to the birds, which are later slaughtered or sold for charity.

“If people are nervous about going out we’ll bring the chickens to their homes,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), a charity that “provide[s] fast, discreet and dignified service to all sectors of the Jewish community,” according to its website. The Crown Heights-based organization has been “sponsoring kapparos for 40 years,” said Hecht.

According to a Google Doc sign-up form circulating among community members, NCFJE is offering a “home delivery (limited supply) Service, for CH residents,” Customers can order male or female chickens. (It is customary for a man to use a rooster and a woman to use a hen, which they swing above their heads.)

The form includes a disclaimer that “NCFJE retains ownership of the chickens.” The requested donation of $20 per chicken earns a customer “the right to use a chicken for the Kaporos ritual” (but no chicken dinner).

The ritual will also take place as usual at several different Crown Heights locations, said Rabbi Hecht. “We’ll be distancing as best as possible,” he said, noting that those leading the ritual will “try and separate” members of the Crown Heights Jewish community, who he claimed have “herd immunity,” from the many visitors in town for the High Holidays. (City health officials have not determined that any communities or locales have achieved “herd immunity” for the coronavirus, and recently identified Covid-19 hotspots in several Orthodox communities.)

“Crown Heights becomes a Mecca around the Jewish high holidays,” he said, noting that Chabad worshippers from around the world will gather to pray at the movement’s Brooklyn headquarters this year, despite some community efforts to dissuade travelers because of the increased risk of infection.

Other groups are also offering remote opportunities to observe the ritual. WorldKapparot, an online operation, allows users to have the ritual performed in their name by a remote agent.

“In this particular COVID-19 year, WorldKapparot offers you the possibility to do the Kapparot mitzvah from a distance,” the website reads. Customers place an order, recite an atonement prayer and “certified” kosher slaughters will dispatch the birds “according to the strict Halakha as well as the necessary hygiene standards.”

An online order form from worldkapparot.com allows customers to hire a remote agent to perform the Yom Kippur ritual for them.

In the past, the custom has attracted criticism from animal rights activists and those who believe it is  cruel to animals and an archaic and unnecessary practice. In 2015, the ritual was the subject of at least two lawsuits: a suit filed by animal-rights activists in New York City and a pro-kapparot suit filed by a suburban Detroit Chabad congregation encountering red tape.

On Wednesday, a coalition of animal-rights groups sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio complaining that Orthodox Jews are performing the kapparot ritual in violation of Covid-19 guidelines for safe gathering. The letter included photographs of unmasked Orthodox men and boys handling live chickens on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn and other locations.

On Monday, Agudath Israel of America, the charedi Orthodox group, reissued a 13-year-old rabbinic statement (kol korei) saying that the practice of kapparot “needs to be conducted in a manner that ensures that proper standards of kashrus, cleanliness, and humane treatment of animals, as defined by halacha, are met.” Those standards include “scrupulous compliance with the Torah’s laws of tza’ar ba’alei Chayim” — that is, the humane treatment of animals.

The ritual is thought to have began as far back as the 6th century, when it began to gain prominence as an alternative to sacrificing scapegoats in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, destroyed in 66 AD.

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