Korbanot, Kapparot, and What Keeps Us Compassionate

BY: Kaitlyn Respler.

Towards the beginning of our early childhood education, we were probably taught the important halakhah of making sure our pets are fed before sitting down to a meal ourselves.  As a kindergartener, I was extremely makpid (strict) on this halakhah and always made sure to sprinkle a few flecks of goldfish food into my fish tank before having dinner.  When I was a few years older, and slightly wiser, I began to contemplate the extreme sensitivity that the Torah displays towards animals, besides for the elementary example I remember from kindergarten, for Judaism prides itself on the nation-wide feeling of rahamanut (pity) that exists amongst our people.[i]

Our halakhic system reflects this Jewish character trait and embodies the Torah’s sensitivity to animals.  For instance, the Torah promises long life to whoever shoos away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks from her nest so that the mother bird does not have to painfully witness her children being taken away from her.[ii] We are also forbidden to eat a limb from an animal without killing it first.[iii] This halakhah is regarded with such gravity that it is not only included in our long list of 613 mitsvot from the Torah, but it is also counted among the sheva mitsvot Benei Noah (seven Noahide laws).[iv] Even our ritual slaughter laws force us to check the knife used in order to guarantee that it is as sharp as possible so that it will cause immediate death and the animal will feel as little pain as possible.[v] The Mishnah in Hullin goes as far as to name all the types of knives and saws that cannot be used because they cause a lag between the time the knife cuts the animal’s neck and the time the animal dies.[vi] We are also commanded not to kill a parent animal and its child on the same day.[vii] Rambam explains that this is prohibited because

“the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things.”[viii]

Even when it comes to harvesting our fields, we are given strict commandments on the proper way to treat the animals working for us.  We are commanded not to muzzle an ox as it threshes,[ix] and we are instructed not to force an ox and a donkey to thresh together.[x] Ibn Ezra comments that the reason we do not allow an ox and a donkey to thresh together is because it will be unfair to the donkey, which is visibly weaker than the ox.[xi] Even with respect to Hilkhot Shabbat, we are lenient when it comes to taking care of animals.[xii] In short, the many laws mentioned here are all catered to the needs, emotional and physical, of the animals involved.

Rahamanut, however, seems to be lacking when it comes to the ritual sacrificial practices of the Beit ha-Mikdash.  The entire idea of korbanot (sacrifices) seems to be in direct opposition to the sensitivity towards animals that the Torah expresses in other instances.  Besides for the overarching idea of killing innocent animals as a means of serving God, the actual practices carried out before offering the animal seem to be extraneously inhumane.  The korban was slaughtered according to the laws of shehitah (ritual slaughter), but the blood was then extracted and sprinkled on the Mizbeah (Altar).  Following the sprinkling, the remaining blood was poured out at the base of the Mizbeah, and the animal was then skinned and cut up before being offered.  The steps taken after killing the animal seem to be overly insensitive and without apparent significance to justify them.

Rambam addresses the idea of future korbanot in Guide for the Perplexed.[xiii] He first notes the conceptual difference between two types of service of God: prayer and sacrifice. While prayer is encouraged in every facet of life and for every single person, sacrificial worship is limited to the Kohanim in the Beit ha-Mikdash and to specific times and purposes.  According to Rambam, God commanded that we bring korbanot to serve Him because when we were taken out of Egypt, we were entrenched in a culture that was centered around the sacrificial worship of pagan gods. He explains that “[i]t is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.”[xiv] In order to keep the faith of the people and allow them to serve a new deity with some semblance of convention, God commanded sacrificial worship but set severe limitations so that the people would remain faithful to Him. According to Rambam, worship based on korbanot is not a le-ka-tehillah (ideal) situation, and it will not be necessary when the Jewish People are less heavily influenced by the practices of other religions. The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah supports such an idea, claiming that in the future, all sacrifices, besides for the thanksgiving sacrifice, will be abandoned.[xv] R. Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook takes an approach similar to that of Rambam and the Midrash in his commentary on the siddur, Olat Re’iyyah, stating that in the days of Mashiah, there will no longer be animal sacrifice but only sacrifices of wheat or wine.[xvi] He also believes that it is ideal to maintain a vegetarian diet, again reflecting his sensitivity towards animals.[xvii]

Similar to sacrifices, the practice of modern-day kapparot, of transferring our sins onto a chicken, has a similar tinge of inhumanity.  Kapparot are believed to help achieve repentance for our sins before being judged on Yom Kippur.  By transferring our sins onto an animal and then slaughtering it, we are absolving ourselves of sin in the hopes of being guaranteed a sweet, healthy New Year.  Many rabbis have spoken out against the pre-Yom Kippur practice of waving chickens over our heads and then watching as they are slaughtered.  There has been a proposition to revert back to the older practice of using money for kapparot instead of chickens as the object that accepts our sins.[xviii]

The most recent example of outrage over kapparot was reported in the Haaretz newspaper just a few weeks ago.[xix] Right before Yom Kippur this year, Israel’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) began its annual outcry against this traditional practice. R. Shlomo Aviner, head of Jerusalem’s right-wing Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim and community rabbi of Beit El, joined the SPCA’s cause this year and even went so far as to supply the movement with a religious declaration against the practice of using chickens for kapparot. The article reported R. Aviner as stating, “Because this is not a binding obligation but a custom, in light of problems related to kashrut and the suffering of animals, and given the edicts of the aforementioned rabbis, a recommendation must be made to favor performing kaparot through money, by performing the great mitzvah of providing for the needy.”

Besides for R. Aviner, many other rabbis have written against this practice of kapparot.  R. Yosef Karo writes about kapparot that “yesh limnoa ha-minhag” – “it is better to prevent this practice.”[xx] He also quotes from Ramban and Rashba, who both completely oppose the custom.[xxi] Ramban apparently declared the practice of kapparot prohibited because it resembles darkhei ha-Emori, Gentile practices, even if it is not actual idol worship. While the Tur quotes Ramban’s opinion,[xxii] we do not have the original source the works of Ramban available today. However, we do still have Rashba’s comments on kapparot.[xxiii] He explains the process of the custom, which involves swinging a rooster over a young boy’s head, beheading the bird, and then hanging its head over the doorway as a sign that the practice was completed. Rashba declares this darkhei ha-Emori because of its traces of superstition and claims that he successfully had the minhag eradicated in his city. However, he adds that since Hakhmei Ashkenaz (the Torah scholars of Ashkenaz) practiced and endorsed this minhag, he would refrain from declaring the shehitah of the rooster to be invalid.

The practice of kapparot, which has less halakhic significance since it is merely a minhag and can be performed in more than one way, calls for some kind of reform.  In my opinion, a practice which is so inhumane and does not have strong roots in halakhic literature does not need to take place.  Although doing kapparot with money instead of a chicken does not give that same warm and fuzzy feeling that is experienced when one transfers his sins onto something else, the merit from giving tsedakah would seem to compensate for that missing feeling, especially right before entering the Day of Judgment.

This type of extreme sensitivity to animals is not a simple matter that should be disregarded.  We know that when Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, was choosing a suitable mate for Yitshak, the attribute of Rivkah that caught his attention most was her extreme awareness of the needs of his camels and the fact that she drew water for them in addition to drawing water for him.  Furthermore, Shemot Rabbah comments that Ya’akov Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu and David ha-Melekh developed their effective leadership traits by being shepherds.[xxiv] It seems that shepherding develops feelings of sensitivity for other creatures. This is a necessary attribute for a quality leader of the Jewish People, for an individual who cares for animals with sensitivity will act similarly towards his fellow man. It seems that the idea of rahamanut that my kindergarten teacher had been trying to instill in my classmates and me was not just a simple message to teach young children, but a lesson that we should all internalize and channel towards planting the seeds of leadership within ourselves as individuals and as a nation.

Kaitlyn Respler is a junior at SCW majoring in Biochemistry and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] Yevamot 79a.

[ii] Devarim 22:6-7, as well as Rambam’s explanation in Guide for the Perplexed III:48.

[iii] Bereshit 9:4.

[iv] Sanhedrin 56a.

[v] Hullin 9a.

[vi] Ibid. 1:2.

[vii] Vayikra 22:28.

[viii] Guide for the Perplexed ibid.

[ix] Devarim 25:4.

[x] Ibid. 22:10.

[xi] Ibn Ezra’s commentary to ibid.

[xii] Shabbat 128b.

[xiii] Guide for the Perplexed III:32.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Vayikra Rabbah 9:7.

[xvi] R. Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook, Olat Re’iyyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1962), p. 492.

[xvii] Idem, “Hazon ha-Tsimhonut ve-ha-Shalom,” chapter 3.

[xviii] Mishnah Berurah, Orah Hayyim 605.

[xix] Yair Ettinger, “Leading Rabbi Joins Animal Rights Group’s Campaign Against Kaparot,” Haaretz (September 9, 2010), available at: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/leading-rabbi-joins-animal-rights-group-s-campaign-against-kaparot-1.313459.

[xx] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 605.

[xxi] Beit Yosef to Tur, Orah Hayyim 605.

[xxii] Tur, Orah Hayyim 605.

[xxiii] Teshuvot ha-Rashba, responsum 395.

[xxiv] Shemot Rabbah 2:2.