Dead Chickens, Amends, and an Outcry
By JENNIFER LEE
Last week before Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Shea Hecht of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said he was bombarded with hundreds of e-mail messages, phone calls, faxes and letters within a short time, one of them threatening.
Yoni Aranoff, 13, with Myron Robinson, his grandfather, doing the kaparot ritual in Queens.
In general, the messages protested the tradition of kaparot — sometimes spelled kapparot or kapparos — in which Orthodox Jews take live chickens, swing them over their heads as a means of symbolically transferring sins to the chickens, and then slaughter them on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
"I got over a thousand e-mails in one hour," Rabbi Hecht said on Wednesday before the start of Yom Kippur. He said that he showed the messages to the police, but that no formal investigation was under way.
He immediately suspected People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has mounted a campaign against the practice over the past few years, even producing a 10-minute video of the practice in Brooklyn (one of the scenes shows the chickens being stuffed into orange traffic cones).
The tradition consumes tens of thousands of chickens each year in Brooklyn.
But Bruce G. Friedrich, vice president of PETA, denied that his organization was behind the organized bombardment, though he was vocal about the chicken ritual in an interview on Thursday. "Rabbi Hecht is supporting grotesque cruelty behind thousands and thousands of animals," he said.
PETA has been documenting the rituals over the last few years, but Mr. Friedrich said the group was not behind the anti-chicken-ritual spam.
"If anyone is really sending threatening or anti-Semitic e-mails, that is both immoral and counterproductive," Mr. Friedrich said. "It's unfortunate when someone hands an animal abuser cause for self-righteousness." PETA representatives had met previously with Rabbi Hecht.
According to some rabbis, the kaparot custom may trace its origins to the destruction of the Holy Temple, when the high priest chose one of two goats on Yom Kippur through a lottery and designated it to absorb the sins of the people of Israel. Now, chickens and roosters are commonly used.
Rabbi Hecht's father, J. J. Hecht, now deceased, played an instrumental role in the early 1970s in reviving the tradition, which had slowly died out in Brooklyn. "It was less and less observed because there were no kosher slaughterhouses down the block anymore," Rabbi Hecht said, "so you didn't have the ability of going to your local butcher."
Now the Brooklyn rabbis arrange for local slaughtering, which takes hours based on the sheer volume of chickens. "We're still out there, still koshering the chicken," Rabbi Hecht said early Wednesday.
Asked if multiple people could use the same chicken before it was killed, as a strategy to reduce the volume of chicken carcasses, Rabbi Hecht said yes. but then he explained, "In today's world, when a chicken doesn't cost that much money, people are like, `I can afford my own chicken.' "
To make it easier, he said his congregation subsidized the chickens by buying them in bulk. "We charge the people only $2," he said. But as part of a fund-raiser on Tuesday night, the rabbi said he charged as much as $13 for the chickens, with a discount for students.
(Can live chickens really cost as little as $2? Even with the rising cost of food and the state of the economy, apparently so.)
Rabbi Hecht defended the practice: "What I do is 100 percent within the right of my religious freedom within the country."
But the ritual has come under criticism even within the local Jewish population. Few of the chickens are eaten, and one report from 2005 said that they were not being slaughtered in a manner consistent with kosher standards. A number of cases were reported in which proprietors left for Yom Kippur and the chickens were abandoned and died en masse. And last year, rabbis met to discuss evidence that chickens may have been mistreated in past years.
Some rabbis have strongly opposed kaparot, suggesting either that it is a pagan ritual or that it violates Jewish teaching about the humane treatment of animals. Some have suggested alternatives to chickens, such as fish, or a charitable contribution.
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