Rav Soloveitchik and Kaparos

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The custom of kaparos is the subject of a long-standing controversy. This waving of chickens over people’s heads in a repentance ritual before Yom Kippur, leading to the chicken’s slaughter, has engendered significant opposition over centuries. Great authorities like the Ramban and Rashba attempted to end this practice that they found religiously objectionable, even pagan. R. Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 605:1) also opposed it. However, the custom continues with great popularity and the support of many authorities (e.g. Rema, ad loc.).

Even today the practice is still mired in controversy. Animal rights advocates object to the mistreatment of chickens prior to the ritual. When I lived near what became the central Flatbush location for kaparos, I saw first hand the terrible treatment of the chickens before, during and after the ritual. There is much about which to object.

Some people substitute money for the chicken, waving cash overhead in a symbolic self-calling for repentance. I suspect that this waving a relatively small amount of money makes much less of an impact than seeing a live animal go to its death, as we eventually will for our sins unless we repent. Given the substantive historical opposition to the practice, I see great precedent for stopping it entirely.

I recently learned that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not observe this custom. His son-in-law and leading student, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, reports that his family had long thought that no Brisker, steeped in Talmudic rationalism, would ever tolerate such a custom. He was surprised when he entered the home of a leading Jerusalem Soloveitchik on the day before Yom Kippur and discovered chickens in the house for kaparos. The family debated whether the rabbinic head of the home actually practiced kaparos or merely pretended to do so (Mevakshei Fanekha, p. 245).

That a leading rabbinic authority refused–that is the impression R. Lichtenstein gives–to practice such a custom should not be surprising. Not only has objection to it been sustained over centuries but, as Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ad loc., par. 5) states, rabbinic authorities actively tried to abolish the practice. Only popular devotion prevented their success.

I sometimes hear calls from animal rights advocates that people substitute money for chickens in the kaparos ritual. They would be equally, perhaps more, justified in encouraging people to drop the practice altogether.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

37 comments

  1. “I recently learned that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not observe this custom”

    Did you have a hava mina that the Rav would have observed such a custom?

  2. Of course. The presumption is that people follow mainstream customs until you learn to the contrary. Are you aware of any mainstream publication that, Yom Kippur time, even mentions that it is an optional practice?

  3. r Gil, u mean not even observing the waving of money (or in my new house custom, credit cards) over your head and saying zeh chalifasi, right? virtually everyone does some sort of “kapparos” with chickens or money, because that is what r’ artscroll says. so if the rav refused to have any part in such an idea, that is surprising.

  4. because that is what r’ artscroll says

    Also r’ OU Koren Sacks (pp. 884-885).

  5. R Ahron Soloveichik grouped kaporos together with tge minhag of eating the various simanim on rosh Hashanah ie as means of motivating oneself
    While he publically encouraged students who dud kapotos to use money (although I don’t know if he himself did kaporos at all.) Similarly regarding tashlich while he personally followed the minhag HaGra and didn’t do tashlich he didn’t discourage and explained it rationally as a motivator Its quite likely that the Rav felt the same way ie a minhag mentioned in shulchan aruch should not be criticized but should be rationalized whether or not you follow it yourself

  6. -So did the Rav not even use money? Did he do Tashlich?

    -I’m not at all surprised that the Jerusalem Briskers may do it. We conform, especially if living in a super-conformist society like the Israeli Charedi world. The strong must learn to be alone, as Ibsen wrote, and most of us aren’t that strong, especially if there are “shidduchim to worry about.”

  7. Joe in Australia

    I don’t disagree with what you have written, but sadly: commercially raised chickens live in conditions as bad as that all the time. I am a hypocrite in this regard, but I think I would be a better person if I restricted myself to free-range meat and chicken.

  8. “Animal rights advocates object to the mistreatment of chickens prior to the ritual.” This is an unfortunate sentence, as animal rights advocates object to humane treatment of animals too, such as shechita. And altogether, when discussing halacha the opinions of animal-loving tree-hugging feminist pro-choice anti-proposition-eight advocates should have no place.

    What would have been correct would have been to note, that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is a biblical prohibition or at the very least a rabbinical prohibition, and that animals should not be mistreated in order to perform kaparos.

  9. I think the issue with kapparot, simanei milta, etc. is that people often miss the symbolism and put too much stock in the deed, as if it were some hocus-pocus nichush. That is the concern.

  10. Gil,
    In Teaneck was kapparos the “mainstream practice”? I don’t know anyone who does kapparos, and in over 10 years in yeshiva, including numerous years in YU, I never actually saw someone do it. I think i may be more propular in Brooklyn than in the rest of the world.

  11. Dude: many rishonim said that it IS hocus-pocus nichush. Can’t blame the masses for agreeing.

  12. Only popular devotion prevented their success.
    =======================================
    similar to statements the ah”s makes about chazanim not listening to rabbinic authority. so what exactly does that say about the defense of minhagim in general as being rooted in tradition and approved by prior generations of great rabbis?
    KT

  13. “Hirhurim on November 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm
    Of course. The presumption is that people follow mainstream customs until you learn to the contrary.”
    Who says using chickens for Kapparos wass a mainstream custom in the mid to late 20th century? When I went to Yeshiva and stayed in the dorm often for RH and YK I don’t recall Kapparos with chickens being done. In Boston I suspect Kapparos was a B Rebbe type thing-certainly those who went to Tashlich followed the Bostoner Rebbe on that issue.
    “Are you aware of any mainstream publication that, Yom Kippur time, even mentions that it is an optional practice”
    Kapparos with chickens is not a mainstream minhag in non Chassidic and perhaps chareidi communities.

  14. ” Similarly regarding tashlich while he personally followed the minhag HaGra and didn’t do tashlich he didn’t discourage and explained it rationally as a motivator Its quite likely that the Rav felt the same way ie a minhag mentioned in shulchan aruch should not be criticized but should be rationalized whether or not you follow it yourself”
    I am aware of at least some Rabbonim who were talmidim of the Rav who personally did not do tashlich-source of tashlich ius very controversial-would not announce anything about tashlich in schul-one way or the other. Naturally did not attack others who did a mainstream minhag. When I went to YU it seemed to me that tashlich was not encouraged.

  15. “They would be equally, perhaps more, justified in encouraging people to drop the practice altogether.”

    Is there not a clear difference between advocating using money as opposed to chickens and dropping the practice all together? The former is an attempt to be מקיים the מנהג with minimal harm to animals, while the latter is clearly not in accordance to the dictates of the רמ”א who was a proponents of the מנהג. Since when do our halachic suspicions (לא תנחשו וכו’) override the רמ”א’s p’sak?

  16. i distinctly recall the very MO principal of my very MO elementary school going from room to room with chickens in a shopping cart and picking a boy and a girl in each class to do the kapparos. i’m not dismissing all the concerns raised here (i personally use money and interpret it symbolically), but kapparos with chickens certainly dramatizes the yamim noraim for kids.

  17. i’m really surprised at all the comments here about people not doing kaparos at all. perhaps it’s a factor of where i grew up or my own family, but i always just assumed that everyone does it in some form

  18. Mycroft: I am aware of at least some Rabbonim who were talmidim of the Rav who personally did not do tashlich

    Names?

  19. I do it with money, but I find the practice foolish and annoying. My wife insists on it because my father in law did it. It falls into the mesorah category for some, including me.

  20. MiMedinat HaYam

    what bothers me more is that they reuse the chickens 100 times. my father used to do it, and have the chickens schechted in front of us (which SA says is part of the custom). thats how my father taught me (or rather showed us) how to kasher, check, salt and soak a chicken. which no one knows how to do today. (today’s children think chickens grow on trees in shrink wrapped styrofoam trays.)

  21. Avraham: you asked “Since when do our halachic suspicions (לא תנחשו וכו’) override the רמ”א’s p’sak?”

    1. THis wouldn’t be the only case where at least some ashkenazim hold like the mechaber against the rema.

    2. The later acharonim have no problem running roughshod over the Rema’s kulas, as I am sure you are aware.

    (there is likely some overlap between 1 and 2).

  22. Great write up from R. Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron of Ohel Moshe Society on this topic can be found here http://www.torathmoshe.com/2008/09/the-meaning-of-real-teshuvah-to-the-berith-covenant-torath-moshe/
    Under the heading “THE CUSTOM OF KAPPAROTH”

  23. Several times the smell of the chickens severely nauseated me and almost made me vomit. Is that what G_d wants?

    When my non-religious relatives saw the chickens, they thought that Orthodox Jews were insane; in other words, a Chillul HaShem. Is that what G_d wants?

    Last but not least:

    Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv:
    Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are to request compassion from the Living G_d?
    SOURCE: Sefer Aseh Lecha Rav, quoted in: Chicken Waving: Superstition or Holy Custom? by Hillel Fendel, The Jewish Voice, 2010/9/17, page 34

  24. “Given the substantive historical opposition to the practice, I see great precedent for stopping it entirely.”

    Sweet dreams. It will never happen. It will continue unabated. Centuries of opposition have hardly dented the minhag.

  25. ” IH on November 15, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    because that is what r’ artscroll says

    Also r’ OU Koren Sacks (pp. 884-885)”

    My siddur, Singer’s has no such nonsense, but it does have Tashlich.
    Interestingly, my Minchag Anglia Yom Kippur Koren Sacks Machzor does have money-only kapporet

  26. Dare I inquire as to why my two comments were censored out, after already being commented on, in a topic as innocuous as kapparot?

  27. shachar haamim

    Elliot Pasik on November 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I do it with money, but I find the practice foolish and annoying. My wife insists on it because my father in law did it. It falls into the mesorah category for some, including me.”

    same here. wife wants me to do it. and tashlich.
    there was a a very warm day on the thursday right after yom kippur. took a day off (in Israel it was the only work day between YK and the Sukkot break) and the family to the beach. that’s when we did tashlich. kids are into it.

  28. “My siddur, Singer’s has no such nonsense, but it does have Tashlich.
    Interestingly, my Minchag Anglia Yom Kippur Koren Sacks Machzor does have money-only kappore”

    For whats its worth I have always done money kapparos-from way before my bar mitzvah to the present day.

  29. If the animal rights activists advocated doing away with kaparot all to gether, they would only feed the frummie assumption that they are evil liberals bent on destroying Torah and Mitzvos.

  30. I am surprised no one has mentioned that the Rov (can’t recall exactly where, but one of you will) recalls with a deep nostalgia the waking before dawn and the shochet coming around on Erev Yom Kippur when he was a child. I have no basis for suggesting that he practiced this as an adult, but I suspect his attitude toward the custom was more nuanced than has been presented.

  31. I think the last words of the Brisker Rov were “Rivka, nemt die hundel”. He was telling his younger (then unmarried) daughter Rivka (schiff) to take his chicken from him. He obviously did kapporos and I highly doubt that his father didn’t.

  32. Rav Shlomo Brody discusses the history and major positions in his JPost Ask the Rabbi Column
    http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Judaism/Article.aspx?id=239049

  33. Eskimo: Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik grew up in a Chabad town. (His father was the town rav- long story.)

    groinem: Back then, people schechted their own chickens in their home. It was a whole different world.

  34. Brisk followed many of the Rambam’s Pesakim, so it’s not, perhaps, an indicator of rationalism per se.

    The Mishna Berura presents a very rationalist explanation for Kaparos- it’s a symbolic way of showing the gravity of sin and that the person understands what he really deserves and thus will do Teshuvah.

  35. to the author:

    when you quote certain rishonim or gedolei yisroel who were against it, you are not being honest. we find this all the time by you people, always round up all the dai’ois yedi’ois, and come up with psak. i suggest you to do a comprehensive research into what the gedolei yisroel have said about it over the the years, and then talk. in one of rav ovadia seforim (i am not sure which, but i am sure that if one ask one his ma’aritzim one could find it easily), he rounds up all the shittois, and it is overwhelmingly against all your suppositions, most are for it, with one caveat that the shechita be done properly with not to much pressure.

  36. to the author:

    when you quote certain rishonim or gedolei yisroel who were against it, you are not being honest. we find this all the time by you people, always round up all the dai’ois yedi’ois, and come up with psak. i suggest you to do a comprehensive research into what the gedolei yisroel have said about it over the the years, and then talk. in one of rav ovadia seforim (i am not sure which, but i am sure that if one ask one his ma’aritzim one could find it easily), he rounds up all the shittois, and it is overwhelmingly against all your suppositions, most are for it, with one caveat that the shechita be done properly with not to much pressure.

    in general this comment about the soloveitchiks and rationalism, shows much ignorance in what is a soloveitchik, meaning from reb chasom to the griz and his children. reb yoshe ber just did not continue every thing that his zaide felt holy. you know it is funny, that you guys always acuse the chareidim of being revisionist historians, when you guys show a picture of reb chaim, that he himself would never recognize.

  37. Fotheringay-Phipps

    Agree with Nochum. Not only were the Soloveitchiks not “steeped in Talmudic rationalism”, but the very term “Talmudic rationalism” is an oxymoron.

    Furthermore, Gil Student is being misleading in implying that the Oruch Hashulchan (& others of the past few centuries) who opposed the practice did so out of any sort of rationalism, when in reality they did so out of concern about the kashrus of the shechita.

    Lastly, it should be noted that one of the earliest sources of the custom (Rashi, quoting – IIRC – the Geonim) describes the custom as being done with a plant. So the basis for using something other than a chicken versus abolishing altogether has a much more solid basis.

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