In the stone alleyways of Jerusalem neighborhoods, live chickens are repeatedly waved over the heads of strictly religious Jews before being slaughtered — a ritual authorities are discouraging.
“We say that all our bad activities throughout the year should be taken from us and given over to the chickens,” said Yakov Schwartz, a 26-year-old dressed in the black suit and hat worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews, long sidelocks dangling beyond his ears.
The annual atonement ritual known as kaparot occurs ahead of the fast day of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar beginning Tuesday night.
Many of those who participate in it believe it symbolically absolves them of their sins, which are transferred to the chicken. The slaughtered chicken is afterward donated to the poor or another worthy cause, if not kept for the family.
But with public health and animal welfare in mind, Israeli authorities are encouraging the religious to opt out of using chickens in the ritual and simply donate money instead.
Many Jews, particularly among the non-ultra-Orthodox, prefer to donate money.
Schwartz is part of a crowd of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood gathered next to stacks of plastic cages holding chickens for the ritual, white feathers fluttering in the air and littering the ground.
He holds each chicken under its wings and lifts it over the heads of his three young children — male birds for the two boys and a female for his daughter — and moves it in a circle as the ritual demands.
While doing so, he recites the prayer that goes with the custom.
Schwartz, in town from London for the holiday, then walks over to the open-air slaughtering station just steps away, where chickens’ throats are slit before being hung upside down on a carousel and later butchered.
‘Trying to convince’
The process plays out over and over again, both there and at another location under a tent in Jerusalem’s most iconic ultra-Orthodox district, where signs call on women to dress modestly and Jewish law is scrupulously observed.
The custom is thought to have developed as a reminder of the ritual sacrifice of animals at the biblical-era first and second Jewish temples.
But the agriculture ministry has been running a campaign for the last three years to encourage the use of money instead of chickens, a ministry official said.
It also inspects sites that carry out the custom and can shut them down if they violate public health or animal welfare laws, according to the official.
But, as in other matters involving the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, the ministry takes a careful approach when it comes to kaparot.
The ultra-Orthodox are among Israel’s fastest-growing communities and account for some 10 percent of the population.
The most extreme among them are hostile to the state, but those who do participate in politics wield significant influence.
Ultra-Orthodox parties currently hold 13 seats out of the 66 in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition.
Shuki Friedman, director for the center for religion, nation and state at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, said the custom is not considered a core ritual in Judaism.
But he said that Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a religious nationalist, would be unlikely to strongly challenge the ultra-Orthodox community on the issue.
“They can’t go directly against this custom,” Friedman told AFP. “He’s trying to convince rather than go against or criticize.”