Thousands of Orthodox Jews are preparing to swing live chickens over their heads before Yom Kippur, symbolically transferring their sins to the chicken. The chicken is then slaughtered and donated to the poor for consumption. This practice is called ‘Kapparot,’ which literally means “atonement.”
Using fish, money or chickens are acceptable methods of performing this expiation ritual. Using a live creature has the impact of allowing one to appreciate his or her own life and the life of the animal. A deep appreciation for animal life is fostered by seeing an animal slaughtered so that man can survive.
This chicken swinging ritual is controversial both in terms of the practice potentially leading to animal cruelty and the view by many leading rabbinical authorities that the practice should be avoided because of its superstitious nature.
Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Code of Jewish Law, called the practice “heathen, foolish and superstitious.” Other Rabbis especially Kabbalists like Rabbi Isaac Luria encouraged the practice of using a live creature for Kapparot.
Another common objection to the practice is based on the Jewish principle that one is forbidden to engage in tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (causing unnecessary pain to animals). While the ritual itself does not necessitate animal cruelty, the pragmatic outcome may result in the unnecessary suffering of chickens:
Because modern kapparot chickens are trucked into the city from long distances, often in open trucks exposed to the weather and without adequate food or water, the question of … cruelty to animals …. has become an … issue. The birds may also suffer while they are being handled for sale or during the ceremony, because many urban Jews are unfamiliar with the proper, humane way to hold a chicken. (Which should be with a hand above and one below the bird, supporting the weight of the body, not held with the wings painfully pinned back, as is done at some kapparot centers.) In some places in Israel and the United States, chickens are sold on street corners for this ceremony, and not every merchant takes proper care of his chickens during this period. The birds are frequently cooped up in baskets, and some merchants neglect to give them sufficient food or water. In some cases, the caged chickens have been left out in the rain or under the hot sun with no shade or shelter, or simply abandoned in warehouses and left to starve if not sold in time for the ceremony.
Notions of animal cruelty do not apply to fish under Jewish law, so by using a fish for the Kapparot ritual one would avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal yet still have the benefit of using a live creature for the ritual. Jewish law does not recognize fish as an animal for the purposes of animal cruelty laws. (See Beis Yehudah ביור”ד סימן י” where all opinions say you can cut a piece of fish when it is alive and no one says it is tsa’ar ba’alei chaim. Therefore it must be that there is no tsa’ar ba’alei chaim for Fish). Also ritual slaughter does not apply to fish, therefore it is understood that fish don’t experience the same kind of pain as an animal.
Another advantage of using a fish is that you avoid the concerns of rabbinical authorities that were critical of using chickens. At the same time you are respecting those authorities that said Kapparot should be done on a live creature.
Chickens are required to be slaughtered in a particular method for them to be deemed kosher. In contrast, fish do not require a particular method of slaughter, so by using fish you offset the concerns of the animal being rendered non-kosher due to an improper slaughter procedure.
At this Yom Kipur’s Kapparot, consider using a live fish instead of a live chicken. You will avoid potential animal cruelty under Jewish law. You will be respecting Halachic authorities that were critical of using chickens while also respecting those that encouraged doing the procedure on a live creature. You will also avoid concerns that your animal was slaughtered improperly. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.