Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Use of Animals for Atonement in Judaism

August 20, 2010

It is my pleasure to introduce a guest blogger this week. I am grateful to anthropologist Dr. Dafna Shir-Vertesh at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University for writing this piece for the Friday Animal Blog. Dr. Shir-Vertesh’s work on animals is of extreme interest to me. The rest of this entry is in her words; please note how she brings out the complex and conflicting aspects of the role chickens play in atonement in Judaism. Both of us welcome your posted comments and questions-- Barbara.

The modern form of kapparot - Jewish expiation, or atonement, is practiced in the days preceding Yom-Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement). It involves the slaughtering of a chicken and the symbolic transference of sins from the person to the poultry. A few years ago, as a part of my research on human-animal relations in Israel, I experienced kapparot for the first time:

I drive into a large food holding company’s compound a few days before Yom Kippur. I arrive at a chamber where people buy chickens in order to have them ‘freshly-slaughtered’. Whether one is interested in poultry for meat or for expiation, one waits in the same line, weighs the live chicken, and pays according to the weight of the animal (12 NIS per kilo and an additional 9 NIS for the slaughter - Roughly three and two dollars, respectively). The sex of the chosen chicken is matched to that of the person seeking expiation – a hen for women, a rooster for men. The color of the chicken is white. “It’s good that they are white,” a man tells me as he is paying for his chicken, “as it is said: ‘your sins shall be as white as snow’”. Several people choose more than one chicken. Following my inquiry they explain that they sacrifice a chicken for each member of the household.

Those performing the ritual subsequently step outside; swing the chicken around their head, and say: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good long life and peace.” They then proceed to an adjacent space. A young Arab boy hands the chicken to the religious Jewish slaughterer, who then slits its throat with a knife. Pending the draining of the chicken’s blood, it is placed head down in a pail. A few minutes later, the chicken, still moving, is hung by the feet on a conveyor belt and moved to the adjacent chamber, where it is cleaned and plucked by a machine. The slaughterer then blesses the person who has performed the expiation, and receives a small donation from the person.

The slaughtered chicken is generally given to charity, or is sold and the money received for it is given to charity. It is also customary to cover the blood of the chicken with dirt, as in any slaughter, as commanded in Leviticus (17:13): “And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel… that taketh in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten, he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.”

The custom of kapparot reveals from the very location of the ritual, that the animal is treated as property, as meat, as an object. The chickens used for the ritual are no different from those consumed for their meat, and their worth is determined by their weight. The entire setting not only resembles, but is, a slaughterhouse, including the same machinery and accessories.

At the same time, the chicken is used as a substitute for a human person, even if only metaphorically and temporarily, as clearly stated in the ceremonial text. In this role as substitute, the animal itself is endowed with a certain sense of personhood. This is most evident in the choice of the chicken according to its sex; the animal is now more than an objectified piece of meat – it is a gendered creature, and its identity as male or female parallels the gendered identity of the human. The ‘personhood’ of the chicken is also implied in the covering of the blood - a form of burial.

Animals in Judaism, as is shown in this brief illustration, do not fit into the subject/object divide. The practice of expiation helps to articulate a vague notion of personhood that allows a certain, limited, incorporation of animals.

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.