Question: Should one fulfill the custom of Kaparot specifically using chickens or should one merely use money?
Answer: It is customary among all Jewish communities to perform Kaparot on Erev Yom Kippur by slaughtering chickens for every member of one’s household. It is customary to use a rooster (male chicken) for every male member of one’s household and a hen (female chicken) for every female member of one’s household. While circling the chicken around the head of the one being atoned for, one recites: “This is your substitute, replacement, atonement etc.” while circling the chicken counter-clockwise as is printed in the Machzorim. When circling one’s own head with a chicken, one should recite: “This is my substitute etc.” It is customary to do this during the Ten Days of Repentance, i.e. during this period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The Opinion of the Rashba and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch
The fact that this custom is observed throughout the entire Jewish nation shows that this custom was established long ago by the luminaries of Israel. Nevertheless, the Rashba writes in one of his responses (Chapter 395): “Regarding the Kaparot custom which is performed on Erev Yom Kippur, I have found this to be the widespread custom in our city along with other things which seem to me are pagan customs; I have distanced this custom very much and I have ordered that it be abolished. Although I have heard that Rav Hai Gaon was asked about this [custom] and he replied that this was indeed the custom, I have nevertheless discontinued its practice.” Similarly, Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch writes that this custom should be discontinued as per the Rashba’s opinion. The Peri Chadash and other Poskim rule likewise.
The Opinion of Maran zt”l
Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that since this has become the prevalent custom among Ashkenazi as well as Sephardic communities in addition to the fact that the Geonim and many other great Poskim uphold this custom, this custom may continue being observed. This is especially true when the Kaparot or their value (meaning the monetary value of one chicken per person) are being donated to the needy, for in this case it would seem that even the Rashba would agree that it is permissible since there is an reason for doing so according to the simple understanding of this matter.
All this applies only to the fact that this custom resembles pagan rituals, in which case we say that one may be lenient and keep this custom in place. However, we must raise another issue, regarding the fact that in many places, Kaparot are performed as a large-scale operation; when the slaughterers stand for hours on end slaughtering, their hands may become weak and the slaughtering may not necessarily be performed as prescribed by Halacha. Maran zt”l would raise this issue close to sixty years ago and would say that according to Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch, this is a pagan ritual, and when done in this way, it most certainly is, as many evils result from this. Thus, one should take care that the slaughtering of the chickens should be done in accordance with Halacha by an expert and G-d-fearing slaughterer.
Indeed, even when Maran zt”l served as the head of all Batei Din in Egypt, he would make sure to go to where the Kaparot were being held as well as to the place where a similar custom was observed in Egypt on the Shavuot holiday using geese. Maran would walk around among the slaughterers and check their knives and watch them carefully so that they would be careful with their work and not, G-d-forbid, feed non-kosher to fellow Jews. There were several times where he encountered actual danger to his life because of his multiple comments and criticism of slaughterers and butchers in the city; indeed, there were three attempts made on Maran zt”l’s life and he was saved in a miraculous manner each time.
Nevertheless, one may fulfill the custom of Kaparot by circling money around the head of the one being atoned for and reciting, “This money is your substitute etc. this money shall be given to charity and you shall be bestowed with a good life and peace.”
When Maran’s wife, Rabbanit Margalit, was still alive, she would purchase some chicks several months before Rosh Hashanah and she would raise them after which Maran zt”l would use them for Kaparot. Nevertheless, after he passing, Maran zt”l reverted to the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and would use money for Kaparot instead of chickens. This was his custom for several years. It seems that his main concern at the time were Kashrut concerns which could arise while the chickens are being slaughtered in the public Kaparot setting.
Nevertheless, during the last years of his life when Maran ascertained that he could obtain chickens to be slaughtered according to the highest standards of Halacha (through slaughterers of his Kashrut organization, Badatz Bet Yosef), Maran resumed performing Kaparot using chickens because the Mekubalim speak very highly about performing Kaparot specifically with chickens, for this provides an atonement for a person is called “man,” just as a rooster is called “man.” Similarly, the saintly Ari z”l speaks very highly about performing Kaparot specifically using chickens as well. Indeed, Maran zt”l had instructed us that it is preferable to perform Kaparot using chickens. Thus, if one has the opportunity to observe this custom using chickens such that the chickens or their monetary value will then be given to the needy, this is certainly the optimal approach.
We need not mention the great sin of causing pain to animals, as some are of the opinion in the Gemara (Baba Metzia 32a, Shabbat 154a, and see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat Chapter 272) that “causing pain to animals is a Torah prohibition.” This is a severe sin which also causes one to bring Heavenly prosecution upon himself. Thus, one must be extremely careful to treat the chickens properly so that no unnecessary pain or damage befalls them. Thus, one should only perform the custom in this way when it takes place under proper halachic supervision so that the ritual slaughter is also performed in accordance with Halacha and that the same chicken is not used for several people like some swindlers do. If it is not possible to perform this custom in the correct fashion, there is no doubt that one should use money instead of chickens. May the benevolent Hashem forgive us; whether one does a little more or a little less, it is the same, as long as one does so for the sake of Heaven.