JERUSALEM - For generations, ultra-Orthodox Jews have marked Yom Kippur by swinging live chickens over their heads while saying a blessing, then slaughtering the birds as a symbolic way to rid their souls of sins.
Now some rabbis are decrying the practice as animal abuse.
These rabbis say the ritual, along with the cruel conditions the chickens are kept in, violate Jewish law, which has strict rules on the care and slaughter of animals.
Rabbi Meir Hirsch began having second thoughts about the practice, known as kaparot, or atonement in Hebrew, when he noticed chickens squawking in distress in plastic cages near his house.
Butchers “bring the chickens from the farm at night, and they spend all day in the sun without food or drink,’’ said Hirsch, a member of the Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox sect in Jerusalem. “You cannot perform a commandment by committing a sin.’’
The tradition dates back at least 800 years and calls for believers to wave a live chicken three times over their heads ahead of the arrival of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, which begins at sundown tonight. After slaughter, religious Jews often donate the meat to charity.
Jewish leaders across Israel and the United States have called for an end to the practice for years, but leaders of insular ultra-Orthodox communities have been resistant.
The controversy stretches back centuries. Rabbi Joseph Karo, one of the major codifiers of Jewish law, called it a “foolish custom’’ reminiscent of pagan practices. Since his 16th-century pronouncement, Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, origin have tended to perform kaparot without animals, sometimes swinging sacks of coins above their heads before donating the money to charity.
Those following Ashkenazi, or European, customs, have continued to use chickens.
Hirsch said he now waves a $10 bill above his head instead of a chicken. Calls for reform are spreading to other streams of Orthodoxy.