SCOTT SIMON, host:
All this week, many Orthodox Jews have been performing the ancient ritual of Kapparot. The custom involves waving or swinging a live chicken above your head three times. It's been getting more popular in recent years but it's also divided the Orthodox Jewish community.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
(Soundbite of a chicken)
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rabbi Shea Hecht plucks a chicken off a truck parked behind a synagogue in Queens, New York, and demonstrates how to swing a chicken.
Rabbi SHEA HECHT: You just take it by the wing, put one wing over the other wing. And it's very relaxed. And then you just swing it very softly over your head like this. (Foreign language spoken)
HAGERTY: The rabbi prays that his sins will be transferred to the bird and he will escape the divine punishment that he deserves. The prayer is more than a thousand years old, and countless Orthodox Jews will recite it in the days before Yom Kippur on Sunday, the Jewish day of atonement.
Hecht says waving the chicken is not the point of this ritual.
Rabbi HECHT: The main part of the service is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken be slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, Oops, you know what? That could have been me.
(Soundbite of traffic)
HAGERTY: David Rosenfeld has a different message.
Mr. DAVID ROSENFELD: (Unintelligible) please use money not chickens.
HAGERTY: On this night, he and his friend Sam Schloss have set up a table next to a kosher bakery in Brooklyn. They have pamphlets and a cage of fake chickens, which causes some confusion.
Unidentified Woman: How much for chickens this year?
Mr. ROSENFELD: No. No. we want people to use money. We think it's very bad, very cruel to the chickens.
Unidentified Woman: Yes.
Mr. ROSENFELD: So we're trying to get people to not buy the chickens at all but just use money instead.
HAGERTY: Waving money around her head, Rosenfeld tells her, is just as religiously acceptable as waving a live bird.
It's not easy undoing a millennium of tradition, one chicken at a time. And it's lonely. As an Orthodox Jew, Rosenfeld knows he's at odds with his friends at synagogue.
Mr. ROSENFELD: It is a kind of double world for me because I love all these people that I'm with and I'm part of their world. I wear a yarmulke. I'm with them. You know, they're wonderful people, but I disagree with them on this point.
HAGERTY: And so each year he and Schloss — who is also Orthodox — search out Kapparot sites in Brooklyn.
Mr. SAM SCHLOSS: Yup, that's a sign right there. And there's going to be another one coming up, I think. I see it.
HAGERTY: Schloss points to a small blue and white poster with a chicken on it. For years he's been covering up these posters with his own, showing filthy and starving chickens in crates. One year, he found a garage full of chickens that had been abandoned after Yom Kippur.
Mr. SCHLOSS: They were emaciated chickens mixed with dead chickens. There was no food, there was no water. It was hot during the day, cold at night. There was rain. It was just a torturous thing for these animals to go through.
HAGERTY: The police arrested the organizer for animal cruelty. The city has fined others for leaving public places looking like a slaughterhouse, with blood and dead chickens all over the site. Finally, we find a small operation in Borough Park.
There are maybe 100 chickens. The man running the site eases a bird from its crate and hands it to a customer. She waves it three times over her head. The operator says he trucks in these chickens for the week and makes a small profit. He's clearly nervous. He won't give his name and he complains the sacred ritual has been unfairly tainted by a few rotten apples.
Unidentified Man: It's very easy for people to condemn the Jewish people, but you can stand here now for the next few hours and you watch how I hold the chicken. I am careful, I hold the chicken with two wings.
HAGERTY: He says if you grab it by one wing, the wing could break. That would cause the chicken pain and it would no longer be kosher. He shows me a bag of bread soaked in water. He gives that to the chickens so they don't get hungry or thirsty.
Mr. SCHLOSS: This is probably the best one that I've seen.
HAGERTY: Chicken advocate Sam Schloss is pleasantly surprised.
Mr. SCHLOSS: I mean, by no means, it's not the best thing for the chickens, and you can hear that in their voices, but it's as best as I think we're going to get.
HAGERTY: Schloss hopes his efforts and the bad publicity have forced changes like these, but he doubts the practice will ever be outlawed, and that's just as it should be, says Rabbi Shea Hecht.
Rabbi HECHT: What I've told my local police department and my local government: I'm an American. We have freedom of religion.
HAGERTY: That may be why anti-cruelty groups like the ASPCA declined to talk for this story. Instead, it issued a statement saying that it opposes any practice in which animals are made to suffer in the name of religion or tradition.
But for many Orthodox Jews, the problem with Kapparot is not about animal rights or even the law. It's about religious interpretation, and it's dividing Orthodox rabbis themselves. Rabbi Shlomo Segal of Brooklyn says he values Jewish tradition enormously, except when it collides with the fundamental principles of the Torah.
Rabbi SHLOMO SEGAL: The Torah prohibits Jews from causing any unnecessary pain to living creatures, even psychological pain.
HAGERTY: Segal is among the Orthodox rabbis urging believers to use money instead of live animals. But that makes for thin spiritual experience, counters Rabbi Hecht. He says there's something visceral and sacred about holding a live animal in your hands just before it dies for your sins.
Rabbi HECHT: I know, and I can speak for myself and my family members and thousands of people within my community, who say that this Kapparot service has moved them and has given them a realization that, hey, I have to make changes. I have to improve myself.
HAGERTY: And Rabbi Hecht is ready to help them. The sidewalk in front of his yeshiva will be packed with believers. It will be loud, it will be bloody, and 4,000 chickens will pay the price of atonement. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.