Thoughts to Ponder, Number 23
16 Kislev, 5760; 25 November, 1999


Mitzvoth, Minhagim and Their Dangers

Last week we mentioned the danger to use chumroth (stringencies) to hide shortcomings and other discrepancies. In a different sense we are also confronted with similar problems when we consider how some people observe some well-established minhagim (customs) or even mitzvoth.

Every morning a Jewish male is asked to cover himself with a talith with tzitzith, a "prayer shawl" which has at its four corners long tzitzith (threads) in which certain religious symbols are tied. (This shawl should cover the entire upper body and not just be used as a shawl around one's neck.) The correct way to don this talith is first to cover one's head with it, while keeping the face uncovered. Next, one takes the corners of the garment and throws them over the left shoulder. A common practice is to throw these corners with some force so as to make sure that they will indeed get over the shoulder. Obviously, this should be done with care, making sure the person standing behind does not get the tzitzith into his face or eyes. This, however, happens frequently in synagogues. At such a moment a religious tragedy takes place of which many worshipers do not seem to be aware. While trying to fulfill a mitzvah they are, in fact, transgressing the law of loving and being concerned about the welfare of one's neighbor.

On other occasions we find worshippers running to kiss the Scroll of the Torah when it is removed from the Hechal (Aron HaKodesh-synagogue ark). In order to get there as fast as possible, or to make sure they will get close enough to be able to kiss it, they often push people aside or step on their feet. It would be better to stay where they are.

The Talmud calls such an act a "mitzvah haba be'avera" fulfilling a commandment while doing a transgression. In such a case the mitzvah has turned into a most irreligious act and has lost all meaning.

One of the minhagim observed by the Ashkenazi community before Yom Kippur is the custom to "shlog kappores" This is a custom mentioned by Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) one of the most important commentators on the Shulchan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Josef Karo. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Haim 7) (Rema is seen as the main and decisive authority for the Ashkenazi community.) The minhag of "kappores shloggen" is to take a live chicken and move it above one's head as a kind of symbolic atonement for one's sins throughout the previous year. (It is reminiscent of the atonement-sacrifices in the Temple, although definitely not a replacement of these sacrifices). The obvious intent of the Codex is to do this very carefully so that the chicken does not get hurt or scared. There is, after all, a law which states that it is absolutely forbidden to cause any unnecessary pain to an animal or any other creature. This prohibition is called: tza'ar ba'ale chaim, the prohibition to cause pain to animals or other living creatures.

Not uncommon is the sight of people, eager to fulfill this custom, taking the chicken and mercilessly waving it around, scaring the chicken and often hurting it. Sometimes the chickens are brought in small plastic boxes without any space or enough food or water. One wonders how these people enter Yom Kippur. They seem to convince themselves that this mitzvah will give them even more merit in front of the Almighty. We wonder if this does not invoke rather a different response from the Heavenly Court.

Perhaps it is time that kosher consumers should no longer just look for "glatt kosher" but also for "mercy glatt." Too many animals are raised under conditions that are inhumane. While it will be difficult to change these conditions and meat may become more expensive, rabbinical authorities should consider this possibility.

When asked if he was a vegetarian for health reasons, Isaac Bashevis Singer replied, "Yes, for the chicken's health."

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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