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The Smell of Chickens

September 17, 2010 – 11:32 am178 Comments

Image source: HolyHeretics.blogspot.com

By David Werdiger

To paraphrase Kilgore in the epic war film Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of chickens in the morning”. I don’t. I actually can’t stand the smell. It’s 5am, and I have just performed the pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kaporas. Not the sanitized version with a bag of coins that go to charity. Rather, a dawn trip in suburban Melbourne, with a buzz of people, chickens, and unpleasantness almost anywhere you step foot.

Kaporas done this way is probably one of my favourite Jewish rituals.

It is dark and cold. The smell is pervasive. The chickens are clucking loudly. Fortunately, most people know how to hold them correctly. Families are clustered together, often with the father doing the honours on behalf of his children who wouldn’t dare touch a live chicken. My son, now taller than me, insists that I hold the chicken for him. Who’s the real chicken? But then I make him hold it while I do kaporas for myself.

Then comes the most intense part: We stand in line, chickens in hand, waiting for them to be slaughtered. We are inside a huge poultry factory, the start of the journey that results in “chicken tonight” at someone’s dinner table. My turn comes, and I hand the chicken to the shochet. He takes it, then quickly and deftly, as he has done many thousands of times, slices it through the neck, and spills some of its blood on the ground, before handing it off to an assistant, who places it into the huge machinery that will “process” it.

For just a few seconds, I am directly faced with death. A death that, minutes before, I declared should happen to this chicken instead of to me. Thoughts rush through my head about what I have done in the past year that may be deserving of such a fate. The experience ignites the spark of teshuvah, of repentance.

As the dead chickens move past in a huge conveyer machine thing, I am reminded of the liturgy of Unesaneh Tokef, where the process of our annual judgment is compared to a flock being counted off by their shepherd. Who will live, and who will die, decides God. The chickens all die; our prayer and hope is that we all live.

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