As we enter the new year, the first holiday after Rosh Hashanah is the most solemn and holiest day of the Jewish year.
Yom Kippur is the day our fate for the coming year is sealed by God. We spend the day in prayer, fasting as an atonement for our sins. But on erev Yom Kippur, many Jews have the custom to symbolically transfer their sins to a chicken. This ceremony, known as kapparot, has for centuries been the subject of much debate within the Jewish world. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this strange ritual.
Traditionally, erev Yom Kippur is dedicated to preparing for the upcoming holiday. We partake in a festive meal in honour of yom tov (as obviously we cannot eat on the holiday itself), and are specifically commanded to eat meat during this meal. The remainder of the day is spent reflecting on our deeds and misdeeds during the previous year, atoning for our past transgressions.
Kapparot literally means atonements. The kapparot ceremony is usually performed at daybreak on the ninth day of Tishrei, erev Yom Kippur. A live chicken is held above one’s head and spun in a circular motion three times. During each revolution, the following phrase is said: “This exchange, this substitute, this atonement; this hen shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
Following the ceremony, the chicken is taken to a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and its meat is given to the poor for their pre-Yom Kippur meal. This accomplishes the additional mitzvah of giving tzedakah to the needy at a most auspicious time.
The kapparot ceremony has been a part of Jewish practice for more than 1000 years. Kabbalists, most notably Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tzfat (known as the Arizal) and Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Krakow (known as the Rama) sanctioned the observance of the kapparot ritual and regarded it as proper. They wrote that the ceremony has much mystical significance and should be performed by all Jews on erev Yom Kippur.
Many poskim (halachic decisors), however, wrote that the ritual is idolatrous in nature (due to its similarities to Christian practices), and the custom should be abolished. The Rashba, a well-known 13th century commentator on the Talmud, was a vocal opponent of the custom. His opinions were shared by Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban. The Mechaber, who codified the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century, wrote in Orach Chaim 605 that kapparot is a foolish practice and should be discontinued.
Most Jewish communities today still perform the kapparot ceremony, albeit some employ several modifications. Due to hygiene and animal rights concerns, many perform the ritual using money as a substitute for the chicken.
The following text is used as a substitute when using money. “This exchange, this substitute, this atonement; this money shall go to charity, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” However, it’s still the practice of many Chassidic sects to perform the ritual with a chicken, often in violation of city by-laws.
Gmar Chatimah Tova!