A non-Jewish person I work with came in this week with a very harsh criticism of a Jewish practice that I found myself ill-equipped to handle or explain. She went on to describe something I had never heard of — the swinging of a chicken over your head and then killing it during the High Holidays like a sacrifice. It sounded bizarre and quite harsh. Does this exist? Do Jewish people do this? If so, why? What should I tell this person?
If nothing else your co-worker is timely. The name for what he describes is kapores or kaparot. It is traditionally practiced on the eve of Yom Kippur or, in West Wing lingo, “On the Day Before.” This custom is still embraced by a cadre of Jews, having been a part of the traditional rhythm of the High Holidays for close to a thousand years. Though in many Jewish circles it has fallen into disuse, in others it has been out right abhorred and rejected. It does reflect classic ideas of atonement that are part of our heritage and merits explanation and understanding.
The name is an indication of its meaning and connection to our holiest of days. Kaparot has the same root as kippur — both mean atonement. The word is also used in the Torah when describing the law of the giving of the half-shekel. Each person is expected to offer half of a shekel as a kofer, same root, meaning here as a “ransom” for their soul. The verse in Exodus commands that “they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when you count them; that there be no plague among them.” The half shekel is then used by the Temple for communal scarifies and is considered tzedakah.
Here is an austere association between the giving of tzedakah and the hope that it will ensure that nothing dreadful takes place; a panacea of sorts. This mandated offering of the half-shekel during the census will serve to guard against the arrogance that might ensue along with a counting of the nation. The half-shekel is a “kaparah” — it assures against the threat of evil and has the power to secure forgiveness and atonement.
These are powerful ideas that loom large in the collective Jewish conscious; a deep belief that doing good offsets possibilities of harm. In fact, a central refrain of the High Holiday liturgy proclaims, “U’teshuva u’tefila u’tzedaka ma’avirin et roa ha’gezeira” — “and repentance and prayer and tzedakah remove the evil decree.”
As if to say, “we will do our part, You do your part,” this has translated into much generosity and commitment to the notion that doing good combats the evil out there in the world and sometimes in ourselves. Harold Kushner explains the idea of a sacrificial sin-offering in his book, How Good Do We Have To Be?: “Its purpose was not to ‘balance the books’ with one good deed to offset every bad one, nor was it to bribe God to overlook their offense. Its purpose was to acquaint the donor with his or her better nature, to let him say to himself, ‘I would like to be perfect, but I know I am not perfect. Sometimes I am weak and thoughtless. But look: sometimes I can be strong and generous and self disciplined as well. I am not a bad person.’”
Our history and tradition certainly has its sacrifice detractors and certainly kaparot skeptics, to put it mildly. These practices lend themselves to disparagement and distrust in that they are opportunities for outward displays of what must necessarily be deep significant inward work. A sacrifice or a donation is a relatively easy step to take in order to achieve forgiveness. Though it should reflect sincerity and engagement with the holy, it might not.
The possible absence of such sentiment led prophets to cry out against sacrifices. Isaiah proclaims: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Says the Lord: ‘I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations…Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’” He is followed by Jeremiah, who also speaks out: “To what purpose is to Me the frankincense that comes from Sheba, and the sweet cane, from a far country? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing unto Me.”
Maimonides is well-known for his opinion that the very institution of sacrifices was a fall-back position, motivated more by what the ancient Israelites needed and less by what God would have wanted in His service. Others such as Nachmanides take issue with this approach and see much good in the institution of sacrifices.
Now, back to kaparot on erev Yom Kippur. This is how it worked in my home growing up: After spending the morning with my mother making kreplach and other foods for the feast before the fast, my father would announce that he was about to go to synagogue for the afternoon services which, though it was not yet Yom Kippur, was a special prayer service. The custom is to perform kaparot before this service so the tzedakah money that is collected could be distributed to the poor before the holiday. Yes, I said tzedakah money. There were no chickens in sight — at least no live ones. There were, to be sure, a few in the soup pot.
This is what kaparot looked like. We would sit down at the dining room table with some of our carefully guarded allowance money in hand and we would wave it over our heads three times, all the while looking in my mother’s special machzor, her holiday prayer book, and recite a short Hebrew declaration three times. The English version is, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This money will go to charity while I will enter and go to a good, long life, and to peace.”
I later learned that in other times and places real live chickens were used for this, held and swung overhead. Clearly, the slaughter of said chicken evokes more dramatic feelings of sacrifice and notions of “this could have been me!” than a handful of change while filling the belly of the poor in a more immediate way.
Lately, there have been claims that in places where actual chickens are being used that the chickens are being subjected to mistreatment and that the swinging itself is unkind. Hopefully the raising of these issues will affect change in the treatment of the birds being sacrificed.
For many those who clamor for the cessation of the use of actual chickens for philosophical reasons there are no answers. They suggest that the practice of kaparot, even with money, hearkens back to primitive notions of easy expiation for sin as opposed to the hard work of repentance. In the end, for those who are accustomed to the tradition, it will continue to be a part of their time-honored ritual. The erev Yom Kippur experience prepares us for the holiest of days when we recommit ourselves to lead lives of loftiness, meaning and mutual understanding; we might consider beginning early this year.