Next to Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market, hundreds of chickens await their role in a ritual that is as passionately opposed as it is embraced on the eve of the Yom Kippur Day of Atonement.

A chicken waits its turn.

Kapparot, which is from the same Hebrew root as Yom Kippur and literally means ‘atonements,’ is a custom which aims to awaken the drive toward repentance while engaging in charity on the eve of Judaism’s central day of prayer.

The practice of kapparot using live fowl entails the following: A male or female chicken is taken in hand, corresponding to the gender of the taker or family members on whose behalf they are performing the ritual. Psalm 107:17-20 and Job 33:23-24 are recited and the live bird is swung around the person’s head three times. While swinging, the person recites the following three times: “This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This cock (or hen) shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.”

“As the bird is slaughtered, the person thinks about how he himself deserves what is being done to the bird, and through this is inspired to repent, draw closer to the G-d, and remove the decree from upon his head,” explains Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of the Har Bracha Yeshiva.

Immediately following
Immediately following shekhita

The chickens, or the money used to purchase them, are then donated to the poor, to provide them with food before and after the Yom Kippur fast.

The feathers are removed.

The practice was vehemently opposed by various rabbis throughout Jewish history. The Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 1235-1310) relates that he found the custom to resemble the forbidden rites of the Amorites, proscribed by the Torah. “I distanced myself from this custom greatly and instructed that it be nullified, and with grace from Heaven my words were heard and the practice no longer remains in our city,” he wrote.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, in the Shulchan Aruch, his major work on Jewish law, wrote that the custom should not be performed and warned that it had parallels to polytheistic rites. Rabbi Moses Isserles, the Ramah, author of a major commentary on Karo’s work, disagrees, saying the practice is an ancient custom and should not be changed. Kabbalists such as Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Tzfat were said to have embraced the custom and attached deep mystical significance to it. Other Kabbalists, such as the Ramban (Nachmanides), were opposed to the ritual as well.

Most of the critics, and many of the ritual’s supporters as well, worried that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual, thinking it involved a transfer of a person's sins to a bird to then be eradicated. The Mishna Berura reminds those who perform it to remember that it is no substitute for true repentance.

Some Jews oppose the use of chickens on the grounds of the Biblical ban on tza'ar ba'alei chayim, causing pain to animals, but it is far from certain that the waved chickens are caused any more distress in the ritual than they would be prior to any slaughter.

Anti-kapparot demonstrators opposite the Jerusalem shuk. Sign reads "Kapparot with money and not with death." (Photo: Daniel Sieradski)

Those uneasy with the use of live fowl perform the ritual with money instead, giving the monetary equivalent of a slaughtered chicken (15 shekels, $3.50) to charity on behalf of every family member. Communities that historically did not have chickens would use geese, fish or plants – but not doves or any other animals that were offered in the Holy Temple, so as not to resemble Temple sacrifices.

Many opt to perform the custom using money instead of live fowl.

(Photos: Ezra HaLevi)

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