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A boy swings a chicken
over the head of a man
performing kapparot in the
Jerusalem neighborhood of
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kapparot n. Hebrew (kah-pah-ROT)
Literally, `atonement." The practice of
symbolically transferring one's sins to.
another object, particularly a chicken,
before Yom Kippur
he days leading up to Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement,
are filled with ceremonies and
traditions to cleanse the soul — from
the familiar penitent repetitions of the
Al Chet prayer to tossing breadcrumbs
into a stream for tashlich.
But perhaps none is as mysterious
as the custom of kapparot. The ritual
of kapparot is still practiced by some
Jews, usually on the day preceding Yom
Kippur. A rooster is selected for the
men and a hen for the women. The bird
is taken in the right hand and circled
three times over the heads of the par-
ticipants while these verses are recited:
"This is my substitute, this is my
exchange. This is my atonement. This
fowl will go to death, and I will enter
upon a good and long life." A kosher
butcher then slaughters the chicken and
the meat is given to the poor.
The ritual is thought to have first
been observed by Babylonian Jews in
the third century. It was referred to in
ninth-century writings and was wide-
spread by the 10th century.
Based on the idea of substituting
one living being for another, kapparah
echoes the ancient Temple practice in
which the sins of the Israelites were
transferred to a goat that was sent to
wander in the wilderness or pushed off
a cliff — the original "scapegoat:'
Both kapparot and kippur come from
the Hebrew root — kappar — which
means to forgive, atone and appease.
Through the centuries, some Jewish
sages labeled kapparot a heathen
superstition and a foolish custom. The
Shulchan Aruch, a compilation of
Jewish law, mentions the custom but
disapproves of it. But with the sup-
port of a powerful Polish rabbi, Moses
Isserles, in the 16th century, German
and Polish Jews continued to practice it.
In a Sephardi version of kapparot,
Egyptian children plant seeds early
in the month before Yom Kippur and
then twirl the young sprouts over their
heads. This method dates back to at
least the times of the commentator
Rashi, who wrote, "and on the eve of
Rosh Hashanah each and every one"
took the sprouted beans "and circled
it around his head seven times say-
ing: 'This in lieu of this; this is my
exchange; this is my substitute:"
In another, more common version of
kapparot practiced today, Jews swing
money placed in a handkerchief over
their heads and recite, "This coin shall
go to charity but I shall find a long and
pleasant life of peace."
Using plants or coins addresses
the more contemporary objections to
kapparot, which point to the possible
suffering of the chickens.
Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-
authors of The JPS Dictionary of Jewish
Words (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).