Kapparot is an ancient ritual, says Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah.
Indeed, the pre-Yom Kippur ceremony ““ during which participants swing a live chicken or a bundle of coins over their heads three times, symbolically transferring their sins to the chicken or the coins ““ dates back at least to the 9th century CE.
“It’s a ritual in which we say that in place of our being punished [for our sins], the chicken will go to slaughter and be used for tzedakah,” Goldin said, noting that there has always been some discomfort with this ceremony, even in rabbinic literature.
“As old as the ritual is, there has always been controversy over it,” he said. “That’s because it’s easily misunderstood. We don’t believe in intermediaries ““ in chickens dying for our sins. It’s our own responsibility. This is meant to be a ritual reminding us of our mortality, and like tashlich, which has also been controversial, symbolizing the throwing away of sin, but not in a literal way.”
After the ceremony, the chickens are slaughtered and donated to needy families.
Goldin said he performs kapparot by waving a bag of coins over his head.
“Today, many people do it with money,” he said. “They wave it and say the money will go to tzedakah. I do it at home with my family before yom tov and then put the money in a tzedakah box.”
Lori Frank, one of the founders of Teaneck’s Tomchei Shabbos ““ which provides Shabbat meals to needy Jewish families in Bergen County ““ has been doing kapparot all her life. Growing up in Newark, she accompanied her father and brother to the ceremony, then later to the shochet, where the chicken was ritually slaughtered.
According to Frank, Tomchei Shabbos has sponsored a kapparot ceremony every year. This year’s will take place on Sept. 23 in two locations, Teaneck and Englewood, although the precise venues have not yet been chosen.
“We have a volunteer who comes and brings many chickens,” she said, adding that her organization publicizes the ceremony through synagogues and schools. “It’s a good learning experience for children. They get to see a custom they learn about in school.”
The number of participants has increased each year, and the ceremony draws “hundreds of people.”
During the ritual, men stand in line and are handed male chickens, and women are given female chickens. Men and women both are handed laminated papers containing the appropriate prayers to recite as they swing the chickens over their heads three times.
Pregnant women traditionally are given three chickens: one for the woman herself and ““ because the fetus’s gender is unknown – both male and female chickens for the unborn child. Some parents swing a chicken on behalf of their entire families. In other families, each member does it individually.
Participants generally are charged $18, though the price may decrease for additional members of a family. All checks are made out to Tomchei Shabbos, which reimburses the volunteer who bought the chickens.
“Some people don’t swing the chickens,” Frank said, noting that they either ask someone to do it for them or simply give the money to charity.
“It’s a very traditional, old-time ritual,” she said, adding that Tomchei Shabbos traditionally holds the ceremony in a parking lot.
When the process is over, the man who had brought the chickens ““ a volunteer who happens to be a shochet ““ takes them to be ritually slaughtered. The kashered chickens then are distributed to the needy families served by Tomchei Shabbos.
“The whole thing is for tzedakah,” Frank said, calling the ceremony “unbelievable to see. Families come year after year, even in the rain. There are always new faces. It’s a big teaching experience. It’s a tradition I’ve done my whole life and my children all do it,” she said.
Rabbi David Fine, religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, pointed out that in symbolically transferring our sins to another entity, kapparot “is symbolic of God’s alleviating our sins through divine mercy.”
“It’s a very physical re-creation of the ancient ritual of the goat designated for Azalel being sent out into the wilderness,” he said. “The closest thing to that we do today is tashlich, throwing bread into the water.”
Still, he said, rabbis have been uncomfortable with tashlich as well, since it implies a magical transferral of sin. But tashlich, at least, affords an opportunity to spend time outside in nature and is fun for children, he added, “unlike abuse of birds. I share the traditional discomfort of rabbis with the magical alleviation of sins.”
Kapparot “doesn’t have any redeeming factors outside of the purely physical one of transference,” he said. “The imagery doesn’t speak to our community nor represent the way rabbinic Judaism understands the alleviation of sin through prayer, repentance, and good deeds.”
Rabbi Mordechai Shain, co-director of Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly, says his group has ordered 200 chickens this year for the ceremony that will take place in the parking lot of his Chabad house on Sept. 23 from 12 noon to 3 p.m.
“Last year we ordered 150 and it wasn’t enough,” he said, noting that attendance at the ceremony has increased each year.
“We ordered 100 male chickens and 100 female chickens,” he explained, adding that the chickens are provided by the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, located on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
Shain said that people swing the chickens over their heads three times, each time saying, “This is an exchange. This chicken will be my atonement.” People who would prefer not to swing the chickens can simply donate the monetary value of the bird.
In addition, some people come with bags of coins to swing over their heads. In that case, they change the wording of the prayer to say that they’re going to give the coins as tzedakah.
“It’s very meaningful,” he said. “The people get very inspired and you can see that they are serious. They understand that the chicken does not take away your sin, that you still have to repent. But you’re going through a process where you think you should be that chicken because of how you behaved. It reminds you of God’s mercy.”
After the ceremony, the chickens are sent back to the NCFJE, which arranges for them to be ritually slaughtered and donated to needy families.
“This tradition is in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law,” Shain said. “Jews have practiced this tradition for hundreds of years.”