Ritual makes chickens pay the price for human sins

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. — Mendy Carlebach lifted a chicken out of a little cage and held him by the wings.

It was male, a rooster. That was important. The big white bird let out a few sharp squawks — eee-aw, eee-aw — and then calmed down.

On this sunny afternoon, a Rutgers University student stood in a sukkah in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish Student Center. He read the prayer for the kapparot ritual and ended it in Hebrew with:

"This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to its death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."

He repeated the last lines three times. As they were said, Carlebach turned the chicken around the student's head three times per reading for a total of nine rotations. The previously noisy bird was silent.

The ritual was complete. And Carlebach put the rooster in a box with other "used" birds.

"You don't swing it," said Chabad Rabbi Baruch Goodman, who along with Carlebach and 72 chickens were helping men, women and children observe the ritual. "That's a misconception. We gently hold it over the head three times in a circular motion. We love animals.

"You hold the chicken from behind the wings, just like the farmer. And of course it makes noise."

The chickens came from Vineland and would end up on tables in Brooklyn for the meal before the Yom Kippur fast.

"One of the biggest forms of tzedakah is to give food," Goodman explained. "So we purchase a chicken. We are asking God to forgive us on the merit of giving food to the poor."

Kapparot, or kaporos, means atonement. The last lines ask that the chicken be used as a scapegoat for the participant's sins and that it be killed instead.

That's why each chicken can be used for only one person. The men use roosters. The women use hens.

And if a woman is pregnant, she needs a hen for herself and a hen and a rooster for her unborn child.

"That way she's covered if it's a boy or if it's a girl," Goodman said.

"We are saying, 'This is my offering' and each person gets their own." Carlebach gave Yossi Krasnjanski two chickens — one for his wife, Gila, and one for his 2-year-old son, Mendel. Yosef Goodman, the 14-year-old son of the rabbi, held a third chicken for Krasnjanski's 6-month-old son, Motti.

The wife read the prayer, uncomfortably eyeing the sharp clawed chickens at the same time. Chicken manure spotted the ground around the sukkah. When the chicken was waved above her, she ducked her head hoping to miss the claws and anything else the chicken would have thrown her way. Scooting around the sukkah was another chicken — wearing a disposable diaper.

"That's no special custom," Carlebach said. "It's something I picked up in [Brooklyn's] Boro Park. It helped persuade a woman to do it [kapparot] since we could make sure the chicken didn't do it on her."

On the other side of the sukkah, 21-year-old Deena Verter of Highland Park held a hen high in one hand and a prayerbook in the other as she quietly performed the ritual herself.

"Why do I do it? That's the tradition, and it's the way I've been brought up," said the Douglass College senior. "It means that my sins are transferred to the chicken and the chicken is going to be slaughtered."

But why perform kapparot in a sukkah?

"We needed an enclosed area," Baruch Goodman said simply. "Otherwise the chickens would be running all over the parking lot."