Chicken-swinging: Good for the soul, bad for fowl

new york | 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.

The 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 participants 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 been first observed by Babylonian Jews in the third century. It was referred to in ninth-century writings and was widespread by the 10th century. Based on the idea of substituting one living being for another, kapparot 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 support 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 saying: ‘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.