Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may have seen news stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.
In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing or wave it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. This practice was first reported roughly a thousand years ago: it is neither a Biblical nor a rabbinic practice, and it is certainly not a mitzvah in and of itself.
Rabbis have spoken out against kapparot for centuries. Only teshuvah atones for sins. No amount of chicken-waving will do a thing to remove sins. The rabbis also expressed concern that it might be confused with the sacrifices of idolaters or with the Biblical practice of animal sacrifice. Also, while ideally the chickens are given to the poor for food, in actual practice many of them are simply thrown out: that is both wasteful and a cruel slaughter for nothing. As distinguished an authority as Rabbi Josef Caro warned against the practice of kapparot.
There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it isn’t teshuvah. Giving to the poor is a mitzvah, but it is not a substitute for the sincere repentance for our sins. God cannot be bought off. Instead, we should make teshuvah for our sins, and give tzedakah to agencies that serve the poor.
Don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this to chickens, as some antisemites have written and said. The vast majority of Jews don’t do anything of the sort.
Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic, because it is real. Unlike kapparot, teshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.
May your remaining Days of Awe in 5776 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!
Image: Gady Munz PikiWiki Israel Project