Kaparot, Swinging a Chicken Over One’s Head

A Yom Kippur folk custom


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Among the more well-known but most controversial High Holiday customs is Kaparot, which usually involves swinging a chicken over one’s head as a form of penance. Although, as this article shows, the custom was opposed by many Jewish sages, it is still practiced today in many traditionalist communities. This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Over the centuries, many customs have sprung up to enhance the way in which we enter Yom Kippur, the final day of this season. Some of these customs, such as flogging oneself to atone for sin, happily have been forgotten. Others, such as immersion in a mikvah to indicate a state of purity, are still practiced by some. The most well‑known and yet most controversial of these customs is the practice of Kaparot, which literally means “atonements,” but in the sense of “ransom.”

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Traditionally, a rooster is swung around one’s head and is then slaughtered while being declared a “substitute” for the individual, as an atonement for his or her sins. Like the Tashlikh ceremony of Rosh Hashanah, Kaparot is a folk ceremony that may have had superstitious, pagan origins. Rabbinic opposition to Kaparot has been strong and remains so today.

Kaparot begins with the recitation of biblical verses, starting with the Book of Psalms:

Some lived in deepest darkness, bound in cruel irons … (Ps. 107:10).

He brought them out of deepest darkness, broke their bonds asunder … (107:14).

There were fools who suffered for their sinful way, and for their iniquities. All food was loathsome to them: They reached the gates of death. In their adversity they cried to the Lord and He saved them from their troubles. He gave an order and healed them; He delivered them from the pits. Let them praise the Lord for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind (107:17‑21).

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.

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