The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition

by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.


Every year, before Yom Kippur, some Jews perform the ceremony of kapparot. The following, in question and answer form, is a discussion of the ritual and its relation to the treatment of animals.

What is kapparot?

Kapparot is a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. It is practiced by some Jews shortly before Yom Kippur. First, selections from Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited; then a rooster (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is held above the person's head and swung in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: "This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace." The hope is that the fowl, which is then donated to the poor for food, will take on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.

What is the history of this rite?

Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or in the Talmud. The custom is first discussed by Jewish scholars in the ninth century. They explain that since the Hebrew word gever means both "man" and "rooster", punishment of the bird can be substituted for that of a person.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica (Volume 10, pages 756-757), several Jewish sages strongly opposed kapparot. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet , one of the foremost Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen superstition. This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro, who called it "a foolish custom" that Jews should avoid. They felt that it was a pagan custom that mistakenly made its way into Jewish practice, perhaps because when Jews lived among pagans this rite seemed like a korban (sacrifice) to some extent

However, the Kabbalists (led by mystics such as Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) perceived in this custom mystical significance which strongly appealed to many people. This greatly enhanced the popularity of the kapparot ritual down to the present day.

Why did some Jewish sages oppose kapparot ?

Some Jewish leaders felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person's sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings. For, if the ritual could remove a person's sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?

The Mishneh Brurah, an eminent contemporary commentary on Rabbi Joseph Caro's classical codification of Jewish law, explains the significance of the ritual. Judaism stresses that a person can't obtain purity from sin, and thus obtain higher levels of perfection, without repenting. Through God's mercy, we are given the Divine gift of repentance, so that we might abandon our corrupt ways, thereby being spared from the death that we deserve for our violation of the Divine law. By substituting the death of a fowl, one will (hopefully) appreciate G-d's mercy and be stirred to repentance. By no means, however, does the ritual and the slaughter of the bird eradicate one's misdeeds, even though the bird is donated to the poor.

What are more recent objections to this ceremony?

The birds may suffer while they are handled. In some places in Israel and the United States, chickens are sold on street corners for this ceremony, and not every merchant takes proper care of his chickens during this period. The birds are frequently cooped up in baskets, and some merchants neglect to give them sufficient food or water.

Hence, while the Jewish tradition is filled with concepts, prayers, and actions during the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur period that relate to the importance of rachamim (compassion and sensitivity), the message of kapparot to those who take part and those who view it (including children) may be just the opposite in some cases, a lesson of insensitivity to the feelings of other living creatures.

How should Jews who are concerned about the treatment of animals respond to this issue?

Jews who are concerned about the treatment of animals should try to engage courteously and respectfully with Jews who perform kapparot. It should be recognized that they are performing what they regard as an important religious act. Some of the points that can be brought up include:

1. There is a substitute ceremony that is widely practiced by many Torah-observant Jews. Money, perhaps equal to the monetary value of the fowl, is substituted for the rooster or hen. The money is put into a handkerchief which the person swings three times around his or her head while reciting a modified saying :"This money shall go to charity, and I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace." Hence, the heightened sense of repentance can be kept, and perhaps even enhanced, since no bird has to lose its life or suffer for our sake. This substitution, which maintains the tradition of giving charity (the substituted money) to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in many prayer books, including the highly regarded Artscroll Siddur.

2. We should attempt to increase the knowledge of Jews with regard to Judaism's beautiful and powerful teachings with regard to showing compassion to animals. The following are a few examples:

Moshe Rabbenu, (our great teacher, Moses) and King David were considered worthy to be leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of animals, when they were shepherds. Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the ten camels of Abraham's servant.

Many Torah laws involve proper treatment of animals. One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together. Animals, as well as people, are allowed to rest on the Sabbath day. The importance of this concept is indicated by the fact that it is part of the Ten Commandments and by its recitation every Sabbath morning by many Jews, as part of the kiddush ceremony.

The psalmist indicates G-d's concern for animals, for "His compassion is over all of His creatures" (Psalms 145:9). And there is a mitzvah-precept in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: "And you shall walk in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: "The righteous person considers the soul (life) of his or her animal."

In summary, the Torah prohibits Jews from causing tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, any unnecessary pain to living creatures, even psychological pain. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator, eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals:

Here you are faced with God's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours. (Horeb, Chapter 60, #416) In the same section, Rabbi Hirsch indicates further how great our concern for animals must be:

There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beating as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul, which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes . . .

3. In view of the above, it can be argued that one way that Jews can accomplish repentance and other goals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is by moving away from the unnecessary exploitation of animals. For many of the values of this holiday period are more consistent with practicing mercy toward all of G-d's creatures:

(a) Prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for God`s compassion during the coming year are most consistent with acts of kindness to both other people and animals. The following story reinforces this idea:

Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the most distinguished Orthodox Rabbis of the nineteenth century, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve to chant the sacred Kol Nidre Prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that their saintly rabbi would be late or absent on this very holy day. They sent out a search party to look for him. After much time, their rabbi was found in the barn of a Christian neighbor. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of his neighbor's calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing that the animal was in distress, he freed it and led it home through many fields and over many hills. His act of mercy represented the rabbi's prayers on that Yom Kippur evening.

(b) Consistent with Rosh Hashanah as a time when Jews are to "awaken from slumber" and mend our ways, using money for the kapparot ritual shows that we are putting Torah teachings about compassion into practice.

(c) Acts of kindness and charity are consistent with God`s "delighting in life" on Rosh Hashanah, since, unlike the kapparot ceremony, it doesn`t involve the possible cruel treatment and death of animals.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should remind others that kapparot is not biblically or talmudically ordained (as is tsa'ar ba'alei chayim), that the custom arose at a later period in Jewish history, that it has been condemned by many Jewish sages, and that the important goal of increasing our sensitivity to the importance of repentance and charity can be accomplished as well, and perhaps better, by substituting money for a bird.


Source: The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights