Kapparot and Yom Kippur

    Issue Number 25, September 1999          
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  Kapparot and Yom Kippur, kaporis, kapporet, kapara   Kapparot
Yom Kippur

Dovid Greenzwieg


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Kapporot or Kappores

One of the more interesting customs of the High Holidays, is a practice called "Kapparot" or in the Yiddish "Kaporis". The meaning of the word is atonement. This refers to the custom of taking a chicken or rooster on the day before Yom Kippur and swinging it over your head. This seems to be quite a strange tradition, however, the underlying meaning is very deep and powerful.

According to Jewish mysticism, the morning is the time of supernal kindness. The dark night, with its restrictions of movement due to the absence of the sun has passed. A new day is given to man as a present to be used to repair what requires repair and to do what he has been given as his task. This is the kindness of the Creator to man.

In Hebrew, the word for rooster is "gever" which is similar to "gevura", meaning constriction or restraint. Early in the morning it is the call of the rooster that serves as the alarm clock, rousing man from his peaceful sleep, bidding him to begin his day's work. The rooster is the symbol of severity, the opposite of kindness.

Early in the morning of the day preceding Yom Kippur, a white rooster is chosen, because white symbolizes the purity in service to God. This rooster now symbolizes man who has erred during the year. "If his sins be red as scarlet, they shall become white as snow." With somberness and sincerity the man swings the rooster over his head three times. He hold the rooster in his right hand, the hand which is the side of kindness. "This is in my place" he chants three times, as he recites his prayers. The rooster is to be slaughtered. He should have been slaughtered for his sins, but for the kindness of God, a rooster reminds him that he may be deserving death for his iniquities.

The rooster is taken to the ritual slaughterer, the "shochet". The shochet plucks several feathers from the neck of the rooster to make the slaughter easier and faster. He bends the roosters head up, and pulls the sharp knife across the neck. In a split second the rooster is no longer alive. His body is hung upside down to allow the blood to drip out of the incision.

The man looks at this rooster. Only because of the kindness of God, am I not punished, he thinks, for I, and not the rooster, am guilty of sin. The man does not eat from the rooster, instead, the rooster is given to charity. A kindness from God, spares the man, in return, the man gives the rooster to charity, that poor people who must fast on Yom Kippur may have food. The rooster does not bring atonement to man, but it arouses man to return with a true heart to God.

The intestines too, are not thrown out to the garbage. They are given to the birds that they too, may eat. A kindness on this day is shown even to the ravens.

Women participate in this tradition also. Instead of taking a rooster, however, they use a hen. A pregnant woman takes both a rooster and a hen. Today many people do not wait until the day before Yom Kippur, but do "kaporet" on one of the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Also, many people can not obtain a rooster or a hen. A fish may be used. The custom which has become widespread is to take money, wrap it up in a handkerchief and swing it around the head in place of the fowl. "This is in place of the fowl ". The money is then removed from the handkerchief and given to charity.

The merit of giving to charity is added to the man's merits, helping him achieve a better judgement on Yom Kippur.


Some question the validity of such acts. Barbaric, beastly, yet, with all its external perceptions, the heart of the Jew is softened. He now approaches the holy day of judgement, with an extra merit and perhaps even more importantly, a contrite heart.

Kapparot and Yom Kippur, kaporis, kapporet, kapara
A Crowd Gathers for Kapporet

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