KAPPAROT (Heb. כַּפָּרוֹת, plural of the Heb. כַּפָּרָה, kapparah; "expiation"), custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. The custom is practiced in certain Orthodox circles on the day before the*Day of Atonement (in some congregations also on the day before *Rosh Ha-Shanah or on *Hoshana Rabba ). Psalms 107:10, 14, 17–21, and Job 33:23–24 are recited; then a cock (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is swung around the head three times while the following is pronounced: "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this cock (or hen) shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace." The fowl is thought to take on any misfortune which might otherwise befall a person in punishment of his sins. After the ceremony, it is customary to donate the fowl to the poor, except for the intestines which are thrown to the birds. Some rabbis recommended that money, equivalent to the fowl's value, be given instead.
This custom is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud. It appears first in the writings of the geonim of the 9th century, who explain that a cock is used in the rite because the word gever means both "man" and "cock"; the latter can, therefore, substitute for the former.
In Babylonia, other animals were used, especially the ram since Abraham offered a ram in lieu of his son Isaac (see: *Akedah and Gen. 22:13), or plants, e.g., beans, peas, (cf. Rashi, Shab. 81b). After the destruction of the Temple, no animals used in sacrificial rites could serve similar purposes outside the Temple (Magen Abraham to Sh. Ar., OḤ 605) and therefore cocks or hens were employed in the kapparot rite because they were not used in the Temple sacrificial cult. R. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret strongly opposed kapparot because it was similar to the biblical atonement rites (see *Azazel; cf. Lev. 16:5–22); he also considered the kapparah ritual to be a heathen superstition ("Darkhei Emori," responsa ed. Lemberg (1811) pt. 1, no. 395). This opinion was shared by *Naḥmanides and Joseph *Caro who called the kapparot "a stupid custom" (OḤ 605). The kabbalists (Isaac *Luria, Isaiah *Horowitz), however, invested the custom with mystical interpretations. These appealed strongly to the masses, and it became very popular when the rabbis acquiesced to it. Isserles made it a compulsory rite and enjoined for it many ceremonials similar to those of the sacrificial cult; e.g., the laying of the hands upon the animal, its immediate slaughter after the ceremony, prayers of confession, etc.
If a cock, or hen, cannot be obtained, other animals, fish or geese, may be used instead. A white cock or hen was especially desirable (based on Isa. 1:18, and Yoma 6:8). Some authorities, e.g., Joel Sirkes, forbade the use of a white cock on the grounds that it was a pagan rite (cf. Bayit Ḥadash, to Tur., OḤ 605, and Av. Zar. 1:5 and 14a). Kapparot is not practiced with a fowl at all in some traditional and many modern congregations. Money is substituted for a cock and the formula is changed accordingly ("this coin shall go to charity but we…," etc.). In Yiddish and popular Hebrew parlance the word kapparot may also refer to a financial or material loss, a regretted waste, or a vain effort.
By: Jewish Virtual Library
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