Belief in brief: Kaparot

Friday, March 7, 2008 | 1:28 p.m. CST; updated 9:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Purim is on the horizon for Jews, who will celebrate this joyful holiday in late March. Another important Jewish holiday, as somber as Purim is fun, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, coming in October. This is the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, but its eve is a quasi-festival involving charity, apologies, and ... chickens?

The Ceremony

The ancient custom of kaparot is meant to remind people, through the death of a chicken, that their very lives are at stake because of their sins, according to the Orthodox Union’s Web site.

Kaparot involves taking a live chicken (a white rooster for a male, hen for a female) and waving it above one’s head while reciting the following prayer (translated from Hebrew): “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken will go to its death while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and peace.” The chicken is later slaughtered and it, or its cash value, is donated to the poor.

The exchange mentioned is a symbolic transfer of sin, or guilt, from the person to the chicken, wrote Richard Schwartz in an article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Schwartz said in his article that the sin transfer is not literal, since “if the ritual could remove a person’s sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?”

Although the tradition is not widely practiced among Jews today, some Orthodox Jews do participate in the ritual of kaparot in some form.

The Controversy

Controversy surrounds this ceremony, within and outside of Judaism.

“Why should a chicken pay for a person’s sins?” asked Etti Altman, chairwoman of Let the Animals Live, in an article for the Israeli news service

“Thousands of chickens are cramped together, with no food or water, for days before kaparot. ... They are abused and then they are slaughtered. People ask for their sins to be forgiven? They should be asking for the chicken’s forgiveness,” said Altman in the article.

“It does not make sense that we are asking to purify ourselves on Yom Kippur through the slaughter of a helpless animal,” said Chedva Vanderbrook, a board member of the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in another article.

The Conclusion

For Jews, the bottom line is a need for forgiveness.

“The kaparot ceremony symbolizes our sins crying out for atonement, and as a reminder that our good deeds, charity and repentance can save us from the penalty our many sins deserve,” according to the Orthodox Union’s Web site.

Sources:; The Orthodox Union; The Jewish Virtual Library

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