On Sunday, I posted remarks about the horrible practice of mistreating chickens. The following is a shortened version of what I wrote about kapparot generally in my book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.”
Many Jews recognized that the kapparot ceremony was based on superstition, that waiving a chicken over one’s head a magical number of times would erase all past misdeeds. This is probably why Maimonides did not mention kapparot in his Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law.
The term kapparot means “atonement” and “make void.” It denotes an offering tendered in the hope of gaining forgiveness for past misdeeds. Many Jews currently practice the kapparot ceremony on the eve of Yom Kippur. A fowl is waved counterclockwise around the head of men and women and words are recited requesting that the person’s sins be transferred to the fowl. “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster shall go to its death, but I shall go to good, long life, and to peace.” The rite concludes with the slaughtering of the fowl, although too many Jews toss the chicken into the trash.
The ritual is not mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud. Virtually all ancient sources recognize that the practice was originally designed, just as the Jewish masses understood the biblical Yom Kippur Azazel ceremony in Leviticus 16:8, as a bribe to Satan to keep him from accusing Jews for their misdeeds during the past year before God. The Machzor Vitri, composed by Simcha of Vitri, France, a student of Rashi (who died in the same year as his teacher, 1105), admits that the purpose of the kapparot is exactly the same as the scapegoat sent to Azazel; both are bribes for the devil. This was also the opinion of Yaakov Hayim Zemach in Nagid u’mitzvah, Isaiah Horowitz in Sh’lah, and J. Z. Lauterbach in HUCA 11, “Tashlich.”
The Origin of Kapparot
The earliest mention of the kapparot service is in a Responsa (a written answer to a question submitted in writing to a rabbi) written by Amram bar Sheshna, also known as Amram Gaon, the head of the academy of Sura, Babylonia, around 850 C.E. Amram mentions that the custom of kapparot is quite old. We can therefore safely assume that kapparot began at least a couple of centuries earlier.
An Ancient Version of Kapparot
The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 81b, reports a third-century practice that is remarkably similar to kapparot and shares the same superstitious basis and goal. A basket of beans or peas was taken, turned around one’s head seven times and then tossed into the water. The practice was called parpisa, similar to the English word “propitiate,” to make someone favorably inclined to one’s desires. The uneducated masses considered seven a magical number, moving in a circle a magical rite that produced a desired result, and water the dwelling place of the demons. Thus food was tossed in the water as a bribe for the demon.
Amram Gaon’s Explanation of the Kapparot Tradition as He Knew It
Amram Gaon explains that male Jews took a rooster and female Jews a hen on the day before the holiday of Yom Kippur. He writes: “He places his hand upon the head of the rooster, as a sort of s’mikhah [the biblically required placing of one’s hands upon as animal that is being brought as a sacrifice in the Temple]. He lays his hands upon it and slaughters it immediately, following the rule prescribed for sacrifices, which is that the slaughtering of the sacrificial animal must follow immediately the ceremony of the laying of the hands.”
Significantly, Amram states that a rooster is the preferred animal because it has horns.
Why is Kapparot Seen as a Sacrifice? Why Must the Animal Have Horns?
Amram sidesteps the question of the purpose of the ceremony, probably due to his embarrassment about its pagan origin. He states that the animal should have horns to remind the Jew of “the ram that was offered instead of Isaac [when his father Abraham brought him to be sacrificed in Genesis 22].” However, this comment by the Gaon is a late rationalization of the true reason for the ceremony.
Originally, as previously stated, the ceremony was seen as a bribe that was offered to Satan, similar to the Azazel bribe described in Leviticus 16. A rooster was chosen for the bribe because (1) it was an animal that was not allowed to be sacrificed to God, and therefore an appropriate sacrifice for a devil, and (2) the masses thought that this bird resembled Satan: it had horns like Satan and its feet resembled the demon’s feet. The rooster was slaughtered with the sacrificial formality of laying of hands so that it would be accepted as a suitable sacrifice/bribe by Satan to induce the demon not to disparage Jews before God during Yom Kippur when Jews believed that their future fate was being determined by God in a heavenly judicial proceeding in which Satan served as prosecutor.
The Ancients: The Yom Kippur Azazel Ceremony as a Bribe
Many rabbis shared the belief in demons held by the less sophisticated population. The mystic Bible commentator Nachmanides, Rashi and many others believed in the existence of angels and demons, both of which they viewed as corporeal and having powerful positive and negative impacts upon humans and the ability to alter their lives. God, they said, instructed Jews not to seek the assistance of these intermediaries in various biblical passages including Leviticus 17:7.
Yet, remarkably, in his commentary to Leviticus 16:8, Nachmanides, like many others, states that God told the Israelites to bribe Satan by sending him a goat that resembles him every year on the holiday of Yom Kippur. This was the Azazel goat. The purpose of the bribe, as stated earlier, was to stop the demon from traveling to heaven on this day, when decisions were being made concerning the future life and death of Jews, and persuading God to punish the Jews for their sins during the past year.
The purpose of kapparot according to Nachmanides and many others was identical. Although the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. stopped the public ceremony of Azazel, the bribery continued by individual Jews performing the kapparot rite.
Other rabbis spoke out strongly against the wrong-headed notion that angels and demons act as intermediaries between humans and God. Maimonides calls the idea stupid. Saadiah Gaon, before him, states that Azazel was not a demon, but the name of a mountain. The goat was sent away as an open public symbol to teach people to remedy their misdeeds. Elijah Gaon of Wilna highlights his objection to the superstition that angels and demons can act as intermediaries by objecting to the recitation of “Bless me with peace” to angels in the Friday night song Shalom Aleichem because angels, even if they exist, are incapable of bringing blessings or of acting as intermediaries between humans and God.
Why Was the Kapparot Ceremony Performed on the Day Before Yom Kippur?
One would expect that kapparot, like its predecessor Azazel, should have been performed on Yom Kippur itself, the day when the Jews petition God for forgiveness. However, the original procedure was to slaughter the animal before giving it to the demon; slaughtering was forbidden outside of the Temple on this holy day. Therefore, the ceremony of the slaughtered kapparot was shifted to the day that preceded the holiday.
What Was Done to Kapparot After They Were Slaughtered?
Commenting upon the Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 95b, Asher ben Jehiel (known as Asheri, c. 1259–1328) states that the ancient custom of kapparot was to toss the entrails of the sacrificed rooster on the roof of one’s house. Like the water, the masses were convinced that the roof was a dwelling place of demons.
The practice of leaving food for Satan as a bribe was altered in ancient times to disguise its original superstitious intention. Natronai Gaon, the ninth-century head of the academy in Sura, Babylonia, reports that in his time food was no longer thrown into water or placed on roofs but was given instead to the poor. This was a somewhat subtle subterfuge since the masses were convinced that Satan frequently disguised himself as a poor man in order to test people. Thus the food was expected to end up in Satan’s hands.
Opposition to the Practice in the Middle Ages
Several Jewish sages, including some mystics, opposed the kapparot ceremony. In the thirteenth century, the halakhic authority Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, known as Rashba, recognized that it was pagan superstition. In the sixteenth century, when his colleagues in Safed were contending that the killing of the rooster would weakening Satan, Joseph Karo, the renowned author of the Shulchan aruch (a code of Jewish law) called kapparot “a foolish custom that Jews should avoid.”
The ceremony is still practiced by many Jews today. Those who recognize the quasi-magical aspect attempt to defend it by calling it “magic for a good purpose.” Others have stopped using an animal for the ceremony and substitute money, which is then given to the poor. Those who do so probably do not know that the ancient masses thought that Satan would disguise himself as a poor man to test the Jews. Thus, the bribe is still being given to Satan, albeit surreptitiously.