Kapparot (also called kappores or kapparos in Ashkenazi Hebrew) is a custom that some Jews keep that is essentially a ritual associated with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur because it deals with atonement, an important topic in the Ten Days of Teshuvah. The ritual involves taking a live chicken, usually white and usually a rooster for men and a hen for women, and swinging it above the person’s head three times. This is done on Erev Yom Kippur. During the swinging of the chicken over the head, the person performing the ritual says “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (or hen) will go to its death, but I will go to a good, long life and to peace”. The chicken is the slaughtered, and given to the poor for the meal on Erev Yom Kippur. This ritual is essentially (as the liturgy for the service plainly says) a ritual whereby the chicken is a substitutionary atonement for the individual performing the ritual, meaning that the chicken is killed after ceremonially having the sins of the individual transferred to it.
The ritual itself dates to the ninth century CE and there has been some sharp remarks against it by some very well known Sages over the centuries. However, other well known rabbis are known to have practised this custom and encouraged its observance among the Jewish nation. There is no mention of the ritual in the Written Torah or the Talmud, but this is due to the fact that the ritual has only existed in Judaism for around 1,200 years, less than a third of Judaism’s existence. Some of the big name rabbis who opposed the ritual are the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet) who said that it’s origins are in pagan religions, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), and Maran (Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law), both of whom called it a “nonsensical pagan rite”. Some of the big names who are in favour of the ritual are the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, who found mystical significance in the custom.
The only reference to kapparot made by the Arizal that I’ve been able to find was actually not written by the Arizal himself, but by his student Rabbi Chaim Vital. He stated in his “Shaare Yom Kippur” that his teacher (the Arizal) had the custom of taking a white chicken for each member of his family and performing the kapparot early in the morning on Erev Yom Kippur. Rabbi Vital then went on to explain that the slaughter of the chicken “sweetens” the gevurot of yesod. However, it is worth noting that the passage that says this only consists of a few sentences, and the rest of the passage reads naturally without these few sentences. This leads me to believe that it’s possible that these few sentences were originally a note in the margins written by a later person in his copy of the book and it was eventually printed in all copies of the book because of a misunderstanding when old copies of the book were gathered to be copied into a new edition. This would mean that the reference to “my teacher” doesn’t refer to the Arizal, but to a later rabbi, and it served as a note to remind the individual who wrote it. This is my personal speculation, and I feel the need to state that there is not enough surviving evidence to confirm or disprove my speculation.
The belief that our sins can be transferred to the chicken is antithetical to Judaism, because there is no atonement from sin without teshuvah (repentance), and the Prophets were very outspoken about this (for example, see Ezekiel 18). Further problems for the permissibility of this custom come from the Torah itself. The Torah tells us that it’s forbidden to adopt the customs of non-Jews, especially pagans (Leviticus 18:3, 20:23). The fact that the Rashba says kapparot began as a pagan ritual automatically forbids it to any Jew (and really any person) who fears HaShem. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) says in his Laws Regarding Idolatry (11:1) “We do not walk after the ways of the idolaters. We do not assimilate ourselves to them; not in our clothing and not in other things like this, as it says, ‘do not walk after the ways of the nations’ (Leviticus 20:23). Rather, a Jew should be distinct from them and recognisable through one’s clothing and one’s other actions, just as one is distinct from them in one’s thoughts and characteristics.” So we can see that this passage has historically been seen as referring to any pagan ritual. The Torah also forbids slaughtering a sacrifice anywhere other than the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:5-7). Now, those who keep this incorrect custom contend that the kapparot is not a sacrifice ritual, but the liturgy for the ritual plainly says it is an atonement ritual. Additionally, it’s an issue of chilul HaShem (desecrating the Name of G-d) because it gives the impression to both Jews and non-Jews that kapparot is an atonement for sin. It’s chilul HaShem because it is a ritual that takes place literally anywhere in the world, which gives the impression that the Jewish nation is so strict to keep the laws of kashrut or any other set of laws, yet not strict enough to keep from offering an atonement in a place the Torah says not to. This can also lead to anti-Semitism and causing the Jewish people to lose esteem in the eyes of the non-Jews. Another issue is the treatment of the chicken itself. The Torah forbids causing any undue stress or pain to the chicken, stress like swinging a chicken over your head three times and pain like an improper slaughter (which is easy to inadvertently do with how many chickens are slaughtered). The chickens may not be kept in a proper manner by the vendors, so even if the slaughter is done right and the chicken is not stressed from the swinging over the head, the animal is still mistreated and the Jew who takes part in this ritual is held accountable for the mistreatment of the animal. Such maltreatment of the chicken during a time when the focus of every Jew should be mercy and kindness is just unbecoming if anyone who fears G-d. One of the worst things I’ve seen this year relating to kapparot is that a prominent American rabbi (who will remain nameless due to fear of lashon hara) recently wrote in an halachic summary “the Rashba, in a responsa, expressed his stern opposition to the practise because it is a pagan custom. However, it has been revealed that the Arizal indeed followed and strongly encouraged the practise.” He then went on to say that because the Arizal is a known Kabbalist, his opinion must reflect the Kabbalah, and that custom should be kept. What this means to me is “the Torah forbids such a practise because it’s pagan in origin, but we don’t listen to the Torah in this matter”, and anyone who fears G-d should be disgusted at such a statement..
So what should be done? Naturally, anyone who wants to obey G-d and keep the Torah should never take part in any practise that comes from a pagan culture. If you want to give tzedakah or provide meals to the poor and needy, like we all should, then let that take the place of kapparot. There are also some who have the custom not to use a chicken for kapparot, but to use money that will be donated to the poor in the place of the chicken. Anyone who can’t part with the custom of kapparot completely could follow this custom since a custom like this using money isn’t found among the pagans, but the liturgy for the ritual should be changed to erase the mention of the money being an atonement, substitute, or exchange. The liturgy should say something like “this money will be used to buy food for the poor, and may I go on to a good, long life and to peace”.
Summary: There are many who follow the custom of using a chicken for kapparot, but since this practise comes from idolaters it is an incorrect custom that should never be done by anyone who fears G-d. A good alternative is to provide food or tzedakah for the poor, or to use money in the place of a chicken for kapparot, though it’s best not to do any kapparot ritual. However, if kapparot is done with money, it is permissible by every halachic opinion and from the perspective of the Torah, but he liturgy should be changed.