The earliest reference to Kapparot is arguably in a responsa by Amram Gaon, the head of the academy of Sura, Babylonia (c. 850). He cites the antiquity of the custom, and rules that the animal used should have horns to remind the penitent of the ram that Abraham substituted for Isaac during the Akeidah, the sacrificial binding of Isaac; that seminal event in Jewish history is also the reason why we blow the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah.
The Talmud (Shabbat 81b), however, describes an earlier, third-century practice called parpisa in which beans or peas were waved over the penitent’s head seven times before tossing them into the river before Rosh Hashanah as an atonement. (Interestingly, this custom seems to incorporate aspects of both the Kapparot and Tashlich ceremonies.)
Even during the Middle Ages, many leading rabbinical authorities considered Kapparot to be, at best, a “foolish custom to be avoided” (Rav Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch) and, at worst, “a heathen superstition” (the Rashba). The Ramban and many others believed Kapparot had inappropriately seeped into Jewish practice through unfortunate exposure to pagan culture during our long Jewish exile.
At the same time, many leading Kabbalists, including Rav Isaac Luria (the Ari HaKadosh) ascribed mystical significance to Kapparot.
The contemporary popularity of the ritual is perhaps most due to the strong support by the Rema, whose rulings are generally followed by descendants of Eastern European Jews. Most chassidic communities continue to “shlug” Kapparot following the custom of the Baal Shem Tov.
Contemporary opposition to Kapparot arises from two primary sources. First, many religious leaders fear some will misunderstand the purely symbolic nature of the practice and come to believe that an actual transfer of sins is effected from man to chicken, muting the ultimate message at the heart of Yom Kippur that G-d accepts the sincere penitent, but first he or she must do the hard work of soul-searching and true repentance.
The other source of opposition comes from those who argue that Kapparot violates the injunction against tzar ba’alei chaim (needlessly causing pain to a living being). Indeed, animal rights activists have taken legal action to prevent Jews from using poultry for Kapparot ceremony, but fortunately, the courts have ultimately ruled either that the practice is not barbaric or that it is protected by the First Amendment.
Many contemporary halachic authorities have ruled that money can – or should – be substituted for live fowl and that, after waiving the coins and reciting “This is the money that will go to charity,” the penitent should donate the funds to the poor. The Maharil, famous for codifying the customs of German Jewry, was arguably the first to institute the alternate practice some 600 years ago.
In some places, there is actually a tradition of performing Kapparot with live fish. However, my collection of some 150 Kapparot cards does not include any that feature the use of fish – or money – nor, to my knowledge, do such historic cards exist.
In the 1905 card shown here, a Jew is depicted shlugging Kapparot on Erev Yom Kippur, dramatically using a chicken whose head has been replaced by that of the reviled Tsar Nicholas II, a wicked anti-Semite who supported organized pogroms against the Jews. The clear message of the artist is contempt, even hatred, for the Tsar: “The Tsar should die and, when he does, I’ll be able to have a good, long, and peaceful life.”
It is interesting that no publisher is listed on the card, which is not surprising given the likely retribution from the Tsar and his minions were his name to become known. Moreover, it is virtually certain that this card was mailed and received outside Russia, because possession of it or any involvement with it would surely have resulted in a death sentence.
It is also fascinating to note that anti-Semites, who still propagate and disseminate the libel that the Tsar was murdered in 1918 by “the Jews” for “ritual purposes,” maintain that this card evidences Jewish foreknowledge and planning of the murder more than a decade before they were able to effect it. Even as recently as last year, officials of the Russian Orthodox Church continue to spread this odious anti-Semitic charge.
Shown here as Exhibit 3 is an interesting “variation on a theme”: a World War II Yom Kippur card illustrating Kapparot – with Hitler’s head on the chicken! The message needs no elaboration.
Exhibit 4 below, titled Kapora – Schlagen (“shlugging Kapparot”), is a lovely card by artist Alphonse Levy. The Hebrew caption underneath reads “May you be inscribed for a good year.”
Levy (1843-1918) was struck by the beauty and majesty of Jewish worship and tradition, which formed the core of the subject matter of his works and which he infused with a rare combination of whimsy and love.
Born into a family of strictly observant Jews, he grew up in a rural village in Alsace and, though he moved to Paris at age 17, his best-known works remain the exaggerated yet affectionate depictions of the rural Jewish community of his childhood.
Much like Rembrandt, who often painted the Jews of Amsterdam and whom he studied and admired, Levy sought his subjects from the Jewish people of modest means, the native and pious of his family’s villages in Alsace and Lorraine and, though the upper-class Jews of Paris refused to recognize his work, he remained dedicated to witnessing the lives of the Jewish people.
The tradition has long been for Kapparot to also be performed by, or on behalf of, children and infants – and even for a fetus; a pregnant woman actually waives three birds: a chicken for herself, and both a chicken and a rooster on behalf of her fetus of unknown gender. If the children cannot do it for themselves, their father or another adult does it for them.
In Levy’s drawing, the children do not seem particularly enamored by having a chicken waived over their heads, as the boy seems to be shielding his eyes and the little girl seems to be recoiling in horror. In marked contrast, however, the little girl in Exhibit 5 adopts a prayerful penitent pose as her father waives the chicken over her head and, in Exhibit 6, the little girl seems engrossed by the entire ceremony, as her father waives the chicken and her mother recites the prayers next to her.
Finally, bright, colorful, and exceptionally artistic, Jewish lithographic die-cuts (also known as “prasim”) became very popular at the turn of the 20th century and were often used for prizes awarded to Jewish children.
Shown here as Exhibit 7 is a stunning 1906 cut-out “pras,” along with the original postcard upon which it was based, depicting a Jewish family dressed in their holiday finery on Erev Yom Kippur and performing Kapparot. The father, surrounded by his wife and children, holds a chicken in one hand and a siddur in the other.
The wife, who is obviously also reciting the prayer, also holds a siddur in one hand, but what is fascinating to me is the egg that she holds aloft in her right hand. While I have found some general references to the use of an egg for Kapparot, I have been unable to determine a source for this practice.
Wishing everyone a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.