Sow The Seeds Of Repentance
‘This Potted Plant’
The minhag to shlag kapparos before Yom Kippur is an old and accepted in many communities. The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 605:1) dismissed this custom and urged that it be abolished. The Rema (ibid.), on the other hand, encouraged it, writing: “Some Geonim and many Achronim cited this custom. It is practiced in all these countries [Ashkenaz], and it should not be abandoned since it is the custom of the pious.”
The earliest known source for this minhag is a Rashi on our sugya. The Gemara discusses a potted plant called parpisa. To define this term, Rashi (s.v. “hai parpisa”) writes, based on teshuvos of the Geonim, that in Talmudic times people customarily made wicker baskets and filled them with earth and fertilizer – one basket for each member of the household. The baskets were called parpisa. Grains or legumes were planted in the baskets 22 or 15 days before Rosh Hashanah, which sprouted by the time Rosh Hashanah arrived. On erev Rosh Hashanah, each person would take his or her designated basket, circle it around his or her head, while reciting, “This is in place of that. This is my redemption, this is my substitute,” and then throw the basket in the river.
What was the significance of this custom? The Chasam Sofer (ibid.) explains that the seeds planted in the parpisa baskets represented a person’s children. People prayed that if a Heavenly decree had been passed against their seed, it should fall it upon the parpisa seeds and not upon their children. This concern was especially prevalent in the time of the Gemara when an epidemic of ascara, a fatal breathing disorder (tuberculosis?), claimed the lives of many children.
People would cast these parpisa baskets into the river because when beis din is unable to carry out the punishment of death by strangulation, Hashem brings about the guilty party’s death by drowning or ascara. They thus prayed that the “drowning” of the plant take the place of the drowning or ascara that might afflict their children, G-d forbid.
Kapparos With A Chicken
Many years later, the custom changed, and people performed kapparos with chickens instead. The Rosh (8:23) cites this custom, and asks why specifically a chicken is used and not a different animal. He offers a simple explanation: chickens were the most common animals to among the impoverished Jewish communities of Europe. Indeed, in more affluent communities, horned animals were used in order to recall the merit of the horned ram that was sacrificed in place of Yitzchak Avinu. Another reason why a chicken was used is because the Hebrew word for rooster is gever, just like the Hebrew word for man. Therefore, a chicken is the most appropriate substitute for man.
Additionally, the Acharonim write that one must never use an animal for kapparos that would be kosher as a sacrifice on the mizbe’ach (such as a dove, sheep, goat or cow) in order to avoid the mistaken impression that one intends to sanctify the animal as a korban (Mishnah Berurah ibid. s.k. 4).
The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 605:1) suggests that the sources for the Mechaber’s negative assessment of kapparos are the Ramban and Rashba who sensed a tinge of “darkei Amori – Amorite custom” in this practice (as cited by the Mechaber himself in his longer Beis Yosef commentary to the Tur, O.C. 605).
Nevertheless, the minhag of kapparos is prevalent today among both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. Although Sephardim generally follow the rulings of the Mechaber, who opposed the custom of kapparos, in this case they follow the Rema since the Arizal also attached great importance to kapparos (Kaf Hachayyim 604, s.k. 5)
Interestingly, R’ Yaakov Emden (Shaar Shomayim 112b) writes that even today, if someone does not have chickens or money with which to perform kapparos, he should follow the custom of parpisa and perform kapparos with seeds.
Kapparos On Erev Rosh Hashanah
We conclude with the following interesting note. Although the prevalent custom today is to perform kapparos on, or before, erev Yom Kippur, Rashi writes that it was customarily performed on erev Rosh Hashanah.