Sow The Seeds Of Repentance
‘This Potted Plant‘
“Shlugging” kaparos before Yom Kippur is an old and accepted custom among many communities of Klal Yisrael. Although the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 605:1) dismisses this custom and urges that it be abolished, the Rema encourages it, writing, “Some Geonim and many Acharonim [mention] this custom. It is practiced in all [Ashkenaz] countries and it should not be abandoned since it is a custom of the pious.”
The earliest known source for this minhag is Rashi on our sugya. The Gemara discusses a potted plant called parpisa. In translating this word, Rashi (s.v. “Hai Parpisa”) writes that he learned from the teshuvos of the Geonim that the custom in the times of the Talmud was to make wicker baskets and fill them with earth and fertilizer. One basket would be made for each member of the household.
The baskets were called parpisa. Twenty-two or 15 days before Rosh Hashanah, grains or legumes were planted in the baskets, and by the time Rosh Hashanah arrived, the plants sprouted. The day before Rosh Hashanah, each person would take his or her designated basket, circle it around his or her head, and say, “This is in place of that. This is my redemption. This is my substitute,” and then throw the basket in a river.
What was the significance of this custom? The Chasam Sofer explains that the seeds planted in the parpisa basket represented a person’s children. People prayed that if a heavenly decree had been passed against their seed, “may it fall 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. They cast the parpisa plants into a 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 ascara that might afflict their children, G-d forbid.
Kaparos With a Chicken
Many years later, the custom changed, and people performed kaparos with chickens instead. The Rosh (8:23) cites this practice, and asks why specifically a chicken was used and not a different animal. The simple explanation, he writes, is that chickens were the most common animal among the impoverished Jewish communities of Europe.
In more affluent communities, horned animals were used to recall the merit of the horned ram that was sacrificed in place of Yitzchak Avinu. Another reason chickens were used is because the Hebrew word for rooster is “gever,” which also means man. Therefore, it is the most appropriate substitute for man.
The Acharonim write that one must never use an animal 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 Mechaber objected to the practice because he saw a tinge of “darkei Emori” in it (following the paths of the Amorites). He gives this reason in his Beis Yosef commentary to the Tur (Orach Chayim 605). The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 605:1) writes that the Beis Yosef is basing himself on the Ramban and Rashba.
Today, the minhag of kaparos is prevalent among both Ashkenazic and Sefardic communities. Although Sefaradim generally follow the rulings of the Mechaber, in this case they follow the Rema’s ruling since the Arizal also attached great importance to kaparos (Kaf Hachayim 604, s.k. 5).
Interestingly, R’ Yaakov Emden, zt”l, (Sha’ar Shama’yim 112b) writes that if a person today doesn’t have chickens or money with which to perform kaparos, he should follow the custom of parpisa and perform kaparos with seeds.
Kaparos on Erev Rosh Hashanah?
We conclude with the following interesting note. Although the prevalent custom today is to perform kaparos on or before Erev Yom Kippur, Rashi writes that it was customarily performed on Erev Rosh Hashanah.