Kaporet (Kaporos)

There is a traditional ritual that is little practiced in this day and age. It is somewhat difficult to imagine, more so to identify with for modern sensibilities, especially those of us who get our foods at the grocery in nice, neat, pre-packaged, portion-controlled, shrink-wrapped plastic containers.

Imagine: you want to atone for your sins, and you want to enact some ritual that will embody that atonement, and help to purge you of the guilt of having sinned. That was the motive behind the ritual of kaporet (or kapores, in the Ashkenazic pronunciation). Kaporet is from the root that gives us the word 'kippur' as in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

This is an old ritual, and seems to me to partake of aspects of sympathetic magic, transference, ritual slaughter and offering sacrifices, blood as atonement, and even Tzedakah (righteous action).

In brief, one would take a chicken or a rooster, preferably white to symbolize purity, and conduct the ritual. In that ritual, a formulaic recitation would identify the chicken or rooster as taking the place of the sinner, who deserved to die for their sins, and the sinner would take on the ritual purity of the animal (sympathetic magic and transference). The animal would be swung by the legs over the head of the sinner, as a sign that the sinner was 'covered' by the animal (further transference), after which the animal was ritually slaughtered (offering) and the blood poured out on the ground to atone (sacrifice). The meat was then given as an offering for the poor (completion of the offering, demonstration of the purity of motive). 

Pleasant? No.

Primitive? Yes.

Affecting? I think so.

Powerful? You bet.

I have to admit that I did witness and even take part (indirectly) in this ritual many years ago. I was a small boy.

I was taken to what must have been a local market area by my Grandfather, and there were people there performing this ritual, many of them dressed in the clothing of the very pious. Crates were all over, chickens were clucking, there were feathers flying - it was a scene of chaos to my mind - exciting and different, and a little scary. It seemed that dozens of men were swinging chickens over their heads, while dozens or hundreds more were gathered around. Of course, being a small child, it is likely that my memory is exagerrated, but it felt that way to me then, and that is how I recall it.

After a time, my grandfather bought a chicken from a man selling them from a crate. He held my hand and moved into the circle of men holding and swinging the chickens, and then he did the same. I was too small to do this, but I can tell you that it was deeply impressed on my memory.

To see my grandfather take this white chicken or rooster, hold it by the legs and slowly swing it in circles over his head while reciting the formulaic phrases, 'this one's purity for my sins, this one for me, this one's life for mine' then to hand the stunned and quiet bird over to the Shochet (ritual slaughterer) who was there, to be killed in an instant in the traditional fashion, is an image that has stayed with me. Once the bird was killed, the blood was drained out onto the ground as is required in Jewish practice. Then my grandfather took that dead chicken in his one hand and my hand in his other, and moved into a crowd of men standing there in a circle around the area where the ritual was being performed.

I don't know how they knew to be there, but these were the poor of the community. These were the people who could not afford to buy a chicken, or to perform the ritual themselves: I suspect some of them were not even Jewish. My grandfather walked among them, looking carefully, and by some process I could not fathom, chose one, and approached him. He respectfully asked this man if he would do my grandfather the favor of accepting this chicken, and the man looked him in the eyes for a moment, then nodded and told Grandpa, "Yes, I will do this for you." My grandfather smiled, gave the man the chicken, and warmly shook his hand. He then took out what looked to me to be an enourmous wad of bills from his pocket and gave it to the man. The man gravely accepted it, then turned and left. My grandfather smiled at me, took my hand, and led me away.

Every year when we come close to Yom Kippur, I remember this. Somehow, atonement and sacrifice, guilt and blood, sin and expiation, Tzedakah and forgiveness, action and prayer, love and death, are all tied together at this moment in the year for me. Yes, I would say that ritual is powerful and affecting.  

Leshanah tovah umetukah,

Rabbi Joe Blair

Sept 26 2006