Kapparot is an ancient and very widely-observed Jewish custom performed on the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. In its classical traditional form, a live chicken was taken in one's hand, held above a person's head and swung in a circle three times, while the following was spoken: "This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace." The hope was that the fowl, which was then donated to the poor for food, would take on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.
This custom is not mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud. The first references to it in Jewish literature come only in the ninth century, and already by the middle ages it was the focus of some criticism. The Ramban (Nachmanides), for instance, did not like it but Kabbalists led by the Holy Ari-zal (Harav Yitzhak Luria) saw in it considerable mystical significance. Some scholars and prominent leaders felt that some people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual - the idea that the kapparot ceremony could transfer a person's sins to a bird, and that those sins would then be completely eradicated. They asked: if a ritual can remove a person's sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? The Mishneh Brurah, a very authoritative twentieth-century codification of Jewish law, reminds us that there is no substitute for sincere repentance. By substituting the death of a fowl, one will (hopefully) appreciate G-d's mercy and be stirred to repentance. By no means, however, does the ritual eradicate one's misdeeds, even though the bird is donated to the poor.
Sensitivity to the needs of animals plays a prominent role in traditional Jewish thought. Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the most distinguished Orthodox Rabbis of the nineteenth century, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve to chant the sacred Kol Nidre Prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that their saintly rabbi would be late or absent on this very holy day. They sent out a search party to look for him. After much time, their rabbi was found in the barn of a Christian neighbor. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of his neighbor's calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing that the animal was in distress, he freed it and led it home through many fields and over many hills. His act of mercy represented the rabbi's prayers on that Yom Kippur evening.
While there are some Jews today who will carry out the Kapparot custom with a chicken, controversy or not, most Torah-observant Jews will satisfy their obligation by doing the ritual with money and not with a fowl. Money, perhaps equal to the monetary value of the fowl, is put into a handkerchief which the person swings three times around his or her head while reciting a modified saying :"This money shall go to charity, and I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace." Hence, the heightened sense of repentance can be kept, and perhaps even enhanced, since no bird has to lose its life or suffer for our sake. This substitution, which maintains the tradition of giving charity (the substituted money) to the poor, has been endorsed by many rabbis and is mentioned in many prayer books, including the highly regarded Artscroll Siddur.
This year, as part of its fund-raising efforts, the Malki Foundation printed Kapparot collection boxes to be placed in synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur, which this year falls on Sunday (tomorrow). The boxes are collapsible, simple, light and easily mailed. Synagogues all over Israel will have such collection boxes, thanks to the positive response of members of the Friends of the Malki Foundation who responded to a letter from Liat Behr, the foundation's executive director, in the past two weeks.
But it's not too late - even if you live outside of Israel. If you are going to be in synagogue on Sunday afternoon for pre-Yom Kippur Mincha, and are willing to place a collection box or pushke where charity-minded people can easily drop their Kapparot money, then please be in touch with the Malki Foundation today or tomorrow. Unless you are in Jerusalem, it's too late for them to send you a printed collection box. But they can email you a nicely designed Word or PDF document, one single page, which you can print on your desktop printer, and then stick it on to a shoe box, a pushke or any other appropriate receptacle. We hope you will agree that this is a simple and painless way to contribute to the very positive work which the Malki Foundation does every day for the benefit of families who care at home for a seriously disabled child. The Malki Foundation is the only organization in Israel who do this work, and they do it with an uncommon degree of efficiency and responsibility.
This being the last days of the Ten Days of Penitence when acts of charity are especially respected, you are also invited to donate directly to Keren Malki. You can do this online right now by credit card. Credit card donations are tax-deductible under Israeli and United States law. Donations by check/cheque are also most welcome, and in many cases are also tax-deductible. All the details of how and where are here on our website. You can also email Liat Behr for more information.
With sincere wishes for a much better year than the one we have just left behind.