THE CHICKEN DANCE - KAPPAROT
Mordechai and Rosh in the last perek of Yoma cite an intriguing custom that is brought down by the Geonim. They state that it was the practice in certain towns to slaughter a chicken on the day before Yom HaKippurim as a form of atonement. However, it was not immediately clear to them what the reason for this practice was. Furthermore, there were those who opposed this practice on the grounds that it violated the prohibition of divining (Vayikra 19:26), and others who opposed this practice as being "darchei haEmori" - the ways of the other nations. For these various reasons, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 605) writes that this practice should be stopped.
However, a custom that shows up in the writings of the Geonim (Rav Ovadiah Yoseif attributes it to Rav Natronai Gaon, Rav Sheshna Gaon, and Rav Hai Gaon - see Yechaveh Da'at 2:71) cannot be dismissed so easily. Despite the objections of Ramban and others, Tur offers several reasons for this practice, which de facto explain why there is no issue here of engaging in a ritual that would be contrary to Torah law.
At the most basic level, the Tur writes that the purpose of this custom is "temurah," which refers to the notion of having one thing come in place of another. Specifically, the practice here is for the animal to symbolically come in our place and receive our punishment. Since the animal will be slaughtered, we perform this ritual as a gesture asking Hashem to take the life of this animal in place of our lives, in the event that our sins are, God forbid, so great that they would result in an unfavorable judgement.
However, the Tur is still bothered by the practice. If the purpose of this ritual is to have an animal serve, as it were, in our stead, then why do we use a chicken? Why not use a larger animal, perhaps one that might be more symbolic of sacrifices (which, according to Ramban in his commentary to Sefer Vayikra, were supposed to arouse feelings in the mind of the individual that he should really be the one being offered up to Hashem)? To this question Tur offers two answers. First, there were in fact those people who did kapparot with a ram, in memory of Akeidat Yitzchak. However, since many people were poor and could not afford such an expensive animal, they sufficed with merely a chicken. Furthermore, notes the Tur, one of the names of a rooster is "gever," which is the same as one of the words for man. Thus, the chicken, by virtue of its name, is uniquely qualified to be offered in place of man.
The Levush offers a third approach. He claims that really a goat should be used, as a reminder of the goat that was thrown off of the cliff to Azazel during the service in the Beit HaMikdash on Yom HaKippurim. However, since we do not want it to appear that we are offering sacrifices outside of the appropriate location, we specifically use an animal that was not fit to be brought as a sacrifice.
There is yet another reason offered for this practice, and one that ties in to the timing of kapparot. Many Rishonim and Acharonim point out a particular halachic danger that arises regarding kapparot. Since many people would perform this ritual, if everyone tried to do it on erev Yom HaKippurim there was a fear that those doing the slaughtering would eventually grow weary and would be less than careful in the act of slaughtering (shechita). Since it is very easy to do an improper shechita (but not always so easy for the untrained individual to realize that such a thing has happened), there was a worry that people would wind up eating chickens which had not been slaughtered properly. As a result, the Sdei Chemed, Pri Megadim, Rav Chaim Falagi, and others all noted that one can do kapparot during the entire ten days of repentance.
Rav Ovadiah Yoseif cites the Mahari Weil who claims that there is another reason for kapparot and another reason to do them throughout the ten days of repentance. In the spirit of the idea of Ramban cited above, Mahari Weil writes that the purpose of kapparot is to inspire a person to do complete teshuva. How is this accomplished? He claims that the actions taken with the chicken are reminiscent of the four types of death meted out by the Jewish courts (taking the chicken by the neck=strangulation; killing the chicken=death by sword; throwing the chicken to the ground=stoning; singing the chicken=burning). Thus, we are to look at the chicken and imagine that we are actually the ones who should be receiving these punishments, and in this way be inspired to do total teshuva.
Despite all of these various reasons which justify this practice, there is still some lingering concern that it may be seen as darchei haEmori. The Bach cites Maharil who felt that even though kapparot per se had no such issues, one should not specifically try to do kapparot with a white chicken, and certainly should not spend an exorbitant sum on a white chicken for these purposes, and that could entail a problem of darchei haEmori (I have not as yet discovered the exact practice of other nations or religions that would make this problematic. Any information to this effect would be helpful and appreciated.).
Due to the various concerns of darchei haEmori and the concerns of invalid shechita, there developed the custom by some to use seeds in place of chickens (see Rashi Shabbat 81b). From there has developed the common practice today to use money and to wave the money over one's head several times, ultimately giving it as charity. While many of the above reasons clearly do not apply when money is used, I would suggest that it is offered in the spirit of a ransom of one's soul ("kofer nafsho"). If money is used, there is no specific amount that one is required to give, but one should use an amount that he or she feels is appropriate for the situation.
Finally, we touch on kapparot for a pregnant woman. Mordechai writes that a pregnant woman should use three chickens - one for herself, a chicken in case the child is a female, and a rooster in case it is a male (modern technology may have an effect on this, in that perhaps a woman who already knows the sex of the baby only has to take one bird, appropriate to the sex of the child). He then goes on to say that if a woman is pregnant with twins that does not affect how many chickens she uses. However, Maharil argues and claims that a pregnant woman only uses two birds - one chicken and one rooster. This way, if the baby is female then it mother and daughter share the chicken, and if it is male then the rooster comes into play.
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