Having just finished celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews all over the world are about to enter into the most solemn time of the year of Jewish observance: Yom Kippur. The Hebrew words translate into English as ‘Day of Atonement,’ on which pious Jews reflect on their sins of the past year. It is also a joyous time for observant Jews to fast and pray and seek a clean slate in the coming year.
Yom Kippur falls on the tenth day of the seventh month in the traditional Jewish calendar, known as Tishrei, following the celebration of the Jewish New Year.
This year, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday, September 13, with a 25-hour fast and intensive prayer. Part of the observance includes an emphasis on spirituality and thus a separation from physicality and material things. It is thus that pious Jews avoid sexual relations, bathing, the use of cosmetics, and leather shoes, in addition to the usual rules about diet and other issues as mandated by Jewish custom. The day spent in prayer has come to an end at sundown on the following day by the blowing of a ram’s horn known as the shofar at a synagogue, where observant Jews have spent most of the day in prayer and the reading of Scripture. The conclusion of Yom Kippur also brings to a close the annual observance of the High Holy Days that come just after Rosh Hashanah. It is on Yom Kippur that Israel comes to a standstill.
In Israel, Jews are preparing in various ways for the coming of Yom Kippur. It is not without some controversy. Rabbi Dov Lipman, a member of Israel’s parliament, issued a call on September 8 to put an end to an age-old ritual called kapparot, which is marked on the eve of Yom Kippur. It is by swinging a live chicken over one’s head, according to some Jews, that one’s sins are symbolically transferred to the hapless fowl. The chicken is then slaughtered according to halachic rules, which is to say Jewish custom, and then donated to the poor to be eaten before the Yom Kippur fast.
The custom of swinging chickens remains common among Haredi Jews, but has largely been altered or ignored by other strains of Judaism. Critics of the custom argue that neither the Torah or the Talmud mention the custom, while others view the practice as a violation of the Jewish ethic of treating animals with compassion. "You cannot perform a commandment by committing a sin," Rabbi Meir Hirsch of Jerusalem, a member of the Neturei Karta sect, according to an AP report.
The Chabad.org website describes the ritual. Chickens or other fowl, or even fish may be used for kapparot. The animal is taken in “the right hand and the appropriate text from the prayer book is recited. The bird is then waved over one's head three times and the appropriate text is recited.” However, doves may not be used “since doves were brought as sacrificial offerings in the Temple, and this may give rise to the mistaken impression that the kapparot are a form of sacrifice.”
Also according to Chabad.org, “The word kapparot [like kippur] means "atonement," and is used to refer to the chickens themselves, but one should not think that kapparot themselves serve as a source of atonement. Rather, they serve as a means to bring a person to the awareness that he might very well be deserving of death because of his sins and he will thereby be motivated to repent and ask G-d for mercy.” Among the prayers used for the kapparot are selections from Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24.
Noting that both coins and flowers are suitable substitutes for chickens, Knesset member Lipman deplored the swinging of the birds. "It is time to issue a call from here, the Land of Israel, to stop with this deplorable custom," he said. "Similar calls have been made in the past by people, including the great Torah sages. The Rashba demanded that this 'pagan' custom, as he called it, be forbidden completely in his city. The Ramban as well as Rabbi Kaduri also ruled against this pagan custom. Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Shulhan Arukh, the Jewish lawbook, called the custom 'silly'." Lipman said he wholeheartedly supports the kapparot ritual, but with coins that are then given to the poor.
‘Rashba’ is from the Hebrew acronym of Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, a revered Spanish authority of the Talmud who was the leader of the Barcelona synagogue for 50 years in the 1200s. ‘Ramban’ is taken from the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, who is also known as Maimonides. Ramban was a celebrated rabbinical scholar, philosopher and physician who was born in Spain in the 1100s. Yitzchak Kaduri was a beloved Mizrahi Haredi scholar of the Torah who died in 2006.
"It is time to do what's right," Lipman wrote on his Facebook page. "Use coins for charity; use flowers. Stop being part of this cruelty." He said, "Kind David taught us about God's compassion," adding "Let us demonstrate that we, too, live in accordance with the laws of compassion."
Richard Schwartz wrote in the online JewishVirtualLibrary.org, “According to the Encyclopedia Judaica (Volume 10, pages 756-757), several Jewish sages strongly opposed kapparot. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Aderet , one of the foremost Jewish scholars during the 13th century, considered it a heathen superstition. This opinion was shared by the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Caro, who called it "a foolish custom" that Jews should avoid. They felt that it was a pagan custom that mistakenly made its way into Jewish practice, perhaps because when Jews lived among pagans this rite seemed like a korban (sacrifice) to some extent. However, the Kabbalists (led by mystics such as Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) perceived in this custom mystical significance which strongly appealed to many people. This greatly enhanced the popularity of the kapparot ritual down to the present day.”
Rabbi Lipman was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1971. He belongs to the Yesh Atid party in the Knesset and is the first U.S.-born member of the legislative body since Meir Kahane in 1984.