Playing Chicken With Your Troubles
On the off chance that you have a live chicken handy come Yom Kippur, you might want to try out the ancient Babylonian folk custom of kaparot, which means “atonements” and involves swinging a chicken above your head. You read that right: The idea behind kaparot is that in saying a prayer while twirling a white chicken (a rooster if you’re male, a hen if you’re female) over your head, you transfer your sins to the chicken and start the new year spiritually anew. The main piece of the prayer goes, “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This chicken shall meet death, but I shall enjoy a long, pleasant life of peace.” After the chicken is swung three times, it is either butchered or given to the poor (presumably to also be butchered).
Of course, the idea of using live chickens in a religious ritual doesn’t necessarily sit well with most folks nowadays, and it’s not just PETA who doth protest – many rabbis widely condemn the practice, too. If you’re dead-set (no pun intended) on practicing kaparot, might we recommend a chicken of the rubber variety? It’s unlikely the ancient Baylonians ever imagined kaparot happening with a joke prop, but that’s the joy of being a 21st-century Jew – taking old traditions and making them our own! Because a major aspect of the ritual involves contributing to tzedakah and because a rubber chicken doesn’t make for a particularly useful donation to anyone who’s not, say, a magician, consider volunteering your time or money in lieu of donating chicken meat.
If you’d rather not engage in fowl play of any kind – real or otherwise – you can follow the lead of most modern-day Jews, who practice kaparot by wrapping money in a white cloth and substituting that for a live animal. If you choose to practice kaparot this way, use the same prayer as you would with a chicken; again, when the ritual is complete, the money should be donated to charity.
For more information, Chabad offers an in-depth outline of how a traditional kaparot service should look, including the prayers one should recite during the ritual.
This post is an excerpt from JewishBoston.com's High Holidays Idea Guide for Young Adults.Download the entire free ebook today. Find additional Yom Kippur resources on our High Holidays page.