Kaparot (also known as Kaparos) is an ancient Jewish folk custom that is still performed by some (though not most) Jews today. The tradition is connected to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and involves whirling a chicken above one's head while reciting a prayer. The folk belief is that an individual's sins will be transferred to the chicken, thereby allowing them to begin the New Year with a clean slate.
Not surprisingly, kaparot is a controversial practice in modern times. Even among Jews who practice kaparot, nowadays it is common to substitute money wrapped in white cloth for the chicken. In this way Jews can participate in the custom without bringing harm to an animal.
Origin of Kaparot
The word "kaparot" literally means "atonements." The name stems from the folk belief that a chicken can atone for an individual's sins by ritually transferring one's misdeeds to the animal before it is slaughtered.
According to Rabbi Alfred Koltach, the practice of kapparot likely began among the Jews of Babylonia. It is mentioned in Jewish writings from the 9th century and was widespread by the 10th century. Though rabbis at the time condemned the practice, Rabbi Moses Isserles approved it and as a result kaparot became a custom in some Jewish communities. Among the rabbis who objected to kaparot were Moses Ben Nahman and Rabbi Joseph Karo, both well-known Jewish sages. In his Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Karo wrote of kaparot: "The custom of kaparot... is a practice that ought to be prevented."
Practice of Kaparot
The ritual begins by reciting the following biblical verses:
Some lived in deepest darkness, bound in cruel irons... (Psalms 107:10)
He brought them out of deepest darkness, broke their bonds asunder... (Psalms 107:14).
There were fools who suffered for their sinful way, and for their iniquities. All food was loathsome to them: They reached the gates of death. In their adversity they cried to the Lord and He saved them from their troubles. He gave an order and healed them; He delivered them from the pits. Let them praise the Lord for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind (Psalms 107:17‑21).
Then He has mercy on him and decreed, "Redeem him from descending to the Pit, For I have obtained his ransom" (Job 33:24).
Then the rooster or hen is whirled above the individual's head three times while the following words are recited: "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. The cock or hen shall meet death, but I shall enjoy a long, pleasant life of peace." (Koltach, Alfred. pg. 239.) After these words are said the chicken is slaughtered and either eaten by the person who performed the ritual or given to the poor.
Because kaparot is a controversial custom, in modern times, Jews who practice kaparot will often substitute money wrapped in white cloth for the chicken. The same biblical verses are recited, and then the money is swung about the head three times as with the chicken. At the conclusion of the ceremony the money is given to charity.
Purpose of Kaparot
Kaparot’s association with the holiday of Yom Kippur gives us an indication of its meaning. Because Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when God judges each person's deeds, kaparot is meant to symbolize the urgency of repentance during Yom Kippur. It represents the knowledge that each of us has sinned during the past year, that each of us must repent and that only repentance will allow us to start the New Year with a clean slate.
Nevertheless, since its inception and to this day most rabbis condemn the practice of using animals to atone for one’s misdeeds.
Sources: "The Jewish Book of Why" by Rabbi Alfred Koltach.