Kapparos – A Halachic Overview


It was a rather bizarre incident.  It seems that the Kapparos chicken had made a run for it and escaped.  Where did it go?  It went to the cage where the other chickens were being held.

And now began the Kapparos manager’s dilemma.  Should he inform his customers that one of the chickens was “used” already?  If he does so then the owner will lose significant money.  No one will use that batch of chickens anymore.  If he does not tell them – then he has caused them to stumble with a pre-used chicken.  What should the manager do?

This question was posed to Rav Elyashiv zt”l by his son-in-law Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein.  Rav Elyashiv ruled that, in fact, it is not a problem.  The reason is that the atonement of the Kapparos chicken occurs at the time of the Shechita and not earlier.  Rav Elyashiv explained that the taking of the chickens and swinging around the head is not the actual thing that performs the action of atonement in the Minhag of Kapparos.  Hence, if the chicken “escaped” and joined up with the other chickens – it is not a problem to do it once again.

The minhag of kapparos is an old and controversial custom in Judaism, dating back to the times of the Gaonim. It takes place on erev Yom Kippur and is classically performed with a chicken, also known by its Latin name of Gallus gallus domesticus.

But why a chicken?

A number of reasons are cited. Firstly, a chicken was the most common animal found in the Jewish home, more so than any other domestic animal. Secondly, the Talmud (Yoma 20b) tells us that another name for the chicken is a “gever,” which is also a synonym for a human being. The implication is quite clear. The chicken, whose name is the same as that of our species, is serving as a substitute for us. There is a third reason cited. According to the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b), the chicken is the crème de la crème of fowls. (Since, halachically speaking, a turkey is in the same class as a chicken, it is quite understandable why Benjamin Franklin wished to make the turkey the national bird of the United States—his view coincided with that of the Talmud.)

Nonetheless, there were many Rishonim who were strongly against this custom. No less than the Rambam, the Ramban, the Rashba, and Rav Yoseph Karo himself were strong opponents of this practice. Rav Karo, in his Beis Yoseph, even labels it “darchei Amori—the ways of the gentiles.” The Rosh, however—the Ashkenazic giant who was one of the three pillars of halachic codifers—encouraged the practice, as did his son, the author of the Tur, as well as the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles. The custom became widespread in Ashkenazic circles.

Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, a student of the Rama, writes that one may also use fish for kapparos, provided that one can tell the difference between the male fish and the female fish. (A man takes a male, and a woman takes a female.) Indeed, the Aleph HaMagen writes that fish are preferable to chickens, because there are no problems with the shechitah and the subsequent examination to ensure that the chicken has not become a t’reifah. So, if one were to use salmon how does one tell the difference between a male salmon and a female salmon? There is an easy way to tell: the adult male salmon has a hooked nose (actually a hooked lower jaw), called a kype. The fairer type of salmon has a smooth nose (this without surgery, mind you).

The Chayei Adam writes (and the Mishnah Berurah cites this position) that it is common to use money that will be destined for charity for kapparos. This has numerous advantages. Firstly, it deals with the issue of darchei Amori that the Rishonim were concerned about. Secondly, it deals with the issue of t’reifos which the Aleph HaMagen discussed. Thirdly, it creates greater opportunity for tzedakah. And fourthly, it addresses the not inconsequential issues of tza’ar ba’alei chayim. For example, we must ask ourselves: How are the chickens transported to the kapparos? How many could die of heat exhaustion, starvation, dehydration, etc.? Also, are the chickens actually wasted?

One advantage of using a chicken, however, is that it gives the person the very rare opportunity to perform the mitzvah of kisui ha’dam, of covering the blood of a fowl or wild animal that is slaughtered. If the person wishes to perform this mitzvah, then he should be appointed by the shochet to be the shochet’s shaliach, his agent. In this manner, the mitzvah of kisui will be performed in the ideal fashion, where the person who performs the kisui is the shochet. (This was the view of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, in Minhagei Eretz Yisrael, page 412.)

Before we perform the kapparos ceremony, we recite pesukim from Tehillim and from Iyov. Then as the chicken (or the money) is swung above the head three times, the following is recited three times:

“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement.”

“This rooster [or “This hen”] will go to its death—” or “This money will go to charity—”

“—while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.”

If one opts for the Chayei Adam version, how much money is used? Most people seem to use either one dollar per person, or 18 dollars (or 18 cents) per person, to indicate “chai.” The Magen Avraham writes that one should use the amount of money that a chicken would cost. An adult-size chicken can be purchased live for about $5 or $6 per chicken at the time of this writing. The AriZ’l and the Shla both write that a white chicken should be used, so one should add another $2 or $3 for each chicken.

The custom of Kapparos itself, has been a debate between those who follow the Ramah and those who follow the Beis Yoseph as to whether the custom is entirely of Jewish origin or not.  Rav Elyashiv’s point about the symmetry between atonement achieved with standard Korbanos and the custom of Kapparos is in accordance with the explanations given to justify the position of the Ramah.

Whichever way we decide to perform this minhag, we should all merit a complete atonement this Yom Kippur. Amein!

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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  1. So according to this reasoning, the problem of “reusing” a “2nd hand” kaporas chicken lies not with the 2nd hand user, but rather with the first user, who’s chicken didn’t make it to “the finish line” (shcita) for his kapora but rather for someone else. If a chicken was used a few times (a practice done by some unscrupolous kaporas vendors) the 1 who gets the kapora would be the last 1 who used it before the shcita. This is an interesting chidush.