Vayelech – Shabbat Shuva
It is customary in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to perform the ritual of Kaparot, involving a symbolic transfer of one’s guilt upon some valuable, either upon money, which is then donated to charity, or upon a hen or rooster, which is then slaughtered and given to the poor. The object of Kaparot, whether a sum of money, a fish or hen, is waved over one’s head while designating the object to take one’s place, assume one’s guilt and provide atonement.
The practice of Kaparot dates back many centuries and is considered of great importance and effect by the mystics. It is one of the more popular practices in Jewish life, possibly due to the mystique around the ritual. The waving of a chicken around one’s head generates significant interest, both from those who adamantly oppose the practice as well as Jews who fervently promote it. During the days before Yom Kippur street corners or empty lots in large Jewish communities are taken over by organizers of Kaparot. Stacks of chicken crates are delivered and lines of people form to purchase the live birds and perform the ritual. The “used” birds are set aside for slaughter and a shochet is engaged to dispatch them.
On the other side of the aisle there are many opposed to using chickens for this practice, either on halachic grounds or because of animal rights. Some scholars of note, namely the Rashba and Ramban, both of the 13th century, considered this practice to have pagan origins and therefore discouraged people from using chickens for Kaparot. Even Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Code of Jewish Law writes that this is “a foolish custom that one should avoid.” Nevertheless, the custom is well established and the practice continues today promoted by many religious Jews (not least opportunists who organize the business side and bring home a pretty penny from the venture).
Like the practice of Tashlich and the simanim of Rosh Hashana, Kaparot utilizes symbolism to engender awareness of a particular concept and encourage us to follow through in concrete ways. The notion of transferring one’s guilt – for which one may be liable for death – onto a chicken, and then watching that chicken slaughtered, could be a jarring experience. Its objective is to inspire real repentance and urge us to take stock of our direction in life and re-calibrate. From such a perspective it is similar to a sacrificial offering in the Temple, and this is one of the objections some scholars have for the practice – it too closely resembles a sacrifice.
The other element of kaparot, however, and the main purpose of the practice, is the charity element. Whether one waves money over one’s head and declares it one’s exchange and atonement, or whether one waves a chicken and makes the same proclamation, the proceeds go to feed the poor and fulfil the Mitzvah of charity. Charitable giving is one of the three powerful keys to achieving the atonement and betterment of self to which we aspire. During the Rosh Hashana prayers, and again on Yom Kippur, the three keys are mentioned – Repentance, Prayer and Charity, which serve to deflect bad decrees which are otherwise destined to befall us.
If we try and step into God’s shoes for a moment, and observe things from His perspective, we would see a world full of people in various stages of their life mission. Assuming we would have the computing capacity to instantly identify each of the billions of people on earth, and analyze their respective challenges and choices, we might be prone to judge people harshly. But we take a great deal of comfort from our tradition that God accounts for society’s delicate ecology. The events that occur to one person have ripple effects on all his or her relations and associated friends. This is an important idea, and it is promoted by one of the great scholars of ethics during the 19th century, Rabbi Yisrael of Salant. He makes the point that the single most effective tool for good judgment is being indispensable to others. The more one is intertwined with community and with other people generally, the more one uses one’s faculties and resources to contribute to others, the more impact one’s fate will have on others. Taken individually we might have less claim to prosperity and good health and all the other blessings we pursue and demand. But in the context of what we contribute to society the equation changes. If I use my resources to support worthy causes God will preserve those resources – not necessarily for my sake but for the sake of those who benefit from my good stewardship.
This is why charity is so fundamental a tool during this time. Of course it is the fulfilment of our mandate to share our God given resources, and that alone is a precious merit to call upon during this time. But it also helps widen our circle of influence and changes the algorithm God uses to decide our fate. Losing our faculties and resources would harm not only our individual self but all those who would be impacted by our inability to continue to share those resources.