I grew up in Brooklyn. Every year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the streets were bustling with people-- and with chickens. There were hundreds of chickens, maybe thousands, in crates stacked on the main avenue. All night long, an incessant squawking and stench filled the air. We were preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, with the kapparot (translation: atonements) ceremony.
During this ceremony, we each swung a white chicken over our heads while saying, "This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life and to peace." As a child, I cowered beneath the dangling legs of the chicken as my father held the bird over my head. I was worried that the chicken's sharp nails would get tangled in my hair, or worse.
There was no way I would forget what we did that nightMy father read some verses from Psalms and Job and then had me repeat the words "zot khalifati, zot temurati, zot kapparati " ("This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement…"). I repeated these words three times, and each time I said "zot" my father swung the chicken over my head --a total of nine times. Repetition is a powerful thing, especially in threes. In Jewish tradition, three is a number of strength and nine (3x3) is the number of truth. There was no way I would forget what we did that night.
Some years, my chicken was docile and rested peacefully in my father's hands. It drew its legs up, nodded its head and even closed its eyes. Some years I got a feisty chicken. It kicked and screamed, wanting to fly away.
Some years, my family and I walked the few city blocks to perform this ceremony on the street, with everyone else. Feathers flew everywhere, the street and sidewalk were spattered with yellow, white and grey chicken droppings. I usually felt a little sorry for the chickens in the crates. Young men, wearing long rubber gloves, were busy removing hens and roosters, holding them under their wings. The noise was incredible. Chickens clucked, people called, children laughed and cried. I noticed that some people petted their chicken and spoke to it.
Some years, my father brought home the chickens in a cardboard box. The chickens moved about inside, making rustling noises. If my mother were expecting, she would get extra chickens for the unborn child.
I was always fascinated with this wild chaos brought to the brownstone streets of Brooklyn.
When I was in 7th grade, I went on a class trip to Philadelphia. At the National Museum of American Jewish History, my classmates excitedly called me over to see a black and white photo of my mother doing kapparot with my younger brother. My brother must have been eight years old, and he was smiling broadly while my mother held the flapping chicken over him. I read the label. There was a quote of something my mother said to the photographer. I do not remember the exact words, but I will paraphrase what I do remember: "…I think about this chicken that is dying for me, because of me."
The Hebrew word for slaughter is sh'khita. Sh'khita can also mean "a drawing out" i.e., a drawing out of the life force of the animal. Words. Names. Their etymological roots—especially in Hebrew—can bear deep meaning. By delving into a name, I explore its essence. Take the word chayot, for example. It is the plural form of the word chaya, which means wild animal. It also has the same letters as chayut, life force. All of these share the root chai, life, as does the famous saying l'chayim, to life.
Life and death confront meAfter the kapparot ceremony, the chickens are brought to the shokhet, ritual slaughterer. Some actually watch the slaughter of their chicken. They watch the shokhet tilt the head of the chicken back. They watch him remove some feathers from the chicken's throat and they watch as the sharp knife is drawn over the throat, cutting the windpipe, carotid arteries and jugular veins. It is over so fast.
The shokhet then checks the incision of the partly decapitated chicken. The head flips back and the cleanly severed windpipe pops out. It is a tiny white tube surrounded by vivid red. Though the chicken dies instantly, a feisty chicken may still struggle and kick as if there were still life in its limbs. The chicken is then put head first into a cone shaped funnel, and its blood is drained out, rushing onto the pavement. I have seen this. One year, as I was walking by, some blood splattered onto my skirt. I turned my face away.
Saying the prayers and swinging the chicken over our heads, does not transfer our sins to the chickens. We do this ritual to inspire ourselves to repentance— on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Now, as an adult, the significance of this event is more apparent and poignant. Now, I feel sorry for the chicken, and I am supposed to feel sorry for the chicken-- for my chicken.
Its death disturbs me. Life and death confront me. I not only think of my future— my "long life" ahead and uncertain future, but also of my past years. What type of person was I? What type of "living" did I live? And the most important question of all: How will I live the coming year?
This is why some watch their chicken get slaughtered. There is another reason as well: the rare opportunity to perform the mitzvah, commandment, of covering the blood. After birds and other wild kosher animals are slaughtered, the blood is covered with earth and a special blessing is said. This is out of respect for the animal's life force in the blood "for the life of the flesh is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11)".
I have heard that it would be cruel to eat the animal's flesh while its life, its blood, is still before us. I wonder. Why specifically khayot, wild animals, and ofim, birds? Is it because wild animals have extra khayut, life force, pulsating through their veins? Is it because birds fly, and thus are both of the earth below and of the heavens above? Is it because they are free truly to live?
The process of kapparot is meant to disturbThis mitzvah of covering the blood is about the sanctity of life—the respect for life even after death, even in animals. I cannot help but make associations. The most powerful are the images of the suicide bombings that haunted Israel for years. The images of destruction and death horrify and disgust, but one image affects me more than others. It is what stirs something within me and makes me cry beyond words.
This is the picture of the "cleanup." Men from the Zaka unit, wearing florescent green vests, painstakingly removing every human remain—spots of blood, bits of skin—from the white pavement and walls, for burial. To leave anything would be to desecrate the life of the human who was.
In Jewish tradition, every part of a person's body must be returned to the earth, from whence it came. The body is then covered with dirt, like the dirt covering the blood of the chicken.
The process of kapparot is meant to disturb. I identify with the chicken when I say, "this is my exchange." I am forced to question: Am I respecting life? What is life? Who am I? What am I? Is there wildness in me? Am I a person of the earth, the heaven, or both? Am I free truly to live?
Now, I live in New Haven. Each year I bring my own family to kapparot. There are not as many chickens as there were in Brooklyn, and we do the swinging and slaughtering behind someone's house. The chickens are on the basketball court, and the shokhet, slaughterer, does his work out of sight, in the shed. My children laugh and play with the chickens but don't like it when my husband swings the chickens over their heads. I try to hold them still and help them repeat the words, "This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement." This year, when I am ready to go home, I cannot find my children. They have run off with their friends. I call them by their names, and I find them near the shed, watching the chickens as they are slaughtered according to Jewish law. I am horrified. They are fascinated. I stay and watch.