What Is Kaparot?

Since late Talmudic times, it has been a widespread Jewish custom to perform kaparot in preparation for Yom Kippur. Kaparot (also spelled kapparot or kaporos) literally means “atonements,” just as Yom Kippur means “the Day of Atonement.”

Kaparot consists of carefully (see instructions below) passing a chicken over one’s head three times while reciting the appropriate text. The chicken is then slaughtered in a humane fashion in accordance with the laws of kashrut. The chicken itself is discreetly donated to a charitable cause, such as a yeshiva or orphanage, where it is eaten just as any other chicken. Alternatively, the chicken is sold and its value donated.1

We ask of G‑d that if we were destined to be the recipients of harsh decrees in the new year, may they be transferred to this chicken in the merit of this mitzvah of charity.

If a chicken is unavailable, one may use any kosher fowl other than doves or pigeons which were offered as sacrifices in the Holy Temple. Some use a live kosher fish; others perform the entire rite with money, and then give the money—at least the value of a chicken—to charity.

It is important to keep in mind that the chicken is not an offering. Neither does performance of the ceremony alone atone for one’s sins. However, the ceremony does shake one up a little.

This is especially true today, when we rarely come face-to-face with the slaughter of animals to fill our tables. Holding a chicken and then seeing it slaughtered, contemplating that “there but for the grace of G‑d go I,” can have a profound effect on one’s attitude going into the day of Yom Kippur.

It also provides a valuable perspective on our position of privilege in G‑d’s world. Animals lived and died in order for us to live. It behooves us to live altruistically, honestly, devoutly and wisely, as only humans can.

When to Do Kaparot

In most Jewish communities, kaparot is organized at a designated location, with the proceeds going to charity. Live chickens are available for purchase, a shochet (an expert kosher slaughterer) is present, and the chickens are donated to a charitable organization. Speak to your rabbi to find out whether and where kaparot is being organized in your area.

Kaparot can be done any time during the Ten Days of Repentance (i.e. between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), but the ideal time is during the pre-dawn hours on the day preceding Yom Kippur, for a "thread of Divine kindness" prevails during those hours.

How Many Chickens?

A male takes a rooster; a female uses a hen. Ideally every individual should use their own chicken.

If, however, this is cost prohibitive, one fowl can be used for several individuals. So an entire family can do kaparot with two chickens—one rooster for all the males and one hen for all the females. In this event, they should do the kaparot together, not one after the other, for one cannot do kaparot on the same chicken twice.

A pregnant woman should perform kaparot with three chickens—two hens and a rooster. One hen for herself, and the other hen and rooster for the unborn child (if the gender is undetermined). If this is too expensive, one hen and one rooster will suffice (and if the fetus is female, she shares the hen with her mother).

How to Do Kaparot

  • Click here for the English text of the kaparot. Click here for Hebrew and English text in printable PDF format (courtesy of Kehot Publication Society).
  • Hold the chicken from below with both hands. If you are not adept at holding a chicken, best to ask someone else to do this. Improperly holding the chicken may be painful to the chicken, and may also render it no longer kosher by causing it serious harm.
  • Say the first paragraph (“Children of man who sit in darkness…”).
  • When reciting the beginning of the second paragraph, pass the chicken over your head in circular motions three times—once when saying, “This is my exchange,” again when saying “This is my substitute,” and again when saying, “This is my expiation.”
  • Repeat the entire process another two times. (Passing the chicken over your head a total of nine times.)
  • Bring the chicken to the shochet (kosher slaughterer), who slaughters the bird.
  • Here’s your chance to fulfill a relatively rare biblical mitzvah—that of covering the blood of a slaughtered bird. Take a handful of earth (usually made available in the area) and recite the following blessing before covering the blood:
  • Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al kisui hadam be-afar.
  • (Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning covering the blood with earth.).
  • It is customary in many communities to tip the shochet for his service.

Even the smallest of children are traditionally brought to kaparot, and one of the parents passes the chicken over the child's head, while saying, “This is your exchange, this is your substitute, this is your expiation…”

If you are using fish or money for kaparot, just follow the same procedure (obviously without the kosher slaughterer), modifying the words of the text as appropriate.

Origin of Kaparot

The custom of performing kaparot with a chicken dates back to late Talmudic times. The earliest extant record specifically discussing the use of a chicken is a responsum from Rav Sheshna Gaon who lived in the early Geonic (post-Talmudic) period (approx. 660 C.E.). Rav Sheshna takes it for granted that his reader knows about the custom, a clear indication that it was widespread at the time.2 Some commentaries point to passages in the Talmud itself that allude to this custom.3

Why a Chicken?

Several reasons have been suggested for the choice of a chicken to perform the kaparot rite:

1. In Aramaic, a rooster is known as a gever. In Hebrew, a gever is a man. Thus we take a gever to atone for a gever.

2. A chicken is a commonly found fowl and relatively inexpensive.

3. It is not a species that was eligible to be offered as a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. This precludes the possibility that someone might erroneously conclude that the kaparot is an offering.

It is customary to use a white chicken, to recall the verse (Isaiah 1:18), "If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow." In any event, one should not use a black chicken, as black is the color that represents divine severity and discipline. Nor should one use an obviously blemished chicken.

The Detractors

There have been some rabbis who criticized the custom of kaparot. Their primary concern was that kaparot may be a violation of darchei ha-Emori, the prohibition of following pagan practices. Perhaps the most well known of the detractors was Rabbi Yosef Karo, compiler of the Code of Jewish Law.4

Despite their concerns, we find that the majority of Jewish communities—even among the Sephardim, who normally would follow the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo5 —retained the custom.

The reasons for this is that, as Rabbi Moshe Isserles notes,6 the custom of kaparot with a chicken is in fact an ancient time-hallowed Jewish tradition.

Furthermore, many rabbis explain that the concern was not about the kaparot ritual itself, but limited to certain components of it—either that people went out of their way to obtain white chickens,7 or that they would throw the innards on the roofs.8

Additionally, Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz) points out that their objection was also only when the proceeds and/or chickens were not given to charity.9

Kaparot and Kindness to Animals

It is of utmost importance to treat the chickens humanely, and not to, G‑d forbid, cause them any pain or discomfort. Jewish law very clearly forbids causing any unnecessary pain to any of G‑d's creations. An unkind act like that would certainly be amplified on this day, the eve of the day when we beseech G‑d for—perhaps undeserved—kindness and mercy.

In fact, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that we take the innards and liver of the kaparot chickens and place them in an area where birds can feed off them. “It is proper to show mercy to the creatures on this day, so that in Heaven they should have mercy upon us [too].”10