The Minhag of Kaparot

Sep 19, 2006
There is an ancient minhag known as kaparot, which calls for a person to wave a chicken over his head, recite a statement that transfers his iniquities onto the chicken, and then slaughter the chicken. This minhag is originally recorded in the Teshuvot HaGeonim, Sha'arei Teshuva no. 299. This article will explore the controversy surrounding this minhag as well as some of the halachic discussions that are relevant to this minhag.

The Controversy

Despite a longstanding tradition to perform kaparot, Ramban (cited in Orchot Chaim, Hilchot Erev Yom HaKippurim no.1) rules that kaparot is a violation of darchei ha'Emori, the prohibition of following the ways of idol worshippers (Vayikra 18:3). Rashba, Teshuvot HaRashba 1:395, notes that he did not allow kaparot in his community, ostensibly for the same reason as Ramban. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 605:1, codifies the opinion of Rashba (he states that one should avoid this practice but does not mention the prohibition of darchei ha'Emori). Rama, ad loc., based on the opinions of many Ashkenazi Rishonim (Rabbeinu Asher, Yoma 8:23, Mordechai, Yoma no. 723, and Tashbetz Katan no. 125) notes that common practice among Ashkenazim is to perform the minhag of kaparot.

Although Rama does not explain why the minhag of kaparot does not violate the prohibition of darchei ha'Emori, there are a few possible reasons why there is no violation. First, Teshuvot Mahari Veil, no. 191, writes that when performing kaparot one should imagine himself receiving the same punishment as the chicken. According to Mahari Veil, the purpose of kaparot is not necessarily to transfer one's iniquities onto the chicken, but rather, to elicit thoughts of repentance. As such, this practice is not based on any idolatrous practice and thus there is no violation of darchei ha'Emori.

Second, R. Moshe M. Karp, HilchotChagB'Chag, YamimNora'im pg. 276, suggests that the dispute between Ramban and the Ashkenazi Rishonim is the subject of a dispute between Rama, Yoreh De'ah 178:1, and the Vilna Gaon, Biur HaGra, ad loc. Rama, (based on Maharik no. 88) maintains that there is no violation of darchei ha'Emori if there is some practical purpose to the activity in question. However, the Vilna Gaon (based on Tosafot, Sanhedrin 52b, s.v. Ela) asserts that any activity which is practiced by idolaters may not be practiced by Jews, even if there is a practical purpose to it. R. Karp suggests that since there is a practical purpose to kaparot – to provide atonement, it is justifiable according to Rama. However, according to the Vilna Gaon, kaparot would constitute darchei ha'Emori since the ritual had previously been practiced by idol worshippers. R. Karp notes that according to his thesis, one would have to conclude that the Vilna Gaon was opposed to kaparot; a conclusion that he is reluctant to accept.

Third, R. Eliezer of Metz, Sefer Yerei'im no. 313, rules that the prohibition of darcheiha’Emori is limited to cases listed in the Tosefta (Shabbat chapters 7 and 8). Any activity that is not listed in the Tosefta is not included in the prohibition of darchei ha'Emori. Although, Rama, Yoreh De'ah 178:1, clearly does not follow the opinion of Sefer Yerei'im, his opinion may serve as a partial basis for permitting the minhag of kaparot.

Practical Concerns about Kaparot

There are two practical concerns mentioned by poskim regarding kaparot. First, R. Ovadia Yosef, Yechave Da'at 2:71, notes that because of the pressure on the shochet (slaughterer) to slaughter many chickens in a short amount of time, some of the chickens do not undergo a valid slaughter and their invalidity goes unnoticed. Second, R. Efraim Z. Margulies, Beit Efraim, Yoreh De'ah no. 26, notes that due to the large number of people who perform kaparot on Erev Yom Kippur, there is an unusually long waiting time between the waving of the chickens and their slaughter. As a result, many chickens are not handled properly and this is a violation of tza'ar ba'alei chaim (cruelty to animals).

R. Ovadia Yosef, op. cit., rules that because of the concern of improper slaughter, it is preferable for a community to conduct kaparot over the course of a few days during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. R. Yosef's suggestion would also ameliorate the concern for tza'ar ba'alei chaim by reducing the waiting time between the waving of the chickens and their slaughter.

Vegetarian Kaparot

Rashi, Shabbat 81b, s.v. Hai Parpisa quotes from a responsum of the Geonim a minhag to plant legumes in a pot 22-25 days prior to Rosh HaShanah. On Erev Rosh HaShanah each member of the household takes their pot and waves it over their head seven times stating that "this should be an exchange for this" (implying that the iniquities are transferred to the sprout). The pot is then thrown into the river.

This minhag is significant for numerous reasons. First, by using a plant instead of a chicken, one can avoid the practical problems associated with kaparot. Second, this minhag is performed on Erev Rosh HaShanah as opposed to Erev Yom Kippur (or Aseret Yemei Teshuva). Third, this minhag seems to be the precursor to both kaparot and tashlich.

Many people have the practice of using money instead of a chicken. R. Karp, op. cit., suggests that the practice of using money may be based on the concern for Ramban's opinion that kaparot constitutes a violation of darchei ha'Emori. Perhaps Ramban's opinion is limited to the minhag of slaughtering a chicken. Ramban would agree that it is permissible when there is no slaughter involved. Based on R. Karp's suggestion, it is possible to argue that the minhag quoted by Rashi to use a plant is also based on a concern for the violation of darchei ha'Emori.

Kaparot for a Pregnant Woman

Tashbetz Katan, op. cit., writes that a rooster (male) should be used for kaparot for a male and a chicken (female) should be used as kaparot for a female. Maharil, Hilchot Erev Yom HaKippurim, no. 2, writes that a pregnant woman should perform an additional set of kaparot. Rama, Orach Chaim 605:1, records both of these practices and explains that a pregnant woman should perform an additional set of kaparot because the fetus may be a male. This implies that if we were to know that the fetus is a female, there would be no need to perform an additional set of kaparot. Magen Avraham 605:2, cites the ruling of Arizal that a pregnant woman should perform two additional sets of kaparot.

The Vilna Gaon, Biur HaGra, Orach Chaim 605:1, explains that the dispute between Rama and Arizal is based on a Talmudic dispute regarding the status of a fetus. The Gemara, in numerous places (see for example, Yevamot 78a) queries whether a fetus is considered a limb of the mother (ubar yerech imo) or whether it is considered its own entity (ubar lav yerech imo). The Vilna Gaon explains that Rama follows the opinion that a fetus is considered a limb of the mother. Therefore, an additional set of kaparot is only necessary if the fetus is a male. [One must add that even according to the opinion that a fetus is considered a limb of the mother, a male fetus is considered a "male limb" and would require kaparot from a rooster. If the fetus is a female, one set of kaparot is sufficient for the woman's entire body, including the "additional limb."] The Arizal follows the opinion that a fetus is considered its own entity and therefore, one would perform two additional sets of kaparot (one male and one female) in order to account for either gender of fetus. [The question of the halachic status of a fetus has practical halachic significance in the discussions surrounding abortion (see Torat Chesed, Even HaEzer no. 42) and surrogate motherhood (see Techumin Vol. V).]


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