Erev Yom Kippur
1. It is customary to perform the "Kapporos" ceremony in the pre-dawn
hours of the day preceding Yom Kippur, (1) since [the attribute of] mercy
is dominant at that time.
[For this ceremony,] one takes a non-castrated rooster to be used on behalf
of a man, and a hen on behalf of a woman. For a pregnant woman one takes
both a rooster and a hen - a rooster, in case the fetus is male, [and the
hen for the mother]. If the fetus is female, the single hen is sufficient
for the mother and her daughter. Indeed, even [when] people [do not share
family ties,] two people can use the same chicken (2).
White chickens should be chosen [for the ceremony] as an allusion to
[Isaiah 1:18]: "If your sins are scarlet, they will become white as
snow." When purchasing the chickens, however, one should not outwardly
express preference for white ones, and pay a higher price for them, because
[limiting oneself to white chickens] resembles a pagan practice ("darchei
ha'emori"). Rather, if one finds a white one among a group of chickens one
has purchased, one should select it [for this ceremony].
Each person should hold [the chicken he is using for this ceremony] in his
right hand and recite the paragraph beginning with "B'nei odom... (found in
all prayer books). Then, he should swing the chicken around his head three
times, saying the phrase beginning with "Zeh chalifosi...("This is my
substitute") with each circle. If one swings a chicken around the head of
another person, one should say, "Zeh chalifos'cha...("This is YOUR
substitute"). One should swing the chicken around one's own head before
performing the ceremony for someone else. The chicken should also be
slaughtered in the pre-dawn hours, directly after the ceremony is performed.
A person should not think, however, that this ceremony itself actually
atones for him. On the contrary, [he should look at the ceremony as
symbolic in nature, realizing] that everything that is being done to the
chicken should really be done to him [as punishment] for his sins. [This
will make] him regret his sins, and, as a result, the Holy One, blessed be
He, in His mercy, will accept his repentance (3).
It is customary to leave the intestines, the liver, and the kidneys in a
courtyard or on a roof, where the birds can take them, for it is fitting to
show mercy toward all created beings on this day, so that G-d will have
mercy on us. [Another reason for throwing away the chicken's digestive
organs] is that [birds often] eat [food that was not given to them, thus it
can be viewed as] stolen [food], and [discarding these organs containing
this "stolen property"] makes us conscious of the need to distance
ourselves from theft.
If chickens are not available, one may take a goose or any other animal
that is not fit to be offered as a sacrifice. Some say that even fish are
acceptable. Pigeons are not, however, for they are used for sacrificial
purposes, and it might appear that one intends to offer sacrifices outside
Some people customarily give [the chickens used for this ceremony] to the
poor. It is preferable to redeem the chickens and give the money to the
(1) Although it is preferable to perform the "Kapporos" ceremony on the
day preceding Yom Kippur, if this is not possible the ceremony may be
performed on another day of the Ten Days of Repentance.
(2) There are other authorities who require each individual to use a
chicken of his own. According to this view, a pregnant women should use
three chickens: a hen for herself, a rooster in the event that the fetus is
male, and a hen in the event that the fetus is female.
(3) It should be noted that the Ramban and the Rashba actually wrote that
the "Kapparos" ceremony should not be performed because it resembles
witchcraft and other pagan practices; the Shulchan Aruch himself followed
this line of reasoning and writes in 605:1 that one should not participate
in the custom. However, the Ramah (Ibid.) writes that since this custom is
mentioned in the writings of many of the Gaonim, and many of the later
authorities (Acharonim), it is considered to be a "minhag vasikin" ("an old
custom of the righteous"), and should not be eliminated.
Other authorities have attempted to eliminate the custom because the people
doing the slaughtering would become so tired due to the volume of chickens
being slaughtered in quick succession, that they would not be in the
appropriate state to check their knives properly (the fact that this was
happening at night also contributed to the problems); as a result, many
people would be eating non-kosher chickens due to invalid slaughtering. To
avoid this problem, many authorities recommended that the "Kapporos"
ceremony be performed on other days during the Ten Days of Repentance,
rather than having everyone do it on Erev Yom Kippur. Alternatively, one
may avoid all problems by performing the ceremony by swinging money instead
of a chicken around one's head, and then giving the money to charity (See
Mishna Berura 605:2).
(4) The poor might be offended by the fact that you have given them the
chicken upon which you have "placed all your sins" (Mishna Berura 605:5).