It is customary to perform the "Kapparot" ritual on Ereb Yom Kippur – or, if necessary, anytime during the Aseret Yemeh Teshuba – which involves swinging a chicken around one's head while reciting a special text, and then slaughtering the chicken. The Rashba (Rabbi Shelomo Ben Aderet of Barcelona, 1235-1310), in one of his responsa, expressed his stern opposition to this practice, claiming that swinging and slaughtering chickens as a means of atonement constitutes "Darcheh Emori" – following gentile practices. He describes the efforts he made to abolish the custom in his area, and writes that "with the kindness of God" he succeeded in eliminating the custom. The Rashba's position was adopted by Maran, who writes in the Shulhan Aruch that the custom of swinging chickens for atonement should be abolished. This is also the view of the Peri Hadash (Rabbi Hizkiya De Silva, 1659-1698).
However, it has been revealed that the Arizal (Rabbi Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572) indeed followed and strongly encouraged the custom of Kapparot. We, of course, treat all the customs and practices of the Arizal with the utmost seriousness and respect, as they reflect the customs of the Kabbalistic tradition, which we follow. Therefore, we do not accept Maran's ruling on this issue, and we follow instead the custom of the Arizal to perform Kapparot with a chicken. This practice is also codified by the great Rabbi from Halab (Aleppo), the Eretz Haim Sutton, and by the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909).
The concept underlying Kapparot is to bring to mind that everything done to the chicken should actually be done to the person. Specifically, the chicken endures all four forms of capital punishment that would be administered by a Bet Din for certain transgressions. Grabbing the chicken by the neck resembles Henek (strangulation); the slaughtering corresponds to Hereg (decapitation); the chicken thrown to the ground after slaughtering, resembling Sekila (stoning); and the chicken then roasted, symbolizes Serefa (burning). One should think in his mind while swinging the chicken that due to his sins he deserves all these forms of punishment, and he should think thoughts of sincere repentance and pray that he should spared the punishments which he deserves. Specifically a chicken is used for this purpose because a chicken is often referred to with the term "Geber," which is also used in reference to people, and thus a chicken is an appropriate "substitute" for the human being.
Another purpose of Kapparot is to have the opportunity to perform the Misva of Kisui Ha'dam, which most people do not generally have a chance to fulfill. The Torah requires covering the blood of a chicken after it is slaughtered with earth, which is a relatively simple act that fulfills an affirmative Biblical command. Before Yom Kippur, as we seek to accrue as many merits as we can, we perform Kapparot in order to have the opportunity to perform an additional Misva. One should therefore request from the Shohet to be able to cover the blood after the chicken is slaughtered. Before covering the blood, one recites the Beracha "Baruch Ata…Asher Kideshanu Be'misvotav Ve'sivanu Al Kisui Ha'dam Be'afar." If one performs Kapparot with several chickens for himself and his family members, he should have his wife and children cover the blood of their chickens, with the Beracha, so they can be involved in this Misva.
The custom is to take a chicken for every female in the family, and a rooster for every male. If one's wife is pregnant, then he takes for her two female and one male; a female for the wife herself, and both a male and female for the fetus, as its gender is unknown. (This applies even nowadays, when the gender can be determined through ultrasound, since the ultrasounds are not always precise.) One first performs the Kapparot for himself, before performing the ritual for his wife and then children. This is indicated by the verse, "Ve'chiper Ba'ado U'be'ad Beto" ("He shall atone for himself and for his household" – Vayikra 16:6), which suggests that one first brings atonement for himself, and only then for his household. This also follows logically; first one purifies himself, and then, once he has attained a state of purity, he is in a position to bring purification to the members of his family.
Some have the custom of immersing in a Mikveh before performing Kapparot; this is recorded by the Kaf Ha'haim (Rav Yaakob Haim Sofer, Baghdad-Israel, 1870-1939), citing the Mateh Abraham.
The chicken is swung three times around the head, during which one recites a three-phrase declaration – one phrase for each swing: "Zeh Halifati, Zeh Temurati, Zeh Kaparati" ("This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement"). When swinging the chicken around someone else's head (such as wife or child), then he says, "Zeh Halifatcha, Zeh Temuratecha, Zeh Kaparatecha" for a male, and for a female he recites, "Zeh Halifatech, Zeh Temuratech, Zeh Kaparatech."
Although the words "Halifa" and "Temura" seem synonymous (as both denote "exchange"), there is a subtle but important difference between them. The term "Halifa" refers to substituting with something superior, whereas "Temura" means the opposite – exchanging something with something else that is inferior. When we begin Kapparot, we are inferior to the chicken, because we have sins on our record, while the chicken obviously has not committed any sins. We therefore begin Kapparot by proclaiming "Zeh Halifati," indicating that we are substituting ourselves with something superior – the chicken. But then, once we've repented, we are superior to the chicken, and we therefore say, "Zeh Temurati" – we are substituted with something inferior.
One must ensure to recite this declaration in the precise sequence of "Halifati," "Temurati," "Kapparati," because the first letters of these words spell "H.T.K.," which is the name of the angel assigned over inscribing people in the book of life (as in the phrase "Hotech Hayim," referring to "cutting out" people for a sentence of good life). Furthermore, "H.T.K." is the divine Name associated with Parnasa (livelihood) that is embedded within the famous verse, "Pote'ah Et Yadecha U'masbia Le'chol Hai Rason" ("You open your hand and willfully satiate all living creatures").
After swinging the chicken, one recites a brief prayer text in which he prays that whereas the chicken is killed, he should be spared for life. It is customary to mention one's name and the name of his mother in this prayer. (We generally use the mother's name when we pray for someone, or for ourselves, because the relationship to one's mother can be definitively verified.) When reciting this text, one should recite "Zeh Ha'tarnegol Yelech Le'mita Ve'ikanes Ani L'hayim Tobim U'le'shalom" ("This chicken shall go to death, and I shall go to good life and peace"). It is important to recite this text, and not the erroneous text of "Zeh Ha'tarnegol Yelech Le'mita Va'ani Ikanes…" This text is incorrect because it sounds as though one prays that both he and the chicken shall be killed, Heaven forbid ("Zeh Ha'tarnegol Yelech Le'mita Va'ani" – "This chicken shall go to death, and I"). One must therefore ensure to recite, "Zeh Ha'tarnegol Yelech Le'mita Ve'ikanes Ani…" This is the ruling of the Kaf Ha'haim.
The Shohet should slaughter the chicken immediately after the individual swings it around his head; the chicken should not be left in a box to be slaughtered later. While slaughtering the chicken, the Shohet should have in mind that he seeks to "sweeten" the five "Geburot" in the "Yesod Ha'malchut." He should also have in mind to repair the human souls that are reincarnated in the chicken, and to repair the soul of the individual for whom he slaughters the chicken.
It is critically important to ensure that the Shohet who slaughters the chicken does so properly, in strict accordance with Halacha. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that due to the heavy workload, as scores of people bring chickens for Kapparot, the Shohetim are fatigued and thus become lax with regard to the required inspections of their knives and the proper procedure of the slaughtering. Inspecting the knife requires Yir'at Shamayim (fear of God), and also concentration and patience. It could happen that one runs his finger over the blade three times without feeling a nick, but then the fourth time he notices the nick. If a Shohet is tired and overworked, he might not have the concentration or patience required to properly inspect the knife. It is therefore preferable for those who know how to perform Shehita to slaughter the Kapparot themselves, or for one to bring his chicken to a Shohet who is known to be competent and God-fearing. Additionally, it is proper for people to be assigned the job of inspecting the knives during Kapparot, so that the Shohetim, who are busy slaughtering, will not have to bear this responsibility. The Poskim warn that if a chicken is slaughtered improperly, whatever one has gained by performing this ritual is lost by the prohibition of eating non-kosher food. It should also be noted that if it is discovered that one's Kapparot chicken was slaughtered improperly, he has not fulfilled the Misva and must perform Kapparot with another chicken. (If, however, the chicken was found to be a Terefa, he does not need to repeat the Kapparot with a healthy chicken.)
In light of this concern, it is acceptable to perform Kapparot earlier than Ereb Yom Kippur, in order to alleviate the pressure on the Shohetim. The preferred time for Kapparot is the early morning hours of Ereb Yom Kippur – based on Kabbalistic tradition – but it may be done earlier if necessary. This would even be preferable if there is concern that the Shohetim will be put under pressure and strain by having to slaughter chickens for many hours from the early morning hours of Ereb Yom Kippur.
Some have the custom of giving the chicken to a poor person after the Kapparot. The Maharil (Rav Yaakov Ben Moshe Moelin, Germany, 1365-1427) strongly opposed this practice, as it is insulting to the poor to give them chickens upon which one has transferred his sins. Therefore, some have the custom to either leave the chicken with the Shohet, or to eat it oneself and give money to the poor. In any event, the atonement is achieved primarily through the slaughtering, and not by giving the chicken to the poor.
If one cannot use a chicken for Kapparot, this custom can be observed by using money. The money should brre given to a poor person as charity. If one performs Kapparot with money, this money cannot be counted toward his Ma'aser Kesafim (tithe of his income). The money serves as his atonement, as a kind of "ransom" for his life, and it must therefore not come from money that he would in any event have to give to charity. (Nor should the cost of slaughtering the chickens be counted towards one's Ma'aser.)
If one uses a chicken, he should state explicitly that he does so "Beli Neder," without accepting this as a lifelong practice, as he cannot know for certain that in subsequent years he will be able to perform Kapparot with a chicken.
**You can fulfill your obligation of "Kapparot" by having Rabbi Mansour distribute funds on your behalf to those in need. Simply log on to www.dailyhalacha.com/Kaparot.aspx **