Jewish Journal

Halloween and Yom Kippur Kaparot: Death Holidays

by Pini Herman

September 11, 2013 | 3:52 pm

It’s not by chance that Yom Kippur and Halloween coincide.  The fall, or autumn, brings the pop-up Halloween stores and pop-up chicken slaughter Kaparot sites cheek-by-jowl in some neighborhoods which offer cheap real estate or store vacancies.

Kaparot, a ritual some Jews perform prior to Yom Kippur, is widely misunderstood to be a transferring of one’s sins to a chicken, but actually the accompanying prayer asks that if we are destined to be the recipients of harsh decrees, e.g. death, in the new year--that the decree (death), be transferred to the chicken.

Demographers, development psychologists and others who study mortality, or trends of dying, know that people don’t die at the same pace all year long, there is a well-known “death-deferral” phenomenon whereby the will-to-live past a holiday or other milestone such as a birthday are statistically salient.  There are consistent seasonal fluctuations of death repeated year after year:

Source: ICPSR, Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (www.icpsr.umich.edu)

In the larger scheme death rates in autumn during the northern hemisphere’s traditional harvest times, when all hands are needed for the work of gathering the food that will ensure survival over the coming winter.  The autumnal Halloween with it’s emphasis on ghosts, graveyards and the ghoulish aspect of deaths serves as a reminder of what is to be avoided as does the autumnal kaparot chicken, destined for death, instead of us.

It seems to work.  Americans are best at avoiding death during September and it creeps up hitting the crescendo of deaths in January and February according to national vital statistics collected over many years in the U.S.

The following chart by  shows U.S. deaths by month occurring during the 23 years 1985 and 2008.  An American’s chances of dying in September were almost a fifth or 18 percent less than the chance of dying in July, and most didn’t even swing a chicken.

Daily Deaths Indexed by Month to January

Source: ICPSR, National Vital Statistics Reports, Legacy.com Analysis

Somehow the ancient folk wisdom of Jews picked up on this dearth of death in September and perhaps one rabbi may have said, “You know, a bunch of people I know swung a chicken before Yom Kippur, those people didn’t look too healthy but they didn’t die, but the chicken did. This seems like a good idea.”  Again, association is not causality, but think of the possible alternative, dying, if one starts to experiment at not swinging a chicken.  All prudent “logic” argues against it. 

I’m starting to shop for my skeleton Halloween costume, it seems to work too.

(Other posts on local Kaparot and recent followups Atonement chickens — swung and tossedSunday’s protestors sought kaporot concessions.

Pini Herman, PhD. specializes in demographics, big data and predictive analysis, has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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