I think my wife Naomi struggles to find the good in the farm I’ve crammed onto our city lot. Sometimes she reaches her limit—like when the goats escape and barge into the house—or when she’s trying to write or study and the chickens are clucking and the dogs are barking and I can practically see the thought bubble forming above her head of a regular backyard with a lawn, a couple of flower beds, and a hammock where you can lay down without fear that a pair of goat horns might reach up through the bottom. That’s happened.
But she tries. I think the times the farm brings her the most joy is when it helps her bring a Jewish text or ritual to life. And that happens, too. Because you can’t read Biblical texts read like a farmers almanac: fat years, lean years, shepherds, oxen, goats, barley, milk, honey—Jews are an urban people whose whose greatest literature revolves around the country.
We’ve had chickens for years now, and for years we’ve talked about doing a humane homemade version of kapparas. Kapparas is an atonement ritual. In traditional communities its practiced between the New Year and Yom Kippor, the Day of Atonement. Traditionally it involves swinging a white rooster (if you’re a man) or a white hen (if you’re a woman) above your head, while reciting a prayer that transfers one’s sins to the bird. The animal is the given to the poor, which completes the expiation.
Because in many Orthodox communities the chickens have been terribly mistreated, manhandled and malnourished and crippled by the handling and the swinging, animal rights groups and Jewish activists have fought to change the ritual. In many communities it has been de-chickenified—a pledge of money is given to the poor in lieu of poultry.
That’s usually what Naomi does.
But last night, after dark, when we were lying in bed, Naomi asked me if I wanted to do kapparas. Real kapparas.
“Sure,” I said.
After all, we have 6 chickens outside, and at night they are especially docile—chickens are pretty much night blind and somniferous starting at sundown.
Naomi gathered her ritual handbook and a flashlight, and a baseball cap. This would involve holding a chicken above our heads.
I entered the chicken yard and picked up one of the older ones. She melted into my arms, her eyes wide open but otherwise very still.
She read a long passage in Hebrew:
Children of Man, who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, shackled in affliction and iron. He removed them from darkness and the shadow of death, an broke open their shackles. The fools—because of their sinful path and their iniquities they were afflicted.
It goes on for a while about how awful we humans are, then comes the out:
If there will be for someone but a single defending angel out of a thousand to declare a man’s uprightness on his behalf, then He will be gracious to him and say, ‘Redeem hium from descending to the Pit; I have found atonement.
Then comes the chicken part. Naomi instructed me to pass the chicken over her head each time she recited, in Hebrew, the sentence below, for a total of three times.
‘This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This hen will go to its death while I will enter and go on to a good long lif, and to peace.
Fortunately our chickens don’t understand ancient Hebrew, just modern.
The prayer book had an out, in brackets, for people who have abandoned the killing chickens part. It provided substitute, “or this money will go to charity,” that you could recite instead.
But we had a chicken, and she really didn’t seem bothered at all. At one point her heavy lids closed, and she only snapped them open when I put her back on her perch with a quiet, “Thanks.”
Naomi closed her prayer book and kissed it. She took off her baseball cap. Tomorrow we would each give the equivalent of the chicken’s value to the poor. (I rescued the chicken from a butcher shop, where I paid $7 for her). According to the rule book, it’s a perfectly legit switch.
I am all for stopping the cruel aspects of kapparas as it is still practiced in a few neighborhoods. I’ve seen it and written about it, and it’s vile and cruel. Chickens stacked in battery cages. Terrified, often sick and crippled and then hauled off to slaughter. It’s not atonement, it’s an actual sin in itself.
But as of tonight I can see why the people who do it with birds prefer it: weird, mysterious rituals have a weird, mysterious power. Our religion, like our lives, has moved further and further away from its natural anchors, and something is lost in the distance. Yes, we gave up sacrifice—not a bad thing. But we also gave up the intimate, interdependent relationship we had with the natural world—a world through which the people who forged early Judaism understood the very power of God.
A humane kapparas is not a bad thing: we walked away feeling connected to an ancient tradition, and maybe just a tad more cleansed. And the chicken, she couldn’t have cared less.
Tomorrow, some poor person will get $14. And we’ll get another egg. And Naomi may find one more reason not to be fed up with the farm.