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Why are thousands of live chickens swung over heads before Yom Kippur?

Kapparot- What is it? Why will some Jewish people swing a live chicken over their head? We hope this article will be of interest...
Why are thousands of live chickens swung over heads before Yom Kippur?

Kapparot - What is it?

Why will some Jewish people swing a live chicken over their head?


We hope this article will be of interest and help you be more informed

Yom Kippur starts ten days after Rosh HaShana. A few hours before Yom Kippur starts, religious Jewish people from all over the globe will be participating in a very unique ceremony called “Kapparot”.

Kapparot is related to the word “Kippur” (as in Yom Kippur / Day of Atonement) and also the action done for Kapparot is related (somewhat) to the very meaning of Yom Kippur. 


Let’s go back to Biblical times.  When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, one of the most important features was the sacrificing of animals.  I know this sounds barbaric in the 21st Century, but the principle was one that Moses wanted Israel to learn – namely, that when we sin against God, either we die or a substitute dies in our place.

This is what God instructed Moses to write in the Torah:

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul.” (Leviticus 17:11)

Did you see that?  The blood of the sacrificial animal makes atonement.  A “substitute” dies in my place.  Hold onto that concept as we talk more about Kapparot in the 21st century.


When the Temple stood, sacrifices were done all the time.  If you sinned, you brought a sacrifice to pay the penalty.  On Yom Kippur, a sacrifice was offered for the nation as the High Priest of Israel entered into a special room called the “Holy of Holies” only one day a year, that being “Yom Kippur”.  The reason?  He had to sprinkle blood in there for the nation to have atonement.  The “substitute” died to make atonement for Israel.

However, in the year 70CE, the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem and eventually destroyed the very Temple where those sacrifices were done.

Since that time, the “official” sacrifices of bulls, rams, lambs, goats, etc in the Temple have not been done.  And this created a problem in the Jewish mind.  How can we have substitute blood atonement anymore?



For hundreds of years now, the solution to this problem of a lack of a “substitute” has been to sacrifice a chicken instead.  Now mind you, a chicken was never on the Torah’s list of “approved” animals to be used as a substitute.  But since it was available to most everyone in ancient times, it was adopted and a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) thousands of live chickens were swung over the heads of Jewish people hoping this would be their substitute.  The chicken is then killed of course.

Typically, something like this is said aloud:  “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement, this one shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.”

The chicken is then slaughtered in a humane fashion in accordance with the Jewish laws of kashrut (kosher). The dead chicken itself is then donated to a charitable cause for food.

A male takes a rooster; a female uses a hen.  A pregnant woman performs Kapparot with three chickens—two hens and a rooster. One hen for herself, and the other hen and rooster both for the unborn child – since its gender is unknown.


Let’s jump forward to our time.  True, these days’ coins are used instead of chickens in some communities, but not all.   Today, this ancient ritual has faced criticism, both from animal rights activists and even senior Jewish religious leaders themselves. Many believe the tradition is cruel to animals.

Each year, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Israel appeals to religious groups to help change the nature of the event, calling on worshipers to donate to charity in place of chicken slaughter.

The dispute has followed the Jewish community across the world and activists are also trying to end the mass slaughter in Brooklyn, New York, traditionally home to a large Jewish population. The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporas group filed a lawsuit against New York City to stop the practice in 2015, though it was dismissed the following year.

The group had argued that the process was “barbaric” and that the dead and dying animals presented a significant public health challenge. In past years, as many as 50,000 chickens have been killed during the Kapparot rituals in Brooklyn.  Other lawsuits have followed as well.


We find it quite ironic that while on one hand, the Jewish community will tell us, “We don’t need sacrifices anymore.”  And on the other hand, the religious part of that same Jewish community understands that, deep down, the Torah requires a blood atonement for ones soul.

Our solution – We have the Messiah of Israel.  He is our substitute.  Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) is the very sacrifice that the Jewish prophets spoke of in the Hebrew Bible.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.  (Isaiah 53:7)

Did you see that?  This unnamed Servant was lead like a lamb to the slaughter.

And why did that happen?  Isaiah tells us:

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
 All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)

This Servant died as a “substitute” just like the Temple sacrifices did.  Innocent like a lamb.

However, none of these modern changes (like chickens) was authorized by God.  Yet Isaiah tells us that there will be a servant one day who will indeed die as a “substitute” for our sins.

We believer that is Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah of Israel.  He took our place as an innocent suffering “substitute” that we might have atonement – be forgiven.

And without forgiveness, it will be a scary thing to stand before God.

So there you have it.  Why chickens are killed each at Yom Kippur.  And yet, there is something better –trusting in Yeshua / Jesus as Messiah and let Him be your “substitute”.

Have you given your sins away to a substitute or are you still carrying them?

To learn how to be forgiven of your sins read our post "How and Why to be Saved"