Dayenu” on Yom Kippur? Whoever heard of such a thing! We sing, “Dayenu” at Passover, not on the Day of Atonement.
But in one sense, Dayenu is appropriate on Yom Kippur. Dayenu is a Hebrew word which means, “It is sufficient for us; it is enough.” And on Pesach, we declare, “Dayenu!” in grateful response to the miracles God wrought on our behalf during our season of deliverance. But on Yom Kippur, would it not be appropriate to ask ourselves, “Dayenu?” Are the prayers we utter and the fasting we undertake sufficient for us? Or should we be doing something more?
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, sacrifice was viewed as a vital ingredient in securing God’s pardon for our transgressions. But since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., we have offered no sacrifice, and our sages have declared that prayer and fasting are sufficient.
But if this is true, why has a peculiar custom persisted through the centuries: the custom of Kapporot? In certain households on the day preceding Yom Kippur, the family gathers for the reading of selections from Psalm 107, and from the 33rd chapter of the Book of Job. Fowls have been procured for each member of the family; roosters for the men, and hens for the women. And now, the participants take hold of their fowls, twirl them about their heads three times, and intone a somber prayer: “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonemennt; this cock (or hen) shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.”1
Later, the fowls are delivered unto the shochet—the ritual slaughterer—and then donated to the poor, except for the intestines, which are scattered to the birds.
Kapporot raises a challenging question: are mere prayers and fasting sufficient on Yom Kippur? Are they “Dayenu?” If they are—if we do not believe in the need for a sacrifice on Yom Kippur—then how do we explain the practice of Kapporot?
Some may reason that Kapporot is merely a practice from our past; a ceremonial vestige extending as far back as the ninth century of the common era. Maybe we once believed in the need for sacrifice, the argument goes, but no more. However, to confine Kapporot merely to the past isn’t quite accurate. Those who remember shtetl life in pre-war Eastern Europe remember Kapporot well enough. And the Kapporot service itself is still included in the current edition of the Philips Siddur.
Others have met the challenge presented by Kapporot in this way: they acknowledge the existence of the Kapporot service, but deplore its practice in no uncertain terms. Joseph Caro, who authored the Shulchan Aruch, called Kapporot nothing less than “a stupid custom.”2 It is a pagan, foolish notion, argue some, to suppose that we can ward off misfortune by offering the Evil One an alternative victim. But those who take exception to Kapporot on these grounds fail to comprehend the motivation undergirding this ceremony. Kapporot is not intended as a superstitious rite whereby we may circumvent or buy off bad luck. Rather, like the sacrifices prescribed in Torah, Kapporot is based on the Biblical notions of mercy and substitution. Our sins, and the consequences of our sins, may be borne by another. God, in His mercy, will accept a substitute, if we offer that vicarious sacrifice in repentance and faith.
Seen in this light, Kapporot is quite in keeping with the fervent hope embraced by those of our Orthodox people who long for the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstatement of the sacrificial system. This yearning finds an eloquent expression in the supplication at the end of the Amidah, requesting, “that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days…And there we will serve Thee with awe…Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years.3
The practice of Kapporot hints at a disturbing, unspoken understanding that perhaps something is lacking; that perhaps our prayers and fasting on Yom Kippur are not Dayenu—are not enough to secure atonement for us. And for good reason. For God Himself has told us what that missing element is: “…I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Leviticus 17:11)
But if a sacrifice is needed, then is Kapporot sufficient? Can the life of a rooster or hen cover our transgressions? Our sages selected a fowl because the word “gever” may mean either a man or a cock. But despite this reasoning, and despite the proper intention of the practitioners, Kapporot is not sufficient—it is not Dayenu—simply because it is not what God prescribed. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar,” the Almighty has declared. But with the altar gone, what avenue is available to us?
Perhaps the answer is hidden in the words of a prayer contained in the Mahzor, the prayer book for the Day of Atonement: “He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that we may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound…”4
This prayer bears a striking resemblance to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah; a portion of Scripture which, according to many of our ancient sages, describes the Messiah: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:5,10)
If this is the provision afforded by the Almighty, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, then certainly this sacrifice is sufficient for us all.
1 Jewish Liturgy Prayers and Synagogue Service, Through the Ages, 1975, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd. p. 173.
2 Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 10
3 Hertz Prayerbook, p. 157.
4 Forms of Prayer for Day of Atonement, Revised Edition, pp. 287-288, Rosenbaum and Werblowsky, New York, 1890.