Holiday seasons are often times of nostalgia, and I find myself looking back and reminiscing over them.
The Jewish holidays meant a lot of things to me as a child. For one thing, twice a year we got new clothes. In the spring we got new clothes for Passover; in the fall we would get new clothes for Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also meant it was time to pray and try to remember all our sins and ask God’s forgiveness. Even an eleven-year-old boy knows that he’s a sinner. But I don’t think many Jewish kids knew much about the theology of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Maybe it was because we studied what the rabbis said more than we studied the Bible. The synagogue was the way we came together to do the things that Jews do and if the rabbis didn’t say quite the same things as the Bible, I, like most of the kids, wouldn’t have known any different. And if we had known, what would we have done with those parts of the Bible that tell us we’re supposed to sacrifice animals?
What I liked best about going to the synagogue was sitting next to my dad. Everyone said the prayers from the prayer book at a different pace. If I got slow and fell too far behind, Dad would tell me, Turn to page __.”
Sometimes when the rabbi talked, my mind would wander and I would look through the prayer book until something caught my attention. One day I was sitting in the synagogue, looking through the back of the prayer book in the section called, “For the Day of Atonement,” and this is what caught my attention: It said that a man should take a rooster and swing it over his head three times while making the statement, “This is my change, this is my redemption. This rooster is going to be killed, and I shall be admitted and allowed to live a long, happy and peaceful life.” And a woman was supposed to take a hen and swing it over her head and say, “This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This hen is going to be killed, and I shall be admitted and allowed to live a long, happy and peaceful life.”
I pointed this out to my dad, and he said, “Well, we don’t do that anymore.” Still, I tried to picture it. I didn’t particularly like chickens. And to swing one over your head…who knows what could drop out of a chicken? “I’m glad we don’t do that anymore,” was what I thought, even though it was interesting to try to imagine. So there I was in the synagogue sitting next to my dad, and on the other side of me was my little brother. He was nine years old but he was smart and could read well. So I pointed out to him about swinging the chicken, and he grinned with glee, like he thought it would be a good idea.
When we got home I asked my dad to tell me more about the chicken business. He said that when you had it killed, you couldn’t eat it because it was “korban,” a sacrifice, and you had to give it to somebody who was poor. (Our family was poor but we never thought of ourselves that way—there were always those less fortunate.) I wondered if I would ever see the chicken-swinging ceremony. When you’re eleven years old, you can afford to be patient. You know that you haven’t seen most of life. And you can wait. I could particularly wait for the chicken-swinging ceremony. But my nine-year-old brother interrupted my father as he explained about the ceremony, saying, “Can we do it, Dad? Can we do it?” Dad said, “We’ve got better uses for chickens.”
Now, how was I to know that this was a remnant of the sacrificial system? Even as a believer, after years of reading the Bible, I never put it together. After all, in the prescriptions for sacrificing animals, the Bible never mentioned chickens. It mentioned doves. But I never stopped thinking about that ceremony. As I think about it now, it’s not so comical as it is poignant. Here were people in Eastern Europe, going through a ceremony, seeking a salvation that they didn’t understand. I could picture Tevye doing it. If you remember Tevye, the milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof,” you can probably picture him swinging a dead chicken and asking the Master of the Universe, “Would it really be so bad if we saved the chicken to eat on Shabbos instead…?”
So far as what I know today, what am I going to do? People frequently ask me, “Since the Temple was destroyed, what do Jews do for a blood sacrifice?” Somehow, it never seemed appropriate to tell them, “Well, some of us, on the Day of Atonement, swing chickens over our heads.” I don’t think that I could explain it in a way that would satisfy anyone who really wanted to know.