While the shofar came to be seen as a rational and important part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the same cannot be said of the kapparot and tashlich rites that are still celebrated by many Jews. Thus, while Maimonides included the laws of the shofar in his Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law, he made no mention of kapparot and tashlich.
The term kapparot denotes an offering tendered in the hope of gaining forgiveness for past misdeeds. Many Jews currently practice the kapparot ceremony on the eve of Yom Kippur. A fowl is waved counterclockwise around the head of a man or woman and words are recited requesting that the person’s sins be transferred to the fowl. “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement. This rooster shall go to its death, but I shall go to good, long life, and to peace.” The rite concludes with the slaughtering of the fowl.
The ritual is not mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud. Virtually all ancient sources recognize that the practice was originally designed, just as the biblical Yom Kippur Azzazel ceremony in Leviticus 16:8, as a bribe to Satan to keep him from accusing Jews for their misdeeds during the past year before God. The Machzor Vitri, composed by Simcha of Vitri, France, a student of Rashi (who died in the same year as his teacher, 1105), admits that the purpose of the kapparot is exactly the same as the scapegoat sent to Azzazel; both are bribes for the devil. This was also the opinion of Yaakov Hayim Zemach in Nagid u’mitzvah, Isaiah Horowitz in Sh’lah, and J. Z. Lauterbach in HUCA 11, “Tashlich.”
Lauterbach writes: “The real significance of this ceremony was that it represented a revival of the old idea of bribing Satan or demons by offering to them a sacrifice as had been done in the times of the Temple [for the Bible mandated in Leviticus 16:8 that on Yom Hakippurim (the biblical name for Yom Kippur – see my ‘Mysteries of Judaism’ for the reason for the change) a goat was sent to Azzazel].”
- What was the origin of kapparot?
- What were the various ways that the rite was performed?
- What did the masses see as the reason for the biblical Azzazel procedure?
- What use did the masses read into the eglah arufah ceremony?
- What did demons have to do with Azzazel, eglah arufah and kapparot?
- How did the uneducated, pagan-influenced populace picture Satan?
The Origin of Kapparot
The earliest mention of the kapparot service is in a responsa (a written answer to a question submitted in writing to a rabbi) written by Amram bar Sheshna, also known as Amram Gaon, the head of the academy of Sura, Babylonia, around 850 C.E. Amram mentions that the custom of kapparot is quite old. We can therefore safely assume that kapparot began at least a couple of centuries earlier.
An Ancient Version of Kapparot
The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 81b, reports a third-century practice that is remarkably similar to kapparot and shares the same superstitious basis and goal. A basket of beans or peas was taken, turned around one’s head seven times and then tossed into the water. The practice was called parpisa, similar to the English word “propitiate,” to make someone favorably inclined to one’s desires. The uneducated masses considered seven a magical number, moving in a circle a magical rite that produced a desired result, and water the dwelling place of the demons. Thus food was magically tossed in the water as a bribe for the demon.
Amram Gaon’s Explanation of the Kapparot Tradition as He Knew It
Amram Gaon, as stated, was the first person to discuss kapparot itself. He explains that male Jews took a rooster and female Jews a hen on the day before the holiday of Yom Kippur, placed their hand on the animal’s head and swung the animal around their own head. The man and the woman recited words that stated, in essence, that the guilt of the human should be transferred to the rooster and hen.
Amram writes: “He places his hand upon the head of the rooster, as a sort of s’mikhah [the biblically required placing of one’s hands upon as animal that is being brought as a sacrifice in the Temple]. He lays his hands upon it and slaughters it immediately, following the rule prescribed for sacrifices, which is that the slaughtering of the sacrificial animal must follow immediately the ceremony of the laying of the hands.”
Significantly, Amram states that a rooster is the preferred animal because it has horns.
Why is Kapparot Seen as a Sacrifice? Why Must the Animal Have Horns?
Amram sidesteps the question of the purpose of the ceremony, probably due to his embarrassment about its pagan origin. He states that the animal should have horns to remind the Jew of “the ram that was offered instead of Isaac [when his father Abraham brought him to be sacrificed in Genesis 22].” However, this comment by the Gaon is a late rationalization of the true reason for the ceremony.
Originally, the ceremony was seen as a bribe that was offered to Satan, similar to the Azzazel bribe described in Leviticus 16. A rooster was chosen for the bribe because (1) it was an animal that was not allowed to be sacrificed to God, and therefore an appropriate sacrifice for a devil and (2) the masses thought that this bird resembled Satan: it had horns like Satan and its feet resembled the demon’s feet. The rooster was slaughtered with the sacrificial formality of laying of hands so that it would be accepted as a suitable sacrifice/bribe by Satan. As indicated in the above-named sources, the goal of kapparot, like Azzazel, was to induce the demon not to disparage Jews before God during Yom Kippur when Jews believed that their future fate was being determined by God in a heavenly judicial preceding in which Satan served as prosecutor.
The Ancients: The Yom Kippur Azzazel Ceremony as a Bribe
Many rabbis shared the belief in demons held by the less sophisticated population. The mystic Bible commentator Nachmanides, Rashi and many others believed in the existence of angels and demons, both of which they viewed as corporeal and having powerful positive and negative impacts upon humans and the ability to alter their lives. God instructed Jews not to seek the assistance of these intermediaries in various biblical passages including Leviticus 17:7.
Yet, remarkably, in his commentary to Leviticus 16:8, Nachmanides, like many others, states that God told the Israelites to bribe Satan by sending him a goat that resembles him every year on the holiday of Yom Kippur. This was the Azzazel goat. The purpose of the bribe, as stated earlier, was to stop the demon from traveling to heaven on this day, when decisions were being made concerning the future life and death of Jews, and persuading God to punish the Jews for their sins during the past year.
The purpose of kapparot according to Nachmanides and many others was identical. Although the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. stopped the public ceremony of Azzazel, the bribery continued by individual Jews performing the kapparot rite.
The Strange Notion that Azzazel Was a Bribe: Accepted by Many but Not All Authorities
There are many different interpretations of the biblical word Azzazel. Midrash Abkir, the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 47b, Pirke de R. Eliezer 46, Yalkut shemoni to Genesis 44, Zohar to Tetzaveh and Emor, Nachmanides and Bachya b. Asher and possibly Abraham ibn Ezra to Leviticus 16:8, Recanati in Taamei hamitzvot and many others state that Azzazel is another name for the fallen angel Satan who refused to repent and persists in doing evil, leading people to sin and finding various devious means of harming them, especially during the decision-making period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These sources, as we said, state that the goat was sent to the demon on Yom Kippur to stop him from interfering in the attempt of the Israelites to secure divine forgiveness for their past sins on the holiday.
Other rabbis spoke out strongly against the wrong-headed notion that angels and demons act as intermediaries between humans and God. Maimonides calls the idea stupid. Saadiah Gaon, before him, states that Azzazel was not a demon, but the name of a mountain. The goat was sent away as an open public symbol to teach people to remedy their misdeeds. Elijah Gaon of Wilna highlights his objection to the superstition that angels and demons can act as intermediaries by objecting to the recitation of “Bless me with peace” to angels in the Friday night song Shalom Aleichem because angels, even if they exist, are incapable of bringing blessings or of acting as intermediaries between humans and God.
The Eglah Arufah Rite: Considered a Bribe by the Uneducated Pagan-Influenced Populace
Many ancients Jews and many scholars today see the ceremony of Deuteronomy 21:1–9 as involving demons. The passage states that when a slain person, a homicide, is found “lying in a field and it is not known who smote him,” the elders kill a young heifer in front of a nachal eitan. Maimonides (in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 9:2 and Commentary to the Mishnah, Sotah 9:5) defines nachal eitan as “a mighty stream.”
In the ceremony, the elders say that they did all they could to prevent a murder. This means that “this person did not come before us and we dismissed him without food, nor did we see him and send him on his journey without suitable accompaniment.” In 9:3, Maimonides suggests that the reason for the public ceremony is to impress upon people to behave in such a way as to ensure that homicides not recur.
The masses, however, saw the matter differently. W. R. Smith relates that many ancient pagan Semites threw gifts of bread and wine into the water as a sacrifice to the demons living there. (I will mention other similar sources when I discuss the tashlich ceremony.) Some scholars believe that the masses understood that the heifer was tossed into the mighty stream as a bribe to the demon who dwelled there so that he would not become involved in blaming the inhabitants of the nearby town for the homicide or for their inability to solve the crime.
Thus the uneducated populace, influenced by their pagan neighbors, was led to believe that the biblical Azzazel and eglah arufah ceremonies were attempts to bribe the demons that they saw lying in ambush around them. They could not understand the true reasons behind the ceremonies as explained by the non-superstitious scholars, and developed the post-biblical rite of kapparot to accomplish the same superstitious purpose.
Why Was the Kapparot Ceremony Performed on the Day Before Yom Kippur?
One would expect that kapparot, like its predecessor Azzazel, should have been performed on Yom Kippur itself, the day when the Jews petition God for forgiveness. However, the original procedure was to slaughter the animal before giving it to the demon; slaughtering was forbidden outside of the Temple on this holy day. Therefore the ceremony of the slaughtered kapparot was shifted to the day that preceded the holiday.
What Was Done to Kapparot After They Were Slaughtered?
Commenting upon the Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 95b, Asher ben Jehiel (known as Asheri, c. 1259–1328) states that the ancient custom of kapparot was to toss the entrails of the sacrificed rooster on the roof of one’s house. Like the water, the masses were convinced that the roof was a dwelling place of demons.
The practice of leaving food for Satan as a bribe was altered in ancient times to disguise its original superstitious intention. Natronai Gaon, the ninth-century head of the academy in Sura, Babylonia, reports that in his time food was no longer thrown into water or placed on roofs but was given instead to the poor. This was a somewhat subtle subterfuge since the masses were convinced that Satan frequently disguised himself as a poor man in order to test people. Thus the food was expected to end up in Satan’s hands.
The Sixteenth-Century Mystics: A Slightly Different Interpretation of Kapparot
The sixteenth-century mystics of Safed in Israel, like many of their predecessors, understood the kapparot rite as an attempt to stop Satan from maligning Jews. However, according to Isaac Luria, as explained by Chayim Vital, the rooster was not a sacrifice/bribe to Satan. The rooster, they thought, represented Satan himself and the slaughtering of the rooster magically weakened the demon. Details aside, the mystics also bought into the superstitious purpose of the rite.
Opposition to the Practice in the Middle Ages
Several Jewish sages, including some mystics, opposed the kapparot ceremony. In the thirteenth century, the foremost halakhic authority Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, known as Rashba, recognized that it was pagan superstition. In the sixteenth century, when his colleagues in Safed were speaking about the killing of the rooster weakening Satan, Joseph Karo, the renowned author of the Shulchan aruch (a code of Jewish law) called kapparot “a foolish custom that Jews should avoid.” Nachmanides also forbade kapparot because of its pagan nature.
On September 29, 2006, the Jerusalem Post reported the hostility to the rite by humane groups. “The opposition to kapparot is coming from the religious people themselves. At Yom Kippur we ask for mercy for ourselves. It’s absurd that we behave so unmercifully to these creatures.” In 2007, animal rights activists pleaded with former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef to declare his opposition to the practice. While he did not do so publicly, he recommended the alternate practice involving coins rather than a rooster.
There are a host of ceremonies associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are based on superstitious elements. During this period, according to conventional Jewish belief, Jews are judged and decisions are made about their lives during the coming year.
Many of the Jews, including many rabbis, believed in demons whom they were convinced made daily outrageous efforts to harm them. The holiday season, the time of judgment, was a particularly worrisome time.
Drawing upon their understanding of the Job story, many Jews thought that one of Satan’s functions was to serve as a prosecutor in the heavenly court against their interests. Recognizing that they were unable to fight and defeat an angel, they resorted to bribing him.
They interpreted Leviticus’ Azzazel command as a mandate from God to save themselves from Satan’s accusations by bribing him. Once the Temple was destroyed and the Azzazel rite ceased, the masses resorted to a substitute practice of kapparot. Initially, like the Azzazel rite, the post-biblical kapparot was a kind of sacrifice that was delivered to Satan as a bribe. Later, the practice was modified somewhat to remove the sacrificial element, but the general purpose of giving the gift to Satan as a bribe remained.
The ceremony is still practiced by many Jews today. Those who recognize the quasi-magical aspect attempt to defend it by calling it “magic for a good purpose.” Others have stopped using an animal for the ceremony and substitute money, which is then given to the poor. Those who do so probably do not know that the ancient masses thought that Satan would disguise himself as a poor man to test the Jews. Thus, the bribe is still being given to Satan, albeit surreptitiously.
Maimonides does not mention this remarkable rite in his code of Jewish Law. He was opposed to the practice, not so much because of its origins, because ancient practices, like the blowing of the shofar, can evolve and attain a rational and spiritual purpose; he was opposed because he obviously felt that the rite still retains overt superstitious elements.
 Shmuel Ahituv, in http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01741.html writes the following: “There have been efforts to compare the ritual of the goat to several customs of the ancient world. In Babylonia, for instance, it was customary on the festival of Akītu (the New Year) to give a goat as a substitute for a human being (pūḫ) to Ereshkigal (the goddess of the abyss). In an Akkadian magical inscription from the city of Assur which deals with the cure for a man who is unable to eat and drink, it is prescribed that a goat should be tied to his bed and that thus the sickness will pass to the goat. On the following morning, the goat is to be taken to the desert and decapitated. Its flesh is then cooked and put in a pit together with honey and oil, perhaps as an offering to the demons. During plagues, the Hittites used to send a goat into enemy territory in order that it should carry the plague there. On the head of the goat they would bind a crown made of colored wool, comparable perhaps to the thread of crimson wool which was tied to the head of the goat in the Second Temple period (Yoma 4:2). In the Hellenistic world there were also “scapegoat” rituals, but they had the custom to take a man as “scapegoat” and not an animal. In some places these rituals were performed in times of trouble, in others at fixed appointed times of the year. However, in the Hellenistic world the important part of the ceremony was not the killing of the “scapegoat,” but its being sent out of the city and indeed, in some places, it was not even killed.”
It is possible that the Torah’s allowance of the goat ceremony can be explained in the same fashion as Maimonides’ explanation of the ancient Hebrew’s need for sacrifices. In the Guide of the Perplexed 3:32, Maimonides explains that God has no need for sacrifices, but the Torah only “allowed” it because, influenced by the cultures around them, the Israelites needed to bring sacrifices, feeling that they were thereby showing love of God.
 Religion of the Semites, 177.
 Quoted in Bait Yosef O. C. 605.