Citylife: The Kapparot

September 14, 2010

I have never practiced the kapparot, nor even so much as witnessed it, though it's a ritual that fascinates me. And these days -- the down days, if you will -- between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the curiosity and speculation always comes back in a rush.

The kapparot is an ancient Jewish rite of atonement in which sins are symbolically transferred to something else in order to be saved. The idea is to grasp the object of transference, spin it around your head three times, and offer up some version of This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement; it will go to its death while I proceed to a good long life and to peace.

Then the object -- which is usually a live chicken, though technically just about anything works -- gets slaughtered and, most likely, eaten.

It's not in the Torah, it's not Talmudic -- basically, not a whole lot of folks think it's a good idea.

Animal rights activists have plenty to complain about and, in fact, a few years ago, right here in Chicago, there were arrests based on animal cruelty. Just today, a senior orthodox rabbi was quoted in the Jerusalem News pointing out that the kapparot is custom, not sanctioned rite, and that maybe folks should swing a fistful of bills around instead, and give the money to charity.

The idea of transference of sin, of course, isn't that unusual (think, say, Jesus). Nor is animal sacrifice particularly bizarre. Long before Abraham bound Isaac, human beings had been offering animals to gods.

What strikes me -- and probably a good number of Caribbean folks -- is the kapparot's incredible similarity to another ritual, this one practiced in Santeria and other African-based (African-modified, really) religions throughout former slave territories.

In Cuba and most of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, it's called a despojo. And this I have, in fact, participated in.

The despojo, unlike the kapparot, is not seasonal; it's quite widespread in practice. Even here, in Chicago, over lunch last week, a good friend spoke openly about the need to acquire the proper ritual materials -- bird included -- for an upcoming despojo. No one blinked, and we weren't all Latin Americans at the table.

In the case of the despojo, the bird is swung for the supplicant by the santero, its wings used to sweep the body. Then the bird's throat is slashed and its blood is used to "feed" the gods. The santero or an assistant also blows tobacco smoke on the supplicant during the ritual.

When I wrote Days of Awe, a novel that uses the history of Jews in Cuba (particularly during Inquisitional times) as background and which speculates a great deal about hidden Jewish cultural contributions, I made my first connection between the kapparot and the despojo.

In the Spanish colonies during Inquisitional times, the kapparot would have had to be a secret ritual. And I wondered: might African slaves, inventive enough to save their beliefs by grafting them on the conquerors' iconography, have simply spied and adapted the kapparot as well? (The tobacco and its ritual smoke would also be an adaptation: native to the Americas, liturgical in indigenous rites, tobacco would have no pre-Columbian place in African ritual.)

We live in the 21st century, in a giant northern metropolis, but these ancient rituals -- so similar and perhaps connected (and no doubt barbaric to many) -- still take place, still have resonance.