Just before Yom Kippur, I observe the ritual of kapparot.
I like to think of myself as a modern girl—really, I’m almost a caricature, with my iPad and Vibram shoes. But when Yom Kippur rolls around I am drawn to a decidedly un-modern ritual: every year, just before Kol Nidre, you will find me waving coins over my kids’ heads and muttering frantically in Aramaic.
This is the ritual of kapparot: We transfer sins symbolically onto the coins and give the money to tzedakah, and the children enter Yom Kippur with a clean slate. Historically, people performed kapparot with a live chicken rather than a handful of coins—achieving atonement by slaughtering the animal rather than by the giving tzedekah. A few communities still do it this way.
But not everyone feels the attraction I do. In fact, if you find this enterprise rather disturbing, you are in good company. Generations of rabbinical authorities debated its value even as it became prevailing custom in many parts of the Jewish world. It certainly seems a little anachronistic in my contemporary household; we don’t tend to think of the kids as sinners, much less imagine that guilt can be magically erased by tossing a few bucks into the tzedakah box.
But there is something primal about Yom Kippur, and kapparot embodies that for me. I experience Yom Kippur as a time that is deeply fraught. I confront my own vulnerabilities in powerful ways, and I glimpse the raw and precious souls of the people around me. The liturgy reminds me of what I already know: Nothing is certain. Everything is temporary; in an instant it can all come crashing down.
In this context, who wouldn’t want to believe in magic? When I am facing Yom Kippur—knowing the lessons the next 25 hours will bring—I want to hold my kids tight. I want to protect them and keep them safe, even as I face the fact that safety is not part of the human condition.
And so when I wave the coins over the children’s heads and recite the ancient formula—“This is your exchange, this is your substitute, this is your atonement.”—I interpret the words to be about my love, though technically they refer to money. What wouldn’t I do for my children; what wouldn’t I exchange for their well being? Like most parents, I would give my life for theirs.
When I affirm this on the eve of Yom Kippur, I enter the holiday in a state of heightened awareness. I am open, vulnerable and attuned to my blessings. I am ready to take on to the work of another modern day.