As errors in The New York Times go, it wasn't the worst we've seen. It evidenced neither a misguided sense of "balance" nor a subtle bias -- only simple ignorance.
It appeared last September 16, Yom Kippur, on the paper's front page, in the caption accompanying a photograph of an adorable little girl in Jerusalem with a squeal-smile on her face as a chicken was being swung around her head. The photo, the caption informed us, depicts a pre-Yom Kippur ritual. Indeed it does; it's called Kapparot. But the text went on to explain that "one's sins" are as a result of the ritual "transferred to the hen."
Ah, were expiation of iniquity only so simple.
Needless to say, the Kapporot-ceremony does not transfer sins to the bird (or to the coins that other Kapparot-practitioners use instead). While animal sacrifices were indeed a mainstay of Jewish life when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the cancellation of sin still required teshuva, repentance, then, as it does now.
There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts when it comes to taking responsibility for our actions. Repentance is the only effective remedy for sin, though it is an amazing one. For it accomplishes much more than a simple apology; it has the power, Jewish sources teach, to actually reach into the past and change the nature of what we may have done. As such, we are taught, teshuva is a "chiddush," a concept that defies simple logic and expectation. And for erasing iniquity, it is indispensable.
So what's with the chickens?
Well, the definitive primary Jewish legal text, the Shulchan Aruch, or "Code of Jewish Law," notes the custom of Kapparot, but disapproves of its practice. The authoritative glosses of the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), though, which present normative Ashkenazic practice, note that the custom has its illustrious defenders, and maintains that where it exists it should be preserved.
When one performs the ritual, he should consider that what will happen to the bird -- its slaughter -- would be happening to him were strict justice, untempered by God's mercy, the rule.
The custom's intent and meaning are elucidated in the widely accepted commentary known as the Mishneh Brurah, written by the renowned "Chofetz Chaim," Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan. Citing earlier sources, he explains that when one performs the ritual, he should consider that what will happen to the bird -- its slaughter -- would be happening to him were strict justice, untempered by God's mercy, the rule. As a result, the supplicant will come to regret his sins and "through his repentance" cause God "to revoke any evil decree from him."
So it seems that the Kapparot-custom is essentially a spur to meditation on the need for atonement, and intended to stir feelings of repentance and recommitment to the performance of good deeds. Indeed, it is customary to provide the slaughtered chicken to a poor person.
Similar to Kapporot is the Rosh Hashana custom of Tashlich, which is likewise commonly misconstrued -- even by people who should be better informed about things Jewish than The Times -- as a magical "casting away of sins." The practice of visiting a body of water and reciting verses and prayers, however, has no such direct effect. It, like Kapporot, is an opportunity for self-sensitization to our need for repentance. The verse "And cast in the depths of the ocean all of their sins," prominently recited in the prayers for the ritual, is a metaphor for what we can effect with our sincere repentance and determination to be better in the future.
As Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Sperling writes in his classic work known as the "Ta'amei Haminhagim," or "Explications of Customs," Tashlich reminds us that the day of ultimate reckoning may be upon us far sooner that we imagine, just as fish swimming freely in the water may find themselves captured suddenly in the hungry fishmonger's net -- and that we dare not live lives of spiritual leisure on the assumption that there will always be time for repentance when we grow old.
All too often we moderns tend to view ancient Jewish laws, customs and rituals as quaint relics of the distant past that evoke, at most, warm and nostalgic feelings of ethnic identity.
But, as a closer look at Kapporot and Tashlich suggest, there is a world of difference between Tevya's celebration of "Tradition!" for tradition's sake and the deep meanings that lie in the rites and rituals of Jewish religious life.
Jewish practice is laden with profound significance that speaks to us plainly and powerfully, if only we choose to listen, to confront our spiritual selves, to do teshuva -- with or without the help of chickens or rivers.