Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish world observes Yom Kippur. From the days of the Torah and up to the end of the fifth century, all Jewish sources referred to this day only in the plural form, namely Yom Hakippurim.
The shift to the singular, Yom Kippur, occurred mainly in the liturgical poetry.
Today, the name Yom Kippur is recognized universally as the proper name for this somber day.
The original name, Yom Hakippurim, is mentioned eight times in the Bible. It is derived from the root kpr, meaning atone for, expiate, propitiate and forgive. It is related to the Aramaic verb kaper which has a similar meaning, and to the Akkadian word kuppuru, which means wipe off.
The word kapparot (in Yiddish kappores) meaning expiatory sacrifice is also derived from the verb kaper.
The custom of using an animal as an expiation sacrifice is very old. In the days of the Bible the ritual of Kapparot centered in the Temple and was officiated by the High Priest.
Two goats were used in the ritual in order to cleanse the community from sin.
By lottery, one goat was sacrificed by the High Priest and the other was sent to Azazel, an undisclosed place in the desert, carrying with it the sins of the community (Lev 16:7-10).
With the destruction of the Temple, this ritual ceased.
A new ritual of expiation was introduced in the seventh century in the Mesopotamian exile, where magic and sorcery were popular.
Accordingly, a hen (for a female) and rooster (for a male) were waved above one’s head praying that all transgressions would magically be absolved.
The bird then was slaughtered and given to the poor. Some people preferred using stalks of plants and grain to wave above their head, throwing them into the river as expiation.
Many rabbis objected to these practices, seeing them as superstitious, but popular beliefs and customs prevailed. In some communities money was given for tzedakah as an expiatory act.
Two interesting idioms entered the Hebrew language connected with the custom of kapparot.
The first is sair laazazel, literally a goat sent to Azazel, and idiomatically meaning scapegoat.
The other is ketarnegol bivnay adam, literally translated like a rooster (tarnegol), among human beings (benay adam).
Idiomatically it means to be confused, not understanding what is happening in front of one’s eyes.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.