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An ancient rite: Before dawn, Orthodox Jews ask for God's mercy in a butcher shop

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The first customers arrived at Greenberg's Kosher Poultry before dawn yesterday, the day before Yom Kippur. They'd come to the Squirrel Hill store on Murray Avenue to purchase hens and roosters, and expiate a year's worth of sins.

  Dovid Small, 14, holds a rooster while as he participates in the pre-Yom Kippur rite of kapporat. Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

For the next several hours in a cramped back room, store owner Hank Greenberg, Rabbi Hershel Pfeffer the butcher and two other employees helped several hundred Orthodox Jews participate in the centuries-old custom called kapporat.

Kapporat (pronounced ka-poor-us) literally means "expiation." After reciting parts of three psalms and a verse from Job, men swing a rooster (women use a hen) three times over their head while saying "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This rooster shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace." Any misfortune that was to befall the person in the coming year because of sins is symbolically transferred to the bird.

Pfeffer then shechts, or slaughters, the bird in accordance with kosher law, drains the blood. Greenberg then plucks them on a double-drum picking machine. After the final hairs are plucked, the birds are hung feet first on steel racks. Tomorrow, the birds will be donated to charity. Some Jews eschew birds and use bags of coins instead.

  Eli Rothman passes a rooster over the head of his son Yitzy, 7, during the rite of kapporat at Greenberg's Kosher Poultry in Squirrel Hill. Symbolically, the rite means that any misfortune that was to befall the person in the coming year because of sins is transferred to the bird. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The custom is not mentioned in the Talmud, the compendium of writings constituting Jewish civil and religious law. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, the first mention of the rite comes from various ninth-century writings.

Students of the Kabbalah, Judaism's 12th century esoteric and mystical teachings, believe that since the soul of a person is contained in his or her blood, the fowl's blood is a psychological substitute for the penalty that God would have exacted for the individual's sins.

Kapporat traditionally is done the day before Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. One reason people arrive so early, said Rabbi Ephraim Rosenblum of Kether Torah synagogue in Squirrel Hill, is that since the night is divided into three parts, the portion closest to dawn is a propitious time when "God's mercy is on the world.

"When you want mercy, you want the time when mercy is most available."

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