Swinging live chickens over their heads to symbolically cast away their sins, Jews prepared Thursday for Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Devout Jews traditionally perform the ritual in the run-up to Yom Kippur, or Day or Atonement, which is marked by fasting and prayer. Yom Kippur begins at sundown today and ends at sundown Saturday.
In Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, men in thin plastic aprons sold squawking chickens from hundreds of colored crates stacked in the streets. Men with long black coats, black hats, beards and side locks rocked back and forth as they recited blessings.
“On Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to dispose of your sins,” said one man, who gave only his first name, Eli, as he swung a chicken above his head.
After the blessing, the chickens were slaughtered with a razor-sharp knife. Men in rubber boots hosed down the narrow street to get rid of the blood and feathers.
Many Jews, including those belonging to other streams of Orthodoxy, reject the practice as barbaric and based on superstition.
Most of those who do swing the chickens give the birds to a charity that distributes them to the poor, although some opt to keep the chickens and donate money instead.
The ritual, known as “kapparot,” or sacrifice of atonement, has been practiced since the Middle Ages.
Bands of small children crowded around the crates, staring at the chickens. One woman, Rivka, wearing a long purple dress and a white head scarf, brought her 3-year-old son, Shalom, whose big blue eyes were transfixed by the birds.
The Ten Days of Penitence begin at the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashana, and culminate in Yom Kippur, when Jews abstain from food, drink and work.