By Rabbi Yair Hoffman


Recently, someone asked me, “Hey, what did chickens and goats ever do to you?”

Goats and chickens are two animals that get along. Farmers often allow them to graze together and share space. And on or around Yom Kippur, they both play the role of a “scapegoat” of sorts. The goats play a central, yet little-understood, role in the avodah of Yom Kippur (no longer performed, but part of the tefillos). The chicken plays a role in the Ashkenazic practice of Kapparos immediately before Yom Kippur, also an esoteric ritual.

What is behind these diverse practices?

The two male goats, se’irim, of Yom Kippur are identical in numerous ways. The Mishnah in Yuma (6:1) has them similar in appearance, height, and value. They are both purchased and presented together. Lots are chosen at random.

The first goat is offered as a “chatas,” a national sin-offering. The second goat has a different destiny. The kohen gadol performs a viduy (confession) of all of the sins of Klal Yisrael. It is then escorted some nine miles into the desert by a designated individual who pushes it off a cliff of the mountain of Azazel, where it falls to its death.

Rambam’s Explanation

In explaining this ritual, the Ramban cites a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah (65:10) that the goat thrown off the cliff is to nullify the angelic representative of Eisav or Edom who would normally act as a prosecutor against Klal Yisrael. The Ramban further cites a Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer (chapter 46) that has this angelic representative acting as a defense lawyer before Hashem.

The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (3:66) offers a different explanation. The function of the “scapegoat” (appropriately named) is presented as follows:

“The goat that was sent into the wilderness served as an atonement for all serious sins more than any other chatas that is brought. As it thus seemed to carry off all sins, it was not accepted as an ordinary sacrifice to be slaughtered, burnt, or even brought near the Sanctuary; it was removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a waste, uncultivated, uninhabited land.

“There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. Rather, these ceremonies are of a symbolic character and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent, as if to say: we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them as far as possible from us.”

Third Explanation

A third explanation was first presented by Rav Tuvia ben Avrohom HaLevi, a 16th-century student of the Arizal’s son-in-law, Rav Shlomo Sagis. He also lived in Tzfas and his explanation can be found in the sefer Chein Tov on Vayikra first published in Venice. The explanation was further elaborated upon in a sefer called Mei’ein Refael, published in Yerushalayim some 50 years ago.

There are many parallels between the Yom Kippur avodah and mechiras Yosef: the goats, “the ish iti,” the dipping of the blood, etc. Essentially, the entire procedure is a means of achieving atonement for the sin of mechiras Yosef. This sin is paradigmatic of an overarching problem that prevents the geulah: sinas chinam.

“Va’yikchu es ketones Yosef v’yischatu se’ir izim, va’yitbalu es ha’ketones ba’dam — And they took Yosef’s tunic and slaughtered a goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”

The avodah of Yom Kippur prescribes chesed, acts of kindness, as the remedy for this sin, a sin which is representative of sinas chinam. The Mishnah in Yuma (6:4), states that the most chashuv residents of Yerushalayim would accompany the “ish iti,” the designated person who would bring the se’ir l’azazel, to the first of the ten booths, each 2,000 amos apart. The ten stations afforded the designated person with rest stations. He could rest and obtain food and water if necessary to endure this very difficult trip. Food and water in this context is pikuach nefesh.


I would like to suggest that the kapparos performed before Yom Kippur may very well have had the same theme, but, somehow, in the application of these themes, some of the providers of that opportunity may have possibly lost their way.

Kapparos also has the symbolic theme mentioned in Moreh Nevuchim but it contains two other elements.

It contains the concept of shechitah k’halachah, slaughtering following the five rules of slaughter handed down by Moshe Rabbeinu. Ever since Sinai (and before), these rules have enabled us to eat meat in the least-cruel fashion possible. There must be no nicks in the slaughter knife. Shechitah k’halachah is the most humane, chesed-filled method of slaughter. We must also treat animals and fowl with chesed. Indeed, the Torah teaches us that we must feed our animals even before we eat.

The second element is that of tzedakah. The chicken used for kapparos is to be given to the poor as tzedakah, a form of chesed.

Chesed, and the love of it, forms the very blueprint of the world, and these two rituals can help bring that idea out. What follows is an appreciation of one of these three pillars that hold up the world.

Hashem is the essence of chesed itself, and He created the world so that He can reward us for doing mitzvos (see Derech Hashem, chapter one). Thus, the mitzvos involved in the performance of chesed form a large part of the reason why Hashem created the world.

Performing chesed gives our life meaning. Since chesed plays such a crucial role in life, it is important to understand what Chazal tell us about this most important subject.

Three Obligations of Chesed

What is the source for the mitzvah of performing chesed? The Gemara (Bava Kamma 100a) identifies a pasuk in Sh’mos (18:20) as the source, “And inform them of the path that they should walk.” The Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos (Shoresh 2) cites this as a biblical requirement. There is another pasuk that one fulfills when performing chesed, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha — Love thy neighbor as yourself.” The Rambam in Hilchos Aveilus (14:1) cites this as a biblical requirement, although the rabbis provided illustrations as to how to fulfill it.

The major obligation of chesed stems from walking in Hashem’s ways. The Gemara (Sotah 14a) discusses the pasuk, “Acharei Hashem Elokecha teileichu — you shall walk after Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 13:5). The Gemara asks, “How is it possible to physically walk after the Divine Presence?”

The Gemara answers that it means to follow after the chesed traits, k’v’yachol, of Hashem. Just as He provides for the unclothed, so, too, must you provide clothing to them. The sefer Mitzvos Gedolos states that this verse is part of the related pasuk of “V’halachta b’drachav — and you shall walk in His ways.” In other words, the verse of “Acharei Hashem Elokecha teileichu” is referencing the verse of v’halachta b’drachav. It could very well be that the aforementioned verse in Shmos (18:20) is also referencing this.

The Gemara in Shabbos (133b) discusses another entirely different pasuk, “Zeh Keili v’anveihu.” The Gemara understands it to mean that we must attempt to liken ourselves to Him. Just as He is kind and merciful, so, too, must we be kind and merciful.

Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sherr, zt’l, explains (Leket Sichos Mussar p. 76) that the pasuk of “Zeh Keili v’anveihu” teaches us the obligation of feeling and understanding that the performance of chesed brings us closer to Hashem. This is on account of the Gemara’s understanding of the word “anveihu” to mean “Ani v’Hu — I and Him.” The meaning of this pasuk is therefore, “This is my G-d, and I shall bind myself to Him. I know that I can accomplish this binding through the notion of performing acts of chesed.” The consequences of this pasuk are an obligation of thought, not practice. It is something that we must think: chesed binds us to Hashem, “ani v’Hu.”

One means of achieving this is the further obligation that the sages placed on people to say (Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu, chapter 25), “When will my actions reach the level of those of our forefathers?” The forefathers personified these principles of chesed and wholesomeness. They also are the paradigms of a relationship with Hashem.

The Avos were so close to Hashem that they established the tefillos. Chesed can bring us to such a high madreigah, spiritual level, that it can bring us to the level of the Avos! A person is obligated to view chesed as the means of bringing us closer to Hashem and to constantly ask: When will my actions of chesed bring me up to that level of spirituality?

The pasuk in Michah (6:8) states, “What does Hashem require of you? Merely to do justice and love chesed.” The idea is that we must foster and develop a love of chesed. Rav Sherr explains that there are three elements to this love:

  1. To love doing acts of chesed.
  2. To love and appreciate a situation where chesed is being performed by others.
  3. To love the existence of opportunities for chesed in the world.

The Chofetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chesed 2:1) that not only must one love chesed but one must stick to this character trait and always go beyond the measure of what is required. He gives the analogy of a loving parent, who gives more food and clothing than the child requires; so must we do likewise in sticking to the middah of chesed.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh

The Alter of Slabodka writes that the notion of “olam chesed yibaneh” tells us that just as Hashem built the world with chesed, so, too, we must build the world with chesed.

Everyone in the world needs chesed. As babies we require the chesed of others. When we become elderly and sick, we also need the chesed of others. There is no other way. Chesed is necessary for the world to be built. Hashem built this into the nature of the world in order to show us the very necessity of chesed.

There is another element in chesed, too. It is a natural tendency for people to become miserable and crabby as they age. Living a life committed to chesed changes that—it stops us from declining in this respect. Thus, chesed not only builds the world, it builds us as well.


Let’s use the symbolism behind these two rituals as the means to further develop ourselves and our connection to Hashem. Let’s walk in His ways, let’s realize that chesed connects us to Hashem, and let’s also realize that it is our obligation to love our opportunities for chesed. Recently, the entire Five Towns community had the opportunity to see the beauty of chesed in this community. Ten schools came out to assist in a chesed that the entire community witnessed. The achdus of the community was palpable. What a z’chus with which to enter the Yomim Nora’im. Mi k’amcha Yisrael!

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at


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