Thousands of chickens, each circled over a head. A prayer is prayed symbolically, transferring the sins from the person to the bird. The chicken is slaughtered, the meat given to the poor.
Voodoo in Haiti? No. It’s the Jewish ritual Kapparot, part of the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur. And it caused a lot of controversy this week as thousands of chickens—a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman—were slaughtered to atone for sins. (“Kapparot” translates to “atonement,” and Yom Kippur is the annual Jewish day of atonement, in which observant Jews atone for the sins of the past year.)
Animal-rights activists in Israel are calling for the end of such a practice—though this practice may be attracting more attention because of how visible it is; we don’t have to see how the chickens in our freezers are treated—and for worshippers to instead do a kind of financial kapparot, in which atonement comes when one donates money to the poor.
The controversy this week was over the supposed inhumane treatment of chickens. But it should be about the perpetuation of the idea that we can earn our salvation through such works and sacrifices.
As the author of Hebrews states:
It’s impossible for the blood of bulls or goats (or chickens) to take away sins. — Hebrews 10:4
If we had to work for our ticket to heaven through good deeds, law following, and atoning for sin, wouldn’t we all be doomed? The number of sins that I, for one, commit in a day is astounding. Maybe I don’t start my day with prayer, and immediately commit the sin of pride and self-reliance. Then I’m selfish in my desire to sleep in and not train up my son in the Lord. As I make my coffee, I think about how I want more money so I can go to Starbucks each morning, and I think about my friend who has that fancy coffee machine I’m envious of.
But ultimately, the most egregious sin is not loving God with all of our souls, hearts, and minds (Matthew 22:37). What kind of sacrifice would pay that hefty price?
The Jewish holidays are days when Christians can praise God for fulfilling the law and the prophecies of the Old Testament so that we don’t need to do anything for our eternal salvation.
In fact, the hardest thing to believe is that we need do nothing to earn our salvation, except, of course, accept it freely in Jesus’ sacrifice.
Rather than gloat—oh that sin of pride just creeps in everywhere!—we can pray for our Jewish friends, that they would come to know the peace and comfort from certain atonement for sins in the cross, the final sacrifice. They await the savior; we know he’s arrived and done His good work.
Jesus the Messiah has come.
Lindsey M. Roberts is the editor of the All About Jesus blog. After seven years in secular journalism, she is thrilled to explore in words how everything—from taking a walk to doing the dishes—is an opportunity to meet and glorify God. Lindsey lives with her husband and newborn son in Virginia.