Scapegoats and Scapecoins: Commentary on Parashiyyot Acharey Mot-Kedoshim

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


The Titanic sank because of the Jews, argued an antisemite, riling up a mob at the bar. Fuming with anger, a Jew in the tavern put down a glass to raise a fist in the air and retorted, “Iceberg! Not Goldberg!”

So goes an old joke that must have emerged somewhere around the Catskills in the last century or so. The story appeals to a Jewish audience who knows all too well the many moments in world history when the Jews were blamed for acts they did not commit. Jews have been accused of offsetting the Bubonic Plague (caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis), killing Jesus by crucifixion (a Roman technology not used by ancient Jews), and eating the blood of Christian babies in their matzah (which would be both horrifically immoral and not kosher—antireligious on every ground). Throughout Jewish history, we have been scapegoated—treated as if we were animals onto whom the human species can transfer any sense of guilt.

The linguistic origins of scapegoating lie in the goats who show up in the ancient Temple rituals recorded in Leviticus 16. After Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu died in close proximity to God’s place of residence in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 16:1), this sacred site was rendered impure. Although the deaths were a surprise, the spoiling of the Tabernacle was a (super)natural consequence; in the ancient Israelite religion, a dead human body instantly transferred impurity to much of whatever and whoever came into contact with it.

To rectify the impurity of this holy structure, God presents Moses with instructions to be passed along to Aaron: to get dressed and washed in some particular fashions (16:4) and to take along a variety of animals (listed in 16:3 and 16:5). Standing out among the non-human mammals who most prominently feature in this chapter are two goats. According to Leviticus 16:9, one unlucky goat was to be designated “לַיהֹוָ֑ה” (ladonai, “for God”), as a sacrifice to be slaughtered. The next verse declares the colleague of the sacrificed goat only moderately luckier; the goat that is enigmatically declared to be לַעֲזָאזֵ֔ל (la’azazel, “to Azazel”) is not killed by priests or any Israelite at all, at least directly. Although the meaning of “Azazel” is vague—for perhaps this is the name of a demon, or a way of referring to the wilderness, or another name for the underworld envisioned by our spiritual forebears—the gist is the same. The goat destined for Azazel would escape and bear the guilt of all of the wrongdoings of the Israelite people; our four-footed friend would act as the scapegoat for our people.

Although Aaron’s sons would never return, this purification process turned into a sort of autumnal cleaning habit for the Temple. Leviticus 16:29–34 assigns the date of what is now Yom Kippur for an annual reenactment of the specific costuming, sacrificing, and scapegoating that had been prescribed for Aaron. Although this Day of Atonement has stuck around, we no longer have a Temple. With that, we no longer bring forth goats to whom a priest transfers the sins of our people. But religious scapegoating has not exactly stopped.

The 13th–14th century scholar Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher of France and Spain attempted to compile the entirety of Jewish law into his Arba’ah Turim. As he described the leadup to Yom Kippur should look like, he attested, “יש מקומות שנוהגין לשחוט תרנגול לכפרה” (“there are places where [folks] practice a custom of slaughtering a chicken for atonement”). The practice appears to have been all the rage in almost every European Jewish community, except for the environs graced by the presence of Rabbi Shelomoh ibn Adret, an older colleague of Rabbi Ya’akov but based in Aragon (in what is now Spain). Proud of his efforts to stop his Jewish community from scapegoating fowl, Rabbi Shelomoh bragged to the French Jewish astronomer and physician Ya’akov ben Makhir:


אני מצאתי מנהג זה פשוט בעירנו עם שאר דברים שהיו נוהגין כיוצא בזה… והבלי׳ הרבה שנראו בעיני כדרכי האמורי ודחקתי על זה הרבה ובחסד עליון נשמעו דברי ולא נשאר מכל זה ומכיוצא באלו בעירנו מאומה. אע״פ ששמעתי מפי אנשים הגונים מאד מאשכנז היושבים עמנו בבית המדרש שכל רבני ארצם עושין כן ערבי יום הכפורים ושוחטין לכפרה ואווזין ותרנגולין

I found this custom was widespread in our town with other matters that they were practicing related to it… and [this was alongside] many [other] futilities that in my eyes appeared like the ways of the Emorites [i.e., not the practices of Jewish people]. But I pushed back on this a lot, and, with the lovingkindness of the Supernal One, my words were heard, and there remains [now] of all of this [nonsense] and anything relating to those [heretical practices] not a single iniquity. [This is the fact] even though I have heard from very civilized people from Ashkenaz [i.e., modern Germany,] who sit with us in the study hall that all of the rabbis of their land do perform [the custom] on the eve of [each] Yom Kippur, and they slaughter geese and chickens for atonement. (She’elot UTshuvot HaRaShB”A I:395.)


Over the years, this practice of kapparot (כַּפָּרוֹת, “atonements”) evolved—usually involving the swinging of a slaughtered chicken around the head of the atoning Jew who would declare of the bird, “זֹאת חֲלִיפָתִי, זֹאת תְּמוּרָתִי, זֹאת כַּפָּרָתִי” (“this is my exchange; this is my substitute; this is my atonement”). With time, a few concerns began to dampen the force of this custom. On the one hand, Jewish scholars continued to raise ritual concerns about the appropriateness of it all. Thus, Rabbi Yisra’el Me’ir Kagan HaKohen (19th–20th century Europe and United States) in his Mishnah Berurah argued that there is a great likelihood for a layperson’s slaughter of this poultry in the dark of the night to be performed in an unkosher manner (495:1:2). On the other hand, with the Emancipation of Jews in early modern Europe, Jews seeking acceptance in an increasingly secular society often shied away from rituals that may have appeared irrational to others. This attempt to fit in better meant fewer and fewer Jews would gravitate towards flinging chickens around their heads in public.

Rabbi Kagan HaKohen was therefore among those sages advocating instead for Jews to wave coins around their heads in a circle and to declare the money as their scapegoat shortly before Yom Kippur (495:1:3). This money-focused ritual is not only cleaner, quieter, and lighter than the chicken-slinging version of kapparot, but using money renders the declaration of the ritual more honest. In what world, could a chicken—dead or alive—be expected to carry the burdens of immorality or vices that have tempted us over the course of a year? By what right could we sincerely assign to a bird the senses of guilt and responsibility that are supposed to render the human species answerable? Money, on the other hand, is made by humans for humans. Money symbolizes and concretizes privileges that we have earned or lost with time—rightly or wrongly. Money further may be used for holy purposes or towards unholy ends. So can we. If we are to exchange ourselves for anything in life, let it be something in which we have entrusted some sacred or moral potential—rightly or wrongly.

Although it feels good to relieve ourselves of the burdens of guilt, with the amount of scapegoating to which Jews have fallen victim, we must accept responsibility for our own actions. RMS Titanic may have sunk because of an iceberg, and the fault does not belong to a goat, a chicken, or a goose. Certain faults, however, may be because of Goldberg—or whatever our names may be. Unlike a goat destined to Azazel, we do not get banished; we aim to stick around to name and to improve on our imperfections.




The weekly Torah commentary of Hebrew Seminary: A Rabbinical School for Deaf & Hearing brings new insights to students of the Torah across the world with no barriers. To help support the culture of learning Torah and teaching Torah at and beyond Hebrew Seminary, please consider making a donation today.