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A Yiddish Deer in the Headlights

The story behind the old Yiddish saying ‘like a chicken in children of man’

Avi Shafran
September 17, 2018
Fabrice Florin, Flickr
Deer on road at night transfixed, staring into headlights, Mill Valley, CaliforniaFabrice Florin, Flickr
Fabrice Florin, Flickr
Deer on road at night transfixed, staring into headlights, Mill Valley, CaliforniaFabrice Florin, Flickr

This time of Jewish year, with Yom Kippur fast approaching, and the day before Yom Kippur even closer, yields a wonderfully expressive Yiddish saying. It’s akin to the English expression “like a deer in the headlights.”

Not quite, though. The hoofed mammal staring at an oncoming car at night might best be described as transfixed; the animal in the Yiddish idiom is just uncomprehending, dumbfounded. And it’s a chicken.

The Aramaic-illiterate Jew contemplating a Talmudic passage in the original – or the yeshiva boy, a quadratic equation—might be described as looking vi a hon in bnei adam.

Literally, “like a chicken [staring] in children of man.” Yes, it needs some context.

“Bnai Adam,” or “sons of man,” is the opening phrase of a paragraph consisting largely of verses from Psalm 107, that is traditionally recited by Jews who are performing the rite of kapparos (or kapparot) on the day before Yom Kippur. A chicken, famously, is moved in a circular motion around the head of the supplicant while the paragraph is recited three times. (Contrary to the popular notion that one’s sins are somehow transferred to the chicken, as the renowned “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, explains, the ritual effects no atonement but rather is essentially intended as a spur to repentance.)

Presumably, the chicken is unaware not only of its fate (ritual slaughter and eventually the plates of a needy family), but of the meaning of the writing in the prayer-book being held in the other hand of the large creature that is moving it about. To the bird, it’s all just – forgive me – so much chicken scratch.

And so the uncomprehending, bewildered avian gaze into the prayer book serves as a colorful metaphor for the uncomprehending, bewildered gaze of some human beings, like the aforementioned Aramaic illiterate and yeshiva bachur.

Hon, of course, is related to the English “hen.” (One can only imagine what Gary Larson, were he a Yiddish speaker and still producing The Far Side comic strip, might draw above the caption “Attila the Hon.”)

And while the English “hen” refers only to the female of the species, the original German word, hahn, was used for the male; and Yiddish, open-minded language that it is, uses it for either sex.

“Hon,” as routinely used by salesladies in Baltimore, is, for the record, unrelated.

Some have the custom of using money instead of a chicken for the kapparos ritual, with the funds going to charity. And the use of chickens has been controversial in recent years, with some animal activists complaining that it is cruel to the birds. Jewish law prohibits causing animals any unnecessary pain, and there is nothing in the ritual that need discomfit the birds beyond causing them puzzlement.

Interestingly, there have been religious objections to the ritual, too, as it seems imitative of pagan rites. The primary Jewish legal text, the 16th century Shulchan Aruch, or “Code of Jewish Law,” actually disapproves of the practice. The authoritative glosses of the “Rama” (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), though, which present normative Ashkenazic practice, note that the custom has its illustrious defenders, and maintains that where it exists it should be preserved.

But back to Yiddish. Chickens figure in a number of other mamehloshon adages.

Like the selfish gourmand’s declamation that “A hun iz gut tzum essen zalbenand – ich un di hun” – “a chicken is best shared by two – me and the chicken.”

Or the memorable maxim about, as are an inordinate number of Yiddish sayings, a poor man.

Az an oreman est a hun…” it goes, “When a poor man eats a chicken…”

“…Iz oder er krank oder di hun” – “…either he is sick, or the chicken was.”

Which recalls Henny (!) Youngman’s story of the woman with two chickens, one of which took ill. She made chicken soup from the healthy one, he recounted, to help the sick bird feel better.

May you, dear reader, require no chicken soup in the new Jewish year.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at