Journey into the High Holidays with Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of Storahtelling and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul. It’s a daily dose of inspiration to get you focused and ready for the new year, featuring daily intentions, simple tasks, and tools for living better.
The day before Yom Kippur is rich with different traditions, each which can seem stranger than the next. There’s Kapparot—from the same root as the word kippur—a ritual in which live chickens or roosters (it’s a gender-specific ritual) are swung over one’s head and then killed as replacement, or substitution, for one’s own death. Some use live fish instead. My father used a check book when I was growing up. It never made sense to me.
Then there’s the flogging, which still goes on today in some communities though it’s definitely not as popular as it used to. Men flog each other with leather whips on the eve of Kippur, usually in synagogue, as a way to atone for their (often sexually related) sins. The 39 lashes, administered by a special whip used only for this occasion, remind the flogged and flogger of their sins and serve as punishment—again, in place of any bigger potential punishment by God.
For the record, I’ve never flung a chicken or flogged a friend as part of my Prepenting but I’ll admit that I’m curious, and I think I understand why these visceral rituals are still alive and well today, if only in limited circles.
It has to to do with blood, with death, with actual actions and not just words or a polite fist on your chest. Even if the lashes are symbolic (or so they say) and the chicken is not killed before one’s very eyes, the psycho-physical reality is real and in your face, above your head and on your skin. It’s just like Alan Lew wrote, “this IS real—and we are completely unprepared.” The shock value of these rituals is to shake us out of our complacence, remind us of mortality, fragility, and our own lives.
Maybe next year I’ll get around to trying these traditions, but this year my symbolic equivalent is a votive candle big enough to last for 48 hours or more. The wick is my soul, the wax is my body, the flame is my life, the match is the moment, and the light is my being. The candle is my symbol for the life and death that are part of who I am. Lighting the wick with intention tonight will be my way to symbolize mortality and fragility, and being fully present in the here and now.
Yahrtzeit candle? Something scented perhaps? Personalize at will. A perpetual flame lit in a sacred spot at home into the day and night of Atonement will remind us of all that’s precious—the pains, and the pleasure, and the Prepent journey that has led us day by day into the threshold of the holy, humble, and honest.
Follow along with the Scroll’s daily Prepent series here.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the founder of Storahtelling, and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul, an emerging New York City congregation.