Q. Why do some people wave a fowl over their heads on the day before Yom Kippur?A. The name of the ceremony is kapparot, which is connected with kippur – “expiation”. The ceremony derives from the 9th century and symbolically transfers a person’s sins.
After reciting Biblical verses, a male waves a male fowl three times around his head and a female a hen (the choice of the fowl is because many families had poultry), and they say a formula, “This is my substitute, my replacement, my atonement: this fowl goes to its death, but may I live long”. The fowl is then slaughtered and given to the poor.
In many circles the ceremony is performed with money (in ancient Babylonia plants such as beans and peas were used).
The Ramban and Yosef Karo (Tur, Orach Chayyim 605) thought it was a stupid custom and the Rashba (Shlomo ben Adret) regarded it as a pagan superstition.
Kabbalists however took it very seriously. Moses Isserles, who adds Ashkenazi glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, says it is an accepted custom and should be followed.
Those who oppose it recognise that it may contain a hint of the scapegoat ritual in the Temple but argue that the best way to rid oneself of sins is genuine repentance.
Giving money fulfils the tradition of charity and symbolises the determination that any sins we may have committed will now be replaced by good deeds for the benefit of other people.