It was the evening before Yom Kippur. One of the Chasidim of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev approached the Rebbe and asked if he could be present when the Rebbe does kaparot*.
“What makes you think that my kaparot are anything special?” Reb Levi Yitzchak asked.
“I am an ordinary Jew – I do what everyone else does. I hold the rooster in one hand, and recite the text, ‘This is my exchange, this is in my stead, this is my atonement…’ Then I wave the bird gently over my head,” Reb Levi Yitzchak said simply.
“Actually, there might be a certain difference between your kaparot and mine,” Reb Levi Yitzchak continued. “You probably make sure to use a white rooster, while to me it makes no difference, white, black, brown – as long as it’s a rooster…”
The Chassid did not give up. He had been coming to Berditchev to pray with the Rebbe on Yom Kippur for more than twenty years, and he had always wanted to observe his Rebbe at this moment.
“You want to see a special kaparot,” Reb Levi Yitzchak said, “then go observe how Moshe, the tavern keeper, does kaparot. Now, there you’ll see something truly inspiring. His is no ordinary kaparot.”
The Chassid located Moshe’s tavern at a crossroads several miles outside of Berditchev and asked to stay the night. “I’m sorry,” said the tavern keeper, “but this is a small inn. We don’t have any rooms to let. There’s another inn just a short distance further down the road.”
“Please,” begged the Chassid, “I’ve been traveling all day. I don’t need a room. I’ll just curl up for a few hours, rest a bit, and be on my way.”
“Okay,” said Moshe. “We’ll be closing up shortly, and then you can get some sleep.”
But first, Moshe had to clean up and get everyone to leave. That took a lot of urging, joking, shouting, even threatening, till he succeeded in herding all the drunken peasants out the door. Then all the chairs and tables had to be stacked in a corner. The room, which also served as the tavern keeper’s living quarters, was readied for the night. Midnight had long passed, and the hour of kaparot was approaching. The chassid, wrapped in his blanket under a table, pretended to be asleep, but kept careful watch in the darkened room. He did not want to miss anything.
Before dawn, Moshe rose from his bed, washed his hands, and recited the morning blessings.
“Time for kaparot!” he called quietly to his wife, taking care not to wake his guest. “Yentel, please bring me the notebook – it’s on the shelf above the cupboard.”
Moshe sat himself on a small stool, lit a candle, and began reading from the notebook, unaware that his “sleeping” guest was wide awake and straining to hear every word. The notebook was a diary of all the misdeeds and transgressions the tavern keeper had committed in the course of the past year, the day, time, and circumstance of each carefully noted.
What were his “sins”? A word of gossip one day, oversleeping the time for prayer on another, neglecting to give his daily coin to tzedakah on a third. By the time Moshe had read through the first few pages his face was bathed in tears. For more than an hour Moshe read and wept, until the last page had been turned.
“Yentel,” he now called to his wife, “bring me the second notebook.”
This too was a diary – of all the troubles and misfortunes that had befallen him in the last twelve months. On this day a gang of peasants beat him up; on that day his child fell ill; once, in the dead of winter, the family had frozen for several nights for lack of firewood; and another time their cow had died, and they had no milk until enough money had been saved to buy another cow. When he had finished reading the second notebook, the tavern keeper lifted his eyes towards Heaven and said: “My dear Father in Heaven, I know that I made a lot of mistakes. Last year I promised to do Your mitzvot more carefully, but so many times I gave in to my yetzer hara (evil inclination). However, last year I also prayed and begged You for a year of good health and prosperity, and I trusted in You that You would take care of us.
“Dear Father, today is the eve of Yom Kippur, when everyone forgives and is forgiven. Let us put the past behind us. I’ll forgive You and accept my troubles as an atonement for my failings, and I ask You, in Your great mercy, to forgive me.”
Then Moshe, the tavern keeper took the two notebooks in his hands, raised them aloft, and circled them three times above his head, saying, “This is my exchange, this is in my stead, this is my atonement.” When he finished reciting the prayers, he threw both notebooks into the fireplace, where the flames took hold of the tear-stained pages and turned them to ashes.
From: The Moshiach Times Tishrei 5781. This story can be found in Sippurei Chassidim by Rabbi Zevin, z’l.
*Kaparot – Since Talmudic times, it has been a widespread Jewish custom to perform kaparot in preparation for Yom Kippur. Kaparot means ‘atonement’. A special prayer is recited and the chicken used in the kaparot ceremony is given to the poor after proper kosher slaughter and kashering. We ask G-d that if we were destined to be the recipient of harsh decrees in the new year, G-d forbid, may it be transferred to this chicken in the merit of the mitzvah of charity.Where chickens are not available, kaparot is done with money, and following the recitation of the special prayer, the money is donated for the poor.
Adapted from: chabad.org/kaparot