Every year on the day before the Day of Atonement, the ritual of Kapporoth may be seen enacted in many Orthodox households. This is the ceremony of substitution, and the head of the household begins it by pronouncing, “a soul instead of a soul.” He then recited some scripture, and after this, prepared a fowl to be sacrificed:
“A cock is taken for a man, and a hen for a woman; and for a pregnant woman a hen and also a cock, on account of the child. The father of the family first makes the atonement for himself, family, and afterwards for all Israel… while moving the cock around his head, he says, ‘This is my substitute. This is my commutation. This cock goes forth to death, but may I be gathered and enter into a long and happy life, and into peace.’
“As soon as one has performed the order of atonement, he should lay his hands upon it, as the hands used to be laid upon the sacrifices, and immediately after give it to be slaughtered.”
This custom, long preserved, proves that the instructions of the Mosaic Law have taken too deep a hold on the Israelite nation to allow them to rest satisfied with anything short of an actual sacrifice; but, now, as they have no high priest and no altar now, they are left to make a tepid effort to improvise with this invention.
Yet this custom speaks the sense of the Jewish nation upon the subject, and plainly decrees, that an atoning sacrifice is requisite. It expresses, in the first place, the heartfelt conviction, that every human being is guilty and needs an atonement. It prescribes a victim for man, woman and child, yes, even for the unborn babe, thereby teaching that the nature of man is corrupt, and that the hereditary guilt, even where there is no actual transgression, must be washed away by the blood of atonement. It expresses, further, the Jewish opinion as to the nature of sacrifice, that the sins are laid upon the victim, and that the victim is substituted for the guilty. Nothing can be plainer than the spoken formula, “This is my substitute. This is my commutation. This is my atonement.” It declares, further, that he who offers an atonement for another, must himself be free from guilt, for it requires the father of the family first to atone for himself, and then for those of his house. These are the recorded sentiments of the Jewish nation, expressed not only in words, but embodied in a solemn religious observance on the eve of their most sacred season. By this act, the Jews declare that an atonement by blood is absolutely necessary. The law of Moses makes the same declaration, by the appointment of all the rites of the Day of Atonement.
Even the nature of the victim is pointed out in the selection of the animal. “Gever” signifies both “a man” and “a cock”, and thereby signifies, that a righteous man must be the sinful man’s substitute; and so some of the rabbis say, that this animal, “a cock,” was selected “because, as its name signifies, ‘a man,’ there is a substitution of a man for a man.” (Orach Chaim 605)
But how can a chicken substitute for a man? How can anyone hazard his salvation on the self-devised sacrifice of a chicken? Will this be pleasing to the Almighty, and acceptable, or must a righteous man be found to serve as a substitute (as it says, ‘a soul for a soul’)? Yet where could such a righteous man be found? The prayerbook for the Day of Atonement supplies the answer:
“Our righteous Messiah is departed from us; horror has seized us, and we have none to justify us. He has borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He bears our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound.”
Moshe el Sheikh, the medieval commentator, explaining this role of the Messiah, said: “But see now the mercy of G-d; after we had individually gone astray, He might have been expected to punish us individually, likewise; yet the L-rd did not look to this, but counted us as one man, reckoning up the iniquity of us all together, and causing it to light upon the Just One, who was accordingly sufficient to bear the whole of it, which would not have been the case had each one’s iniquity been reckoned up against himself.”
This Messiah is substituted for the nation of Israel, for the sins of his generation; and the punishment which they deserve, he receives in their stead. Thus, ‘a soul for a soul,’ and the atonement is complete. The prayerbook reminds succeeding generations to look to the same source of atonement.
Another commentator, Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin, of Spain, wrote: “Surely our sickness he has carried.” These words explain the cause of his suffering. It will be as though he had borne all the sickness and chastisements which fall upon us. Or, perhaps, carry may mean take away, forgive, as in Exodus 10:17; from his pity and his prayers for us he will atone for our transgressions. We shall not believe that there could be any man ready to endure such pain and grief as would disfigure his countenance, even for his children, much less for his people. It will seem a a certain truth to us that such terrible sufferings must have come upon him as a penalty for his own many shortcomings and errors; and therefore we shall account him smitten of G-d. But it is not so; they are not a penalty sent from G-d, but he was panged for our transgressions – pangs, as of labor, will seize him for the distress that has come upon us for our transgressions. And by union with him we are healed. G-d will have mercy upon him and, by sparing him for the sake of his sufferings endured on our account, heal us.”
Elaborating further on the parasha, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, from which the prayer for the Day of Atonement was drawn, he says, “This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the express purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel, and his life from the day he arrives; the age of discretion until his advent as Redeemer, in order that if anyone should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance then we may believe that he is the Messiah our Righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so.”
So the question which remains then is, who can this righteous Messiah be? Who fits the description given by this prophet?