We're now up to the third term of forgiveness - kapara (or kapparah) כפרה. This is the most complicated of the three for a number of reasons:
- Unlike selicha and mechila, there are a number of different words in the Tanach that share the root כפר , and it is not always clear if they are related.
- The meanings of selicha and mechila were fairly clear - the debate was over the etymologies. With kapara, there is much disagreement amongst the rabbis and modern scholars over the actual meaning of the root and words.
- The root כפר is the base of Yom HaKipurim יום הכיפורים - and therefore receives much more attention, and many more drashot about the root come in to play.
Here are some of the words with the root כפר :
- כופר - kofer: pitch, asphalt (hard to believe this is the third time I've discussed asphalt on this site)
- כופר - kofer: ransom
- כפורת - kaporet: the cover of the Holy Ark
- כפור - kfor: frost
- כפיר - kfir: a type of lion
- כפר - kfar: village
- כפירה - kefira: to deny
Ronen Ahituv discusses the opinions of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban as to the meaning of כפרhere (and here in the original Hebrew):
While awaiting the encounter with his brother Esau, our father Jacob sent him an offering. It is explained with these words:For he reasoned, "If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor. And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in the camp that night. (Bereishit 32:20-21)The expression propitiate [akhaprah panav] appears here in Scripture for the first time. The commentators disagreed about its meaning. Rashi writes: "propitiate - I will end his anger,... it seems to me that the word kaparah when conjoined with avon [transgression] and het [sin], and panim [face] - all are expressions of wiping away, and they are Aramaic... Scriptural language also refers to the holy fountains as kipurei zahav, since the priest cleans his hands in them, in the lip of the fountain." Rashi explains kaparah as wiping out anger. The gift is intended to wipe out Esau's anger.Ibn Ezra interprets it differently: "The meaning of akhaprah panav is I will cover-up and hide." It is not a matter of ending the anger permanently, but rather of temporarily hiding it, and especially, canceling its destructive outcome. Esau's anger and enmity are not cancelled; instead, they will be temporarily held off by the gift, saving the lives of Jacob and his household for the time being.The RaMBaN takes pains to reopen the discussion of the meaning of kaparah and disagrees with Rashi:The connotation of "wiping away" attached to forgiveness [kipur] is not valid in the Sacred Language but rather in the Aramaic tongue... for the word kaparah is never used in association with sin [het], meaning wipe away, but instead Scripture says: lekhapeir [to make atonement] for your souls (Shemot 30:15); lekhapeir for him, and he shall be forgiven (Bamidbar 15:28), i.e., for his soul. And Scripture also says: akhaprah [I shall make atonement] for your sin (Shemot 32:30). All of them are related to the expression, Then shall they give every man kofer for his soul (Shemot 32:12), which means a ransom. (Chavel translation)According to the RaMBaN, the Hebrew language does not contain the concept of kaparah for a sin, but rather only kaparah for a soul. Kaparah is ransom for a soul, a replacement for death. Jacob is saying that he himself deserves to die upon seeing Esau, and the gift is being given in exchange for his life.
So we have three options for כפר : wiping, hiding/covering, and atonement/ransom. However, I have found a fourth explanation, which I find very convincing. Rav Menachem Leibtag explains in this article how כפר always means "protection". The article is too long to quote here, but it discusses how protection is an accurate definition for most of the words I quoted above, and also offers an explanation of the meaning of Yom HaKippurim. Take a minute and read the article.
However, while there is disagreement as to the meaning of kapara, it is less of an issue in regards to the etymology. As Klein writes:
The meanings 'to wash away, wipe off, cover, expiate' are interrelated, and, accordingly, etymologically connected.
I would add protection to the above list as well. (By the way, the English word "cover" is not related to kofer - it actually is a compound of two seperate roots.)
However, it should be noted that Levine, in the JPS Leviticus (4:20) sides with Rashi above, and claims there is a real difference between "wipe off" and "cover". He writes:
The Akkadian verb kuppuru, which corresponds to Hebrew kipper, means "to wipe off, burnish, cleanse". In cultic terms this means that expiation is conceived of as cleansing, as wiping away impurity, contamination, and, by extension, sin itself. This interpretation differs from the concept endorsed by many scholars that the verb kipper means "to cover, conceal" the sin or impurity from God's view. Such an idea is of course well known in the biblical literature, as it is in most other religious traditions, but is not the idea conveyed by the verb kipper.
What about some of the words that Leibtag does not discuss? Klein writes that kfir perhaps is related to the meaning "to cover" and denotes "a lion already covered with a mane".
Steinberg suggests that kfar means "a place covered with tents in a field".
Klein does not offer an etymology for kefira, but Jastrow writes that it means to wipe out the truth, and this site, discussing the cognate Arabic term kuffir, suggests "to cover or to conceal" the truth.
A related question: why is kippurim found in the plural in the Torah, and why do we more commonly say Yom Kippur (in the singular)? EMC gives the following answer:
Kippurim is a tantum plurale ("only plural") in Biblical Hebrew, a word occurring only in the plural. Pluralia tantum are often used in Hebrew to denote abstract notions, like "atonement," alumim, "youth," tanhumim, "consolation." etc. They are less frequent in later forms of the language, which might account for the eventual changeover to the singular in yom kippur.