Exodus 25:17 – And you shall make a cover of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. Rashi – an ark cover Heb. כַפֹּרֶת a cover over the ark, which was open from above. He [Moses] placed it [the cover] over it [the ark] like a board.
Rashi brings no proof-text for support that the word כפורת linguistically means cover, but Ibn Ezra compares this to the word כפרה –atonement– which he asserts to mean covering the sin, based on Psalm 32:1 – Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
The reason Rashi did not cite כפרה as a proof that כפורת means cover is plain – Rashi holds that atonement means obliteration of the sin, not covering it, as we see on his comment regarding the phrase אכפרה פניו uttered by Jacob prior to encountering Esau:
Genesis 32:21 – I will appease his anger with the gift that is going before me, and afterwards I will see his face, perhaps he will favor me. Rashi – Heb. אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו, I will do away with his anger (Onkelos). Similarly (Isa. 28:18): “And your treaty with death shall be nullified (וְכֻפַּר)”; (ibid., 47:11) “you shall not be able to rid yourself of it (כַּפְּרָה).” This is Aramaic, and there are many instances of it in the Talmud, e.g. (B.M. 24a): “and he wiped (וְכָפַר) his hands”; (Gittin 56a): “He wishes to wipe (לִכְפוּרֵי) His hands on this person.” In biblical Hebrew also, the sacred sprinkling basins are called כְּפוֹרֵי זָהָב (Ezra 1:10) because the priest wipes his hands on them at the edge of the sprinkling basin.
In explaining the word אכפרה, Rashi uses no less than three separate words: ביטול, העברה and קינוח – all denoting erasing and wiping out, leaving no room for doubt about his disagreement with those who render כפרה as covering. At the same time though, Rashi is careful to qualify this interpretation as applying only to כפרה related to sins and anger – apparently to exclude the כפורת, which means cover, despite the fact the words share an identical root.
In seeking to determine the core meaning of a root, one is well-advised to examine the first occurrence of the word in the Tanach. In this case, the root כפר first occurs in the story of the building of Noah’s ark: Genesis 6:14 – and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch.
Here again we turn to Ibn Ezra, who comments that the term for caulking, וכפרת, means covering, which in turn relates back to the כפורת, the cover of the ark. Rashi however is mum on this point.
Another כפר derivative is the word כפירה – heresy, albeit a non-Biblical term, but one used extensively in the Talmud. In seeking to determine the core meaning of this Rabbinic term, however, we are assisted with a solid hint found in the Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer. Many examples are cited in this Midrash to emphasize G-d’s loathing of ingratitude of any sort, called כפיית טובה, one example of which is a כופר, a heretic, because his stance is actually כפירת טובה. Thus the term כפירה is equated with כפייה, which would logically mean that understanding the core meaning of כפייה would shed light on the term כפירה and כופר.
The meaning of כפייה in the Tanach is clear; Proverbs 21:14 states: מַתָּן בַּסֵּתֶר יִכְפֶּה אָף – A gift in secret covers anger. Metzudat Tzion says this means covering, and it is used in that sense in the Talmud (e.g. Shabbat 88a). Thus the term כפירה would mean simply that the heretic seeks to hide or cover the truth.
This in turn helps us understand other כפר derivatives, such as כפיר, a young lion, and כפר, a village. Both of these words are homiletically connected by the Sages (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 43 and Eiruvin 21b respectively) to the word כפירה (perhaps because both the lion and the self-sufficient villager feel independent and “cover their eyes” to the generosity bestowed upon them by G-d and parents that brought them to this point).
With ample proof-texts to back Ibn Ezra’s stance that the core meaning of כפרה is in fact covering, what would explain Rashi’s emphatic insistence that it means nothing short of obliteration? Furthermore, instead of comparing כפרה to the obvious derivatives of כפר Ibn Ezra cites, Rashi references Talmudic expressions as support, and only lastly cites the Biblical כפורי זהב, the obscure sprinkling vessels first mentioned only in the book of Ezra.
Another difficult Rashi may ironically help to unravel Rashi’s puzzling position about the root כפר and the word כפרה. Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses prefaces his entreaties to G-d with the following expression addressed to the Israelites:
Exodus 32:30 – And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I will obtain atonement for your sin. Rashi – I will obtain atonement for your sin Heb. אֲכַפְּרָה בְּעַד חַטַּאתְכֶם. [This means] I will place a כופר, a wiping away, and an obstruction opposite your sin to separate you from your sin.
“Wiping away” is one thing, an “obstruction” is quite another! Moses is here discussing his hope to attain atonement for the most infamous sin of all time, and he is aiming to obtain only an “obstruction”? And what of the word כופר here – does it in fact mean wiping away or is Rashi here acknowledging that Ibn Ezra was correct all along and that כפרה indeed means aught but covering the sin?
I believe Rashi is forced in this case to confront כפר’s meaning of covering and obstruction due to Moses’ use of the word בעד, which he explains elsewhere (vis. I Sam. 1:6, Gen. 20:18, Job 2:4) to mean כנגד, in front of, in the face of. That is, because of the gravity of the sin, Moses cannot be certain that he will succeed in obtaining absolute erasure of the memory of this calamitous iniquity, and there may be no choice but to live with an “obstruction,” a barrier or a temporary covering of the sin, which may well necessitate further atonements in the future, even into future generations.
When Rashi says “I will place a כופר”, this can refer only to a noun, namely to the caulking pitch used by Noah, referring figuratively to the obstruction or covering of the great sin in question. But Rashi stresses that this is not Moses’ “atonement of choice” –surely total erasure is the ultimate goal– but because the choice is only in G-d’s hands, Moses used
the term כפר precisely, to convey both meanings.
But if the root כפר bears both meanings, why does Rashi insist in other places that כפרה means nothing but obliterating? For the same reason that Moses (according to Rashi’s interpretation), first says that he will pray for “wiping out.” The potential penitent will never approach the subject of repentance thinking that his sins will merely be covered; he wishes only for a completely clean slate. G-d surely wishes to encourage repentance, a theme oft-repeated in the Torah. There may be sins that require a greater degree of effort and time to nullify as detailed in Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva, and that is reflected by the “cover” meaning of כפר. That said, the “clean slate” begins immediately, like the כפורת of pure gold that covered the ark, which itself was constructed in part of שיטים wood to atone for the sin that occurred at the place bearing that name (תנחומא תרומה י). Past sins may not be erased immediately, but they can ironically be utilized as the very foundation for a golden, glorious future (e.g. a penitent, clean Mob boss has the organizational, social and financial skills easily serve as a CEO of any legitimate firm).
May we all merit ultimate atonement of our sins through the service of the High priest before the ark and its כפורת.
For full Hebrew sources and previous posts, see https://www.facebook.com/groups/1669565696664822/.