Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Gone Digging

Image by Nadja Donauer from Pixabay.

The first Mishna in Bava Kama (1:1) begins by listing four categories of damages for which a person might be responsible, with bor (“pit”) listed second. That term refers to a case in which somebody dug a pit that ended up causing damage to another. The one who dug the pit is liable for all damages caused by the pit that he dug, as the Bible says, “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs (karah) a pit and he does not cover it, and an ox or donkey falls into it, then the master of the pit shall pay; he shall recompense the owner…” (Ex. 21:33-34). While this verse uses the relatively obscure verb karah to denote “digging,” the typical Biblical word for the verb of “digging” is chofer. In fact, throughout the Mishna (Shevi’it 3:10, Bava Kama 5:5, Bava Batra 2:12), the Rabbis consistently use the verb chofer — not karah — to denote the act of creating a bor. In this essay we will explore the possible differences between these apparent synonyms and help shed light on the exact meanings of these two terms.

The Malbim explains that karah refers to the first stage in digging a pit, while chafirah refers to the completion of the dig. With this in mind, the Malbim accounts for the word order in the verse, “He dug (karah) a pit, and he dug it (chafirah)” (Ps. 7:16). At first, he began to dig the pit, so the word karah is used to denote those first acts of digging, but subsequently the person in question dug deeper to the completion of the pit, so in that context a cognate of chafirah appears (see also Ibn Ezra, Ibn Ramoch, and Meiri to Ps. 7:16).

The Malbim notes that this distinction can also be inferred from the verses concerning Isaac and his wells, as an earlier verse relates “and Isaac’s servants dug (karah) there a well” (Gen. 26:25), with a later verse talking about those same wells reporting, “On that day, Isaac’s servants came, and they told him about the well that they dug (chafirah), and they said, ‘We found water’” (Gen. 26:32). In the beginning, digging that well was expressed with the verb karah because they had only begun to dig the well, but in the end the digging is described with the word chafirah. This explanation of the wording regarding Isaac’s wells is also found in Ha’Ktav V’Ha’Kabbalah by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) and in Ha’Emek Davar by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893).

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Based on this, the Malbim explains that when laying down the law that one who digs a pit is liable for all damages stemming from that pit, the Torah specifically uses the word karah. This is in order to teach that even if one digs “an incomplete pit” (i.e. one that is less than ten handbreadths deep), he is still liable for any damages incurred (except for if an animal dies by falling into that pit, per Bava Kama 5:5). This is implied by the Torah using the slightly less common verbiage karah to denote “digging” the pit, which implies even the most basic digging that does not penetrate as deep into the ground as the term chafirah implies. (According to Even Shoshan’s concordance, cognates of chafirah in the sense of “digging” appear in the Bible 23 times, while cognates of karah in the sense of “digging” appear 15 times.)

With this distinction between karah and chafirah in mind, Rabbi Berlin explains why the Bible used the word karah instead of chafirah in talking about Jacob’s burial place. Before he died, Jacob made Joseph swear that he will bury him in the Land of Canaan: “In my grave that I have dug (karah) for myself in the Land of Canaan — there you shall bury me” (Gen. 50:5). Rabbi Berlin explains that the Bible does not use the word chafirah in this context because that would imply the ludicrous notion that Jacob had already dug a deep grave intended for his burial while he was still alive. Usually, a person does not literally dig their own grave during their lifetime. Instead, explains Rabbi Berlin, Jacob merely meant that he had prepared a specific plot as his burial place, but not that he had actually dug the grave and completed all the preparations. Since Jacob meant that he had engaged in only perfunctory preparations for his burial but did not actually dig out the grave, the Bible used the word karah, which implies “digging” merely the beginning of a pit, as opposed to chafirah.

In a polemic against Modern Hebrew that highlights the richness and exaltedness of Lashon HaKodesh, Rabbi Shaul Bruch (1865-1940) notes that the Song of the Well uses the terms karah and chafirah in an opposite order than expected. That song reads: “O Well — she was dug (chafirah) by the officers, she was dug (karah) by the nation’s noblemen” (Num. 21:18). If this verse meant to refer chronologically to the stages of digging a well, it should have first used the word karah and then chafirah. Why, then, do these terms appear in the opposite order?

Rabbi Bruch answers by noting that while the Torah specifies that the Song of the Sea was sung by Moses and the Israelites (Ex. 15:1), the Song of the Well was only said to be sung by the Israelites (Num. 21:17). Moses’ absence can be accounted for in light of the fact that the song itself actually pays homage to Moses, as in this song the Jewish People acknowledged that although they (“the nation’s noblemen”) would undertake certain actions, the final results always depended on the nation’s ultimate leaders — Moses and Aaron — “the officers” who would seal the deal. For example, although the Jews themselves valiantly fought against Amalek, it was Moses’ raised hands (and the prayers to Hashem for help) that ultimately led them to victory.

Accordingly, the Song of the Well does not speak chronologically about the steps taken towards preparing a wellspring of water for the Jewish People in the wilderness. Rather, it reflects the qualitative reasons behind that miraculous entity: “She was dug by the officers” is mentioned first and foremost because those officers are Moses and Aaron in whose merit the well sprung into existence (see Taanit 9a). The chafirah — finalization — of the digging is attributed to them. Only after establishing the main reasons for the well’s existence can the song move on to discuss the secondary reasons: “She was dug by the nation’s noblemen,” which refers to the rest of the nation. Their merits can only “start” the digging process (karah), but cannot complete the project without the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 26:25, 49:5) sharpens the difference between karah and chafirah by explaining that karah refers to mere preparatory digging that does not finish the project (per the above). He connects the word karah (KAF-REISH-HEY) to its near-homonym kara (KUF-REISH-ALEPH), “calling,” noting that just as one calls over his friend in preparation for some greater purpose, so does karah denote the beginning stages of a larger digging project.

In contrast to this, Rabbi Hirsch understands that the term chafirah refers to “digging” so deep that one reaches the depths of the earth, and can thus bring up the spring waters embedded deep in the earth’s crust. Besides the more concrete meaning of “digging,” the word chafirah also appears in a more abstract sense, to “scout,” “spy” or “investigate.” Just as digging deep into the ground allows a person to retrieve the waters at the nadirs of the planet, so does the act of spying or investigating allow one to retrieve data or information that is otherwise hidden from view. (In Modern Hebrew, a nosey person is called a chafran.) Rabbi Mecklenburg similarly notes that in the context of “digging for information,” chafirah has a negative connotation (as if to say that one is searching for negative info about another to bring to light) and may be related to the Hebrew word cherpah (“embarrassment”). Elsewhere, Rabbi Hirsch (to Ex. 21:33) explains that karah refers to preparatory pre-digging arrangements needed to dig a pit, while chafirah refers to the actual act of “digging.”

Rabbi Pappenheim sees the word karah as reflective of the central meaning of the biliteral root KAF-REISH (“digging”), to which he ascribes a bevy of Hebrew terms united by various related themes:

  • Hakarah (“recognizing”) refers to the act of “digging” into one’s mind to reach a conclusion before receiving all relevant facts. From this meaning are derived terms like nochri (“foreigner”), who is somebody that one does not “recognize,” and mechira (“selling), which refers to the act of commercial intercourse that causes people to “recognize” each other, or by which a seller “estranges” himself from the items he sells by giving them to somebody else.
  • Kur (“furnace”) refers to a sort of oven or kiln that is “dug” into the ground. This term produces such derivatives as kiyor (“laver”), which is a washing vessel fashioned in the shape of a kurkikar (“a talent”), which is the amount of metal that can be processed in a kur in one time; kirah/kirayim (“oven”), which is also “dug” into the ground like a kur; and kikar (“loaf of bread”), which is typically baked in a kirah.
  • Kar (“fertile field”) refers to a place whose borders were typically demarcated by “digging” ditches around its perimeter. Karim refers to the “fat animals” who feast on the grounds of a kar, and kor refers to the “measurement of grain” yielded by the typical kar. An especially large kar with luscious pasture lands is called a kikar. Knights who are granted fiefdoms over such lands are called kreiti, while a peasant who actually works such fields is called an ikar. The term kerem (literally, “vineyard”) is also related to this meaning of KAF-REISH, because it refers to a land especially ripe for planting trees or vines.
  • Karet (“cutting”) also relates to “digging” in the sense that just as digging serves to break up the different parts of the dirt and separate them from each other, so does “cutting” serve to separate different pieces from each other.

In contrast to the terms for “digging” discussed earlier, the Malbim explains that chatzivah refers to “quarrying” and “excavating” with a hammer that chisels away at rock or hard ground. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yosef Kara (to Isa. 5:2) understands that chatzivah is a synonym to karah and chofer, except that it refers specifically to digging a round pit. He seems to relate the Biblical chatzivah to the Rabbinic term chatzav (“jug/pitcher”), which invariably refers to a round-shaped receptacle.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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