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

Hunger in Town

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When famine struck the Land of Canaan after Abraham had finally reached that Promised Land, it led the first of the patriarchs to sojourn to Egypt to ride out the calamity (Gen. 12:10). In the next generation, when a famine again hit the Holy Land, it prompted Abraham’s son Isaac to relocate to the kingdom of the Philistine ruler Abimelekh (Gen. 26:1). Finally, the third patriarch, Isaac’s son Jacob, also eventually left the Land of Canaan due to a famine, and ended up in Egypt (see Gen. 45:11). The standard Biblical Hebrew term for “famine” or “hunger” is ra’av, and that was the word used in all the above-mentioned cases. Various permutations of this word appear around 130 times throughout the Bible. Yet, in two places, a different word is used to mean the same exact thing — kafan (Job 5:22, 30:3). In this essay, we explore the words ra’av and kafan, investigating whether they are truly synonyms or are slightly different from one another.

To be honest with you, it is quite possible that ra’av and kafan are not actually synonyms in the classical sense, but are simply two different words in two different languages that happen to mean the same thing. I say this because the standard words in Targum for ra’av are k’fankafna, or kfina. All of these words seem to be related to the Biblical Hebrew kafan, as they are all derived from the common triliteral root KAF-PEH-NUN. This point has been made by multiple commentators, the earliest of whom seems to be Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in Machberet Menachem. This would suggest that ra’av is Hebrew, while kafan is Aramaic. Nonetheless, the fact that kafan appears in the Book of Job (which is not clearly written in Aramaic), and in that case it also appears alongside the Hebrew word ra’av, suggests that kafan is indeed a Hebrew word, but means something slightly different than ra’av (at least when it appears in Hebrew).

The prophet Ezekiel compares the relationship of Zedekiah (the last king of Judah) and the Pharaoh of Egypt (on whose protection Zedekiah relied) to a grapevine that seeks to grow outwards under the protection of an eagle (Ezek. 17:7). The term used to denote the grapevine’s wish to “expand outwards” is kafnah. Rashi (there) explains this term as a cognate of kafan by personifying the grapevine as though it were hungry and desirous of reaching more.

Radak (as well as an anonymous gloss printed within Rashi’s commentary there) explain kafnah as meaning “gathering,” understanding the term as a metathesized version of the word kenufia (“gathering/assembly”) used in the Talmud (see Rashi to Shabbat 73b, Pesachim 66b, Zevachim 117a). Interestingly, Ibn Ezra (to Job 5:22) defines kafan itself as “gathering.” Rabbi Shmuel Masnuth (a 13th century Bible exegete from Syria) in his work Ma’ayan Ganim (to Job 5:22) also goes with this approach, but he actually explains that kafan does not refer to a “famine,” but to a different sort of national disaster — a “gathering” of enemy soldier.

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Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105–1170) writes in his work Sefer HaGalui that the word kafan means “deficiency/lack,” and refers to a situation whereby a person might stick his hand into his pocket to take out some money, and then realize that he has nothing in his pocket. Rabbi Yosef Kimchi’s son, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235), better known as Radak, cites his father’s explanation in his work Sefer HaShorashim.

Rabbi Yosef Kimchi himself repeats this explanation in his commentary to Job 5:22, but then adds another point. He writes that the words ra’av and kafan connote two different types of “famine,” one implies a sort of famine whereby food is simply unavailable, while the other implies the sort of famine whereby food is still available, but has become prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, a scribal error in the copying of Rabbi Kimchi’s commentary makes it impossible for us to know which of these two types of famines is called ra’av and, which, kafan.

Nevertheless, Gersonides/Ralbag (to Job 5:22) goes in a similar direction, explaining that kafan refers to a famine caused by people hoarding food and making the prices rise, while ra’av refers to a famine caused simply by the scarcity of food. Gersonides’ explanation is also cited by Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444) in Ohev Mishpat (to Job 5:22) who praises it and concurs with it.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that kafan primarily refers to the feeling of an empty stomach that results from hunger and thirst. He understands that kafan relates to the Rabbinic Hebrew term kefiyah (“forcing/compelling”), because of all the essential activities that man might engage in — like eating, drinking, bathing, dressing, sleeping, and procreating — eating and drinking are the most important, and where there is a dearth of food, man is “forced” to do something about it. What might a person do to escape the effects of a famine? He might pick up his feet and get out of the affected area, like we see with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of whom ended up travelling elsewhere because of a famine. In line with this, Ohalei Yehuda also notes that kafan can mean “scattering/spreading out.” In this sense, it is possible that kafan may be metathesis of the word kanaf
(“wing”), which a bird spreads out in order to fly. Both terms use the same consonants, albeit in a different order.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) offers a similar explanation. He traces the word kafan to the biliteral root KAF-PEH (“receptacle”), with other words derived from this root including kaf (“palm”), kofef (“bending,” the act needed to turn one’s palm into a receptacle), akifah (“enforcement,” which compels others to bend to a given authority), kippah (“dome,” a palm-like structure), kofeh (“turning over [a vessel],” which creates a dome-like space), kefiyah (i.e., subduing and suppressing any dissent and therefore causing one to “bend”). In this spirit, he explains that kafan refers to a famine as the sort of natural disaster that might cause a person’s stature to be bent (whether physically due to lack of nutrition, or metaphorically because a famine “forces” a person to give in to whatever demands are placed upon him as a way of surviving).

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zidel (d. 1971) claims that kafan refers specifically to “thirst” (i.e., lack of drink), while ra’av refers specifically to “hunger” (i.e., lack of solid food). But I have not found any other sources which indicate this sort of distinction.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (1720–1797), better known as the Gra or the Vilna Gaon, writes that there is an essential difference between ra’av and kafan. He explains that ra’av refers to an external crisis brought on by the lack of available quality produce, while kafan denotes an internal difficulty, whereby a person might have access to what should theoretically be enough food and provisions, yet in practice will not be satisfied by whatever is available. The Vilna Gaon likens the latter type of famine to one of the curses that the Torah warns will befall those who fail to keep the law: “and you shall eat, and you will not be satisfied” (Lev. 26:26). This curse is the exact opposite of the blessing associated with those who keep the laws of the Sabbatical Year, “and you will eat your bread to satisfaction” (Lev. 26:5), which Rashi explains means that one will eat just a small quantity, yet when in his stomach, one’s repast will be blessed as though it were of a larger quantity, enough to satisfy the eater.

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Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) offers another way of differentiating between these two apparent synonyms. He explains that ra’av denotes a person actively suffering from hunger pains, whose digestive system remains bereft of food and whose soul yearns for something to eat. On the other hand, the term kafan denotes an even more dire situation: a person suffering from such acute malnourishment, than he no longer feels any hunger pains but has become used to not getting the amount of food that he would naturally require. The latter is more unfortunate because he has become so accustomed to his starvation that he no longer actively feels it.

Another term used for famines is the Biblical phrase shnat batzoret (Jer. 17:8), which Rashi explains refers to “a year of famine.” The word batzoret in the sense of “famine” also appears in the Mishnah (Taanit 3:1, Avot 5:8) and is the standard term for “famine” in the Talmud (for example, Eruvin 51b, Pesachim 56a, Yevamot 15b, Ketubot 10b, 106a, Gittin 12a, and more). It can be traced to the triliteral root BET-TZADI-REISH, which otherwise means “stronghold/fortified” (like mivtzar), “grape harvest” (batzir), and “withholding/subtracting.” The “famine” meaning seems to relate closest to this last sense of the root. Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the BET-TZADI-REISH root in general as a portmanteau of the biliteral BET-ALEPH (“come”) and biliteral TZADI-REISH (“narrow”), although he does not connect this specifically to the idea of a famine. With some creativity, we can add that when there is a famine, people enter various financial and economic straits, and their range of choices remain narrow.

Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur’s Meturgaman notes that Targum to Job (5:22, 30:3) translates the Hebrew kafan into the Aramaic ultzan, instead of simply Aramaicizing the Hebrew kafan like we might have otherwise expected. Similarly, he notes that Targum to Psalms once translates ra’av as kafna (Ps. 105:16) and twice as ultzana (Ps. 33:19, 37:19). To understand this phenomenon, one should realize that the Targum to Job, Proverbs, and Psalms was written in a different style than the other Targumim, such that its language is closer to the Syriac dialect of Aramaic. According to this, it is not so surprising that they might sometimes use a different Aramaic word for “famine.”

As an aside, the Aramaic terms ultzan/ultzana seem to derive from the Hebrew root ALEPH-LAMMED-TZADI, from which the Biblical term alatz derives. For discussion of that word and what it might mean, see my earlier essays “Putting Pressure” (April 2022) and “The Year of Slipping Away” (May 2022).]

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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