To those following the run-up to the Israeli elections, one mysterious word sticks out as being central to the democratic process. The two-syllable Hebrew word for “ballot box,” written קלפי.
To start with, its very pronunciation is a matter of debate, and several very different pronunciations can be heard battling it out in the public sphere. Many seem to prefer to discuss what will happen when voters go to the kálfi – accent on the first syllable, rhyming with the Italian city of Amalfi. I admit my own preference for putting the accent on the first syllable and a dagesh in the feh, making it kálpi, with a hard “p” sound, but some in the media go one step further by putting the accent on the last syllable, as is standard in Hebrew, making it kalpí. Hebrew dictionaries, for their part, seem to prefer kalpé – rhyming with café.
The Wikimilon entry for קלפי gives official status to both kalpí and kalpé, and notes that kálpi (with the first syllable accented) is common in the spoken language, but completely ignores the existence of kálfi despite its undeniable popularity.
There is good reason for that: At the beginning of a syllable in this position (at the beginning of a word or after a silent shva), the general rule is that the beged-kefet letters (those having both hard and soft forms) take dagesh, and therefore have the hard form: Bet, not vet; kaf, not khaf; peh, not feh.
In short, just like you don’t say “chutzfah” for חוצפה (chutzpah), you shouldn’t say “kalfi” for קלפי.
(Nor should you say “litfos” for לתפוס (to catch), “likfotz” for לקפוץ (to jump), “likvoa” for לקבוע (to set, determine), etc., though many Hebrew-speakers do.)
There is another reason to prefer the hard “p”, and to deviate from Hebrew norms by placing the accent on the first syllable: The word is borrowed from the Greek word kálpi or kálpis (κάλπι/κάλπη or κάλπις), meaning an “urn”, as in a classical Greek urn, often decorated with intricate designs and fit for an ode to be written to it. So the “spoken language” pronunciation, favored by many Hebrew speakers, seems to be the most correct as well.
Jastrow thus defines קלפי as being “an urn for drawing lots”, and traces its use in Hebrew back to the Mishnah, set down in writing in Northern Israel nearly 1800 years ago. He includes his opinion that it should be kalpi, not kalpé (without specifying which syllable should be stressed in Hebrew, though noting the penultimate stress in the original Greek).
The Mishnaic mention of such an urn relates to one of the central events taking place on Yom Kippur when the Jerusalem Temple was still standing: To choose which of the two goats brought to the Temple would be the “Se’ír la-azåzél” (שעיר לעזאזל), the Scapegoat taken out to be killed in the desert, and which goat would be offered as a sacrifice at the Temple itself (as per Vayiqra / Leviticus 16: 5-10), “an urn (kalpi) was there, and in it were two lots. … [The Kohen Gadol] stirred in the kalpi and brought up [the] two lots [one in each hand]. On one was written ‘To the Name’ [YHVH], and on the other was written ‘to ‘azåzél’.” Each goat was on either side of the Kohen Gadol, and would receive its lot accordingly. (Yoma 3:9, 4:1)
(In Israel today, “la-‘azåzél!” is an expletive in spoken Hebrew, meaning roughly “damn it!”, and used for “to hell” in the equivalent phrase for “He can go to hell”. It is used more in subtitles than in real life. Though according to some “‘Azåzél” was the name of a demon, evidence from the relevant context is lacking for such an explanation, and Ernest Klein suggests to connect the word ‘azåzél with the Arabic verb ‘azala (عزل), meaning “to remove”, with ‘azåzél thus meaning “complete removal”. The monumental Sagiv Arabic-Hebrew Hebrew-Arabic Dictionary (2008) makes the connection even more tangible, translating عزل (‘azala) with words meaning “to set apart”, “put away”, “dismiss”, “cast out”, “send away” (בודד, הפריד, הרחיק, הבדיל, פיטר, סילק (ממשרה), שילח).)
Presumably the kalpi used at the Jerusalem Temple would have been without the classical Greek and Hellenistic images of satyrs and naked athletes decorating it. But such use of a kalpis in Greek literature, as an “urn for drawing lots or collecting votes” is associated (in the Liddel-Scott lexicon) with the philosophical dialogue Hermotimus, written by Syrian-Greek satirist and comic writer Lucian of Samosata, in which he describes how such an urn would be used to pair athletes for matches at gymnastic games (which, by definition, were carried out in the nude). As Lucian was originally an Aramaic-speaker from the region, it is possible that using a kalpi or kalpis to draw lots and collect votes, recorded both in his writings and in the Mishnah using the same word, was primarily a Near Eastern custom.
Today’s modest kalpi – the key tool of Israeli democracy – certainly has less classical grace, less beauty, less refinement and less polish than the original. But it can be counted on to get the job done – to banish he whose lot it is to be banished, and choose the one remaining for the dubious honor of being at the center of the drama taking place within another monument perched atop a hill in Jerusalem.