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

Living in Shame

In his classical work Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180–1263) outlines his twenty-step program for a sinner who wishes to repent his misdeeds. In his sixth stage, Rabbeinu Yonah notes that the penitent ought to feel “embarrassment” for his sins, and should feel especially ashamed of the fact that while he continued to sin against his Creator, the Creator continues to act kindly towards him and does not immediately punish his crimes. The notion of a contrite sinner being “embarrassed” over his iniquities is ubiquitous to the Bible, and is particularly enshrined in the liturgy of the Selichot prayers recited in the month of Elul and on Yom Kippur. In this essay, we focus on the Hebrew words for “embarrassment” and attempt to understand how these synonyms relate to each other. To do so, we explore three Hebrew terms (bushah, klimah, cherpah/chefrah)and their Aramaic counterparts.

Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (1160–1235), also known as Radak, notes (in his comments to Isa. 45:16 and in Sefer HaShorashim) that whenever bushah appears alongside klimah in the Bible, the word bushah is always written first because it denotes a less intense form of “embarrassment.” This point is also made by Rabbi Kimchi’s slightly younger contemporary, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona in Shaarei Teshuvah.

In his work Chotam Tochnit, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi — who lived a generation after Radak and Rabbeinu Yonah — uses this methodology as part of his general approach to differentiating between Hebrew synonyms. In other words, he too focuses on the order that those words appear in the Bible whenever they occur near each other. He understands that in general when multiple synonyms for the same concept appear in tandem, the Bible writes those words in ascending order from the least intense to the most intense. Thus, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi also writes that because every time bushah appears alongside klimah or cherpah in the Bible, the word bushah always appears first, bushah denotes a less intense form of “embarrassment” than the other two words do.

To sharpen the definitions of these words, Rabbi Bedersi explains that bushah refers to the type of “embarrassment” that befalls a person who expected something to happen, or to be able to do something, but alas it did not come to fruition the way he had thought it would. Chafrah, he explains, implies the inverse: “embarrassment” resulting from something happening that was not supposed to happen. Finally, he defines klimah as the most intense type of “embarrassment,” resulting from somebody doing something that he was not supposed to so, or somebody who was screamed at (or otherwise called out) for his misdeeds. [Bedersi understands cherpah as related to “disparaging” rather than “embarrassing.” For more about those words, see my earlier essay “Disgraceful Disparagement” (Nov. 2021).]

Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, actually understands that cherpah denotes a more intense form of “embarrassment” than bushah and klimah. He explains that a maidservant who is designated to a specific person for conjugal purposes is called a charufah (Lev. 19:20) — which is a conjugation of cherpah — because she is placed in a particular “humiliating” situation, whereby she has no matrimonial bond to the person for whom she is designated.

Radak in Sefer HaShorashim offers another way of differentiating between bushah and klimah by explaining that bushah is a general hypernym that includes becoming embarrassed for a positive thing (e.g., if a humble person is praised for having done something good, he might become embarrassed) or a negative thing (e.g., if a person commits a sin and then becomes embarrassed about it), while klimah is a hyponym that specifically denotes becoming embarrassed for a negative reason.

The rabbinic lexicographers trace klimah to the triliteral root KAF-LAMMED-MEM. Rabbi Dovid Golumb (1861–1935) relates this root to KAF-LAMMED-ALEPH, from which kele (“jail, incarceration”) derives. This connects to the notion of klimah because when one is embarrassed, one tends to retreat into oneself and “lock oneself up” (in some sense) to avoid contact with the outside world.

Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 13:59, Ps. 139:16) sees klimah’s root as related to the phonetically-similar root GIMMEL-LAMMED-MEM (via the interchangeability of KAF and GIMMEL), from which the word golem (“unshaped material”) derives. He explains that just like a golem lacks a shape or form in a physical sense, an embarrassed person feels like he lacks a shape or form in a spiritual/moral sense, as though a part of their humanity was taken away from them.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) says that when a person is publicly embarrassed, he first blushes and then turns white. Based on this, the Maskillic scholar Isaac Satanow (1732–1804) submits that these two stages of “embarrassment” are actually reflected in two Hebrew words for “embarrassment,” bushash and klimah. He maintains that bushah is related to the root BET-SHIN, which also means “delaying,” because one’s embarrassment initially causes a “delay” in one’s regular blood circulation, which makes his face turn red. Afterwards, the blood rushes away, thus leaving the person’s face pale. This later stage is called klimah, which always proceeds bushah in the Bible because it chronologically comes later. The third term, chafrah, according to Satanow, denotes the embarrassed person’s reaction to his humiliation — that is, he begins to search and “dig” (chofer) for an answer that can justify what he did/what happened. [On the connection between bushah and boshesh (“delaying”), see my earlier essay “Better Late Than…” (March 2020).]

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743–1826) alludes to Satanow’s explanation and rejects it, berating Satanow for his irreverence and perversion. Instead, he offers an alternate take on the difference between bushah and klimah. He assumes, like Satanow, that the terms do not refer to the intensity of one’s embarrassment, but to the chronological sequence related to embarrassment. But, he explains that bushah simply denotes the embarrassing act/occurrence that is the cause of one’s embarrassment, while klimah denotes the embarrassment itself that results from said act/occurrence. With this in mind, he accounts for bushah always preceding klimah differently than the abovementioned grammarians, explaining that the word order reflects the order of cause and effect.

Although Rabbi Shapira-Frankfurter does not explicitly address the terms cherpah/chafrah, we may conjecture that the triliteral root of chafrah, CHET-PEH-REISH, is actually related to the triliteral root CHET-VAV-REISH (chivar, “white”), via the interchangeability of PEH and VAV. The connection between these two roots would be that “embarrassment” brings about the “whitening” of one’s face. According to this, cherpah is just a metathesized form of chafrah.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760–1828) explains that bushah sometimes refers to the feeling of embarrassment that is not necessarily inherent to a certain act/occurrence, but is nonetheless felt because of the circumstances. For example, when a person is caught stealing from another, although the thief might be embarrassed, he is not embarrassed of the act of stealing, per se (because he knew he was stealing, yet he did anyways); rather, he is embarrassed because he was seen by others while committing his nefarious act (see Jer. 2:26). This type of embarrassment stems from man’s position as a social creature, but bespeaks nothing of the thief’s moral contrition.

If you enjoyed this essay, consider getting a copy of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein's classical book on the history of the Hebrew language and share with your friends!
If you enjoyed this essay, consider getting a copy of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s classical book on the history of the Hebrew language and share with your friends!

By contrast, the terms klimah and cherpah refer to the inherently embarrassing and humiliating aspect of what was done. As such, if a thief would describe his act of stealing with one of those terms, this would indicate his own recognition of the moral reprehensibility of what he had done wrong, not just his embarrassment at having been caught doing something which he ought not to have been doing.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) explains these terms slightly differently: bushah can result from the embarrassed person himself or from somebody on the outside, while klimah specifically denotes becoming embarrassed due to an outside person humiliating or embarrassing him. Cherpah is the embarrassment felt after being belittle or insulted by another, while chafrah (related to CHET-PEH-REISH) connotes wanting to “dig” a hole and crawl into it so that nobody sees him, as the result of being embarrassed by another.

The Malbim (1809–1879) likewise explains that bushah refers to internal embarrassment, while klimah denotes an embarrassment that comes from something external. He also writes that the difference between charfah and cherpah also reflects this distinction, with charfah denoting internal embarrassment and cherpah denoting external embarrassment. Elsewhere, Malbim writes that chafrah is the most intense form of embarrassment, as it denotes one’s feeling of wanting to bury one’s head and hide out of sheer embarrassment.

In his word Meturgaman, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) points out that cherpah is usually rendered by the Targum as chisda or similar variations thereof. Based on this, Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein (1737–1814), also known as the Maggid of Kozhnitz, writes that the term chassid (typically translated as “pious man”) refers to a person who is “embarrassed” at the thought that he can accomplish anything on his own without the assistance of Hashem.

Targum typically renders the Hebrew term bushah into Aramaic as bahat. Although I have not seen any sources that explicitly say this, it is highly likely that bahat is an Aramaicization of bushah based on the Hebrew SHIN morphing into an Aramaic TAV (as often happens when switching between those two languages), plus the addition of an extra HEY in between the two consonants.

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Targum typically renders the Hebrew term klimah into Aramaic as kissuf, and the term ichsaf commonly appears in Talmudic Aramaic to denote a person “becoming embarrassed.” In Kabbalistic literature, the influx of Divine sustenance that Hashem grants a person even when he is undeserving is known as nehamah d’kissufa, literally, “the bread of embarrassment” in Aramaic.

The root KAF-SAMECH-PEH in Biblical Hebrew yields words that mean “silver/money” (kesef) or “desiring/loving” (nichsaf). The connection between those two meanings is clarified by the Maharal in Netivot Olam (Neitv Osher, ch. 2), who writes that man’s drive to accrue more and more money derives from man’s desire to become rich. Radak’s father, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105–1170), explains that the “embarrassing” meaning of this root is also evident in Bible Hebrew in Zeph. 2:1, although others explain that verse as referring to “desiring.” Either way, it remains unclear how exactly kissuf in the sense of “embarrassment” relates to the notion of “money/desire.” Perhaps this alludes to the “embarrassment” felt by somebody who feels he has not acquired enough wealth as he thinks he should. Or, perhaps it refers to the “embarrassing” things a person might do in the pursuit of wealth. Or, perhaps the whitish color of silver is understood the resemble the paled face of an embarrassed person.

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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