• yehoshua steinberg

Terumah/Yom Kippur: To Cover up or to Clean Up, That is the Question ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Feb 23






Article abstract for Parashat Terumah:

This week's Parashah acutely delineates the makeup and measurements of the Tabernacle and its components, such as the Holy Ark and the Sacrificial Altar. But if it is important for one studying the intricacies of trees not to lose sight of the forest, how much more so should one analyzing the legal minutiae of the Sanctuary be sure to step back and ponder its fundamental purpose: atonement.

The word for atonement in Hebrew is כפרה, but other words in the Holy Tongue bear this general meaning as well, such as סליחה and מחילה. What then is the unique import and mechanism of expiation represented by the word כפרה?

This week's article examines the disparate derivatives of the root כפר, and delves into a fascinating dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra regarding its core meaning, and ultimately what the actual goal of atonement is.




וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת זָהָב טָהוֹר אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכָּהּ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבָּהּ (שמות כה:יז).


And you shall make a cover [כַפֹּרֶת] of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth (Ex. 25:17).


In this article, we shall we shall try to pinpoint the meaning of the word כּפֹּרֶת, and of its root 'כפר'.


Parashat Teruma delimits and details the structure of the Mishkan and its vessels. Among the vessels of the Tabernacle we find the Ark of the Testimony, and the כַּפּוֹרֶת covering over it. The commentators are divided as to the exact meaning of the word כַּפּוֹרֶת in this context.


In this article, we will deal with the meaning of the word כַּפּוֹרֶת in particular, and the meaning of the root 'כפר' in general, a root bearing various meanings, such as atonement of sins. We will therefore try to understand: Given that there are other words in Leshon Hakodesh that also carry the general meaning atonement, such as סליחה and מחילה; what then is the meaning and unique mechanism of the atonement represented in the word כפרה?



Rashi (loc. cit.) explains that the word כַפֹּרֶת refers to a cover, placed atop the ark, which was otherwise open from above.[1] Ibn Ezra explains likewise. However, while Rashi offers no proof-text to support this assertion, Ibn Ezra, compares it to the word כפרה - atonement - which, he asserts, denotes covering of a sin, similar in meaning to "כסוי" in the verse: Psalms 32:1 - Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered [כְּסוּי חֲטָאָה].[2]


The reason Rashi did not cite כפרה as a proof that כפורת means cover may be better understood in light of a different comment of Rashi. Before encountering Esau, Jacob said: Gen. 32:21 - I will appease his anger [אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו] with the gift that is going before me, and afterwards I will see his face, perhaps he will favor me; Rashi - “אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו - I will neutralize his anger. Similarly: And your treaty with death shall be nullified (וְכֻפַּר) (Isa. 28:18); you shall not be able to rid yourself of it (כַּפְּרָהּ) (Isa. 47:11). And it seems to me that all instances of כפרה concerning sin, transgression or anger are expressions of wiping away and getting rid of. In Aramaic, there are many instances of this in the Talmud; for example: ‘and he wiped (וְכָפַר) his hands’ (Baba Metzia 24a); ‘He wishes to wipe (לִכְפוּרֵי) His hands on this person’ (Gittin 56a). In the language of Scripture as well, 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.”[3]


In the above citation, Rashi uses three separate words to explain the meaning of the word אכפרה: 1. ביטול 2. העברה 3. קינוח - all denoting erasing and wiping out. However, Rashi adds the qualification that these terms describe the root כפר, only when it appears concerning sin or anger (as in -this verse, which deals with Esau's anger). This effectively excludes the word כפורת, which functions as a cover and has nothing to do with wiping away. This seems to be the reason why Rashi does not see כפורת atop the Ark as a derivative of כפרה (as Ibn Ezra does).


The root כפר first appears in Scripture in the context of Noah's ark, and there, its meaning is decidedly unrelated to erasing or wiping out: Gen. 6:14 - and you shall caulk it [וְכָפַרְתָּ] both inside and outside with pitch [בַּכֹּפֶר].[4]


Here as well, Ibn Ezra comments that the term for caulking, וְכָפַרְתָּ, means covering, which he associates with the כפורת, the cover of the Ark.[5] In so doing, Ibn Ezra reiterates that all derivatives of the root כפר are related to the concept of covering. Rashi, however, does not relate the verb וְכָפַרְתָּ with the Ark’s כפורת, despite their apparently shared derivation from the root כפר.[6]


A number of questions must be asked about Rashi's approach:

A. Why did Rashi refuse to interpret וְכָפַרְתָּ as an expression of covering, as Ibn Ezra interpreted - which ostensibly connects "כפורת" to "כפרה"?

B. Why does Rashi (to Genesis 32:21) give examples from the words of Chazal and from the Aramaic language, even before citing evidence from the Biblical term כְּפוֹרֵי זָהָב (Ezra 1:10), instead of likening the word כפרה to two examples that appear in the Pentateuch itself, namely to כפורת (Exodus 25:17) or to וְכָפַרְתָּ (Genesis 6:14) regarding Noah's Ark, as we mentioned above, which explicitly refer to matters of cover or covering.


Before turning to these questions, we will first examine additional words derived from the root 'כפר', all of which at first glance are related to covering, thus reinforcing our quandary about Rashi, who chose to interpret כפרה as an expression of expunging, not as an expression of covering.


1. כופר / כפירה - heretic / heresy This term appears in Rabbinic literature, and by examining the Sages’ usage of this word, we can derive clues as to its connection to the root כפר. In Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer (Chap. 7, pgs. 135-7), many examples are cited emphasizing God’s loathing of כפיית טובה, ingratitude, and this term (כפיית טובה) is explicitly compared with כפירת טובה, denial of having received a favor, and ultimately denial of God Himself.[7]


This equating of כפירה and כפיה can shed light on the word כפירה, since כפיה has only one meaning in Scripture - covering:[8] Prov. 21:14 - A gift in secret covers [יִכְפֶּה] anger; Metz. Tzion - "covering, and in the words of the Sages [we find this as well], that [at Sinai] God 'covered them [כפה עליהם] with the mountain like a barrel' (Shabbat 88a)."[9] Therefore, we may explain that those who deny God's existence are termed כופרים because they "cover their eyes" from seeing God's goodness, and indeed His very existence.[10]


2. כְּפָר - a village: The Sages expound the word כְּפָר as referring to כופרים: Eiruvin 21b - “What is the meaning of the verse, Come, my beloved, let us go out to the field, let us lodge in the villages (Song 7:12) … do not read this as villages [כפרים], but rather as כופרים deniers - Witness how all the goodness You have bestowed upon them has been repaid with aught but ingratitude [כפרו בך]![11]


3. כְּפִיר - a lion cub: Similarly, the Sages expound on the word כְּפִיר as though it stems from the word כופר: Avot D’Rabbi Natan 43 - “There are seven names for a lion… כפיר, because it is כופר its father and mother.”[12] In the above two interpretations as well – in which כְּפָר and כְּפִיר are both interpreted as כפירה, we may explain it along the lines of covering and hiding, in line with our explanation of Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer above. The self-sufficient villager feels like he is a master over his own property and affairs, and is loath to admit that what he has is all thanks to God's beneficence.[13] So too, when a lion cub feels itself already grown and independent, he “covers his eyes” to all the good his parents have done for him.


Having found in all the above words that the root 'כפר' is interpreted as covering, we must return to our above questions. A) Why did Rashi (to Gen. 32:21, see above) write that "all instances of כפרה concerning sin, transgression and anger are expressions of wiping away and getting rid of." Why did he explain differently from Ibn Ezra's interpretation, who explained that the core meaning of the root כפר, in all its derivatives, is covering? B) Why did Rashi (loc. cit.) bring Aramaic examples and from the Talmud, even before citing the Biblical source, the verse

כְּפוֹרֵי זָהָב (Ezra 1:10)?


C) An additional question on Rashi: In a separate instance in which the word אכפרה appears, Rashi explains the word differently: Ex. 32:30 - And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I will אֲכַפְּרָה for your sin; Rashi - “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.”[14]

Rashi here adds the terms obstruction and separation to the original definition of wiping away, but these ideas seem irreconcilable. Wiping away (קינוח) means erasing the sin entirely,[15] whereas obstruction and separation indicate at most a barrier, i.e., a covering for the sin,[16] akin to Ibn Ezra's approach![17]


We can explain that the foundation of Rashi's approach is built upon what it means to atone for sins. Even though we have already brought sources that כפרת עוונות means covering sins, are we then to conclude that "Yom Kippur" [יום] הכיפורים means "the day of the coverings (of sin)?" But the verses say: I, only I, am He Who wipes away your willful sins for My sake, and I shall not recall your sins (Isa. 43:25), and later: I have wiped away your willful sins like a thick mist, and your transgressions like a cloud (Isa. 44:22).[18] These sources clearly refer to the wiping away of sin, not just to the covering over of sin! How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas?


The goal of every would-be penitent is not that his sins be covered up, but that they be obliterated, as if they had never been committed in the first place. There may be sins that cannot be done away with entirely in his lifetime, due to their severity or other conditions (as listed by Rambam in the Laws of Repentance