We are approaching the most solemn day of the Israel calendar – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In previous years I have written about the spiritual significance of this special Day—about the liturgy and Torah reading of Yom Kippur (you can find these articles in the archives of this blog). This year, however, I’ve decided to do something completely different for the Yom Kippur post. We are going to talk about Yom Kippur … in the book of Genesis. Some of my readers may be genuinely surprised: we all know that the detailed description of the solemn ritual of Yom Kippur is found only in the book of Leviticus, so why are we looking in Genesis? However, amazingly and to our great surprise, the root כפר (kafar: kaf-pei-reish) – the root of the word Kippur – occurs first in the book of Genesis. It is not visible in translation, but is clearly seen in Hebrew. And, since the great majority of usages of this root in Torah concern “making atonement,” (which is why, the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur), its occurrences in the book of Genesis, when sacrificial atonement is not yet established, present a great interest. So let’s have a look, and you can decide for yourself whether we find the first glimpses of the concept of atonement in the first book of Torah.
Technical Command or Theological Statement?
The very first place we find this root, is the story of Noah. When God instructed Noah how to build the Ark, He commanded him to pitch it within and without with pitch. In English, it sounds like a merely technical description. However, in Hebrew we find the root kafar twice in this verse. Why? Why would it be here, in the story of Noah? There is no word “atonement,” or anything pertaining to atonement even remotely in the translated texts. So, what’s going on? Why does this amazing root occur here in the Hebrew text, and why does it disappear in translation?
This is a beautiful example of how deep and multifaceted the Hebrew language is. Since it is a root language, most of the words are formed from a three-consonant root by changing vowels and by adding different prefixes and suffixes. The root “kaf-pei-reish”, depending on its stem, might mean either “to cover with pitch” (Qal), or “to cover over, atone for sin, make atonement for” (Piel). Accordingly, this simple practical command sounds almost like a theological statement in Hebrew. We know, of course, that the Flood and the Ark are great symbols of punishment of sinners and salvation of those who put their trust in God. However, without knowledge of Hebrew, we completely lose what is so obvious in the original text: The story of Noah is the story of redemption and atonement, because the root of the word “to atone” is there from the very beginning of this story.
Appeasing or Atoning?
The next time we find this root is in Genesis 32. Jacob is returning to the Land after 20 years of exile, and preparing to meet his brother Esau, whose blessing he stole and who wanted to kill Jacob years before. As we read about the gifts Jacob sends to Esau, hoping to pacify him, we find the verb: אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה. The root of this verb is again kafar (כפר), the same root as in Yom Kippur. Why? Why would we find it here – in the story of Jacob?
Originally, the root kafar (כפר) means to physically cover something up. In the story of Jacob preparing for his meeting with Esau, this word is used in order for us to understand: it was not just a gift – it was an act of “covering up” his sin, and in this sense, it was an atonement. The reconciliation with Esau was not simply a family affair, as it probably seemed to the brothers at that moment, it was an event of global significance. It’s not by chance that right before this meeting God met Jacob in the most important encounter of his life – one that defined his name and the name of the whole people. This means that their reconciliation—Jacob humbling himself Judah and Yom Kippur
Before Yom Kippur, Jews recite special prayers called Selichot – the prayers of confession and repentance.
before his brother—was vitally important in God’s eyes. That’s why repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial parts of Yom Kippur – and that’s why in Hebrew, we find root kafar here – once again, completely lost in translation!
Judah and Slichot
In Leviticus 16, during the solemn ritual of Yom Kippur, the High Priest had to confess “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel”. These days, we ourselves confess our sins before God on Yom Kippur. Confession is an important step in the process of atonement in Judaism –and yet, the first time we find the word “confess” only in the book of Leviticus (Lev. 5:5). Was there confession in the Torah before Leviticus?
Surprisingly, we don’t see the Patriarchs confessing their sins before God. Undoubtedly, they did – but the Torah leaves it between them and God. The first person that the book of Genesis shows us confessing his sin is Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. At the end of the greatly overlooked story of Judah and Tamar, Judah admits his sin and takes responsibility for it.
He does the same at the end of the story of Joseph. In Genesis 44, when Judah speaks to Joseph after Benjamin’s alleged “crime” with stolen cup, he begins his speech with these words: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants!” You probably remember the story and recall that Benjamin was not guilty of this crime and neither were his brothers – they didn’t steal the cup. However, Judah does confess the iniquity that God has found! Even though the brothers were not guilty of that particular sin, they accepted the conviction and chastisement from the One before whom they had long ago so terribly sinned: What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?
This should be our attitude when we come to the Lord with our Selichot—our confession prayers: Even if at first we see ourselves innocent regarding some sins, as we stand before God and open our hearts to the rays of His light, He brings things to the surface and confession becomes profound and real. That is why the words of Judah that open one of the most beautiful stories of confession, became part of the Selichot prayers – as we begin our Selichot time, we say the same words: מַה־נֹּאמַר֙ מַה־נְּדַבֵּ֖ר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּ֑ק – What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves?
Amazingly, this very message of confession is hidden in the name of Judah – which is not occasional but highly meaningful. Some of my readers may know that the name Judah (יהודה) comes from the verb lehodot (להודות), and the first meaning of this verb is to “thank” or to “praise” (When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she declared: “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah). However, few are aware that the verb lehodot has yet another meaning: to “admit,” or “confess”. For example, a special prayer of confession in Judaism is called Vidui, and this word – confession – comes from the same root. In this sense, both the name and the character of Judah provide an extremely important insight into the character of God: clearly, repentance is so important to Him, that it is from the tribe of Judah – the Confessing One – that He establishes the kingly line of Israel: King David – and therefore, Jesus also – come from the tribe of Judah!
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