Caph, כ , the eleventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has the shape of an inverted C, and presents, graphically and symbolically, the figure of a ‘hollow’. This idea of the hollow is also found in the Hebrew word כָּף caph, which can also be transcribed kaf. This word refers to several parts of the human body, the hollow or palm of the hand, the sole of the foot, the concavity of the hip (more technically, the ischium of the iliac bone), all having in common a ‘hollow’ shape.
The notion of ‘hollow’ attached to this word etymologically derives from the verbal root כָּפַף , kafaf, ‘to fold, bend’, and in the passive ‘to be folded, bent; to be hollow’.
Curiously enough, the word kaf is directly associated with what must be called the ‘body’ of God, or at least with its bodily metaphors, in two particularly significant episodes in the Hebrew Bible, – Jacob’s nightly battle with Godi, and the passage of the Glory of God before Mosesii.
In both of these key moments, the idea of the « hollow » carried by the kaf plays a crucial role.
In the first episode, a ‘man’ (i.e. God himself, or one of his envoys) strikes Jacob in the ‘hollow’ (kaf) of the hip, causing its dislocation, hastening the end of the battle.
Since that day, the children of Israel, in memory of this blow to the kaf, respect a dietary prohibition prescribing the removal of the sciatic nerve, supposed to symbolize the part of Jacob’s body bruised by the blow.
In the second episode, God addresses Moses, saying:
« I will place you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my kaf, [literally – with my ‘hollow’, or the ‘palm’ of my hand, – if one may so express oneself in speaking anthropomorphically of the Lord…], until I have passediii. »
In the first episode, God ‘touches’ or ‘strikes’ Jacob’s kaf. The verb used to describe the action is נָגַע, nâga‘, ‘to touch, to smite’. Whether He touches or strikes Jacob, God must undoubtedly use His ‘hand’, i.e., His kaf, to wound Jacob’s kaf. Admittedly the kaf of God is only implied here in the Genesis text. But it is implicitly made necessary by the use of the verb nâga‘, which implies a physical contact effective enough to dislocate Jacob’s hip.
God’s kaf (or the ‘hollow’ of the hand) ‘touched’ or ‘struck’ Jacob’s kaf (the ‘hollow’ of the hip).
Hollow against hollow.
In the second episode, God uses two levels of protection, two types of cover, to shield Moses from the deadly brilliance of His Glory. On the one hand, He places him in the ‘cleft of the rock’ (niqrat ha-tsur), and on the other, He covers Moses with His kaf.
Hollow on hollow.
Two questions then arise:
-Why are two layers of protection (the ‘cleft of the rock’ and then God’s kaf) necessary here?
-What exactly is the kaf of God, – if we give up translating this word by an expression that is far too anthropomorphic, and therefore unacceptable, like ‘palm of the hand’?
To the first question, we can answer that God probably wants to protect Moses’body by hiding him in the cleft of the rock, but that he also wants to protect Moses’ spirit or soul by covering Moses with His kaf.
The second question invites us to return to the etymology of the word kaf to try to understand its meaning in the context of this theophany.
God says that He will ‘cover’ Moses with His kaf. The verb used for ‘cover’ is שָׂכַךְ, sâkhakh, very close to the verb סָכַךְ, sâkhakh, ‘to make a shelter’, from which is derived the word soukhot (designating the booths of the Feast of Booths).
Now there is another Hebrew verb meaning ‘to cover’, which is also very close phonetically and etymologically to kaf, it is the verb כָּפַר kafar, ‘to cover, to forgive; to atone, to purify’.
This puts us on a promising track. When God ‘covers’ Moses with the divine kaf, there is expressed here an idea of protection and shelter, but perhaps also, more subliminally, the idea of ‘covering’ (kafar) Moses’ weaknesses, or sins, in order to cleanse him of them so that he is allowed to see God, if only ‘from behind’.
The following verse indeed tells us what happens after God’s passage.
« Then I will remove my kaf, and you will see me from behind, but my face cannot be seen.iv
The shifts in meaning between kaf, kafaf, kafar, reveal a certain kinship between ‘hollow’, ‘palm’, ‘covering’ and, in an allegorical sense, ‘covering’ [faults], ‘forgiving’ and ‘purifying’v.
This is indeed a second level of protection that God agrees to give to the spirit of Moses after having placed his body in the « cleft of the rock ».
These shifts take on an additional symbolic dimension when we consider the word כֵּף kef, which is perfectly similar to kaf, except for the vocalization, and has the same etymological provenance as kaf.
Now kef means ‘rock’, which implies a symbolic proximity between the idea of ‘hollow’ and that of ‘rock’.
Note that the ‘rock’ into whose cleft God places Moses (in Ex 33:22) is not designated as a kef, but as a tsur, which is another word for rock.
However, the simple fact that the words kaf (‘hollow’) and kef (‘rock’) have the same verbal root kafaf, ‘to be curved, to be hollow’, draws our attention to the fact that some rocks can all the better offer refuge or protection because they are ‘hollow’, such as caverns or caves, whereas other types of rocks possess only crevices or slits, such as the rock called צוּר , tsur.
Note also that the word tsur, ‘rock’, comes from the verbal root צור , tsour, which means ‘to bind, wrap, confine, compress, enclose’. According to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary, this verbal root, tsour, itself derives from the Akkadian words uṣurutu and eṣēru (‘to draw, to form, to shape’).
The Hebrew words kef and tsur thus both mean ‘rock’, but both words come from two verbal roots that connote, respectively, the ideas of folding, curving, hollowing, and the ideas of enveloping, confining, enclosing, but also of shaping, molding.
One will be sensitive to the proximity and the shifts of these universes of meaning, within the framework of the two exceptional scenes that we evoked, the night fight of Jacob and the vision of Moses on Sinai.
Through the metaphors and metonymies with they encourage, these words draw a wider landscape of meaning, which includes ‘hollow’ and ‘rock’, ‘protection’ and ‘forgiveness’, ‘envelopment’ and ‘enclosure’, ‘form’, ‘shaping’, and the ‘model’ that imposes its ‘shape’ on the image.
From the kaf, of ‘hollow’ form, כ, both open on one side and closed on the other three sides, spring multiple ‘images’: the dislocated hollow of Jacob’s hip, the protective hollow of the divine kaf, or the slit on the closed form of the tsur.
Faced with these insights into Hebrew semantic universe, the goyim could easily feel little concerned by these purely internal considerations proper to the Hebrew language.
Yet, through another twist, I think they may be incited to open up to the mystery that kaf, kef and tsur do cover, hide and conceal.
It so happens that the word kef, ‘rock, stone’, is precisely the word that serves as the root of the name Kephas, the new name that Jesus gave to his disciple Simon:
« You are Simon, son of Jonah; you shall be called Kephas, which means Peter (stone) »vi reports the Gospel of John.
Kephas (i.e. Simon-Peter) was from then on, by the play of displacements that the word kef authorizes and encourages, the ‘foundation stone’ on which Jesus built his Church, thus taking up in his own way the example given by the prophet Isaiah: « I have set deep in Zion a stone, a tried and tested stone, a cornerstone « .vii
But Kephas, it should be noted, was also the very same name of the high priest Caiaphas who was to condemn Jesus to death.
The etymology thus linked in an indissoluble and perhaps symbolic way the patronymic of the first of the popes of the Church with the patronymic of one of the last high priests of the Temple of Jerusalem…
What a metaphysical irony that Jesus chose to name his apostle Simon Kephas (that is, Caiaphas)…
What a metaphysical irony that the high priest Caiaphas (i.e., Kephas or ‘Peter’), was also the name of the one who plotted shortly after Jesus’ death…
Let us conclude.
The divine kaf, the ‘hollow’ that strikes, dislocates, protects or forgives, is close in many ways to the kef, the ‘rock’, that establishes, and founds.
The name Kephas, which gave rise to the non-Hebrew names Petrus, Boutros, Peter, Pierre, is also the name of one of the last high priests of Jerusalem, Caiaphas.
The Temple and the Church seem here to be linked through a single root, kef, which binds together the twilight of the former and the dawn of the latter.
Today the Temple of Jerusalem is no more, and the destiny of its high priests seems to have ended.
The Church, on the other hand, is still there, – as is of course the Synagogue.
It is the Temple that seems to have no more any kef to be built upon.
Some words, which are supposed to ‘express’ something, in fact hide what they do not openly say, what they indeed cover.
And the One who speaks these words also hides ‘behind’ them, – in the emptiness of their ‘hollow’…
iii וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר; וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ, עַדעָבְרִי. « Vé-samttikha bé-niqrat ha-tsour, vé-sakkoti ḥapii ‘aleïkha ‘ad-‘abrii » (Ex 33,22)
vI would like to thank Professor M. Buydens (Université Libre de Bruxelles and Université de Louvain) for suggesting that I exploit the similarity between the Hebrew words kaf, kafar and the Arabic word kafir, ‘infidel’. I found in Kazimirski’s Arabic-French dictionary that the word kafir comes from the verbal root kafara, ‘to cover; to hide, to conceal’ and, in a derived way, ‘to forget, to deny the benefits received’, hence ‘to be ungrateful; to be unfaithful, to be incredulous, not to believe in one God’. It can be inferred from this that, according to the respective genius of the languages, the Hebrew word kafar connotes the idea of ‘covering [evil]’, and therefore ‘forgiving’. The Arabic word kafara connotes the idea of ‘covering [the good]’, and therefore ‘denying, denying, being unfaithful’…
viiIs 28,16. Let us note that Isaiah uses here another word for ‘stone’, the word אֶבֶן, even, whose etymology is the same as that of the word ben, ‘son’, and which connotes the fact of founding, the fact of building… The word even is very ancient, and is found in Phoenician, Aramaic, Ethiopian and even in Egyptian (ôbn), according to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary.