Jewish Journal


March 18, 2012

Yom Kippur and its links to Urdu



Words fascinate me and so do origins. One of the experts in etymology for Urdu, the language of Pakistan, is Khaled Ahmed, who I had the pleasure of interacting with off and on at The Friday Times and Daily Times when I worked there in Lahore. He is one of the giants of Pakistan, the author of many books, a former newspaper editor, and prolific editorial and opinion writer. I once learned that all he does is read, go for his walk and write.

He is currently a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore.

When looking up a certain word, extortion, or bhatta in Urdu for the city pages I run this Sunday, I decided to flip through Khaled saheb’s excellent book ‘Word for Word: Stories behind everyday words we use’ (OUP 2010). This book is probably not available in LA, so I decided to take one of his chapters on Yom Kippur and copy parts of it here. His examination of the word is an education for both Jews and Muslims alike – they have so much in common:

Taken from pg 6. Anyone interested in the book can probably buy it online from OUP in Pakistan:

Yom Kippur was the day set for Atonement by the Prophet Moses. It brings to an end the Jewish High Holidays. God writes the Book of Life and inscribes the names of those worthy of a good year, but he leaves the last accounting till the final day…

…Yom is the same Arabic yom meaning ‘day’. What does kippur mean? It is written as keepoor in the Hebrew dictionary and is defined as ‘atonement’. It also means ‘to cover’ because the skull-cap that covers the head is keepah.

It seems that atonement is a kind of ‘covering up’ of the distance between God and man. English ‘atonement’ comes from two English words ‘at one’, meaning bringing God and man at ‘one’. Is this idea of ‘covering’ present in our Arabic and Urdu words too?

It comes to light that kippur too has the same counterpart in Arabic. In Arabic the root ‘kfr’ means to ‘cover’. The ‘p’ is changed to ‘f’ because Arabic has no ‘p’ sound. What are the words produced by this root?

The word we use in Urdu for ‘atonement’ comes from Arabic, kaffara. (Mishnaic Hebrew counterpart is kappara.) The root is ‘kfr’ which means to ‘cover so as to conceal’. Kafir is the person who ‘hides the truth’. It also means a ‘dark cloud that covers the earth’, and a ‘tiller of land (kafir) who covers the seed with soil’.

There are other words from this root that we use in Urdu. When we ‘hide’ a blessing of Allah from others so as to prevent them from benefiting from it, it is called kufran (nemat). When a feeling subsides and is covered by other senses, we use the word kafur.

Yom Kippur should not be a strange word for us. We could translate it into Urdu by using the same words: Yom Kaffara. In fact, in the last ten days of Ramadan we pray for forgiveness of Allah more or less in the same spirit.

The ‘beginning of the year’ in Judaism is called Rosh Hoshanah. This is the day when God opens the book of life and begins writing down out accounts. Rosh in Hebrew means ‘head’ or beginning. In Arabic, ras is ‘head’, which gives us raees or leader.

Hoshanah is a joint word containing ‘ha’ (of) and ‘shanah’ (year). The Arabic word for year is sann, which is also at times, used in Urdu. The root means ‘tooth’ and it is the tooth that conveys the year of the animal. Sann is also found in Sunnah (law).

Some scholars relate kippur to Arabic ‘ghfr’. Here again the sense is of ‘covering’. Allah ‘covers our sins’ when he forgives us and is therefore called Ghafur and Ghaffar. But I think kippur is more decisively related to the root ‘kfr’.

That English ‘cover’ which sounds like the root ‘kfr’ is accidental. It comes from Latin (co)perire (to shut) as an antonym of aperire (to open) through the French word couvrir.

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