Word of the Day / Khafarperet: The Word That Means Mole but Shouldn't

The sages didn't realize Israel has no moles. Hint as to what khafarperet might mean: It probably isn't fruit-digger.

Elon Gilad
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This is a mole (the broad-footed species), which Israelis think was what the bible refers to as a khafarferet. That can't be, since moles don't exist in Israel.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for the nearly blind mammal known as the mole is kha-fa-per-ET. It was created from the root kh-f-r, which means to dig. Thus, the animal's name literally means digger.

The question now is, which animal.

As moles are not endemic to Israel, you wouldn’t expect to find it in scripture and you don’t – well, sort of.

There is one passage in Isaiah: ״In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats.” (2:20)

So what is that all about? Well, the Hebrew bible as we know it does not say khafarferet. It says khofer perot – "digger of fruit," as in two words. But this doesn’t make much sense. What in the name of sightless micro-mammals would a fruit-digger be?

All the ancient translations on the other hand treat khafarperet (or khofer perot...) as a single word. The Greek for example went with asphalax, which is a mole.

Rather more recently, a text of Isaiah was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which in fact had the word khafarperet as a single word. But this doesn’t free us from the problem of what a khafarperet was, since as we already said - the Holy Land has no moles.

The great Jewish sage Rashi, evidently not knowing that moles don't exist in the Holy Land, adhered to the ancient translations and identified the khafarperet as a mole. Thus the word has been used since the 11th century.

There may not be moles but there are spalax, which are blind rodents that live in holes, also known as mole-rats. The zoologically challenged might be pardoned for thinking the delightful rodents are moles, since they look like moles, dig like moles et cetera.

In modern parlance, when an Israeli sees a spalax (or more likely, a mound created by one), he'll probably tell you it's a khafarferet, not realizing that he's dead wrong and the species is actually a mole-rat, known locally as kholed. But that's okay, since that is probably what khafarperet originally meant anyway.

Mole- at, or spalax (Wikimedia Commons)
This is the lovely Palestine mole rat. It may look rather mole-like, and may indeed have been what the ancients referred to as 'khafarferet'.

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