Word of the Day |

Kapara! A Short History of One of the Most Israeli Slang Words

Switch the emphasized syllable on a word meaning atonement, and you've got a term used by taxi drivers to show a little affection.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Swing your chicken round and round: The kapara ritual.
Swing your chicken round and round: The kapara ritual.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

The name for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur comes from the word “kapara.” When it means “atonement,” as it does when referring to the 2001 novel by Ian McEwan as well as to the one day of the Jewish calendar that is wholly dedicated to rehashing the year’s sins, Israelis pronounce “kapara” with the accent on the final syllable: ka-pa-RA.

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But the word is also used as a term of endearment by and for men and women alike, usually by Israelis of Middle Eastern or North African (Mizrahi) descent, in much the same way as words like “motek” (“sweetie”) and ”neshama” (“soul”). When that happens, the emphasis switches (as it does for “neshama”) from the last syllable to the middle one. Thus, you can ask God for ka-pa-RA, but if your taxi driver uses the word when he addresses you, with an affected affection rendered meaningless by indiscriminate use and repetition, he’ll be pronouncing it ka-PA-ra.

Use of the word in this context, or an extended version that literally means “atonement be upon you” (“kapara alekha,” for a man,or “alayikh,” for a woman), comes from a phrase in the Jewish dialect of Moroccan Arabic that means “I’ll be a kapara for you,” according to Hebrew language maven Rubik Rosenthal.

In other words, like the chicken to which one’s sins are symbolically transferred during kaparot, the traditional pre-Yom Kippur ceremony that involves a fowl being waved in circles around the head, those who use the term “kapara” or “kapara alekha” are, in theory at least, saying they are essentially ready to die for the other person. In the case of humans, though, the scapegoat (scapechicken?) is presumed to be acting out of love, not because he or she is being gripped forcefully around the neck, blissfully unaware that a certain soup that goes well with matzah balls is on the menu.

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