Shemot 32:30 teaches us that Moshe said to the people: “You have sinned a great sin, and now I will go up unto the Lord, peradventure I shall make atonement for you.”

Bereshit 32:20 Likewise teaches us that Ya’akov sends a mincha to Esav because he said/thought “I will appease his face with the present that goes before me”

Both seem to be about asking forgiveness. And while asking for forgiveness is a great tool for (re)concilation/atonement, Yaakov uses a gift in order to establish atonement, while Moshe is ready to give his own life in order to establish atonement.

So here’s my question: How should one define כפרה in both these contexts? And is it always achieved by placing something as a substitute in order to make things right?

(I noticed כפר could mean ‘to grant atonement or ‘to be atoned’, but also ‘to forgive’ or ‘to be forgiven’ and could also refer to ‘randsom’ or ‘price of exchange’; the means of exchange for release, release from guilt.)

1 Answer 1


Rashi Bereishit 32:21 explains that כפרה literally means wiping away. So in the context of forgiveness as in the verse about Moshe, it means to 'wipe away' sin. In the context of the other verse, it means to wipe away Esav's anger, not to cause Esav to forgive him. Rashi gives examples from the Talmud where it means simply to clean one's hands and has nothing at all to do with forgiveness.

  • Nice answer: so in the case of Esav when it says: I will atone his face, it could mean: to wipe the anger from his face?.. P.s. In the case of Rashi it’s not about forgiveness but forgetting(erasing)?
    – Levi
    Nov 6, 2018 at 5:39
  • @Levi Rashi says that by Esav it means 'אֲבַטֵּל רָגְזוֹ', 'I will nullify his anger'. I think you may be right that in this case literally it means to wipe anger from his face. But it does not mean 'I will atone his face'.
    – Jay
    Nov 6, 2018 at 13:22
  • It literally says: א: "I will". Followed by כפרה "penance/atonement" and then the word פניו "his face". That's why I do think it means I will atone his face, but the meaning of it would be: "wipe away the anger, so that atonement between the two is established."
    – Levi
    Nov 6, 2018 at 13:45
  • @Levi No, it is not literally followed by כפרה "penance/atonement", because כפרה literally means wiping away, it does not literally mean atonement, nor in this context does it mean atonement in any sense, literal or non-literal.
    – Jay
    Nov 7, 2018 at 0:08

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