In his classical work Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263) outlines his 20-step program for a sinner who wishes to repent his misdeeds. In his sixth stage, Rabbeinu Yonah notes that the penitent ought to feel embarrassment for his sins, and should feel especially ashamed of the fact that while he continued to sin against his Creator, the Creator continued to act kindly towards him and does not immediately punish his crimes.
The notion of a contrite sinner being embarrassed over his iniquities is ubiquitous in the Bible, and it is particularly enshrined in the liturgy of the Selichot prayers. In this article, we’re going to explore three Hebrew words embarrassment and their Aramaic counterparts: bushah, klimah, and cherpah/chefrah.
Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (1160-1235), also known as Radak, notes that whenever bushah appears alongside klimah in the Bible, the word bushah is always written first because it denotes a less intense form of embarrassment (commentary on Isaiah 45:16 and Sefer HaShorashim). This point is also made by Rabbi Kimchi’s slightly younger contemporary, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, in Shaarei Teshuvah.
In his work Chotam Tochnit, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi – who lived a generation after Radak and Rabbeinu Yonah – also uses this methodology and agrees with the ascending intensity explanation. Going a step further to sharpen the distinction between these words, Rabbi Bedersi explains that bushah refers to the type of embarrassment that befalls a person after something expected doesn’t happen, while chafrah results from something happening that was not supposed to happen.
Finally, according to Rabbi Bedersi, klimah is the most intense type of embarrassment: it results from somebody doing something that he was not supposed to do, or somebody being called out for his misdeeds. (Bedersi understands cherpah to mean “disparaging” rather than “embarrassing” (see “Disgraceful Disparagement,” Nov. 2021).
Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, actually interprets cherpah as denoting a more intense form of embarrassment than bushah and klimah. A maidservant who is designated to a specific person for conjugal purposes is called a charufah (Leviticus 19:20), a conjugation of cherpah, he says. She is placed in a particularly humiliating situation wherein she has no matrimonial bond to the person for whom she is designated.
Radak in Sefer HaShorashim offers another way of differentiating between bushah and klimah by explaining that bushah is a general hypernym that includes becoming embarrassed for a positive reason or a negative reason, while klimah is a hyponym that specifically denotes becoming embarrassed for a negative reason.
The rabbinic lexicographers trace klimah to the triliteral root kaf-lammed-mem. Rabbi Dovid Golumb (1861-1935) relates this root to kaf-lammed-aleph, from which keleh (“jail”) derives. This connects to the notion of klimah because when one is embarrassed, one tends to retreat into oneself – to lock oneself up in some sense – to avoid contact with the outside world.
The Talmud says that when a person is publicly embarrassed, he first blushes and then turns white (Bava Metzia 58b). Based on this, the Maskillic scholar Isaac Satanow (1732-1804) submits that these two stages of embarrassment are actually reflected in two Hebrew words for “embarrassment,” bushash and klimah. He maintains that bushah is related to the root bet-shin, which also means “delay.” One’s embarrassment initially causes a “delay” in one’s blood circulation, which makes his face turn red; afterwards the blood rushes away, thus leaving the person’s face pale. This later stage is called klimah, and it always follows bushah in the Bible because it chronologically comes later.
The third term, chafrah, denotes the embarrassed person’s reaction to his humiliation, according to Satanow: one begins to search and “dig” (chofer) for an answer that can justify what he did or what happened.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) alludes to Satanow’s explanation and rejects it, berating Satanow for irreverence and perversion and offering an alternate take on the difference between bushah and klimah. He assumes, like Satanow, that the terms do not refer to the intensity of one’s embarrassment but some chronological factor; but he explains that bushah references the act or occurrence that is the cause of one’s embarrassment, while klimah denotes the embarrassment itself. With this in mind, he accounts for bushah always preceding klimah differently than the abovementioned grammarians, explaining that the word order reflects the order of cause and effect.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) explains that bushah sometimes refers to the feeling of embarrassment that is not necessarily inherent to a certain act/occurrence, but is nonetheless felt because of the circumstances. For example, when a person is caught stealing from another, although the thief might be embarrassed, he is not embarrassed of the act of stealing, per se (because he knew he was stealing, yet he did anyways); rather, he is embarrassed because he was seen by others while committing his nefarious act (see Jeremiah 2:26). This type of embarrassment stems from man’s position as a social creature, but bespeaks nothing of the thief’s moral contrition.
By contrast, the terms klimah and cherpah refer to the inherently embarrassing and humiliating aspect of what was done. As such, if a thief would describe his act of stealing with one of those terms, this would indicate his own recognition of the moral reprehensibility of what he had done wrong, not just his embarrassment at having been caught doing something which he ought not to have been doing.
Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains these terms slightly differently. According to him, bushah can result from the actions or words of either the embarrassed party or a third party, while klimah specifically denotes becoming embarrassed due to a third party. Cherpah is the embarrassment felt after being belittle or insulted by another, while chafrah (related to chet-peh-reish) connotes wanting to “dig” a hole and crawl into it so that nobody sees him, as the result of being embarrassed by another.
In his word Meturgaman, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) points out that cherpah is usually rendered by the Targum as chisda or similar variations thereof. Based on this, Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein (1737-1814), also known as the Maggid of Kozhnitz, writes that the term chassid (typically translated as “pious man”) refers to a person who is “embarrassed” at the thought that he can accomplish anything on his own without the assistance of Hashem.
Targum typically renders the Hebrew term klimah into Aramaic as kissuf, and the term ichsaf commonly appears in Talmudic Aramaic to denote a person “becoming embarrassed.” In Kabbalistic literature, the influx of Divine sustenance that Hashem grants a person even when he is undeserving is known as nehamah d’kissufa – literally “the bread of embarrassment” – in Aramaic.