When famine struck the Land of Canaan after Abraham had finally reached that Promised Land, it led the first of the patriarchs to sojourn to Egypt to ride out the calamity (Genesis 12:10). In the next generation, when famine again hit the Holy Land, it prompted Abraham’s son Isaac to relocate to the kingdom of the Philistine ruler Abimelech (26:1). Finally, the third patriarch, Isaac’s son Jacob, eventually left the land of Canaan due to a famine and ended up in Egypt (45:11).
The standard Biblical Hebrew term for “famine” and “hunger” is ra’av, and that was the word used in all the above-mentioned cases. Various permutations of this word appear around 130 times throughout the Bible. In two places in the Book of Job, however, a different word – kafan – is used to mean the same exact thing. Or at least that’s how it seems. It is quite possible that ra’av and kafan are not actually synonyms in the classical sense, but rather two different words in two different languages that happen to mean the same thing. I say this because the standard words in Targum for ra’av are k’fan, kafna, or kfina. All of these words seem to be related to the Biblical Hebrew kafan, as they are all derived from the common triliteral root kaf-peh-nun. This point has been made by multiple commentators, the earliest of whom seems to be Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) in Machberet Menachem. This would suggest that ra’av is Hebrew, while kafan is Aramaic. Nonetheless, the fact that kafan appears in the Book of Job (which is not clearly written in Aramaic) alongside the Hebrew word ra’av suggests that kafan is not only a Hebrew word but also means something slightly different than ra’av (at least when it appears in Hebrew).
The prophet Ezekiel compares the relationship of Zedekiah (the last king of Judah) and the Pharaoh of Egypt (on whose protection Zedekiah relied) to a grapevine that seeks to grow outwards under the protection of an eagle (Ezekiel 17:7). The term used to denote the grapevine’s wish to “expand outwards” is kafnah. Rashi (there) explains this term as a cognate of kafan by personifying the grapevine as though it were hungry and desirous of reaching more.
Radak (as well as an anonymous gloss printed within Rashi’s commentary there) explains kafnah as meaning “gathering,” understanding the term as a metathesized version of the word kenufia (“gathering/assembly”) used in the Talmud (see Rashi to Shabbat 73b, Pesachim 66b, Zevachim 117a). Ibn Ezra (to Job 5:22) defines kafan itself as “gathering.” In his work Ma’ayan Ganim, 13th century Bible exegete Rabbi Shmuel Masnuth of Syria also goes with this approach, but he holds that kafan does not refer to a “famine” but rather a different sort of national disaster – a “gathering” of enemy forces.
Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105-1170) writes in his work Sefer HaGalui that the word kafan means “deficiency/lack,” and refers to a situation whereby a person might stick his hand into his pocket to take out some money, and then realize that he has nothing in his pocket. Rabbi Yosef Kimchi’s son, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), better known as Radak, cites his father’s explanation in his work Sefer HaShorashim.
Rabbi Yosef Kimchi himself repeats this explanation in his commentary to Job 5:22, but then adds another point. He writes that the words ra’av and kafan connote two different types of “famine,” one referring to a famine whereby food is simply unavailable, and the other implying the sort of famine whereby food is still available, but has become prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, a scribal error in the copying of Rabbi Kimchi’s commentary makes it impossible for us to know which of these two types of famines is called ra’av and, which, kafan.
Nevertheless, Gersonides (also known as Ralbag) goes in a similar direction, explaining that kafan refers to a famine caused by people hoarding food and making the prices rise, while ra’av refers to a famine caused simply by the scarcity of food. Gersonides’ explanation is also cited by Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444) in Ohev Mishpat who praises it and concurs with it.
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras, an 18th century grammarian and dayan, writes in Ohalei Yehuda that kafan primarily refers to the feeling of an empty stomach that results from hunger and thirst. He understands that kafan relates to the Rabbinic Hebrew term kefiyah (“forcing” or “compelling”): of all the essential activities that man might engage in – eating, drinking, bathing, dressing, sleeping, procreating – eating and drinking are the most important. Where there is a dearth of food, man is “forced” to do something about it. What might a person do to escape the effects of a famine? He might pick up his feet and get out of the affected area, like we see with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of whom ended up traveling elsewhere because of a famine. In line with this, Ohalei Yehuda also notes that kafan can mean “scattering/spreading out.” In this sense, it is possible that kafan may be a metathesis of the word kanaf (“wing”), which a bird spreads out in order to fly. Both terms use the same consonants, albeit in a different order.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) offers a similar explanation. He traces the word kafan to the biliteral root kaf-peh: words derived from this root include kaf (“palm”), kofef (“bending”), akifah (“enforcement,” which compels others to bend to a given authority), kippah (“dome,” a palm-like structure), kofeh (“turning over [a vessel],” which creates a dome-like space), and kefiyah (subduing and suppressing any dissent, therefore causing one to “bend”). In this spirit, he explains that kafan refers to a famine as the sort of natural disaster that might cause a person’s stature to be bent, whether physically due to lack of nutrition, or metaphorically because a famine forces it to happen.
Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (1720-1797), better known as the Gra or the Vilna Gaon, writes that there is an essential difference between ra’av and kafan. He explains that ra’av refers to an external crisis brought on by the lack of available quality produce, while kafan denotes an internal difficulty, whereby a person might have access to what should theoretically be enough food and provisions, yet in practice will not be satisfied by whatever is available. The Vilna Gaon likens the latter type of famine to one of the curses that the Torah warns will befall those who fail to keep the law: “And you shall eat, and you will not be satisfied” (Leviticus 26:26). This curse is the exact opposite of the blessing associated with those who keep the laws of the Sabbatical Year, “and you will eat your bread to satisfaction” (26:5), which Rashi explains means that one will eat just a small quantity, yet when in his stomach, one’s repast will be blessed as though it were of a larger quantity, enough to satisfy the eater.
Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) offers another way of differentiating between these two apparent synonyms. He explains that ra’av denotes a person actively suffering from hunger pains, whose digestive system remains bereft of food and whose soul yearns for something to eat. On the other hand, the term kafan denotes an even more dire situation: a person suffering from such acute malnourishment no longer feels any hunger pains but has become used to not getting the amount of food that he would naturally require. The latter is more unfortunate because he has become so accustomed to his starvation that he no longer actively feels it.