The other day, a French friend who lives in Israel used the expression quel capharnaüm to describe the state of her apartment after her small grandchildren had come for a visit. What she meant was, “What a mess,” but to my surprise, when I told her she had used a most appropriate word for Hebrew-speaking grandchildren, she didn’t know what I was talking about.
I had to explain to her that capharnaüm comes from Hebrew Kfar Nahum or “Nahumville,” which was the name of an ancient Jewish town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In English Bibles, Kfar Nahum is generally spelled Capernaum, without the “h,” which French — which pronounces the word “kah-far-nah-um” — took from the Latin Bible used by the Catholic Church.
Capernaum figures prominently in the gospels of the New Testament, where it is mentioned many times as a place in which Jesus stayed and preached. It was a well-off fishing town, which explains the scolding remark attributed to Jesus by the Gospel of Matthew — where, finding the town lacking in faith and probity, he is cited as having exclaimed, “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell.”
Yet French capharnaüm doesn’t come from this. Rather, it derives from a description, found in the Gospel According to Mark, of Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man in Kfar Nahum.
The description begins: “And when he [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many gathered there, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And four more men came, bringing to him a paralytic [to be healed]. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.”
The crowd of disciples inside the house, pushing and shoving to get close to Jesus while the four stretcher bearers struggle in vain to elbow their way inside, and then, getting nowhere, clamber with their burden onto the roof, remove the roof tiles and lower the paralyzed man on top of Jesus before the eyes of the startled throng — quel capharnaüm, indeed! It could almost be a description of trying to board a bus at rush hour at Jerusalem’s central bus station.