Bunny semantics


Common or garden bunnies eating a watermelon

A rabbit is a rabbit, you’d say. So would I, but in Hebrew, apparently, what constitutes a rabbit is not as clear as you might think. I have heard people referring to my bunnies as ‘arnav’, ‘arnevet, ‘arnavon’, ‘shafan’ and several other names that I don’t remember. I usually use whatever word comes to me at the moment and no one seems to question me, but the truth is: I have no idea what I’m talking about. Time to get to the bottom of this mystery!

I assumed the problems might be due to people confusing rabbits and hares. According to Wikipedia, a rabbit in Hebrew is ‘arnav’ and hare is ‘arnevet’. Well, that’s easy – nobody would keep a hare as a pet! Hares are a totally different species from the domestic rabbit. The differences between rabbits and hares are many: Hares are bigger, leaner, have longer ears and they don’t burrow. Young hares are born fully furred and with eyes open, while rabbit babies look like little bald, blind springrolls. Oh, and hares have 48 chromosomes, while rabbits have 44. Plenty of differences!


Right, so we’ve got that cleared up. Now, what about ‘arnavon’? Back to Wikipedia. ‘arnavon’ seems to refer specifically to the domestic European rabbit as opposed to other, wild types of rabbits. The cuddly, fluffy, colourful pet bunnies, I suppose.

There is only one problem with this classification: in everyday use, people seem to have different ideas than Wikipedia. I was under the distinct impression that ‘arnav’ is used to refer to a male rabbit (buck), ‘arnevet’ to a female rabbit (doe) and ‘arnavon’ to a baby bunny. So while this might not be scientifically correct, at least I usually understand what people mean and they will probably know what I’m talking about.

Now for the real problem – ‘shafan’! People have asked me on several occasions if I keep ‘arnavim’ or ‘shafanim’. I had to confess that I didn’t know the difference, only to have them admit they didn’t know it, either. I have heard people refer to my guinea pigs as ‘shafanim’, but I know for a fact that isn’t right – guinea pigs are ‘sharkanim’ (whistlers), due to the loud squeeking noises they make. So what on earth is a ‘shafan’..?

Right. After some research, this is what I came up with:


‘Shafan’ or rock hyrax

I admit: there is a superficial resemblance to a guinea pig. But that’s where it ends. The rock hyrax is a medium-sized mammal that lives in mountain areas all over Africa and the Middle East. They are not rodents, in fact, they are more closely related to elephants. As far as I know, nobody keeps them as pets and it wouldn’t be recommended to try, as they have quite fearsome tusks for such a cute-looking animal. The word ‘shafan’ seems to be also commonly used for ‘rabbit’ though, as the hits on Google show, but this is definitely not scientifically correct.

So there you have it! Technically, I keep ‘arnavonim’ – domestic European rabbits. They are not hares, not wild rabbits and certainly not rock hyraxes. At least now, when someone asks me about ‘shafanim’, I know what to say!

Finally, an entertaining page for those who want to say ‘rabbit’ in all languages:
how to say rabbit


About tarnegolita

Dutch expatriate, mother of 3 boys, freelance translator and pet zoo keeper in a kibbutz in Israel.
This entry was posted in Animals, israel, language, rabbits and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bunny semantics

  1. Pingback: Funny Conversations | Pet Zoo Holy Land

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