Friday, 24 March 2017

The Multiple Meanings of the Word Shanah

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                  The Multiple Meanings of the Word Shanah
             The root shin-nun-heh has two meanings in Tanakh. On the one hand, it means “to repeat.” (Of course, the word sheni, second, comes from this meaning.) On the other hand, it means “to change.”  A fundamental question is whether these seemingly opposite meanings, “repeat” and “change,” originated from the same sh-n-h root. A further related question is the origin of the word shanah=year.
             Let us answer the second question first. I have seen sources that relate shanah=year to the “change” meaning. For example, Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etyomological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, believes that the year was called shanah because it was a “period of changing seasons.” But an alternative view, which I prefer, is that the year was called shanah because it is fundamentally based on a concept of repetition. Many scholars accept this view. Among traditional Jewish sources, we can find something like this in Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorasim), Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Exodus 12:2), and S.D. Luzzatto (comm. to Gen. 41:1).
            I also saw a source that believed that the year was called shanah because of both the “repeat” and the “change” aspects. It cleverly defined the year as: “the repeating cycle of seasonal change.”  I also saw some sources that took the position that shanah=year was a primary noun and did not derive from either the “repeat” or “change” aspects.
            Let us now return to our fundamental question. Could sh-n-h=repeat and sh-n-h=change have come from the same source? In his concordance, S. Mandelkern attempts to unify them by pointing out that every time something is repeated, there is always a slight change. I was told, for example, that when the earth rotates around the sun, the exact position that the earth travels in its rotation is not the same as the position it traveled the year before.
              Also, we all know that when you used to make a copy of a piece of paper, the copy did not look exactly the same as the original. (This was before today’s superb technology!) There was once a movie based on this principle. The movie was Multiplicity, starring Michael Keaton. It was about a father who realized that the multiple demands on his time were getting too hard for him. He befriended a scientist and they came up with the idea of making two copies of himself by cloning. This way, he could be in multiple places at once (e.g., job and family)! But the premise of the movie was that when you make a copy of something, there is always a slight change. So the movie had one of the clones come out with a more masculine personality than regular Michael, and the other come out with a more feminine personality, creating all kinds of difficulties for everyone! (The two clones also made a copy of Michael from the first clone. The personality of this new clone was really off, because this was a copy made from a copy!)
              Ok, so should we conclude that the principle set forth by Solomon Mandelkern and reflected in the Michael Keaton movie, namely, that every repetition results in a change, is grounds to conclude that sh-n-h=repeat and sh-n-h=change have a common origin?
               My intuition tells me that the above principle is not a true explanation of a common origin. However, there is another way of looking at the matter. Every time you change something, you are still doing a repetition.  You are just repeating the activity with a change. This sounds like a better explanation for a common origin.
              It has also been observed that usually the “change” meaning of sh-n-h is in expressed in the piel stem, while the “repeat” meaning is expressed in the kal stem. So perhaps the basic meaning of the root was “repeat,” and the piel stem is just modifiying the basic meaning and giving it a different spin.
                I have looked at several etymology books to see if they believe that sh-n-h=repeat and sh-n-h= change had a common origin. (These books look at all the Semitic languages when they make their decision, as it is often not enough to look at Hebrew.) Most view the two verbs as not having a common origin. But a widely respected source, The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, concludes that “we must reckon with the possibility that the close relationship between the two meanings suggests that one could have developed from the other.” So the matter still remains unresolved.
                 I also saw the point made that in Aramaic, shanah=repeat is tanna, while shanah=change is shana. If the roots had a common early origin, it is argued, they would not have gone in separate directions as they did here.
                 It is important to mention that the “repeat” meaning of shanah later developed, in post-Biblical Hebrew, into the meaning “study” and “teach,” since the fundamental method of studying and teaching was repetition.                                                                      
                 Let us now address a different noun: shenah=sleep. Is this related? This seems to come from a different verb y-sh-n. But I have seen a claim made that it is related to sh-n-h=repeat, since sleep is fundamentally an event that is repeated every night!
                Finally, let us address the word in modern Hebrew for a small unit of time: shniah. This word is based on the English word “second.” But why do we use this word in English? The answer (based on Latin) is that the second is meant as the second small part of the hour, in contrast to the first small part of the hour, the minute.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at Although he repeats this little bio at the end of every column, he always tries to change it a bit.