Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Ve-Shinantam Le-Vanekha

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                         Ve-Shinantam Le-Vanekha (Devarim 6:7)  
         As part of the Shema, we recite:  ve-shinantam le-vanekha, ve-dibarta bam. But what exactly does that first word mean? From the context, we would expect something like “teach” or “make known.”
          How does Rashi explain our word? First, he writes that ve-shinantam has the meaning of chidud (sharpness). Then he explains the idiom. The words should be sharp in your mouth, so that if someone asks you something, you should be able to answer him immediately. (In this interpretation, the le of le-vanekha has the meaning of “for the sake of” vanekha.)
         Why does Rashi provide this unusual interpretation? He does so because this interpretation of our verse is expressed in the Talmud at Kiddushin 30a. The interpretation is not recorded in the name of an individual Sage, but as a tanu rabanan, perhaps giving it even more authority. (This interpretation is also found at Sifrei Devarim 34 with a major variant that is probably an error.)
          There are two main aspects to this interpretation. First is the interpretation of the root as Sh-N-N, “sharpen,” and second is the idiom that is implied based on this interpretation. It is true that the root Sh-N-N appears a few times in Tanakh, and it always means something like “sharpen.” (Indeed, it is related to the word shen=tooth.)
          But what about the idiom that the Talmud and Rashi chose? It is a bit of an unusual one. Therefore, when other commentaries explain ve-shinantam, while they do often view the root as Sh-N-N and the meaning as “sharpen,” they often suggest a different idiom. For example, Seforno believes that the meaning is teach them with sharp explanations that explain matters intelligently. Alshikh believes that the meaning is that the words should penetrate the listeners’ hearts like arrows. Rav S.R. Hirsch believes that the meaning is “imprint it in short, sharp, concise sentences.”  A scholarly work, Brown-Driver-Briggs, translates: “teach the words incisively.” This expression may reflect the same idea expressed by Alshikh, or perhaps it refers to providing sharp explanations, as suggested by Seforno. The aspect of penetration can be that the idea effectively penetrates the subject matter, or that it effectively penetrates the listener! 
            Most interesting is Ibn Ezra. He first cites Mishlei 25:18 which refers to a chetz shanun (a sharp arrow). But he adds:  “it is known how an arrow is sharpened.” Most likely, what Ibn Ezra means is that the process of sharpening involves going back and forth over the item. So in effect the instruction of ve-shinantam is an instruction of teaching by repetition. A scholarly work I saw interprets ve-shinantam similarly: “incise, engave (by incessant recitation and explanation).”
            Despite my recording all the above suggestions, the purpose of this column is to see if there are other approaches that avoid the “Sh-N-N=sharpen” interpretation entirely. Indeed, some of our traditional sources did not follow the “sharpen” interpretation. For example: 1) Targum Onkelos translated: u-tetaninun (=and you shall teach/repeat them), 2) Targum Yerushalmi translated: tigmerinun (=and you shall teach them), and 3) Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim, entry Sh-N-N) interpreted ve-shinantam as: ha-dibbur ha-temidi. (See also Sifrei Devarim 34, davar acher, and R. Saadiah Gaon to Devarim 6:7.)                                                              
         There are two approaches that scholars today take to avoid the “Sh-N-N=sharpen” interpretation.
         The first approach is based on a finding in Ugaritic, which is another Semitic language. This language first came to light in the early 20th century, based on archaeological finds in Syria. It was discovered that Ugaritic has a verb T-N-N, which is the equivalent of the Hebrew Sh-N-N, and that the Ugaritic T-N-N can have the meaning “repeat.” So perhaps “repeat” can be the meaning of our Sh-N-N at Deut. 6:7.
           The second approach is suggested by S.D. Luzzatto, a 19th century Italian Bible scholar. He believes that the word ve-shinantam ultimately derives from the word shenayim (=two), but that the doubling of the nun in ve-shinantam implies a third repetition and, in effect multiple repetitions until the matter is familiar. There are also modern scholars that agree with such an approach. See, e.g., The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, entry Sh-N-N, p. 344.
           Luzzatto was able to bring some evidence for his approach from a Talmudic statement at Kiddushin 30a: al tikri ve-shinantam ela ve-shilashtam. This statement effectively interprets ve-shinantam as if it said ve-shilashtam. As Rashi explains there, if verse 6:7 meant to instruct to do something exactly twice, the word used would have been ve-shinitem (=only one nun), and not ve-shinantam.
           To summarize, I have offered three different approaches to ve-shinantam. One approach views the root as Sh-N-N with a meaning of “sharpen,” and offers various ways to understand the idiom. A second approach views the root as Sh-N-N, and believes that this root can mean “repeat.” A third approach views Sh-N-N as implying “continuous repetition and familiarity.”
            All agree that there is a different root Sh-N-H, which meant “repeat” in Biblical Hebrew. (In post-Biblical Hebrew, it developed into “learned” and “taught,” since all this was done through repetition.)
           Finally, I have to mention that it is possible that the root “Sh-N-N=sharpen” derives from the root “Sh-N-H=repeat.” As alluded to by Ibn Ezra above, there is a close relationship between the two verbs, as sharpening is produced by way of repetitive actions.
           Postscript:  At Devarim 28:37, the Torah uses the word sheninah. Rashi writes the following there: leshon ve-shinantam, yedabru bekha.  In interpreting this word sheninah, Rashi seems to be telling us that it has the same meaning as the ve-shinantam of Devarim 6:7 and that it means “speak about you.” He does the same thing in his comments on sheninah at I Kings 9:7. But there is no mention of chidud in either of these two comments. So what happened to Rashi’s chidud/sharpness interpretation? He certainly did not forget that he offered this interpretation at Devarim 6:7!
        Of course, it is possible that Rashi changed his mind and no longer believed in his chidud interpretation. (See, e.g., his comments quoted in Rashbam’s commentary to Gen. 37:2. Here Rashi admits that if he had time, he would revise his commentaries, due to the new understandings that arise every day.) But we would like to assume that Rashi did not change his mind between the time he composed his commentary to the 6th chapter of Devarim and the time he composed his commentary to its 28th chapter. (Another example of an inconsistency between two different comments of Rashi is found in Rashi’s interpretation of the root lamed-heh-tet. He gives a certain interpretation of lahat at Gen. 3:24. Then, at Exodus 7:11, he gives a different interpretation of the lahat of Gen. 3:24.)
       I have discussed this with many others. Based on these discussions, my conclusion is that we just have to admit that Rashi gives himself some freedom to express different word interpretations in different places. He likely had an underlying reason to choose each interpretation in its place. We are just going to have to live with this.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at
His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy
(Kodesh Press, 2015) His children consider him to be very sharp. But his wife instructs that things must often be repeated to him.

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