Thursday, 22 October 2020

Origin of Y-Sh-N (Sleep, Old) and Saba (grandfather)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                The Two Meanings of Yod-Shin-Nun:  Sleep and Old

        There are two Biblical roots with the letters ישׁן. One has the meaning “sleep.” The other has the meaning “old.” An issue had always been whether they were related.

        The traditional view had been that the two were related. But the exact nature of the relationship was debated. In a mainstream view, the original meaning of the root was “sleep” and “old” was just a later expansion.

           The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906) had suggested that the original meaning of “old” was “withered, flabby, like a lifeless plant with top hanging down, as if in sleep.” (This seems very farfetched!)   Another suggestion was that the basic meaning of the root was “be quiet.” This also could explain both meanings in some (unsatisfying) way.

        But then the language of Ugaritic was discovered in the early 20th century in archaeological finds on the western coast of Syria. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew. It dates from the early Biblical period (and earlier).

         It turns out that our two ישׁן roots had different letters in Ugaritic. “Old” was Y-Th-N and “sleep” was Y-Sh-N. See, e.g.,  The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, pp. 447-48, and Edward Horowitz, How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 107. (Everyone can learn tremendous amounts from this book by Horowitz.)

        To explain further, our present letter is the result of a merger of two different letters that were in the original 29 letters of Proto-Semitic (=the hypothesized original Semitic language). One of the original letters was pronounced “sh.”  The other was pronounced “th.” Eventually, both merged into in our 22 letter Hebrew alphabet (misleading all of us who have the practice of attempting to unite words with similar looking roots).

         That our Hebrew is the result of a merger of two different root letters explains why we do not have to stretch to find a relationship between other words as well such as: “shemen” and “shemonah,” “cheresh” (=deaf) and “charash”(=cut, plow), “shelach” (send) and “shulchan,” and “she’ar” (remainder) and “she’eir” (kin). In all of these pairs, the latter most likely had an original “th.” See Horowitz, pp. 106-07.  (Usually, it is Ugaritic that helps us determine the original Proto-Semitic letter.)

          We can also now explain why the Hebrew word for “three” is שׁלשׁ while its Aramaic counterpart is תלת.  Both Hebrew and Aramaic share the same 22 letter alphabet. The Proto-Semitic letter that was pronounced “th” usually became a “shin” in Hebrew, while it usually became a “tav” in Aramaic.  Most likely, this “th” letter was the first and third letter in the Proto-Semitic word for “three.”


         On the subject of ישׁן and its “advanced in years” meaning, perhaps now is a good time to talk about the words for grandfather and grandmother in modern Hebrew: סבּא and סבתא.

              If one looks through Tanach, surprisingly there is no word for either grandfather or grandmother.  (For example, at I Kings 15:10, אמו seems to mean “his grandmother.” See Radak and Soncino. See also Daat Mikra. At I Kings 15:11, אביו seems to mean “his grandfather.”)

               In the modern period, the words seem to have gone through some evolution.

              The 1943 official dictionary of kinship terms in Hebrew lists grandfather as סב (sav) and grandmother as   סבה   (savah).  But then it adds that “saba” and “sabta” are permitted as terms of affection, due to their similarity to the word “abba.”  A smaller line adds that “saba” and “savta” are permitted for general use as well (even when not involving affection).

                Edward Horowitz describes the origin of the word סבּא as follows: “It is a word created by the little children in Israel, following closely the word “abba.” The children were told to call this relative סב but it was simply much easier for them to link both these older loving male adults with these two similar sounding names: “abba” and “saba.”   See his How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 100.

              The seventeen-volume Ben-Yehuda dictionary (begun by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1910, and continued after his death in 1922 by his wife, son and other scholars) does not include “sav,” “saba,” “savah” or “savta.” But one of the definitions of זקן mentioned was “grandfather.” 

             Of course   זקן could never take off as a word for “grandfather” because it would confuse people who would think it is a reference to advanced age and limited abilities.

             The word סב, suggested for “grandfather” by the 1943 official dictionary of kinship, is related to the Biblical word שׂיבה. (The Bible has שׂב  at Job 15:10. See also 1 Sam. 12:2.) This Biblical word means “old” and “gray hair” but never “grandfather.”

             In the Talmud, one can find סבא  (sava) as “grandfather.” See, e.g., Ketubot 72b, and Yevamot 38a and 40b.  (“Zaken” and “avi av” are also used in the Talmud.)  One can also find סבתא  (savta) as grandmother. See, e.g., Bava Batra 125b.

              Finally, the latest challenge for modern Hebrew is a word for great-grandparents. The 1943 official dictionary of kinship suggested שילש-אב  and שלשה-אם . But people today use רבּא-סבּא (saba raba) and רבּא-סבתא. (Both words could be spelled with ה at the end as well.) The more grammatically correct term for great-grandmother would be רבּתא-סבתא (savta-rabta), but this is rarely used today.

              My discussion of “saba” and “savta” has been based on the post on this topic at of 9/2/08.  The author, David Curwin of Efrat, writes that he really would like to know what the common Hebrew words for grandfather and grandmother were in the first half of the 20th century because he cannot tell from the sources he has seen. He awaits a digital compilaton of Hebrew literature from this period so computer searches can be performed!

           I would like to thank Steve Schaffer for getting me interested in the word “saba.”


Mitchell First can be reached at He has two grandchildren, the oldest is two. She is not (yet!) interested in these etymological discussions and merely calls him “Zeidie.”   His mother is over 90 but has endless energy and refers to her age as “three time 30.”




Saturday, 17 October 2020

MUSSAR: no two are alike

originally posted Sept 8, 2018

From RRW   

"Just as we accept that our neighbor’s face does not resemble ours, so must we accept that our neighbor’s views do not resemble ours."

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Friday night Shalom Aleichem Song

 From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First


                                          The “Shalom Aleichem” Prayer

       We all sing this song peacefully. Could anything be controversial about it? (This is aside from the mild disagreement that might occur over whether each stanza should be recited three times!) Let us analyze the history of this prayer.

         The idea for the prayer is based on the passage at Shab. 119b that states that two “malachei ha-sharet” escort a person home from the synagogue on Friday night.  If there is a lamp burning, a set table and a made bed, the good angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the evil angel is compelled to answer “Amen.” If the three above items are not prepared, then the evil angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the good angel is compelled to answer “Amen.” 

       The author of the prayer felt it was appropriate to write a prayer greeting these two angels and seeking their blessing. The first stanza says “shalom” to these angels; the second says: “may your coming be in peace”; the third asks “bless me for peace,” and the fourth concludes: “may you depart in peace.”

       The prayer first appears in one of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. There were many editions of this type of siddur. My research indicates that the prayer first appeared in an edition published in Prague sometime between the years 1615-29. (But the new RCA Siddur says it is found in an edition published in 1613.) Seder Tikunei Shabbat were siddurim that incorporated much kabbalistic material. (The meaning of “Tikunei” in kabbalistic thought is “spiritual rectification.”)

       The prayer’s author is unknown, but perhaps it was authored by a Kabbalist from Tzefat in the decades preceding. Kabbalists from Tzefat were the ones who authored the entire Kabbalat Shabbat service. (But there was already a custom among some Sefaradim to recite Psalm 92. See B.S. Jacobson, The Sabbath Service, pp. 7-8, citing a responsum of Rambam.)

        Many editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat state that they are based on the teachings of the ARI (R. Isaac Luria).   But with regard to ARI, R. Chaim Vital kept a record of his Kabbalat Shabbat service and there is no mention of “Shalom Aleichem” there. Perhaps it did not exist in his time.  ARI died in 1572.


       When you look at our text of “Shalom Aleichem,” the first stanza refers to “malachei ha-sharet” and the three subsequent ones refer to “malachei ha-shalom.” “Malachei ha-sharet” is the term found in the Talmud. The switch to “malachei ha-shalom” is very puzzling. The explanations I have seen are not satisfying. I think I can explain the switch. The second word in the second, third and fourth stanzas is “shalom.” To parallel this, the angels in these paragraphs were called “malachei ha-shalom.”  (The second word in the first stanza is “aleichem.”)

           In the third stanza, we ask for these angels to bless us. Many objected. For example, R. Chaim of Volozhin (d. 1821) wrote: “One must not address petitions to angels since they do not possess any power, even to the lightest [degree]. Whatever they do is by compulsion. If man is worthy, they are forced to bless him; and if not, they are forced, God forbid, to curse him.” R. Yakov Emden (d. 1776) also objected to asking for a blessing from angels. Of course, there are answers to these objections. (See, e.g., the answer of Prof. David Berger quoted in the new RCA Siddur.)

              In the last stanza, we ask the angels to leave: “Tzeitchem Le-Shalom.” This is objected to by many as well. For example, R. Emden writes: “It would be better for them to tarry a while and rejoice at the meal…”   R. Emden concludes that he was willing to recite the first stanza only.

             Of course, the angels are not really being asked to leave. The phrase can merely mean: “when you decide to leave, leave in peace.”

             But there is another possible solution. Some early editions have a slightly different text than what we have. The second stanza starts with בבואכם, and the fourth starts with  בצאתכם. These may be the original readings. If so, the first and second stanzas may merely reflect one long idea, and the third and fourth stanzas may merely reflect one long idea. When read in this manner, the question goes away.

             A note in a siddur published in 1880 states that if there has been a quarrel in the home, the last stanza should be omitted. The idea is that the angels remaining in the home will cause the quarrel to end.

               Chatam Sofer wrote that one should not recite “Shalom Aleichem,” as it was presumptuous of anyone to consider himself worthy of an angelic escort. But his student Maharam Shick wrote that his teacher did recite it, but recited it silently lest he give the impression that he considered himself worthy of this.

                The standard Sefaradi text of “Shalom Aleichem” has an added stanza, between the third and fourth.

                There is a prayer “Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim” that typically follows “Shalom Aleichem” in our siddurim. It followed it in many of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. The prayer has some of the same ideas as “Shalom Aleichem.” The new RCA siddur takes the position that this prayer and “Shalom Aleichem” were one unit, by the same author. I am not yet convinced. But if this is true, then one can use the ideas expressed in this prayer to shed light on our (too short) “Shalom Aleichem” prayer. There is also language in this prayer (“I have entered your house…”) that suggests that it was originally recited in the synagogue. If so, this would be the case with “Shalom Aleichem” as well.

            The new RCA Siddur also points out that there is a brief mention of greeting Friday night angels in a book of customs from thirteenth-century Italy, and it is recorded as the practice of the Tosafist R. Aharon of Regensburg. Thus “Shalom Aleichem” is not as great an innovation as is typically thought.


         Some early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat instruct to recite each of the “Shalom Aleichem” stanzas three times. In the context of Kiddush Levanah, ARI had explained that reciting the phrase “Shalom Aleichem” three times served to remove “kitrug” (=prosecution). See the Etz Yosef comm. in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot. Most likely, from this practice in Kiddush Levanah, ARI’s followers extrapolated that it would be good to recite each of the stanzas in the “Shalom Aleichem” prayer three times as well. Rabbi Rothwachs had challenged our shul with this question on a Friday night in 2002. I am glad that I could finally, if belatedly, provide the answer!  (The recital of the phrase three times in Kiddush Levanah is mentioned in Soferim 10:2 without explanation.)                                                      


           The early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat also typically include the recital of Eshet Chayil on Friday night. The recitation of this section (Prov. 31: 10-31) was probably introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat who understood the woman being referred to as the Shechinah.

             If this prayer was introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat, this suggests that the neighboring prayers “Shalom Aleichem” and “Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim” were introduced by them as well.                                                                                                  


             I would like to acknowledge the assistance of R. Arie Folger and Efraim Palvanov.


Mitchell First can be reached at He is an attorney and Jewish history scholar, has authored three books and many articles, and is a regular columnist for this important paper. He feels worthy of angelic escort.