Thursday, 13 December 2018

Meaning of She'ol

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First  
What is the Origin of the Word “She’ol” (=Netherworld)?
I wrote a column about this word before. But I thought about it again when I wrote my new book Roots and Rituals, and there I revised some of my original conclusions. So I am writing my revised thoughts here.
The netherworld location she’ol is mentioned over sixty times in Tanach. On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell (perhaps spending most of their time sleeping.) The verb Y-R-D (=go down) is used in conjunction with she’ol thirteen times.
My question is whether we can relate this place name she’ol to our well-known root Shin-Aleph-Lamed which appears almost 200 times in Tanach with meanings like “ask a question,” and “demand/ask/borrow an object”?
It seems that sh’eol as a term for the netherworld originated in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you with an insight from another language.
In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. Recall the story at I Samuel (chapter 28) of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation. She’ol is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, sh’eol can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a long discussion of our word, presenting many possibilities. The most creative approach suggested is that we should not view the shin as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is aleph-lamed. Aleph-Lamed appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness,” or “place of nothingness.”
A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Psalms 9:18). He states that the grave is called she’ol because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that, while we attempt to live on earth, there is an opposing force called she’ol which tries to pull us down below, like gravity. She’ol is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Psalms 18:6 (chevlei Sheol sevavuni). But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving she’ol.
I also saw a suggestion that she’ol is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb.) The idea that she’ol is never satisfied is found explicitly at Proverbs 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Isaiah 5:14 and Habakkuk 2:5.)
But the most likely suggestion proposes that she’ol derives from the root Shin-Aleph-He and that the final lamed is not part of the root. There are many examples in Tanach of words with final lameds that are probably not part of the root. See, e.g., “carmel,” and “arafel,” and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, pp. 287, 487 and 664.

The root Shin-Aleph-He has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins,” and “desolation.” (Probably, it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g, Zech. 4:7. Then it encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins. )

Although “loud noise” and “crash into ruins” would not seem to fit she’ol, perhaps “desolation” can be seen as a main aspect of she’ol, so she’ol can mean “place of desolation.” This approach is taken in the scholarly Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. At first I did not like this suggestion because she’ol was probably viewed as a crowded place, since it was the destination of everyone. But perhaps it was viewed as desolate of material objects, or at least desolate of comforting material objects. For example, at Isaiah 14:11 it is implied that when one lies down there, one lies on top of maggots and one is covered with worms. I.e., there is nothing to lie down upon there, and no blankets to cover oneself.
Of course, she’ol is not described sufficiently in Tanach, and all of these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that she’ol may have just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root. She’ol is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach. (See, e.g., Psalms 30:4.)
I would like to add that one friend suggested that she’ol may have received its name because the individuals walk around there constantly feeling that they are lacking things. I.e., they are constantly “asking.” Another friend suggested that the place received its name because, upon arrival there, one is questioned about one’s life! Finally, there is an old saying that “one does not die from asking a question.” In light of she’ol being the name for the netherworld, perhaps we should re-examine this old saying!

Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh and blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say? “Lamah hirgaztani le-haalot oti?” =Why are you bothering me! This suggests that she’ol, presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the she’ol references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Genesis 37:35.)
It is also interesting that, when Samuel was brought up, he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in she’ol in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ezekiel 32:27 (warriors go there with their war weapons).
Going back to our word she’ol, it is of course ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the word she’ol. This is as humorous as the fact that Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, describes the word safek (=doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!
Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps she’ol is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth! We should all use our time here wisely! I thank Shulamis Hes for this inspiring thought.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. When he has a large enough number of difficult words, he may consult with she’ol and bother the wise king Solomon for a consultation. In the interim, he can be reached at

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Mussar - V'al Nissecha ...sheB'chol Yom

originally posted Nov. 23, 2010

Hanukkah is a time for celebrating miracles. Enjoy this list of miraculous thoughts!

23. "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
Albert Einstein
24. "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
25. "Expect a Miracle!" James Dillet Freeman
57. "Miracles, in the sense of phenomena we cannot explain, surround us on every hand: life itself is the miracle of miracles."
George Bernard Shaw
58. "The world is full of wonders and miracles but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing." Israel Baal Shem
For more Miracle Quotations see Bella Online.


Thursday, 6 December 2018

Meaning of Chashmonai

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

The Identity and Meaning of “Chashmonai”
The term “Chashmonai” is widely used in the rabbinic literature about Chanukkah. But nowhere in I Maccabees and II Maccabees is the term used, and these were works composed only a few decades after the revolt of Matityahu and his sons. (The revolt took place in 167-164 B.C.E.). So who or what exactly is “Chashmonai”?
Already in the late 1st century, it seems that the identity of “Chashmonai” was a mystery to Josephus. Josephus must have heard of the name since he descended from this family. Yet he contradicts himself regarding it. In his Jewish War (I, 36) he identifies Chashmonai as the father of Matityahu. But in his later work Antiquities (XII, 265) he identifies Chashmonai as the great-grandfather of Matityahu. Probably, his approach in Antiquities is the result of his learning from I Maccabees 2:1 that Matityahu was the son of a John who was the son of a Simon, and then deciding to integrate the name Chashmonai with this data by making him the father of Simon. It is very likely that Josephus had no actual knowledge of the identity of Chashmonai and was just speculating here. It is too coincidental that he places Chashmonai as the father of Simon, where there is room for him. If Josephus truly had a tradition from his family about the specific identity of Chashmonai, it would already have been included in his Jewish War. (Scholars have observed that it seems that that Josephus did not have I Macc. in front of him when writing his Jewish War.)
The name “Chashmonai” appears many times in the Babylonian Talmud, but usually the references are vague. The references are either to “beit Chashmonai,” “malkhut Chashmonai,” “malkhut beit Chashmonai,” “malkhei beit Chashmonai,” or “beit dino shel Chashmonai.”

At Megillah 11a there is a reference to an individual named Chashmonai, but neither his father nor his son(s) are named. The standard printed text here implies that Chashmonai is not Matityahu, mentioning “Shimon ha-Tzaddik ve-Chashmonai u-vanav u-Matityah kohen gadol… There are also midrashim on Chanukkah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu and who was instrumental in the revolt.

But the fact that I Maccabees does not mention any separate individual named Chashmonai involved in the revolt strongly suggests that there was no such individual. (The lack of mention of Chashmonai in II Maccabees is not significant.) Moreover, there are alternative readings at Megillah 11a. Also, the midrashim on Chanukkah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu are very late midrashim.
It seems from I Maccabees that there was no separate person named Chashmonai at the time of the revolt. And I have argued that the statement of Josephus that Chashmonai was the great-grandfather of Matityahu is only a conjecture. If so, who was Chashmonai?
There are two Tannaitic references to Chashmonai. Let us look at them. One of these is Mishnah Middot 1:6: “ganzo bnei Chashmonai et avnei ha-mizbeach she-shiktzum malkhei Yavan.” (This is the text in the earliest Mishnah manuscript, the Kaufmann manuscript.) From here, it seems that Chashmonai may just be another name for Matityahu. This is also the implication of Chashmonai in many of the later rabbinic passages. (See, e.g., Bereshit Rabbah 99:2, and Tanchuma Va-Yechi 14.)
The other Tannaitic source for Chashmonai is Seder Olam, chap. 30. Here the language is: “malkhut beit Chashmonai meah ve-shalosh =the dynasty of the House of Chashmonai, 103 [years].” Although one does not have to interpret Chashmonai here as a reference to Matityahu, this interpretation can at least fit this passage (even though many other interpretations would fit as well.)
I would like to take the position, based on the Mishnah in Middot, that Chashmonai was just another way of referring to Matityahu, i.e., an additional name that he had. 1 Maccabees states that each of his sons had additional names, so it is reasonable to suppose that Matityahu had one too. (People did not have last names in antiquity, so additional names were common. They helped distinguish someone from others with the same name.)
But here is the issue: I Maccabees, which stated that each of Matityahu’s sons had an additional name, and provided the name, did not make any such statement in the case of Matityahu himself.
So we need to find an explanation of why, if Matityahu had an additional name, I Maccabees would have avoided giving it to us.
An explanation for this has been suggested. But first let me discuss the meaning of the name. We do not know what it means, but the most widely held view is that it derives from a place that some ancestor of Matityahu hailed from a few generations earlier. (Matityahu and his immediate ancestors hailed from Modein.) For example, Joshua 15:27 refers to a place called Cheshmon in the area of the tribe of Judah. Alternatively, a location Chashmonah is mentioned at Numbers 33:29-30 as one of the places that the Israelites encamped in the desert.
Going back to our question, scholars now realize that I Maccabees was a polemical work: the main purpose of the work was the glorification of Matityahu in order to legitimize the rule of his descendants. There is evidence for this throughout the book. (See particularly 5:62.) Their rule needed legitimization because the family was not from the priestly watch of Yedayah, the most prominent watch. Traditionally, the high priest came from this watch. (Of course, the rule of Matityahu’s descendants would have needed additional legitimization even if Matitayahu came from the watch of Yedayah. His descendants were priests and not from the tribe of Judah or the Davidic line.).
Perhaps, it has been suggested (see, e.g., J. Goldstein, I Maccabees, pp. 17-19), the author of I Maccabees left out the additional name for Matityahu because it would remind readers of the obscure origin of the dynasty. Reminding readers of this would be inconsistent with the purpose of the book. So we can now suggest that Chashmonai was the additional name of Matityahu and we have a reasonable explanation for why I Maccabees omitted it.
1. I did not rely on Al-Hanissim in the above discussion of Chashmonai. Like most of us, I used to think that this prayer was composed in the 2nd century B.C.E. Now I think that this is not the case and that the prayer had a later origin.
2. The two earliest Mishnah manuscripts (Kaufmann and Parma) spell the name Chashmonai with two yods at the end (=no aleph). This was probably the original spelling. This is also how the name is spelled in the Jerusalem Talmud. See Taanit 2:12 and Megillah 1:4. As is the case with many other names that end with aleph-yod (such as Shammai), the aleph-yod spelling is probably a later variation that reflected the spelling practice in Babylonia.
In the Kaufmann Mishnah manuscript, there is a patach under the nun and a chirik under the first yod. Also, the vav has a shuruk. This means that “Chashmunai” may have been the original pronunciation. (The Kaufmann manuscript dates to the 10th or 11th century, but the vocalization was inserted later. The Parma manuscript does not have vocalization in Middot.)
3. There was no group at the time of Matityahu and his sons called “Chashmonaim.” Josephus, writing at the end of the first century C.E. is the first person to use the plural.
To end with some humor: When he was a young child in school, David Gertler heard his teacher talking about Matityahu and his five sons and then heard his teacher calling him “Chashmonai.” David then came up with the idea that “Chashmonai” must have been called this because he had five sons, and that Ch-M-Sh simply evolved into Ch-Sh-M!
This is an abridgement of my article at on Nov. 27, 2013, and included in my book Esther Unmasked (2015).
Mitchell First is a kohen. Based on his name “First,” he speculates that he was from the first mishmar, Yedayah. He can be reached at, but a change to may be forthcoming!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

JVO Blog: Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law

originally posted on Dec. 19, 2017

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at