Sunday, July 12, 2020

Since Kislev is the month of a Jewish military “nitzachon,” I thought I would discuss the root “netzach.”

I always knew that N-Tz-Ch was an interesting root, as it meant both “eternal” and “conquer.” But only recently did I decide to investigate it. Of course, the precise meaning of this word is very relevant to us daily. In “Va-yevarech David” we assign to God “ha-gedula, ve-ha-gevura, ve-ha-tiferet, ve-ha-neitzach, ve-ha-hod.” This is a verse at Divrei Hayamim I 29:11. We need to determine what the root N-Tz-Ch means here. In rabbinic Hebrew, N-Tz-Ch is often used with a “conquer” or strength-related meaning. (This meaning comes from Aramaic.) Is “conquest/strength/triumph” its meaning in this verse in Divrei Hayamim too?

In this column, I will also address that word that appears 55 times in Tehillim (and one time in Habakkuk): “la-menatzeach.” Is this word related to either the “eternal” or “conquer/strength” meanings of N-Tz-Ch?

Regarding the noun forms “netzach” and “neitzach,” these appear 45 times in Tanach. (Usually our Masoretic tradition utilizes the vocalization “netzach.” Four times the vocalization is “neitzach.” I do not believe that there is any difference in meaning.) The Even-Shoshan concordance gives 40 of these 45 occurrences the meaning “eternal.” Aside from these, in two occurrences (in Isaiah 63) the word seems to have the meaning “blood.” But this meaning probably derives from a meaning like “eternal life force.” So now our key question is whether “netzach/neitzach” has a meaning related to “conquer/strength” anywhere in Tanach.

Even-Shoshan, in his concordance, claims it does three times. Let us look at his claims. First, he gives it the meaning “strength” in the famous phrase at I Samuel 15:29: “ve-gam neitzach Yisrael lo ye-shaker ve-lo yinachem...” But this is very surprising. “Ve-lo yinachem” means “he will not change his mind.” This strongly suggests that the meaning of “neitzach” here is “The Eternal One.” The entire phrase means: “And also the Eternal One of Israel will not change his mind.” This is how the verse is understood by both the Daat Mikra and the Malbim. (Admittedly, many of the traditional commentaries interpret the phrase with a meaning like “The Strong One.” But the traditional commentaries seem to have been overly influenced by the “conquer, strength” meaning that is widespread in rabbinic Hebrew.)

Even-Shoshan also gives N-Tz-Ch the meaning “strength” at Eichah 3:18: “avad nitzchi.” While this is possible, “nitzchi” here is parallel to “tochalti,” which means “my hope.” Therefore, the more probable meaning is “my eternity.” See Rashi and Daat Mikra.

Finally, Even-Shoshan gives “N-Tz-Ch” the meaning “strength” in our verse in Divrei Hayamim. But that is precisely the verse I am questioning. How likely is it that the word means “strength” here? In my view, it does not mean “strength” anywhere else in Tanach (except perhaps in a verb used at Daniel 6:4 in the Aramaic section of Tanach, as I will discuss below).

The Complete ArtScroll Siddur translates our word in Va-yevarech David with the strength-related word “triumph.” Every other siddur commentary I have seen does something similar, as do the traditional commentaries on Divrei Hayamim.

But if you agree with my analysis above, N-Tz-Ch never has a strength-related meaning in Tanach, and 44 times it has a meaning related to “eternal.” This strongly implies that this should be its meaning in its 45th occurrence, i.e., we are assigning “Eternity” to God. Fortunately, the Malbim on our verse in Divrei Hayamim agrees with my approach to this verse. It is of course significant that the word “neitzach” is not placed next to the word “gevurah” but between the words “tiferet” (splendor, glory) and “hod” (splendor, glory, majesty). (In Yishtabach, just a few pages later in the siddur, “netzach” is placed right next to “gedulah” and “gevurah” and obviously means something like “strength.” But Yishtabach is not a quote from Tanach.)

(Although Malbim agrees with me on the interpretation of our verse in Divrei Hayamim, perhaps he does not agree with my claim that N-Tz-Ch never has a strength-related meaning in the Hebrew section of Tanach. I have not checked his commentary on all 45 occurrences of the noun N-Tz-Ch in the Hebrew section of Tanach.)

What is the origin of the rabbinic meaning “conquer, strength”? It seems to be the Aramaic meaning of the word. (One example may be found in the Aramaic section of Tanach at Dan. 6:4. See below.) This meaning is already found, prior to rabbinic Hebrew, in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, it is possible that this meaning already existed in Hebrew by the time of Divrei Hayamim, a late book of Tanach. But this is the less-likely scenario. And, as I suggested above, a strength-related meaning at 1 Divrei Hayamim 29 does not fit the context. (I have to add that there is a chance that N-Tz-Ch has a strength-related meaning at Ben Sira 43:5. This is a difficult verse. The Hebrew of Ben Sira dates to approximately 200 B.C.E.)

Do the “eternal” meaning and the “conquer, strength” meaning have a common origin? (After all, Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages.) Certainly, things that are “eternal” are also often “strong,” so a common origin is possible.

N-Tz-Ch is found one time in the Aramaic section of Tanach, at Dan. 6:4. Here, the meaning may be a meaning related to “strength,” but many believe that the meaning here is “distinguished himself.” Aramaic and some of the other Semitic languages have a meaning of N-Tz-Ch as “shine, bright.” If the meaning here is “distinguished himself,” this may have derived from a “shine, bright” meaning.

Perhaps Hebrew too once had a meaning of N-Tz-Ch as “shine, bright.” This meaning is found in Ben Sira at 32:10 and 43:13. Accordingly, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament and others suggest that the meaning of the word at 1 Divrei Hayamim 29:11 may be “radiance.” This fits the context better than “eternity.”

Now let us deal with our ubiquitous word “la-menatzeach.” What does “menatzeach” mean? N-Tz-Ch is used as a verb several times in Tanach. See, e.g., Ezra 3:9: “Le-natzeach al osei melacha.” It clearly means “supervise.” So “la-menatzeach” in Tehillim is most likely a word that gives an instruction to the supervisor of the music about the musical accompaniment to the psalm.

It is hard to connect this “supervise” meaning of N-Tz-Ch with the “eternal” meaning. Therefore, some connect the “supervise” meaning with the “shine, bright” meaning. The suggestion is that from the “shine, bright” meaning came a “distinguish oneself” meaning. One who distinguishes himself then becomes the supervisor. See the commentary of Keil and Delitzsh, quoted in the post at Balashon.com of Feb. 8 2015.

Are “supervise” and “conquer” related? We could relate them but there is less of a need to do so since the “conquer” meaning may have originated separately, in Aramaic.

The reason I have always been interested in this root N-Tz-Ch is because it is found in one of the most famous stories in the Talmud, the story of R. Eliezer and the oven (Bava Metzia 59b). Here the Sages decide that the halacha must always follow the majority of the Sages. They reject the opinion of R. Eliezer, even though R. Eliezer has a “bat kol” descend from heaven and state that the halacha is always in his favor. We are told that upon hearing all of this, God concludes: “nitzchuni vanai.” This obviously means “my children have defeated me.” But a famous (homiletical) interpretation makes the alternative suggestion that the proper translation here is “my children have eternalized me,” i.e., by making the determination of the halacha subject to the majority of the Sages (and not Divinely fixed long ago), the halacha is thereby made flexible and can last eternally.

Finally, it is interesting that the root Ayin-L-M has meanings like “eternal” and “hidden.” In contrast, the root N-Tz-Ch has meanings like “eternal” and “shine”!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First hopes to write illuminating and strongly convincing articles for The Jewish Link eternally. He can be reached at [email protected]

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.