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Wednesday, June 03, 2020
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In our Kiddush every Shabbat morning we recite the following phrase from Ex. 31:17: “For six days God created the heaven and the earth and on the seventh day shavat va-yanifash.” We know the meaning of “shavat.” But what is the meaning of that last word?

At the outset, I have to point out that the letters N-P-Sh are used as a noun over 700 times in Tanach. But only three times do they function as a verb. Aside from our verse, one of the other occasions is II Samuel 16:14: “The king and all the people who were with him came weary (ayefim), ‘va-yinafesh sham.’ ” (The reference is to King David at the time of the rebellion of Avshalom.)

The other occasion is Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work and on the seventh day you shall rest (tishbot) so that your ox and donkey shall rest (yanuach), ve-yinafesh the son of your handmaid and the stranger.”

As a noun, common meanings of N-P-Sh in Tanach are: “life,” “living being” and “person.” But the noun also has the meaning “throat” in Tanach. (The evolution seems to be: throat < life< living being < person. Probably the word started out as a noun and not a verb. The original concrete meaning was likely “throat, gullet,” the organ used for breathing and eating.)

For examples of the throat meaning: Isa. 5:14: “Sheol has opened wide its throat and parted its mouth to a measureless gap.” Ps. 69:2 and 124:4: “Water reached to the throat.” Ps. 105:18: “His feet were subject to fetters, an iron collar was put on his throat.”

In other Semitic languages, N-P-Sh is a verb that often means “breathe.” (It also means throat as well.) In Tanach itself, we have: “nafsho gechalim telahet”=his breath kindles coals. Job 41:13 (referring to Leviathan).

The Tanach also has the expression “K-Tz-R” nefesh several times. This may have the literal meaning of “shortness of breath” on at least one of these occasions. See Numbers 21:4, and Chizkuni and S.D. Luzzatto there. See also H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 245.

I have also seen the suggestion that perhaps every time the Tanach uses “nefesh” to mean “person,” it literally means “breather”!

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After that lengthy introduction, how has our word at Ex. 31:17 been understood over the centuries?

Onkelos: “Shavat va-yinafash” is translated as “shevat ve-nach.”

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch: “With the seventh day [He] ceased to create and withdrew unto Himself” (in contrast to working on something external to one’s self). (R. Hirsch gives a similar explanation at Ex. 23:12 regarding the son of the handmaid and the stranger: they “come to themselves.” See his further elaboration there.)

R. Aryeh Kaplan: “He ceased working and withdrew to the spiritual.”

Brown-Driver-Briggs: This work makes two suggestions. One of the suggestions is “refresh oneself.” This suggestion is followed by many, including The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: “was refreshed.” It was also the translation in the King James Bible (1611).

Rambam: “Va-yinafash” means: “That which He desired was accomplished; what He wished had come into existence.” See Moreh Nevuchim, 1:67. Rambam arrives at this interpretation because “nefesh” sometimes means “will” and “desire.” See his discussion earlier at 1:41 and the verses he cites to support this.

But as you may suspect from my lengthy introduction, the best answers give our word a “breathing” meaning.

One suggestion is “catch one’s breath.” See Hertz Pentateuch on Ex. 23:12. (The commentary does not make any comment on the “va-yinafash” of 31:17.) Also, Rashi on 31:17 uses the phrase “she-meshiv nafsho ve-neshimato.” Also, Ibn Ezra explains “ke-mi she-yiga ve-yashiv nafsho.” (See his shorter commentary). As Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain, even though God’s creations were with words and not through physical effort, the Torah speaks be-leshon bnei adam. It is as if God stopped His work and took time to catch His breath!

But perhaps a bit more simply, we should translate that “God ceased His work and breathed easily.” (As we might say colloquially today, “He took a breather!”). See, e.g., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 9, p. 504 and M.Z. Kaddari, Milon Ha-Irvrit Ha-Mikrait, p. 723. (See also Brown-Driver-Briggs, second interpretation: “take [a] breath.”)

Tawil, in his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, translated “va-yinafash” as “relax.” In English, we have the expression: “rest and relaxation.” This sounds a bit like “shavat va-yinafash.” But “relax” is not exactly a word related to “breathing.”

Finally, let us take a new look at Gen. 2:7: “God formed Man, dust out of the ground, va-yipach be-apav nishmat chayyim, va-yehi ha-adam le-nefesh chayah.” How should we translate the last four words? Perhaps the correct translation is: “Man became a living breather!”

Sometimes in Tanach, “nefesh” means something like “soul.” Professor Richard Steiner, who taught at Yeshiva University for decades, wrote a monograph on this for the Society of Biblical Literature, disagreeing with the prevalent scholarly view that the “soul” meaning is a post-Biblical meaning. (I thank Rabbi Moshe Schapiro for informing me of this and sending me the link to it. I can send the link to anyone who contacts me. The article focuses particularly on the meaning at Ezekiel 13:18.)

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a living and breathing personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. 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.

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