This word is the second word in this week’s parsha. It appears many times in Tanach. But what does it mean? It is usually translated as something like “officer.” But in Akkadian (another Semitic language), the verb “sh-t-r” means “to write.” Also, we all know the Aramaic word “shtar”=document. Most likely, the Hebrew word is describing an administrative position like a “recordkeeper.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 390. (See also the entry in the concordance of S. Mandelkern.) The Hebrew word is not a word expressing a position of power.
Compare Rashi who writes (Ex. 5:6): “ve-hashoter memuneh lirdot be-osei ha-melacha.” “Lirdot” derives from the root R-D-H. This is a root that means “rule, have dominion over.” See, e.g., Gen. 1:26. So admittedly Tawil and I are respectfully disagreeing with Rashi here. (In modern Hebrew, following Rashi’s approach, “shotrim” are policemen.)
Similar to Rashi is Rav S.R. Hirsch (Ex. 5:6). He notes the connection between our word and “shtar” and suggests that the “shtar” is called this because it is the document by which a creditor enforces his payment.
Avot 1:3 records that Antigonus Ish Socho states that we should be as servants who serve their master not on the condition of receiving “pras.” He adds: “And let ‘mora shamayim’ be upon you.”
“Pras” here is usually translated as “reward.” So I always thought that “pras” must be related to the English word “prize.” But I just learned that I was wrong on two fronts. There is no relation to the English word “prize,” and more importantly, “pras” did not mean “reward” at the time of the Mishnah. Rather, it probably meant the daily food portion that was given to slaves.
The root P-R-S originally meant “to split, divide,” so the word originally meant “a half of something.” It then developed into a meaning like “food portion.” Jastrow’s main definition of the word is “fare,” which is a word for food. (But Meiri gives the word a slightly different spin: the food portion is called “pras” because the slave receives half of his portion in the morning and half in the evening.)
Our reinterpretation of “pras” results in a subtle but profound change in the meaning of our Mishnah. The advice is to serve God without expectation of even your minimal food ration. See E. Bickerman, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 44/4 (1951), pp. 153-65. Bickerman admits that this sounds harsh. But he clarifies that this doctrine was not one of despair, but of hope. The required submission is ultimately based on confidence in God. He further clarifies the meaning of the last clause. What we must have is not “fear” of God. Rather, it is “awe” of God, and “awe” includes love and trust in Him.
So how did “pras” come to mean “reward” in modern Hebrew? This was probably due to the influence of the similar-sounding words: “preis,” “prix” and “prize,” from German, French and English. These words have their own history and evolution. But they are Indo-European and not related to the Semitic word “pras.”
In Tanach, this word (caf-caf-resh) means “bread.” It also means a coin or weight. Most scholars believe that it is a shortened form of C, R, C, R (which derives from C-R-R). This root has a circular theme. At II Sam. 6:14 and 6:16, M-C-R-C-R is used to describe King David whirling himself around, i.e., dancing. (II Sam. 6:16 has a parallel at I Chr. 15:29. There, instead of M-C-R-C-R, “meraked” is used, from R-K-D, “dance.”)
So C-C-R means “bread” because the bread was round in Biblical times. It also means “coin” and “weight” because of the roundness of these items. (The plural of the bread meaning is “kikarot.” The plural of the coin/weight meaning is “kikarim.”)
But there is another use of kikar (C-C-R). Thirteen times it is used as a geographical term. See e.g., Gen. 13:12: “ve-Lot yashav be-arei ha-kikar.” I have seen this “kikar” translated as “plain” and “valley.” Perhaps these translators assumed that this “kikar” is not related to our previous “kikar” words. But perhaps there is a relation. A reasonable suggestion is that the area was viewed as approximately a circular or oval one. See, e.g., the Soncino commentary to Neh. 3:22. Or perhaps the geographical “kikar” sometimes refers to the area around a place. See, e.g., Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon, p. 473, and the Soncino commentary to Neh. 12:28 (“kikar sevivot Yerushalayim”).
Finally (but not yet in Biblical times), the geographical “kikar” started being translated as “square”! This is certainly how it is often used in modern Hebrew today.
I would now like to repeat a discussion I have written about before. The root Sh-N-H has two meanings in Tanach. On the one hand, it means “to repeat.” On the other hand, it means “to change.” Which one is the origin of the word shana=year? I have seen sources that relate shana=year to the “change” meaning. For example, E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 669, believes that the year was called shana because it was a “period of changing seasons.” But an alternative view, which I prefer, is that the year was called shana because it was fundamentally based on a concept of repetition. Many scholars accept this view. Among traditional Jewish sources we can find something like this in Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorasim), Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Exodus 12:2), and S.D. Luzzatto (comm. to Genesis 41:1).
I also saw a source that believed that the year was called shana because of both the “repeat” and the “change” aspects. It cleverly defined the year as: “the repeating cycle of seasonal change”!
Finally, regarding the issue of how the two seemingly opposite meanings of Sh-N-H (“repeat” and “change”) can coexist in the same root, see my recent book “Roots and Rituals,” pp. 147-49.
I would like to thank Alec Goldstein (editor of Kodesh Press) for teaching me about “shtar” and the balashon.com site for the material on “pras.”
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First earns a pittance as a writer, barely enough to buy a few kikarot of bread with a few kikarim. Fortunately, he is an attorney as well. He also enjoys repeating his insights into the word “shana” every year. 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.