This is a question that has been troubling me for decades (along with whether there is a connection between “milchama” and “lechem”!) Both “mishpacha” and “shifcha” are based on the root shin-peh-chet, so our initial presumption should be that there is a connection. And yet the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, which discusses both in adjacent entries, makes no attempt at a connection. Also, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has an entire article on the word “mishpacha” and no mention is made in this article of the word “shifcha.” And their article on “shifcha” (by a different author) explicitly denies a connection, declaring that “the two Hebrew nouns are unrelated etymologically.”
Similar (but not as rejecting) is the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. Their “mishpacha” entry makes no mention of “shifcha.” Their “shifcha” entry refers to the connection between the two words but calls it “questionable.”
Radak, in his Sefer HaShorashim, includes both in his one entry for the root shin-peh-chet, but he too denies that they are connected. We see this because after he discusses the “handmaid” meaning, he discusses the “family” meaning, but he prefaces the latter with the phrase “ve-inyan acher” (=a different matter). Those familiar with this work understand that this is his way of denying a connection, even though he has placed the words in the same entry.
(Among the Rishonim, Rashi usually presumes that words with the same three-letter root are connected and tries to determine the connection. But many of the other Rishonim, especially in the Sephardic world, did not think like this. Sephardic Rishonim were influenced by Arabic where words with the same root are often not connected. Professor Richard Steiner of Yeshiva University has written an important article on this topic. See JQR 88, 1998, pp. 213-258.)
Going back to “shifcha” and “mishpacha,” some scholars today do see a connection. They generally take the following approach: There is a biblical root samech-peh-chet and this root sometimes has the meaning of “join, attach.” See, e.g., Isa. 14:1 and I Sam. 2:36. (In modern Hebrew, a “nispach” is an appendix/attachment.) If samech-peh-chet has the “join, attach” meaning, perhaps shin-peh-chet had it too. A “shifcha” is attached to a family, and a “mishpachah” is a group of people who are attached to one another.
Some who take this approach are S. Mandelkern, p. 1221, M. Jastrow, pp. 857 and 1614, and Rav S.R. Hirsch, comm. to Num. 1:2. This approach is also taken by the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on Gen 8:19, makes the following comment: “Note how the “shifcha,” that person who, in the non-Jewish point of view, stands at the very lowest social grade, in the Jewish point of view…is raised to a member of the family.”
A ramification of whether “shifcha” and “mishpacha” are related is how one should translate the former. Those who believe that the words are not related are free to translate it as something like “slave.” Those who believe that the words are related will translate it with a more elevated word.
(I saw one view that theorized that a “shifcha” was the lowest rank of maidservant; this type of maidservant was required to pour water over the hand of her master. This view is based on the unlikely assumption that the shin-peh-chet of “shifcha” derived from an original shin-peh-caf, the verb for “pour.”)
The Academy of the Hebrew language, on their website, suggests that a “shifcha” was attached to the family for her entire life and also points to Genesis 16 where Sarah’s “shifcha” Hagar was given the role of building a family for Abraham. This implies an attachment and elevated status for the “shifcha.”
The above site also points out that in Latin there is a similar phenomenon. “Familia” is the word for family, and “famulus” and “famula” are the words for male and female slaves. “Familia” as “family” was derived from the latter two. (The English word “familiar” is also related to these words.)
My gut feeling tells me that our proposed connection between “shifcha” and “mishpacha,” both coming from an “attached” meaning, is correct. I believe this despite the fact that a connection is largely denied by perhaps most scholars today. Sometimes, in these etymological issues, one has to go with one’s gut feeling!
(In fact, we are lucky that most modern scholars deny a connection. If they believed that there was a connection, they might have theorized that ancient biblical society was so patriarchal that the head of the family viewed all his household members (“mishpacha”) as slaves! I am sure that there is someone out there who theorizes this!)
On an unrelated but adjacent topic, let us briefly mention an unusual aspect of the root shin-peh-tet. In Hebrew, the word “mishpat” means “sentence” in the judicial context, and “sentence” in the grammatical context. The English word “sentence” also reflects both these meanings. Why should this be the case? I have no answer yet and await your suggestions. (A first step is to determine when the Hebrew word “mishpat” took on the meaning of “sentence” in a grammatical sense. This is certainly not a Biblical or Talmudic meaning of the word “mishpat.”)
Mitchell First supports his “mishpacha” as a personal injury attorney, and his “shifchot” as a 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.