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Is There a Connection in Tanach Between Hair Standing Up and Fear?

There is a famous Rashi at Devarim 32:17. This verse describes the Israelites as sacrificing to gods that לא שׂערום אבותכם. What does that middle word mean? The first opinion that Rashi offers is that their ancestors’ hair did not stand up out of fear of them. Rashi explains that it is the way of the hair of men to rise up when they are in fear. Rashi is getting this from Sifrei, sec. 318. (Rashi offers a second interpretation as well: Their ancestors did not deify them; see below on the “demon” meaning of שׂער.)

I wondered for decades about that first interpretation in Rashi. Is there really a connection between “hair standing up” and “fear” on a plain sense level? I decided recently to analyze the root שׂער in Tanach.

Of course, a main meaning of the root שׂער is hair. Also, a goat is called a שׂעיר because of its unusual amount of hair. (The name of the animal literally means “the hairy one.”) Then there is the word שׂערה for “barley.” It is widely agreed that it is called this based on the “hair” meaning. (Whoever would have imagined!) שׂערה is the equivalent of “bearded grain.” I admit I did not know what barley looks like while it is being grown. Now I looked online and understand.

Also, four times in Tanach we have שׂעיר in the singular or plural where the context supports (or perhaps supports) a “demon” meaning. See Lev. 17:7, Isa. 13:21, 34:14 and 2 Chr. 11:15. (Sometimes the word is translated as “demons” or “satyrs” in these verses.) Most take the view that if a “demon” is intended, it is simply a demon in the shape of a goat. See e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, and Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim. According to Rabbi Dr. Hertz, p. 486, the worship of the goat was widespread in Lower Egypt (=northern Egypt).

(At Isa. 34:14, שׂעירwith the possible “demon” meaning is in the same verse as לילית. This is the only reference to Lilit in Tanach. For more on this demon in ancient extra-Biblical sources and later midrashic sources, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:245.)

The root שׂער also has a meaning like “be swept away” and “be whirled away.” See, e.g., Ps. 50:3, and 58:10, and Job 27:21. See also Dan. 11:40. This meaning is usually viewed as related to the root סער, with its “storm” meaning. At Isa. 28:2 and Nah 1:3 we have the root שׂער with a meaning like “storm.” See also perhaps Job 9:17.

Now, going back to our original question, the root שׂער also has a meaning like “be afraid” or “tremble” in four verses. Let us analyze these verses.

At both Ezek. 27:35 and 32:10 there is a double use of שׂער. The first verse has ומלכיהם שׂערו שׂער. The second verse has ומלכיהם ישׂערו עליך שׂער. The context in both verses is that the kings are afraid. (עליך in the second verse probably means “because of you.”) The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917 translates the phrase in both verses as “horribly afraid.” (The translation uses the word “horribly” because of the double use of שׂער.) Most of the rabbinic commentaries and the Daat Mikra translate the expression as if the meaning is related to סער (storm, tempest). But several standard scholarly works, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, and Koehler-Baumgartner, translate both the phrases as if the meaning is something like “hair bristled with terror.” (According to my Random House Dictionary, “bristle” means “to stand or rise stiffly like bristles.”) These scholarly works do not postulate a separate “fear, tremble” meaning for שׂער. They subsume this meaning within the “hair” meaning.

There are two other verses with the “fear, tremble” meaning of שׂער: Jer. 2:12 and Job 18:20. They are also often subsumed within the “hair” meaning. (Interestingly, in all four of the verses, שׂער is parallel to שמם =astonished.)

Most interestingly, at Job 4:15, in a context of fear (see 4:14), we have “made the hair of my flesh stand up (תסמר).” As to this meaning for סמר, see also Ps. 119:120, and see Daat Mikra to both verses. A מסמר in Tanach is a nail.

So going back to our verse at Devarim 32:17, Rashi’s first understanding is a plain-sense understanding. “Rising hair” and “fear” are connected in Tanach.

But it turns out that most scholars today take a different approach to Devarim 32:17 than Rashi did. שׂערום in this verse is parallel to ידעום. In South Arabic, the root שׂער has the meaning “to know.” Therefore, scholars usually give it the “know” meaning here, and not the “fear, tremble, rising hair” meaning. (It is also a better fit grammatically.) See, e.g., Brown-Driver Briggs, p. 973, Koehler-Baumgartner, p. 1344 and E. Klein, p. 673. (Brown-Driver-Briggs does mention an interpretation like Rashi’s, but prefers the interpretation related to “to know.”)

When a word is found in Arabic, this normally means that the word is found starting around the seventh century. This is long after the Tanach. But South Arabic is a much older form of Arabic. It dates from the late Biblical period. (But we do not have too many words from it.)

On our verse 32:17, Rav S.R. Hirsch and Rabbi Dr. Hertz agree with Rashi’s first interpretation, while Rashbam prefers Rashi’s second interpretation and cites Lev. 17:7.


There is one unusual use of the root שׂער in Tanach. At Devarim 32:2 we have שׂעירם (sei’rim) with a rain-related meaning. It is parallel to רביבים in the same verse. The latter appears a few times and is usually translated as “copious showers,” from the root רבב, abundant. So perhaps שׂעירם should be translated as parallel to רביבים and with a meaning like “heavy rains” (perhaps related to the root סער, see Rashi). Or perhaps it means something like light rain (thin like “hair”) or rain drops or mist. See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim (גשם הדק) and the JPS 1917 translation (“small rain”). Or perhaps it is related to “sei’rim” with a demon/deity meaning and refers to the heavy rain supposedly produced by those demons/deities. See, e.g., S. D. Luzzatto. Finally, E. Klein suggests a very strange idea: the rain clouds looks like goats. In my view, the סער=“heavy rain” approach is the simplest and most likely explanation, as it provides a good parallel to רביבים.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His father was involved in naming SAR Academy in the late 1960s. It was an abbreviation of Salanter-Akiba-Riverdale (the three schools that merged). No connection to “demons,” “goats” or “storms” was intended. His father wanted to name the school RASHI: Riverdale-Akiba-Salanter Hebrew Institute.

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