July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Original Sin (and Original Shin!)

Today, we pronounce the letter sin the same way as the letter samech. Was this always the case? And why do shin and sin share the same letter? The only difference between shin and sin is the location of the dot. But dots were markings that did not arise until much later.

To answer the first question, scholars today realize that sin and samech were not pronounced the same way in Biblical times. A scholar who wrote his dissertation on this in 1974 was Dr. Richard Steiner, who later taught at Yeshiva University. His dissertation was “The Case for Fricative Laterals in Proto-Semitic.” (Have I lost you already?) Steiner showed that originally the letter sin was pronounced “SL.” Steiner found remote villages in modern times where this pronunciation was preserved.

This original “SL” pronunciation explains many phenomena. For example, the Tanach refers to an ancient people called “Casdim” (with a sin). Yet in other ancient sources they are called “Chaldeans.” What happened to the “L” sound in the Hebrew? Now we understand that Hebrew did not omit it. It was built in all along with the sin.

A few generations ago, scholars believed that sin was merely a later development from shin. But this view has been discarded. Now scholars believe that the letters were originally separate. They were able to make this determination based on a review of the other Semitic languages. Since shin and sin originated as separate letters, we should not normally attempt to equate roots in which one root has a shin and the other a sin.

A most interesting question is why Hebrew utilizes an alphabet in which one letter has to do double duty. The answer suggested by scholars today is somewhat surprising. The background is that Hebrew is one of several languages that arose from an original language that scholars call Proto-Semitic. The assumption is that Proto-Semitic had 29 consonants. Over time, in the Hebrew language, that number was reduced to 23. Reduction occurs when sounds disappear due to similarity and merger. At the stage where Hebrew began to be written down and needed an alphabet, it borrowed an alphabet from another people (the Phoenicians) that had only 22 letters. But rather than add a new letter, Hebrew decided to employ one sign for both shin and sin, since their pronunciations were not that different.

Over the centuries, everyone who has written a Hebrew dictionary has been faced with a dilemma. Do the letters shin and sin warrant separate entries or one merged entry? Now that we realize that the letters originated as separate letters, they certainly warrant separate entries. But some books are attempting to be easy to use by non-Hebrew speakers, like Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English.” Here, this very scholarly book merged all the shins and sins into one long entry, because the author was trying to make his book user-friendly for readers of English. Another work that merged the shin and sin entries was the dictionary of Marcus Jastrow. (Perhaps when this work was published at the end of the 19th century, it was still thought that the letters were related.)

Now I will address an interesting word where the shin/sin issue comes up. At Isaiah 3:16 we are presented with the word mesakrot (with a sin). Here God talks about punishing the daughters of Zion because “they are haughty and walk with stretched-forth necks (netuyot garon) and are mesakrot einayim…” The root of mesakrot is sin, kuf, resh. In all of Tanach, this root only appears here, so we are faced with the difficult issue of determining what it means.

But wait a minute. We all know the root shin, kuf, resh. This is sheker, to lie. This root appears 119 times in Tanach. When the dots were added in the post-Talmudic period, why was it decided to put the dot on the left here, and create a unique root? Why could they not have dotted it on the right like they did 119 other times?

One possibility is that they had a strong tradition that the letter was a sin. Also, perhaps they could not fathom a reasonable interpretation of an expression “lying with their eyes.” (The Eagles’ “Lyin Eyes” song had not been composed yet!)

How have our commentaries dealt with this word mesakrot? This is a very relevant question because our verse with mesakrot einayim is the source for the “sikur ayin” line in the Al Chet prayer. (In the early versions of the Al Chet prayer, the line was spelled with a samech. Now it is usually spelled with a sin since all agree that it derives from our verse in Isaiah, but it remains in the samech position in the acrostic!)

Rashi on Isaiah 3:16 offers two interpretations: looking, and putting red makeup on their eyes. The basis for these interpretations is that in Mishnaic and Talmudic times there was a root in Hebrew, samech, kuf, resh, which had two different meanings: a “looking” meaning, and a “painting red” meaning. Rashi’s thinking was that perhaps one of these was the original meaning of sin-kuf-resh, even though the spelling changed over the centuries to samech. Other Rishonim interpret mesakrot einayim to mean “winking with their eyes” (as a form of seduction). But this is just a guess from the context.

Most interesting is the approach taken by S.D. Luzzatto. He points out that there are some texts of Is. 3:16 that have the word with a shin. He suggests that this was the original reading. He theorizes that, since the context of the verse is a criticism of haughtiness, “lying with one’s eyes” means seeing people and pretending not to see them.

I now believe I understand why the post-Talmudic Masoretes put the dot on the left. A possible idiom of “lying with their eyes” was unclear to them. What was clear to them were two different meanings with a sin (looking, and painting red). Even though they had to assume that the original sin in one or both of these roots evolved into a samech, this was preferable to them than creating a difficult idiom. (Or alternatively, perhaps they did have a strong tradition that the letter was a sin.)

Going back to the Al Chet prayer, there are really two separate questions that are raised by the sikur ayin line. One is what is the meaning of the phrase mesakrot einayim at Is. 3:16? The other is what did the post-Talmudic author of the Al Chet prayer have in mind when he composed the line sikur ayin? We have seen that the first question is a hard question, due to the uniqueness of the root sin-kuf-resh. But the second question is a bit easier. We know what the root samech-kuf-resh meant in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods: “looking” or “painting a red stripe.” Since the latter does not fit the context in the Al Chet, there sikur must have something to do with “looking.” And based on sources such as Bereishit Rabbah 18:2, it seems that the transgression referred to is looking around too much with one’s eyes, i.e., prying into the affairs of others.

P.S. There was once a writer in Binghamton (Sholom Staiman), who wrote under the pseudonym “Shin Sin.” A collection of his writings is found in the Congregation Beth Aaron library.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. When he publishes a dictionary, he will make sure to have separate entries for “shin” and “sin.” 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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