Most nouns in Hebrew derive from a verb. Let us try to figure out what verb was the root of this one. Unfortunately, yod-resh-chet never functions as a verb in Tanach. But wait. With a slight alteration, we can see the verb aleph-resh-chet. This verb means: “travel, wander.” It turns out that the widespread scholarly view of the Hebrew word “yareach” is that it is related to this root aleph-resh-chet. Most likely, in the ancient world, the moon was viewed as the “wandering/traveling object in the sky.” (See, e.g., The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament entry for Y-R-Ch. This view is also mentioned in the concordance of Mandelkern and in the dictionary of Jastrow.)
What about that place name “Yericho”? I have seen it suggested that it derives from Y-R-Ch as well. The ancient Canaanites used to worship the moon. Perhaps this is what was going on at that site originally. Yericho is a very old city. It existed for thousands of years prior to Yehoshua.
Now let us look anew at the following biblical words with the root aleph-resh-chet:
Oraiach: The original meaning of this word is not “guest.” It is “wanderer, traveler.”
Orach: This word means “path” because it is something that one wanders/travels along.
Aruchah: Probably this word did not originally mean “meal,” but “food for the journey” or “food for a traveler.”
Orchah as in “orchat Yishmaeilim” (Gen. 37:25, story of Yosef): This word means “caravan,” derived from the wander/travel meaning. (It appears only one other time in Tanach, at Isa. 21:13.)
(Note for my advanced readers: Most likely, the original root of “yareach,” in Proto-Semitic, was vav-resh-chet. But in Hebrew, roots generally do not begin with vav, so Proto-Semitic “vav” invariably turns to “yod” in Hebrew. In this particular root, the initial “vav” also turned into an initial “aleph.”)
A later development of the word Y-R-Ch is the “month” meaning. See, e.g., Ex. 2:2; the baby Moshe was hidden for “shlosha yerachim.” A month is the period of time (29 days and a fraction) that it takes the moon to grow from a crescent, attain fullness, and then wane to its original state.
What is the root of the word “taarich”= date? According to one source I saw (which may not be accurate), it first appeared in Hebrew in the 11th century. It seems to have always been spelled in Hebrew with a “caf” as the last letter. But scholars have pointed out, based on the spelling of its Arabic cognate, that the Hebrew word should have been spelled with a “chet.” Once we realize this, then we understand that this word derives from Y-R-Ch with its “month” meaning.
Since we discussed the moon, we should also discuss the sun. (We don’t want the sun to be jealous!) “Sh-M-Sh” is the word for “sun” in many of the Semitic languages. But its etymology is uncertain. (In Ugaritic, the word for sun is “Sh-P-Sh.” This probably derived from an original “Sh-M-Sh.”)
We all know the verb “Sh-M-Sh”= to serve. But this verb appears nowhere in the Hebrew portion of Tanach. (It is found in the Aramaic portion of Tanach, at Dan. 7:10.)
One approach to “shemesh”=sun is that the word is a primary noun, i.e., it is not derived from any verb; rather, the noun preceded the verb.
Then one can take the next step and theorize that since the sun was worshipped by some, the verb “shamash” arose in Aramaic with the meaning “to serve the sun.” Then in a later stage, it expanded to mean “to serve” in general. But this is all speculation.
On the subject of the sun, let us discuss the etymology of the continent names “Europe” and “Asia.” The etymology of each is disputed. But there is a mainstream view that connects each to words that we are familiar with.
With regard to “Europe,” in Akkadian (a Semitic language that is the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia), they have a root cognate to our “ayin-resh-bet” that means “enter.” Most modern scholars believe that, in Hebrew, “erev” is called this because it is the time when the sun has set and early man (in the ancient Near East) viewed it as having entered into its resting location. This is the explanation for “Europe,” and also for the related word: “maarav”=west. (The “set/enter” meaning of the verb A-R-B is perhaps seen in the Tanach at Prov. 7:9 and Judg. 19:9. It may be implicit in the A-R-B of “weaving” as well.)
With regard to “Asia,” we all know the root yod-tzade-aleph=“go out” in Hebrew. It has a cognate “asu” in Akkadian. From the perspective of someone in the ancient Near East, the sun went out of its resting place in the morning in the east. Accordingly, the scholar Ernest Klein writes that Asia originally meant “the Region of the Rising Sun” and Europe originally meant “the Region of the Setting Sun”! But again other scholars offer different explanations for “Europe” and “Asia.”
Finally, let us discuss the word “yamin.” It means both “right” and “south.” For the latter, see, e.g., Tehillim 89:13. Why should that be? The answer is that “east” (=towards the sun) was the natural forward direction in the ancient Near East. Accordingly, “right” was the equivalent of “south.” This is of course unlike modern times, where we generally view the forward direction as northward. (This seems to be the basis for the marketing theme of Northwell Health: “Look North”!)
Also, the country “Yemen,” at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, derives its name from a cognate of “yamin.”
I would like to acknowledge the site balashon.com for the insight on the original meaning of moon=yod-resh-chet, and its relation to aleph-resh-chet (and for the material on the meanings of “Europe” and “Asia”). I only discovered this entire topic by accident. I was searching that site for an article on some other topic, and then accidentally came across this material. (This occurs to me often there!) This is one of the reasons I decided to make my own website. I see how much people can learn this way, even accidentally.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website rootsandrituals.org. P.S., did you know that the book “Goodnight Moon” has already sold over 48 million copies!