June 22, 2024
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The Multiple Meanings of the Word ‘Netzach’

The precise meaning of this word is relevant to us in our daily prayers. (The word is also very much in the news these days.) In “Vayevarech David,” we assign to God “hagedulah, vehagevurah, vehatiferet, והנצח, vehahod.” This is a verse in Divrei Hayamim I (29:11). We need to determine what the word נצח means here. In Tanach, it usually has the meaning “eternal.” In contrast, in rabbinic Hebrew, it is often used with a “strength, victory” meaning. Could the root have a “strength, victory” meaning in this verse?

There are 40 times where the root נצח appears in Tanach where it almost certainly means “eternal.” See Even-Shoshan, page 777 (middle column, third meaning). Let us look at the other five occurrences he lists here. In two of these (Isaiah 63), the word seems to have the meaning “blood.” But this meaning, probably, derives from a meaning like “eternal life force.” (Or, perhaps, from an Arabic cognate with the meaning “sprinkle.”)

Now, let us look at the three remaining occurrences that Even-Shoshan lists in this section. Even-Shoshan claims that the “strength” meaning appears three times. First, he gives it this meaning at Samuel I, 15:29: “נצח Yisrael lo yeshaker velo yinachem … ” But this is very surprising. “Velo yinachem” means “He will not change his mind.” This strongly suggests that the meaning of נצח here is “the eternal one.” The entire phrase means: “the eternal one of Israel will not lie and will not change his mind.” This is how the verse is understood by both Daat Mikra and Malbim. (Admittedly, many of the traditional commentaries interpret the phrase with a “strength, victory” meaning. But they were influenced by the interpretation of the Targum.)

Even-Shoshan also gives נצח the meaning “strength” at Eichah 3:18: “Avad nitzchi.” While the “strength” meaning is possible here, נצחי here is parallel to תוחלתי which means “my hope.” Therefore, the more probable meaning is “my eternity.” (See Rashi.)

Finally, Even-Shoshan gives נצח the meaning “strength” in our verse in Divrei Hayamim. Similarly, the traditional commentaries give it a “strength, victory” meaning. But how likely is it that the word has this meaning here if it does not mean “strength” anywhere else in Tanach? (The only possible exception is Daniel 6:4, an Aramaic section. I will discuss that verse below.)

As to siddur commentaries, “The Complete ArtScroll Siddur” translates our word in “Vayevarech David” with the strength-related word: “triumph.” Almost every other English siddur translation and commentary that I have seen does something similar. (One exception is the “נהלל” siddur—published in 2013—which has the translation: “permanence.”)

If you agree with my analysis, the numerous other times that נצח appears in Tanach, it has a meaning related to “eternal” (except where it has the meaning “supervise,” see below). This strongly implies that “eternal” should be its meaning at Divrei Hayamim I, 29:11. Malbim is one who agrees with this interpretation. It is, of course, significant that the word נצח is not placed next to the word “gevurah,” but between the words “tiferet” (splendor, glory) and “hod” (splendor, glory and majesty). (But, shortly, I am going to suggest an entirely different approach to the נצח of 29:11, which is more consistent with this placement!)

What is the origin of the rabbinic meaning “strength, victory?” It is the Aramaic meaning of the word. This meaning is already found—prior to rabbinic Hebrew—in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, it is possible that this meaning already existed in Hebrew by the time of Divrei Hayamim, a late book of Tanach. But again, a strength-related meaning at 29:11 does not fit the context.

Are the “eternal” and “strength, victory” meanings connected? After all, Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages. Certainly, things that are “eternal” are also often “strong,” so a connection is possible. נצח is found one time in the Aramaic section of Tanach, at Daniel 6:4. Here, the meaning may be related to “strength,” but many believe that the meaning here is “distinguished himself.” Aramaic has a meaning of נצח as “shine, bright.” (See Jastrow, pages 927-28). If the meaning here is “distinguished himself,” this may have derived from a “shine, bright” meaning. See the Soncino commentary on this verse.

A meaning in Hebrew of נצח as “shine, bright” is found a bit later than Tanach, at Ben Sira 32:10 and 43:13. Ben Sira dates to around 200 BCE. Accordingly, “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament” and others suggest that the meaning of the word at Divrei Hayamim I, 29:11 is “radiance, splendor.” These fit the context better than “eternity.” Perhaps this is the best interpretation here, even though נצח does not have these meanings elsewhere in Tanach. (Perhaps these meanings in Hebrew arose from Aramaic.) (Also, going back to the “strength” meaning, it is possible that נצח has a “strength” meaning at Ben Sira 43:5.)

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Note that in the prayer “Yishtabach,” נצח is placed next to “gedulah” and “gevurah” and obviously means something like “strength.” But this prayer is not a quote from Tanach.

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Now, let us deal with that ubiquitous word למנצח .נצח is used as a verb several times in Tanach. See, e.g., Ezra 3:9. It clearly means “to supervise.” So למנצח almost certainly means: “to the (musical) supervisor,” and what follows it is typically an instruction about how the psalm is to be performed. It is difficult to connect this “supervise” meaning of נצח with the other meanings.

I have mentioned four different meanings of נצח:

1) eternal, 2) supervise, 3) shine/distinguish oneself and 4) strength/victory.

Surprisingly, the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon and Ernest Klein are all willing to assume a relationship between all of them, without providing any explanation! In contrast, “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament” states explicitly: “Philologists are uncertain as to their relationship.”

(I have written previously about how the Hebrew alphabet is a “reduced” one. It seems that there were two or three different older letters that coalesced into צ. So, I am not troubled by the inability to connect the different meanings here. Note also that there is no difference in meaning between נצח with a segol under the “nun” and נצח with a tzeirei under it. It is beyond the scope to explain further here.)

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One reason I have been interested in this root נצח is because it is found in one of the most famous stories in the Talmud, the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the oven (Bava Metzia 59b). The Sages decide that the halacha must always follow the majority of the Sages. They reject the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, even though Rabbi Eliezer has a “bat kol” descend from heaven and state that the halacha is always in his favor. We are told that, upon hearing all of this, God concludes: “nitzchuni vanai.” From the context, this obviously means “my children have defeated me.” But a famous homiletical interpretation (found in both the Shelah and the Gra) makes the alternative suggestion that the proper translation here is: “My children have eternalized me,” i.e., by making the determination of the halacha subject to the majority of the Sages (and not divinely fixed at the outset), the halacha is, thereby, made flexible so it can last eternally.

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The verse, “Neitzach Yisrael lo yeshaker” was the source for the name of the נילי group—which was active from 1915-17, spying for Britain against the Turks. As I was writing this article, I was thinking: Did they choose the name for the group because they believed נצח had the “strength/victory” meaning? Or did they understand the word with the “eternal” meaning? Or perhaps they chose the word because they liked the multiple meanings? Since this was an espionage group and they did not file public records, I suspect we will never know!


Mitchell First hopes to write illuminating and strongly convincing articles eternally. He can be reached at [email protected]. Beyachad Nenatzeach!

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