April 17, 2024
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The Multiple Meanings of the Word ‘Netzach’

The precise meaning of this word is very relevant to us daily. In the prayer “Vayivarech David” we assign to God “ha-gedulah, ve-ha-gevurah, ve-ha-tiferet, ve-ha-neitzach, ve-ha-hod.” This is a verse in Divrei Ha-yamim (I, 29:11). We need to determine what the root נצח means here. In Tanach it usually has the meaning “eternal.” In Rabbinic Hebrew, it is often used with a “strength, victory” meaning. Which meaning is being used here?

(Regarding the noun forms, “netzach” and “neitzach,” these appear 45 times in Tanach. Usually the vocalization is “netzach.” Four times the vocalization is “neitzach.” There is no difference in meaning. It is merely a function of the trop.)

The Even-Shoshan concordance gives 40 of these 45 occurrences the meaning “eternal.” Aside from these, in two occurrences (in Isaiah 63) the word seems to have the meaning “blood.” But this meaning probably derives from a meaning like “eternal life force.” So now our key question is whether נצח has a meaning related to “strength, victory” anywhere in Tanach.

Even-Shoshan claims it does three times. First, he gives it the meaning “strength” in the famous phrase at I Sam. 15:29: “neitzach Yisrael lo ye-shaker ve-lo yinachem…” But this is very surprising. “Ve-lo 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: “Also 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”-related meaning. But the traditional commentaries were influenced by the interpretation of the Targum and by the widespread “strength, victory” meaning in rabbinic Hebrew.)

Even-Shoshan also gives נצח the meaning “strength” at Eichah 3:18: נצחי אבד. While this is possible, 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 Ha-yamim. Similarly, the traditional commentaries give it a “strength, victory” meaning. But in my view, it does not mean “strength” anywhere else in Tanach (except perhaps at Dan. 6:4 in the Aramaic section).

As to siddur commentaries, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur translates our word in “Vayivarech David” with the strength-related word “triumph.” Every other English siddur translation and commentary that I have seen does something similar. (But after I wrote this sentence two years ago in an earlier version of this article, Shulamis Hes showed me her Nehalel siddur, published in 2013, which has the translation “permanence”)

If you agree with my analysis above, נצח never has a strength-related meaning in Tanach, and 44 times it has a meaning related to “eternal.” This strongly implies that this should be its meaning in its 45th occurrence—i.e., we are assigning “Eternity” to God. Malbim on our verse in Divrei Ha-yamim agrees with my approach to this verse. It is of course significant that the word “neitzach” is not placed next to the word “gevurah,” but between the words “tiferet” (=splendor, glory) and “hod” (splendor, glory, majesty). (In Yishtabach, just a few pages later in the siddur, “netzach” is placed next to “gedulah” and “gevurah” and obviously means something like “strength.” But Yishtabach is not a quote from Tanach.)

What is the origin of the rabbinic meaning “strength, victory”? It seems to be 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 Ha-Yamim, a late book of Tanach. But a strength-related meaning at 1 Divrei Ha-yamim 29:11 does not fit the context.

Do the “eternal” meaning and the “strength, victory” meaning have a common origin? Certainly, things that are “eternal” are also often “strong,” so a common origin is possible.

נצח is found one time in the Aramaic section of Tanach, at Dan. 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.” If the meaning here is “distinguished himself,” this may have derived from a “shine, bright” meaning. See the Soncino comm. on this verse.

Perhaps Hebrew too developed a meaning of נצח as “shine, bright.” This meaning is found, a bit later than Tanach, at Ben Sira 32:10 and 43:13. Accordingly, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament and others suggest that the meaning of the word at 1 Divrei Ha-yamim 29:11 may be “radiance” or “splendor.” This fits the context better than “eternity.”

Now let us deal with our 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.” What follows it is an instruction about how the psalm is to be performed. See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Hab. 3:19, and Soncino to Ps. 4:1

It seems difficult to connect this “supervise” meaning of נצח with the “eternal” meaning. But some connect the “supervise” meaning with the “shine, bright” meaning. A suggestion is that from the “shine, bright” meaning came a “distinguish oneself” meaning. One who distinguishes himself then becomes the supervisor. I find this farfetched.

So far I have mentioned four different main meanings of netzach: 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! I endorse the view of the article in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament: “philologists are uncertain as to their relationship.”

One reason I have always been interested in this root נצח is because it is found in one of the most famous stories in the Talmud, the story of R. Eliezer and the oven (BM 59b). The Sages decide that the halacha must always follow the majority of the Sages. They reject the opinion of R. Eliezer, even though R. 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.” This obviously means “my children have defeated me.” But a famous (homiletical) interpretation 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. (P.S. I need the source for this interpretation. Please tell me if you know.)

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. 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 for The Jewish Link eternally. He can be reached at [email protected].

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