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The Multiple Meanings of the Word ‘Shanah’

The root Sh-N-H has two meanings in Tanach. On the one hand, it means “to repeat.” (Of course, the word sheni, second, comes from this meaning.) On the other hand, it means “to change.” A fundamental question is whether these seemingly opposite meanings, “repeat” and “change,” originated from the same Sh-N-H root. A further related question is the origin of the word shanah=year.

Let us answer the second question first. I have seen sources that relate shanah=year to the “change” meaning. For example, Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, believes that the year was called shanah because it was a “period of changing seasons.” But an alternative view, which I prefer, is that the year was called shanah because it is fundamentally based on a concept of repetition. Many scholars accept this view. Among traditional Jewish sources we can find something like this in Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim), Rav S.R. Hirsch (commentary to Exodus 12:2) and S.D. Luzzatto (commentary to Genesis 41:1).

I also saw a source that believed that the year was called shanah because of both the “repeat” and the “change” aspects. It cleverly defined the year as “the repeating cycle of seasonal change.” On the other hand, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (vol. 15, p. 325) surprisingly took the position that shanah=year was a primary noun and did not derive from either the “repeat” or “change” meanings.

Let us now return to our fundamental question. Could Sh-N-H=repeat and Sh-N-H=change have come from the same source? In his concordance, Solomon Mandelkern attempts to unify them by pointing out that every time something is repeated, there is always a slight change. I was told, for example, that when the earth rotates around the sun, the exact position the earth travels in its rotation is not the same as the position it traveled the year before.

Also, we all know that when you used to make a copy of a piece of paper, the copy did not look exactly the same as the original. (This was before today’s superb technology!) There was once a movie based on this principle. The movie was “Multiplicity,” starring Michael Keaton. In the movie, Michael portrayed a father who realized that the multiple demands on his time were getting too hard for him. He befriended a scientist and they came up with the idea of making two copies of Michael by cloning. This way Michael could be in multiple places at once (e.g., job and family)! But the premise of the movie was that when you make a copy of something there is always a slight change. So the movie had one of the clones come out with a more masculine personality than regular Michael, and the other come out with a more feminine personality, creating all kinds of difficulties for everyone! (The two clones also made a copy of Michael from the first clone. The personality of this new clone was really off, because this was a copy made from a copy!)

OK, so should we conclude that the principle set forth by Solomon Mandelkern and reflected in the Michael Keaton movie (=every repetition results in a change) is grounds to conclude that Sh-N-H=repeat and Sh-N-H=change have a common origin?

My intuition tells me that the above principle is not a true explanation for a common origin. But there is another way of looking at the two verbs. Every time you change something you are doing a repetition. You are just repeating the activity with a change. This sounds like a better explanation for a common origin.

Then I looked at how the scholars treat the two Hebrew roots today. The widespread view is to treat the two Hebrew roots as separate ones. Scholars make this determination based on a review of all the Semitic languages. For example, I saw the point made that in Aramaic, the verb for “repeat” is tav-nun-aleph while the verb for “change” is shin-nun-aleph. If the roots for “repeat” and “change” had a common origin, it is argued, they would not have gone in separate directions as they did in Aramaic.

Therefore, for a variety of reasons, the widespread view of scholars today is that the Hebrew root Sh-N-H has combined two different earlier roots. But let us closely analyze the conclusion in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (p. 327): “It is possible to say with assurance that two Proto-Semitic roots have coalesced in Hebrew…although we must reckon with the possibility ‘that the close relationship between the two meanings suggests that one could have developed from the other, as in Ugaritic…’” In other words, it is clear there were two different roots for “repeat” and “change” before they coalesced in Hebrew, both using the letters Sh-N-H. But the author is still willing to consider the possibility that at some earlier point one of the two roots developed from the other.

It is important to mention that the “repeat” meaning of shanah later developed, in post-Biblical Hebrew, into the meaning “study” and “teach,” since the fundamental method of studying and teaching was repetition.

Let us now address a different noun: shenah=sleep. Is this related? This seems to come from a different verb, yod-shin-nun. But I have seen a claim made that it is related to Sh-N-H=repeat, since sleep is fundamentally an event that is repeated every night!

Finally, let us address the word in modern Hebrew for a small unit of time: shniah. This word is based on the English word “second.” But why do we use this word in English? The answer (based on what was done in Latin) is that the “second” is meant as the second small part of the hour, in contrast to the “first” small part of the hour, the minute.

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. This article is a repeat of a previous Jewish Link article, but it was changed it a bit.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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