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The Origin of the Name ‘Shneur’

Shneur is a very common personal name, popular among both chasidic and non-chasidic Jews.

It is common, for instance, in Chabad where boys are often named after the founder of the movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and also in the Lithuanian “yeshiva world” where boys are often named after Rabbi Shneur Kotler, the dean of Lakewood yeshiva.

Where does this unusual name come from? Unlike most Jewish male personal names, Shneur is neither biblical nor of Yiddish origin. Its etymology is somewhat controversial with anthroponomasticists disagreeing as to its exact origin.

Shneur = Two Lights?

In TARBIZ Vol. XXV, Yechiel Gumperz discusses the origin of the name Shneur among others. Gumperz writes:

“Rabbi Shmuel Vidaslow in his book Beth Shmuel on the Even Haezer section of the Shulchan Aruch explains the name’s etymology: ‘When both the paternal and maternal grandparents of the child is named Meir, he shall be called Shnei-or.’ The Maharashal in his commentary Yam Shel Shlomo on Tractate Gittin, Chapter 3, article 26 relates an incident that occurred in his family. ‘A son was born to his grandfather who wanted to name the child Meir after his own father; however, the mother wanted to name the child after her father, whose name was Yair, so they compromised by naming the child ‘Shnei or.’ However, the name Shneur predates all of this and its origins are much older. Shneur is not equivalent to Senior, as Shenei-or contains an aleph whereas the Sephardic Senior (Ladino for Moses) does not.”

Gumperz does not expand on this but rather adds cryptically: “See Shem Hagedolim on the entry Shneur b. Yehuda.”

Indeed Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai in his Shem Hagedolim likewise relates the aforementioned story of the Maharshal but adds:

“However, it seems that the name Shneur is much older because Rabbi Yonah already quotes from his teacher Rabbi Samuel b. Shneur. Likewise, other rabbis were named Shneur and therefore they named the aforementioned child Shneur because this name already existed in the world and it (also) alluded to the ‘two great lights’ Meir and Uri.”

Romance Elements
In the Yiddish Language

Max Weinreich (considered one of the foremost experts on the Yiddish language), in his “History of the Yiddish Language,” opines that Yiddish arose via a fusion of Hebrew, Loez (Western Loez is Judeo-French and Southern Loez is Judeo-Italian) and German.

According to Weinreich, the Ashkenazic community began in what is now Lorraine, France, (referred to as Loter) and absorbed successive waves of Jews from other parts of France and Italy.

Weinreich also puts forth a possible explanation as to how the erroneous (in his opinion) etymology for the name Shneur may have come about:

“The name Shneur…is very old in Loter-Ashkenaz. Toward the end of the 11th century there lived in Loter, apparently in Worms, an eminent Halachist, R. Shneur son of R. Judah son of R. Baruch. Among the victims of 1096 (the “First Crusade”) the name Shneur is found four times in Mainz, once in Cologne, once in Worms. Despite its Hebrew orthographic garb, the name is of Loez derivation. Its proto ancestor is Latin ‘Senior’ (the older). The traditionalization of the orthography came apparently in Ashkenaz, where the co-territorial population spoke no Romanic and the Jews no longer understood the original meaning; the /sen/ could have been conceived as a shin with a shva and a nun, and thereafter the name was interpreted by folk etymology as shne+ur (two lights).”

The linguist George Jochnowitz writes:

“French Jews fled to what is now Germany. Their language may have survived for a generation or more, but there is no record of it. Instead, we have isolated words: cholent from an Old French word meaning hot, and related to Spanish ‘caliente’ and modern French ‘chaud.’ Bentshn, ‘to bless,’ perhaps from French but more likely from Provencal benzir or Italian benedicere. Leyenen, which we have already mentioned. Then there are given names: Beyle from belle, meaning ‘beautiful,’ which coexists with the names Sheyne and modern Yafa; Yente, probably from Judeo-Italian yentile, standard Italian gentile, meaning ‘noble,’ and a man’s name, Shneyer, from French seigneur meaning ‘nobleman’ or ‘lord.’ Nowadays people say Shneyer comes from Hebrew shnai or ‘two light,’ but there never was such a Hebrew name before there was Yiddish.”

I would also add an additional grammatical reason as to why Shneur probably has nothing to do with “two lights.” In Hebrew, two lights would be “shnei orot” (“ohr” being the singular noun and “orot” being plural).

The author is an independent historian and translator. He also runs Channeling Jewish History and can be reached at [email protected].

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