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The Two Meanings of Yud-Shin-Nun: Sleep and Old

There are two Biblical roots with the letters ישׁן. One has the meaning “sleep.” The other has the meaning “old.” An issue had always been whether they were related.

The traditional view had been that the two were related. But the exact nature of the relationship was debated. In a mainstream view, the original meaning of the root was “sleep,” and “old” was just a later expansion.

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906) had suggested that the original meaning of “old” was “withered, flabby, like a lifeless plant with top hanging down, as if in sleep.” (This seems very far fetched!) Another suggestion was that the basic meaning of the root was “be quiet.” This also could explain both meanings in some (unsatisfying) way.

But then the language of Ugaritic was discovered in the early 20th century in archaeological finds on the western coast of Syria. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew. It dates from the early Biblical period (and earlier).

It turns out that our two ישׁן roots had different letters in Ugaritic. “Old” was Y-Th-N and “sleep” was Y-Sh-N. See, e.g., The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, pp. 447-48, and Edward Horowitz, “How the Hebrew Language Grew,” p. 107. (Everyone can learn tremendous amounts from this book by Horowitz.)

To explain further, our present letter שׁ is the result of a merger of two different letters that were in the original 29 letters of Proto-Semitic (=the hypothesized original Semitic language). One of the original letters was pronounced “sh.” The other was pronounced “th.” Eventually, both merged into שׁ in our 22-letter Hebrew alphabet (misleading all of us who have the practice of attempting to unite words with similar-looking roots).

That our Hebrew שׁ is the result of a merger of two different root letters explains why we do not have to stretch to find a relationship between other words as well, such as: “shemen” and “shemonah,” “cheresh” (=deaf) and “charash”(=cut, plow), “shelach” (send) and “shulchan,” and “she’ar” (remainder) and “she’eir” (kin). In all of these pairs, the latter most likely had an original “th.” See Horowitz, pp. 106-07. (Usually, it is Ugaritic that helps us determine the original Proto-Semitic letter.)

We can also now explain why the Hebrew word for “three” is שׁלשׁ while its Aramaic counterpart is תלת. Both Hebrew and Aramaic share the same 22-letter alphabet. The Proto-Semitic letter that was pronounced “th” usually became a “shin” in Hebrew, while it usually became a “tav” in Aramaic. Most likely, this “th” letter was the first and third letter in the Proto-Semitic word for “three.”


On the subject of ישׁן and its “advanced in years” meaning, perhaps now is a good time to talk about the words for grandfather and grandmother in modern Hebrew: סבּא and סבתא.

If one looks through Tanach, surprisingly there is no word for either grandfather or grandmother. (For example, at I Kings 15:10, אמו seems to mean “his grandmother.” See Radak and Soncino. See also Daat Mikra. At I Kings 15:11, אביו seems to mean “his grandfather.”)

In the modern period, the words seem to have gone through some evolution.

The 1943 official dictionary of kinship terms in Hebrew lists grandfather as סב (sav) and grandmother as סבה (savah). But then it adds that “saba” and “sabta” are permitted as terms of affection, due to their similarity to the word “abba.” A smaller line adds that “saba” and “savta” are permitted for general use as well (even when not involving affection).

Edward Horowitz describes the origin of the word סבּא as follows: “It is a word created by the little children in Israel, following closely the word “abba.” The children were told to call this relative סב but it was simply much easier for them to link both these older loving male adults with these two similar sounding names: “abba” and “saba.” See his “How the Hebrew Language Grew,” p. 100.

The 17-volume Ben-Yehuda dictionary (begun by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1910, and continued after his death in 1922 by his wife, son and other scholars) does not include “sav,” “saba,” “savah” or “savta.” But one of the definitions of זקן mentioned was “grandfather.”

Of course זקן could never take off as a word for “grandfather” because it would confuse people who would think it is a reference to advanced age and limited abilities.

The word סב, suggested for “grandfather” by the 1943 official dictionary of kinship, is related to the Biblical word שׂיבה. (The Bible has שׂב at Job 15:10. See also 1 Sam. 12:2.) This Biblical word means “old” and “gray hair” but never “grandfather.”

In the Talmud one can find סבא (sava) as “grandfather.” See, e.g., Ketubot 72b, and Yevamot 38a and 40b. (“Zaken” and “avi av” are also used in the Talmud.) One can also find סבתא (savta) as grandmother. See, e.g., Bava Batra 125b.

Finally, the latest challenge for modern Hebrew is a word for great-grandparents. The 1943 official dictionary of kinship suggested אב-שילש and אם-שלשה. But people today use סבּא-רבּא (saba raba) and סבתא-רבּא. (Both words could be spelled with ה at the end as well.) The more grammatically correct term for great-grandmother would be סבתא-רבּתא (savta-rabta), but this is rarely used today.

My discussion of “saba” and “savta” has been based on the post on this topic at balashon.com of 9/2/08. The author, David Curwin of Efrat, writes that he really would like to know what the common Hebrew words for grandfather and grandmother were in the first half of the 20th century because he cannot tell from the sources he has seen. He awaits a digital compilaton of Hebrew literature from this period so computer searches can be performed!

I would like to thank Steve Schaffer for getting me interested in the word “saba.”

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He has two grandchildren, the oldest is two. She is not (yet!) interested in these etymological discussions and merely calls him “Zeidie.” His mother is over 90 but has endless energy and refers to her age as “three time 30.”

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