April 13, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘She’ol’ (Netherworld)?

I wrote a column about this word before. But I thought about it again when I wrote my new book “Roots and Rituals,” and there I revised some of my original conclusions. So I am writing my revised thoughts here.

The netherworld location she’ol is mentioned over 60 times in Tanach. On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell (perhaps spending most of their time sleeping). The verb Y-R-D (go down) is used in conjunction with she’ol 13 times.

My question is whether we can relate this place named she’ol to our well-known root shin-aleph-lamed, which appears almost 200 times in Tanach with meanings like “ask a question” and “demand/ask/borrow an object.”

It seems that sh’eol as a term for the netherworld originated in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you with an insight from another language.

In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. Recall the story at I Samuel (Chapter 28) of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation. She’ol is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, sh’eol can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a long discussion of our word, presenting many possibilities. The most creative approach suggested is that we should not view the shin as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is aleph-lamed. Aleph-lamed appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness” or “place of nothingness.”

A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Psalms 9:18). He states that the grave is called she’ol because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that while we attempt to live on earth there is an opposing force called she’ol that tries to pull us down below, like gravity. She’ol is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Psalms 18:6 (chevlei Sheol sevavuni). But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving she’ol.

I also saw a suggestion that she’ol is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb). The idea that she’ol is never satisfied is found explicitly at Proverbs 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Isaiah 5:14 and Habakkuk 2:5.)

But the most likely suggestion proposes that she’ol derives from the root shin-aleph-he and that the final lamed is not part of the root. There are many examples in Tanach of words with final lameds that are probably not part of the root. See, e.g., “carmel,” and “arafel,” and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, pp. 287, 487 and 664.

The root shin-aleph-he has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins,” and “desolation.” (Probably, it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g, Zech. 4:7. Then it encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins.)

Although “loud noise” and “crash into ruins” would not seem to fit she’ol, perhaps “desolation” can be seen as a main aspect of she’ol, so she’ol can mean “place of desolation.” This approach is taken in the scholarly Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. At first I did not like this suggestion because she’ol was probably viewed as a crowded place, since it was the destination of everyone. But perhaps it was viewed as desolate of material objects, or at least desolate of comforting material objects. For example, at Isaiah 14:11 it is implied that when one lies down there, one lies on top of maggots and one is covered with worms. I.e., there is nothing to lie down upon there, and no blankets to cover oneself.

Of course, she’ol is not described sufficiently in Tanach, and all of these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that she’ol may have just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root. She’ol is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach. (See, e.g., Psalms 30:4.)

I would like to add that one friend suggested that she’ol may have received its name because the individuals walk around there constantly feeling that they are lacking things. I.e., they are constantly “asking.” Another friend suggested that the place received its name because, upon arrival there, one is questioned about one’s life! Finally, there is an old saying that “one does not die from asking a question.” In light of she’ol being the name for the netherworld, perhaps we should re-examine this old saying!

***

Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh-and-blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say? “Lamah hirgaztani le-haalot oti, Why are you bothering me!” This suggests that she’ol, presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the she’ol references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Genesis 37:35.)

It is also interesting that when Samuel was brought up he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in she’ol in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ezekiel 32:27 (warriors go there with their war weapons).

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Going back to our word she’ol, it is of course ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the word she’ol. This is as humorous as the fact that Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, describes the word safek (doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!

Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps she’ol is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth! We should all use our time here wisely! I thank Shulamis Hes for this inspiring thought.

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. When he has a large enough number of difficult words, he may consult with she’ol and bother the wise King Solomon for a consultation. In the interim, he can be reached at [email protected].

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

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