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What Is the Meaning of ‘Va-Yinafash’? (Ex. 31:17)

In our Kiddush every Shabbat morning we recite the following phrase from Ex. 31:17: “For six days God created the heaven and the earth and on the seventh day shavat va-yanifash.” We know the meaning of “shavat.” But what is the meaning of that last word?

At the outset, I have to point out that the letters N-P-Sh are used as a noun over 700 times in Tanach. But only three times do they function as a verb. Aside from our verse, one of the other occasions is II Samuel 16:14: “The king and all the people who were with him came weary (ayefim), ‘va-yinafesh sham.’ ” (The reference is to King David at the time of the rebellion of Avshalom.)

The other occasion is Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work and on the seventh day you shall rest (tishbot) so that your ox and donkey shall rest (yanuach), ve-yinafesh the son of your handmaid and the stranger.”

As a noun, common meanings of N-P-Sh in Tanach are: “life,” “living being” and “person.” But the noun also has the meaning “throat” in Tanach. (The evolution seems to be: throat < life< living being < person. Probably the word started out as a noun and not a verb. The original concrete meaning was likely “throat, gullet,” the organ used for breathing and eating.)

For examples of the throat meaning: Isa. 5:14: “Sheol has opened wide its throat and parted its mouth to a measureless gap.” Ps. 69:2 and 124:4: “Water reached to the throat.” Ps. 105:18: “His feet were subject to fetters, an iron collar was put on his throat.”

In other Semitic languages, N-P-Sh is a verb that often means “breathe.” (It also means throat as well.) In Tanach itself, we have: “nafsho gechalim telahet”=his breath kindles coals. Job 41:13 (referring to Leviathan).

The Tanach also has the expression “K-Tz-R” nefesh several times. This may have the literal meaning of “shortness of breath” on at least one of these occasions. See Numbers 21:4, and Chizkuni and S.D. Luzzatto there. See also H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 245.

I have also seen the suggestion that perhaps every time the Tanach uses “nefesh” to mean “person,” it literally means “breather”!


After that lengthy introduction, how has our word at Ex. 31:17 been understood over the centuries?

Onkelos: “Shavat va-yinafash” is translated as “shevat ve-nach.”

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch: “With the seventh day [He] ceased to create and withdrew unto Himself” (in contrast to working on something external to one’s self). (R. Hirsch gives a similar explanation at Ex. 23:12 regarding the son of the handmaid and the stranger: they “come to themselves.” See his further elaboration there.)

R. Aryeh Kaplan: “He ceased working and withdrew to the spiritual.”

Brown-Driver-Briggs: This work makes two suggestions. One of the suggestions is “refresh oneself.” This suggestion is followed by many, including The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: “was refreshed.” It was also the translation in the King James Bible (1611).

Rambam: “Va-yinafash” means: “That which He desired was accomplished; what He wished had come into existence.” See Moreh Nevuchim, 1:67. Rambam arrives at this interpretation because “nefesh” sometimes means “will” and “desire.” See his discussion earlier at 1:41 and the verses he cites to support this.

But as you may suspect from my lengthy introduction, the best answers give our word a “breathing” meaning.

One suggestion is “catch one’s breath.” See Hertz Pentateuch on Ex. 23:12. (The commentary does not make any comment on the “va-yinafash” of 31:17.) Also, Rashi on 31:17 uses the phrase “she-meshiv nafsho ve-neshimato.” Also, Ibn Ezra explains “ke-mi she-yiga ve-yashiv nafsho.” (See his shorter commentary). As Rashi and Ibn Ezra explain, even though God’s creations were with words and not through physical effort, the Torah speaks be-leshon bnei adam. It is as if God stopped His work and took time to catch His breath!

But perhaps a bit more simply, we should translate that “God ceased His work and breathed easily.” (As we might say colloquially today, “He took a breather!”). See, e.g., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 9, p. 504 and M.Z. Kaddari, Milon Ha-Irvrit Ha-Mikrait, p. 723. (See also Brown-Driver-Briggs, second interpretation: “take [a] breath.”)

Tawil, in his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, translated “va-yinafash” as “relax.” In English, we have the expression: “rest and relaxation.” This sounds a bit like “shavat va-yinafash.” But “relax” is not exactly a word related to “breathing.”

Finally, let us take a new look at Gen. 2:7: “God formed Man, dust out of the ground, va-yipach be-apav nishmat chayyim, va-yehi ha-adam le-nefesh chayah.” How should we translate the last four words? Perhaps the correct translation is: “Man became a living breather!”

Sometimes in Tanach, “nefesh” means something like “soul.” Professor Richard Steiner, who taught at Yeshiva University for decades, wrote a monograph on this for the Society of Biblical Literature, disagreeing with the prevalent scholarly view that the “soul” meaning is a post-Biblical meaning. (I thank Rabbi Moshe Schapiro for informing me of this and sending me the link to it. I can send the link to anyone who contacts me. The article focuses particularly on the meaning at Ezekiel 13:18.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a living and breathing personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. 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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