Abarim Publications' Biblical Dictionary: The Old Testament Hebrew word: עשר

Source: http://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/ay/ay-si-r.html


Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary


There are two separate roots of the form עשר ('sr), but their separateness wasn't established until the Masoretes from the sixth century after Christ on added vowel symbols to the inherited text. Until then, these two word groups were identical and spelled with the one and only letter ש.

In modern (that's post-sixth century AD) Hebrew texts, one of these word groups is spelled with the letter שׂ (sin; dot to the left), while the other is spelled with the letter שׁ (shin; dot to the right). In Biblical times, and long after, there was no difference between these two word groups and their direct and implied meanings were probably closely akin:


The verb עשר ('asher, in modern Hebrew texts spelled with the letter שׁ) means to be or become rich, and while that sounds rather straight forward, it really isn't. The phenomenon of richness covers an equally shared surplus that comes from a natural abundance of a fertile land (Psalm 65:9) as well as the relative advantage over someone else, who is subsequently low (ירד, yarad), humbled (שפל, shapel) or even taken possession of (ירש, yarash).

Richness may be a proper and sustainable result of righteousness (Psalm 112:3) or an injust and unsustainable result of grand larceny (Jeremiah 5:27). It's obvious that the pursuit of richness will ultimately lead to the latter and finally utter destruction, whereas the pursuit of righteousness (that's an informed harmony with the workings of nature) leads to the first.

Or in the brilliant words of Proverbs 30:7-9, "Give me neither too much nor too little, because surplus will make me forget my dependency, and deficiency will make me turn to violence. In stead, give me to operate within the parameters of Your own character".

From this root come the following derivatives:

  • The masculine noun עשר ('osher), meaning riches or wealth (Genesis 31:16, Esther 1:4, Jeremiah 17:11)
  • The adjective עשיר ('ashir), meaning rich or a rich one (Exodus 30:15, Ruth 3:10, Micah 6:12).


The root עשר ('sr; in modern Hebrew texts spelled with the letter שׂ) is not used as verb in the Bible, but in Arabic it means to form a community or group. In Hebrew this root yields words that have to do with the number ten, although it should be noted that the number sequence the way we moderns know it didn't exist until the third century BC.

The arithmetic number sequence seems natural to us, but it's really quite artificial and was invented, not discovered. Up until the invention of the number sequence, human number sense sat somewhere in between it and the animal number sequence (none, one, two, three, many, a continuum) and in societies in which there was no separate notation for numbers (like 11 for XXI or eleven or XXIV for 24 or twenty-four), quantities were known by words. Modern arithmetic didn't get going in the west until Roman numerals were replaced by Arabic ones, the zero was properly represented and decimal and fractal notations were invented.

Before all that, the world was literally a lot simpler because when numbers were still expressed as words, they were also as flaky as words; not just the notation but the actual meaning of a word that expressed a quantity as experienced by people, depended on context and intonation. In other words, a five shouted was bigger than a ten whispered, and it's essential that the reader understands that this is not an error, but simply another valid way of dealing with reality. In fact, it's defendable with reasonable confidence that the numberverse (the numerical universe) as we know it is wholly fictional and has far less bearing on reality than the verbalverse (read our riveting series on the number sequence).

The masculine and feminine numerals עשר ('eser) and עשרה ('asara) denote a set of roughly ten elements which can be stood upon (corresponding to the toes) or held in one's hand (corresponding to the ten fingers). Possibly the most famous set of roughly ten is that of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:4-21). Over the ages people have futilely tried to number these commands in such a way that they form ten distinct ones, but it's virtually impossible to do so in a consistent manner (there are either seven, eleven or more). They're not called the Ten Commandments because they consist of an arithmetically accurate set but because they consist of a whole set, which provide foundation and which can be held in one's hand.

Another famous set of ten consists of Abraham's camels, which his servant took along with him on his trek to find a wife for Isaac. Genesis 24:10 reads that while he took a mere ten camels, "all-good of his master was in his hand," which obviously consisted of more than ten camels; the "ten camels" were not simply ten beasts of burden but explicitly represented Abraham's blessing which was in Eliezer's hand (also read our article on the noun גמל, gamal, the word for camel, which literally means unit of trade).

Note that the Hebrew (and Akkadian) public tax system was based on tithing; it stipulated that people were to part with a tenth of their private possessions and income to serve the nation at large. This percentage was chosen as ten probably also because it explained that public tax served predominantly to create social cohesion and unity. Note that the name of the Levites, who were the practical recipients and processors of the tithes (Numbers 18:24), means to join.

Apart from the nouns עשר ('eser) and עשרה ('asara), denoting the order of magnitude of ten, and their similar forms עשר ('asar) and עשרה ('esreh) when used in compounds (words that describe amounts between ten and twenty) the following words derive from our root:

  • The denominative verb עשר ('asar), meaning to tithe. Tithing was customary both in the lands where Abraham came from and where he ended up (Genesis 14:20), was continued by his grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:22) and was ultimately adopted in the Mosaic legal code (Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-32).
  • The masculine noun עשור ('asor), meaning "a ten", as in a ten-day period (which appears to be a word like week or fortnight; it denotes a unit of time; Genesis 24:55) or a ten-stringed instrument (Psalm 33:2).
  • The plural noun עשרים ('esrim), literally meaning tens, which was the word for the order of magnitude of twenty (Genesis 31:28, 1 Kings 5:3, Ezra 2:32).
  • The masculine ordinal עשירי ('asiri) and feminine עשיריה ('asiriya) and עשירית ('asirit), all denoting the tenth element of a collection of elements (Genesis 8:5, Jeremiah 39:1), which subsequently can also be used to denote a tenth of that collection (Exodus 16:36, Isaiah 6:13).
  • The masculine noun עשרון ('issaron), denoting a tenth, but as an object of its own; a thing that happens to be a tenth of something else, namely of an ephah (Exodus 29:40, Numbers 15:4).
  • The masculine noun מעשר (ma'aser), denoting a tenth, but specifically as drawn from a larger whole, namely a tithe of someone's wealth (Genesis 14:20, Numbers 18:26). Once this word is used to describe the tenth of a homer (Ezekiel 45:11).

Other numbers:

  • The word אחד ('ehad), meaning one.
  • The word שנים (shenayim) or שתים (shetayim), meaning two.
  • The word שלש (shalosh), שלוש (shalosh) or שלשה (shalosha), meaning three.
  • The word רבע (raba'), meaning four.

Also read our article on the Greek word for ten: δεκα (deka).