Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The verb נשם (nasham), thought to mean to breathe or gasp, is of unclear origin but may have reminded a creative Hebrew audience of the root cluster נשא (ns'), which expresses meanings of to lift up, to lend, to beguile, and to forget. Our verb נשם (nasham) occurs only once in the Bible, namely in Isaiah 42:14, which is quite odd, and suggests that our verb does not describe the common act of breathing, which is shared with animals, but an essential element of being human.
Note that Isaiah 42:14 speaks of a woman in labor, while God's curse to Eve involved her bearing children in pain (Genesis 3:16). This labor pain is possibly not only the physical pain human mothers feel during child birth, but also the intense mental sentiment that comes from being a parent. Animals certainly show concern for their offspring but only human parents can become wholly unhinged when something bad happens to their child. It appears to us here at Abarim Publications that this verb has more to do with love than with breathing.
Our verb comes with two derivatives:
- The feminine noun נשמה (neshama), thought to mean breath. This word is never applied to animals and describes only God's scorching, freezing or life-giving breath (Isaiah 30:33, 2 Samuel 22:16, Job 32:8) and man's breath (1 Kings 17:17, Isaiah 42:5, Daniel 10:7). It occurs often in the construction נשמת חיים (neshamat hayyim), meaning the breath (?) of life.
- The feminine noun תנשמת (tinshemet), which is a kind of animal but nobody knows which. This word occurs three times and describes two different animals: a kind of bird (Leviticus 11:18 = Deuteronomy 14:16, first one mentioned), and a swarmer (Leviticus 11:30, last one mentioned). Commentators generally figure this word describes an animal that hisses or breathes heavily, but here at Abarim Publications we doubt that. It probably denotes animals that exhibited behavior that was reminiscent of human behavior, but we must admit that we have little idea which bird and swarmer might seem to have the "breath" of life that humans have. But note that Job 39:16 tells of the ostrich which doesn't care for her offspring, whereas the stork was known as a חסידה (hasida), from the verb חסד (hasad), meaning to be good or kind.