Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root שלש (shlsh) is of unknown meaning but it yields words that have to do with the cardinal number three. Without knowing the root meaning, it's difficult to estimate what the word three meant to the Hebrews (who had no ciphers; only words), but read our explanatory article on the Hebrew word for four: רבע (raba').
Considerations that require an understanding of the number four, mark the intellectual capacity of a human child of about six years old. To the Hebrews, three was the smallest plural number since two was considered dual. The number three appears to often represent the smallest cycle possible. In the Bible things very often take three days (or three months, or years) to unfold (Genesis 42:17, Ezra 8:15, Nehemiah 2:11), and this "three" may be closer to our words "some" and "a few" than to our arithmetic 3.
The Hebrew three also represents additional confirmation where two represents the smallest number of witnesses that can convey a testimony (Deuteronomy 17:6).
Certain numerologically inclined authors like to proclaim that three is a particularly holy number because it represents the Godhead. That's quite fatuitous. God is one, and if he appears as three there can only be something wrong with our theories. God the Father, God the Spirit and God the Word are one God, not three.
Our root's derivations are:
- The noun שלש (shalosh), also שלוש (shalosh) or שלשה (shalosha), meaning three (Genesis 18:2, Exodus 27:1, 1 Kings 15:28). Together with עשר ('eser), meaning ten, it forms thirteen. Together with מאה (me'a), meaning hundred it forms three hundred. This noun in regular masculine plural שלשים (sheloshim) means thirty (Genesis 6:15, Exodus 26:8, Judges 14:19).
- The denominative verb שלש (shalash), meaning to do or be three (Genesis 15:9, Ecclesiastes 4:12, Ezekiel 42:6). It may mean to do something three times, or a third time (1 Kings 18:34), to divide into three parts (Deuteronomy 19:3), or to stay three days (1 Samuel 20:19).
- The adjective שלישי (shelishi) or שלישית (shelishit), meaning the third (Genesis 1:13) or one third (2 Samuel 18:2).
- The adverb שלשם (shilshom) or שלשום (shilshom), meaning three days back (counting today as number one and yesterday as two). This wonderfully useful word is like the word yesterday, except that it denotes the day before yesterday (Genesis 31:2, Exodus 5:8, Ruth 2:11).
- The masculine noun שליש (shalish), denoting a unit of volume, it seems (perhaps a "third" of some other measure, like an ephah). Our word occurs twice: once for dust (Isaiah 40:12) and once for tears (Psalm 80:5).
- The identical masculine noun שליש (shalish), this time denoting an unknown musical instrument; perhaps consisting of a distinct threesome of elements (3 bells, 3 whistles, 3 strings?) or perhaps a small circular tambourine or simply a small version of a regular large one. (1 Samuel 18:6 only).
- The identical masculine noun שליש (shalish), now denoting a/the "third man". This word occurs sixteen times and appears to be predominantly a military term, perhaps even a rank. It's often translated with "officer" (2 Samuel 23:8, 2 Kings 9:25, Ezekiel 23:15).
- The adjective שלש (shillesh), meaning pertaining to the third (Genesis 50:23, Exodus 20:5).