Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
ישן שנן שנה
The forms ישן (ysn), שנן (snn), and שנה (snh) are closely related, and their meanings also appear to be in each other's close vicinity. Then there is the verb שנא (sane'), which looks identical to a noun derived from the verb ישן (yashen).
At the heart of all these words sits the creation of distance between elements, often preceded by a breaking apart, and followed by a removal or storage. The latter usage is demonstrated in Leviticus 26:10, where our root ישן (yashen) is used three times:
(i.e. put in storage)
The verb ישן (yashen) means to sleep and is used in every sense of our English verb to sleep, even in its figurative meanings. The adjective ישן (yashen) means sleeping, and the nouns שנה (shena), שנא (shena') and שנת (shenat) all mean sleep.
The only odd one out is the noun ישן (yashen), which means old. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes that its original meaning may have been "withered or flabby, like a lifeless plant with top hanging down as if in sleep" (Leviticus 25:22, Isaiah 22:11). But perhaps, in the experience of the Hebrews, our verb ישן (yashen) meaning to sleep was closely akin to the verb שנה (shana III; see below), meaning to repeat.
Sleep may be the opposite of being awake, but the state of being awake consists of a vast array of impressions and actions, while the act of being asleep may be regarded as a singular event that is repeated every night.
The verb שנא (sane') is identical to the noun שנא (shena') meaning sleep, save for the symbols that at some point in the middle ages were added to the ancient Hebrew text by the Masoretes to preserve its assumed original pronunciation. Our verb שנא (sane') means to hate and is the antithesis of the verb אהב ('aheb), which means to love. This latter verb is not as emotionally charged as our English verb to love; it mostly describes a motion towards someone or something in order to acquire it, join with it or become intimately acquainted with it. Our verb שנא (sane') means precisely the opposite: a motion away from someone or something with the intent to disassociate from it and forget about it.
Our verb may describe hate between people (Genesis 26:27, Judges 11:7, Isaiah 60:15) but frequently also of YHWH towards people or some of their behaviors (Amos 6:8, Hosea 9:15, Malachi 2:16).
From this verb derive:
- The adjective שניא (sani'), meaning the hated (the hated wife; Deuteronomy 21:15 only).
- The feminine noun שנאה (sin'a), meaning a hating or hatred (Numbers 35:20, Deuteronomy 1:27, Proverbs 25:10).
The verb שנה (shana I) means to change (Lamentations 4:1) or to create a difference (Esther 1:7). It may be used to indicate a change of clothes (Jeremiah 52:33), or a change of mind (Psalm 89:34). It may also denote a perversion of justice (Proverbs 31:5) or even the act of disguising oneself (1 Kings 14:2).
This verb's sole derivative is the feminine noun שנה (shana), meaning year (שנת means 'year of' and שנים means 'years'.). The temporal unit year primarily denotes the repeating cycle of seasonal change, and in plural it is used to indicate a period that spans several years (in the formula "during the years of" this or that king).
There are several expressions in the Bible that use this noun שנה (shana) to indicate a certain (prolonged) event that marks a profound change: The "year of favor" (Isaiah 61:2), the "year of release" (Leviticus 25:10, Ezekiel 46:17), the "year of Jubilee" (Leviticus 25:13), the "year of remission" (Deuteronomy 15:1), the "year of vengeance" (Isaiah 63:4).
The meaning of root שנה (shana II) is officially obscure. BDB Theological Dictionary submits that there is an Arabic verb, which is somewhat similar to this Hebrew root, which means to shine. And in Ethiopian exists a comparable verb that means to be beautiful. A Hebrew audience, however, would probably have associations with either שנה (shana I) meaning to change, or שנה (shana III) meaning to repeat.
The sole extant derivative of our root שנה (shana II) is the masculine noun שני (shani), denoting the color scarlet. Perhaps the Hebrews figured this noun to match שנה (shana I) because cloth dipped in scarlet dye changes from being ordinary to something worthy of God's tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 26:31). Scarlet also seemed to have symbolized the process of purification (Leviticus 14:4, Numbers 19:6), and in the case of Rahab the prostitute, showcasing scarlet meant salvation (Joshua 2:18). But why?
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament suggests that "since shani was the color of blood it would be its natural symbol in such a ceremony". But why would Israel need to symbolize blood with a dye while there was so much real blood readily available, and the dispensing of this prescribed in so much ritual? The prophet Isaiah seems to disagree with HAW as he doesn't link scarlet to blood but rather to sin: "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow . . . " (Isaiah 1:18).
Here at Abarim Publications, we guess that a scarlet item was known as something that had changed from natural to permanently tainted, and obviously through a process of repetition. Snow, on the other hand, covers everything in minutes but is easily removed by warmth and vanishes without a further trace. Sin, Isaiah seems to say, is not an isolated event but a condition of repeated failure that leads to permanent alteration and ultimately death. Confessing sin, as Rahab did, is the first step to having this persistent dye changed into utterly elusive snow.
The verb שנה (shana III) means to repeat or do again. It's used a dozen times, in contexts ranging from a reoccurring dream (Genesis 41:32), to men not speaking again (Job 29:22), or a fool returning to his folly like a dog to his vomit (Proverbs 26:11). Its derivatives are:
- The dual masculine or feminine noun שנים (shenayim) or שתים (shetayim), meaning two. This word is used in the expected ways when the number two is expressed (Genesis 24:22, Ruth 1:19, Jeremiah 34:18), but also when items are paired or coupled (1 Samuel 23:18), when contrast or differentiation is emphasized (1 Kings 18:21), or when an indefinite small number is reflected in the construction "one or two" (Exodus 21:21). Combined with the word עשר ('eser), meaning ten, it creates the number twelve (Genesis 42:13, Exodus 28:21).
- The adjective שני (sheni) or שנית (shenit), meaning second (Genesis 6:16, 2 Samuel 16:10, Malachi 2:13).
- The masculine noun משנה (misneh), meaning second (Genesis 41:43), double (Genesis 43:12), or copy (Deuteronomy 17:18).
- The masculine noun שנאן (shin'an), which occurs only once (Psalm 68:18), in a kind of superlative statement: "twice ten thousand". The whole statement expresses a myriad or huge number.
The verb שנן (shanan) means to sharpen, and since sharpening of tools and blades was done by repeatedly stroking it across a wet-stone, the relation between this root and the previous one is overly obvious.
Our verb is mostly used for actual sharpening of arrows (Psalm 45:5, Isaiah 5:28) or swords (Deuteronomy 32:41), and twice figuratively for "sharp" tongues (Psalm 64:3, 140:3).
Our verb also serves to express the sharpening of one's children's minds by talking about the Words of YHWH at every opportunity (Deuteronomy 6:7). This also obviously relates our verb to the previous one, meaning to repeat. It may even be that the sharp tongue mentioned by the Psalmist is not so much the tongue of someone who makes a harrowing statement once, but much more of someone who keeps repeating the same insult over and over.
This verb derivatives are:
- The feminine noun שן (shen), meaning tooth (literally: a sharpie). This noun may be used to describe the teeth of humans (Exodus 21:27, Proverbs 10:26), of animals (Deuteronomy 32:24, Job 41:6), and even of a fork (1 Samuel 2:13) or a cliff (1 Samuel 14:4). This word also became applied to the tusks of elephants, or ivory as a commercial product (Ezekiel 27:15, Amos 6:4).
- The feminine noun שנינה (shenina), denoting a "sharp" word; a taunt (Deuteronomy 28:37, 1 Kings 9:7).
- The masculine plural noun שנהבים (shenhabbim), meaning ivory (1 Kings 10:22). This word may be a compound of the word שן (shen) for tooth and הבים (habbim), which might be derived from an African word meaning elephant. Gesenius proposed it but BDB Theological Dictionary deems it "dubious".