🔼The name Nisan: Summary
- Setting Out
- Perhaps popularly: It Has Been Stored
- From the Babylonian name nisanu, in turn from the verb nesu, to move out or proceed.
- From the verb ישן (yashen), to sleep.
🔼The name Nisan in the Bible
The name Nisan, which has nothing to do with the car brand Nissan (which is short for Nihon Sangyo), belongs to the first month of the Hebrew calendar and the beginning of the agricultural year. The Jews originally called this first month Abib, but adopted the Babylonian name Nisan during their exile. This first month is the only month whose Canaanite and Babylonian names are both mentioned in the Bible.
For a list of the other month-names and a general deep dive, see our article on The Mysterious Hebrew Calendar.
The name Nisan occurs only twice in the Bible. In Nehemiah 2:1 we read how Nehemiah serves wine to king Artaxerxes and mentions his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem. This sets in motion the return of the Jews from their exile and the restoration of the city and temple of Jerusalem.
A similar story of restoration but in a wholly different tone is told in the Book of Esther, where in the month Nisan general Haman begins to organize the utter destruction of the Jews (Esther 3:7). The plan was completed on 13 Nisan (3:12) and set to be executed on 13 Adar (the twelfth month). That plan famously backfired and the Jews gained autonomy and freedom. That very status allowed them to organize wisdom schools, which in time developed astonishing insight, so much even that the evangelists attributed to them the finding of the Word in the Flesh via their astrology (Matthew 2:1-2).
🔼Etymology of the name Nisan
According to a seminal article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, entitled The Names of the Assyro-Babylonian Months and Their Regents (1892), the name Nisan is a transliteration of the Babylonian name nisanu, which derives of a verb nesu, to move, move out, or proceed, which in turn is cognate with the Hebrew verb נסע (nasa'), to pull out or up [of tent pegs], or to set out [on a journey]. This verb נסע (nasa') also became used to describe quarrying stones and even to puncture [somebody with a spear], which in turn suggests to us here at Abarim Publications that the adoption of this name may have been lubricated by an association with the beginning of the plowing season. Otherwise, the names Nisan and Abib both obviously describe the appearing of the first green on the lands; the beginning of the journey that is the agricultural year.
The Journal's article goes on to mention a non-Semitic or Akkadian name for our month, namely itu barag-zag(-gar), which translates as 'month of the sanctuary' (supposedly from the Assyrian word parakku, sanctuary, or the perhaps related Hebrew verb ברך, barak, to bless). This appears to have prompted scores of commentators hence to assert that the name Nisan means 'sanctuary,' but that is incorrect.
From several ancient records we learn that for the Babylonians the year began at the vernal equinox, but that this equinox occurred on various days sometime halfway the first half of the month Nisan (which corresponds to our modern late March). The Journal notes that it seems to have been crucial that Nisan corresponded to the constellation Aries, which the Journal takes to demonstrate that "the calendar was arranged so as to suit the order of the zodiacal signs." It appears to us here at Abarim Publications, however, that the months originally followed the moon, whereas the constellations are fantastically arbitrary. In other words, it's more probable that the zodiac originated as an speculative projection of the calendar, rather than the reverse.
Perhaps a very creative Hebrew speaker might have sensed a fluttering association with a passive perfect of the verb ישן (yashen), to sleep, which would be something like נושן (nushan), meaning "it has been put to sleep". And this may seem more creative than it actually is. The letters ס and ש do alternate at times — for instance, the verbs פסס, pasas and פשה pasa both mean to spread out; nouns חרש, heres, and חרסות, harsit, both mean earthenware.
The only time that our form נושן (nushan) is used in the Bible is in Leviticus 26:10, where our root ישן (yashen) is used three times:
(i.e. put in storage)
The root שנן (shanan) speaks of repetition or the creation of distance between elements, often preceded by a breaking apart, and followed by a removal or even storage.
Verb שנן (shanan) means to sharpen, and sharpening is achieved by removing material by repeatedly stroking a blade against a whetstone. This verb is also used in the sense of sharpening a mind by repeating the same exercise. Noun שן (shen) means tooth. Noun שנינה (shenina) denotes a "sharp" word; a taunt.
Verb שנה (shana) means to change or create a difference — of one's mind, or one's clothes, and this mostly through repetition. Noun שנה (shana) means year.
Perhaps formally separate but obviously related, or else the very same verb שנה (shana) means to repeat or reoccur. Noun שנים (shenayim) or שתים (shetayim) is the common word for two or a pair. Adjective שני (sheni) or שנית (shenit) means second and noun משנה (misneh) means second, double, or copy. Noun שנאן (shin'an) is used as a superlative in figures of speech (i.e. expressions like double-down, super-double-good).
Noun שני (shani) denotes the color purple. This noun might formally derive from a third wholly separate verb of unclear meaning but obviously reminds of the many times a garment has to be dipped in dye to have its color changed.
Verb ישן (yashen) means to sleep, which seems to indicate that the ancients related one's daily activities to a forward stroke of one's mental blade against the whetstone of life, whereas sleep counted as the trailing stroke backward and removal of the burr. Adjective ישן (yashen) means sleeping or sleepy, and is obviously similar to its sibling noun ישן (yashen), which means old. Nouns שנה (shena), שנא (shena') and שנת (shenat) mean sleep.
Verb שנא (sane') is commonly translated with to hate but actually lacks the angry emotion that our English word conveys. It rather means to reject, create distance from and send away. Adjective שניא (sani') means hated (i.e. the hated wife), and noun שנאה (sin'a) means a hating or hatred, which comes down to a separating or a sending away.
The name Nisan means Setting Out, Plowing Up, but a Hebrew audience it may have allowed a popular association with a meaning of It Has Been Put To Sleep, both in reference to the stored surplus of yester-year and the notion that the old year is over and the new year is beginning.