🔼The word sheminith: Summary
- With Great Excess, Pertaining To The Anointed, On An Eight-String
- From the word שמן (shaman), either eight or to grow excessively fat.
🔼The word sheminith in the Bible
The word sheminith is a musical term which occurs three times in the Bible. When king David transported the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-edom to the tabernacle at Jerusalem, he had organized for several groups of Levite musicians to come along and make merriment. These musicians either sang, played harp, lyre or cymbals or simply cheered. The men with the harps had their instruments על־עלמות ('al-alamoth, upon the alamoth; 1 Chronicles 15:20), while the lyre players had their instruments על־השמינית ('al-hasheminith, upon the sheminith; 1 Chronicles 15:21).
The word על ('al) means on or towards or in this context probably "set to" and the words alamoth and sheminith are musical terms. It's not wholly clear what kind of musical term these are. They may describe the type of instrument, but they may also have to do with the tuning of the instrument. Because the harpists and lyrists appear to have played simultaneously during the procession, these tunings or types of instrument would have had to be harmonious.
The phrase על־השמינית ('al-hasheminith) occurs twice more, namely in the headings of Psalm 6 and 12. Psalm 12 mentions no instruments but in Psalm 6 our phrase is associated with the verb נגן (nagan), meaning to play a stringed instrument. This seems to suggest that both harps and lyres could exist as sheminith.
🔼Etymology of the word sheminith
The word sheminith appears to derive from the root שמן (shaman), which either has to do with the number eight or else with growing dripping fat:
Verb שמן (shaman I) means to grow excessively fat (or arrogant or dull; anything that creates the emergence of a visible external excess). The identical root שמן (shaman II) has to do with the number eight. This is certainly curious but it is part of a larger system: the verb שׂבע (saba') means to be sated or saturated, whereas the word שׁבע (shib'a) means seven.
From שמן (shaman I), the adjective שמן (shamen) means fat or rich. Noun שמן (shaman) describes the overflowing fatness of the land. Noun שמן (shemen) refers sometimes to general fatness, but mostly it specifically denotes olive oil, which in turn symbolizes the richness of a country and its culture. Plural noun אשמנים ('ashmannim) describes an overly stout class of men. Likewise noun משמן (mishman) denotes a stout or vigorous one. Noun משמן (mashman) denotes a dripping fat portion of food.
From שמן (shaman II), nouns שמנה (shemoneh) and (shemonah) mean eight. Adjectives שמני (shemini) and שמנית (sheminit) mean eighth. Plural noun שמנים (shemonim) means eighty.
It's ultimately unclear what the word sheminith means. It may mean Oily, after שמן I (shmn I), and perhaps be somehow associated with royalty (David, the anointed king, played his signature harp, after all). It may even denote a kind of overflowing excess of musical expression, the old world equivalent of speed metal.
But most, if not all scholars derive it from the adjective שמני (shemini) or שמנית (sheminit), meaning Eighth.
Some scholars insist that the sheminith was an eight-stringed harp or lyre, whereas others believe that any instrument tuned to a sheminith was an instrument that covered a whole octave of notes. Very old Sumerian tablets indicate that the Semites possessed thorough knowledge of musical theory.
But on the other hand, the word sheminith may very well be the title (first word) of some famous song, whose catchy tune carried several subsequent compositions. We simply don't know.