The Glamour of the Grammar: Count on it

Numbers pop up in the most amazing places.

numbers 88 (photo credit: )
numbers 88
(photo credit: )
Numbers pop up in the most amazing places. Today we'll look at a few. And we'll start with one of the Hebrew words for "few," because almost paradoxically it's the plural of the word for "one." One way to say "a few words" is milim ahadot, literally, "words ones." While in the singular, "one" means "one," in the plural it means "some." Leave it to Hebrew to have a plural for "one." The word for three, shalosh, gives us shalish, which has a variety of meanings. It's a military rank, originally an officer of some kind, perhaps the third in command, or maybe a commander of three units of some sort. We see the word among other places in the famous Song of the Sea in Exodus, where Pharaoh's shalishim were drowned. (It's not uncommon for number words to be used militarily. We also have "decimate" in English, from the word for "10," and we'll see more in just a moment.) In addition, a shalish is a trustee with whom two other people deposit money for safekeeping during a transaction or disagreement (like an escrow officer). And shalish is the name of the percussion instrument we call a "triangle." Demonstrating more common patterns, we find m'shulash (triangle more generally), shlish (one third, as in about 33 percent), and shlishiya (trio, and also a bill of three currency units, say, a NIS 3 coin, if there were such a thing). The word for four, arba, is from the root, which gives us the expected m'ruba (square), reva (one quarter), and r'viya (quartet, or NIS 4 coin). It also gives us rova, which is a "quarter" in a city, and which, like the English, need not be exactly a quarter of anything. Five in Hebrew, hamesh, is particularly interesting, because in addition to m'humash (pentagon) and hamishiya (group of five or NIS 5 coin), we get the important word humash, "Five Books of Torah." In another direction, the root also has to do with weaponry and military matters, so we have hamush, literally "fived," which means "armed." And we have tahmoshet, "ammunition." The words may come from the five fingers of the hand, perhaps having followed the same path as "arm" in English, which became "arms" and "armed." Six gives us the fairly rare word m'shusheh (hexagon) and shishiya (sextuplet etc.) and that's about it. It does however, represent an interesting fact about the Hebrew numbers in general, because the word is comprised entirely of shins, and there's apparently something number-like about the letter shin. Seven of the first 10 numbers in Hebrew have a shin in them (eight if we count the letter sin), and two of them have two shins. Seven is more interesting, giving us the root for "swear" and "oath." The nif'al verb nishba means "swore" (adjured, not cursed) and a shvu'a is an "oath." We skip over "eight" and "nine," but "10" is full of surprises. First off, it gives us the verb and noun "tithe," l'aser and ma'sar, respectively. (The English "tithe" also comes from "10.") And it gives us a variety of 10-thinged things, like an ancient musical instrument (frequently translated "10-stringed harp") and a "decade." The word eser, "10," is also slang for "great." So the answer to ech hayta hamsiba (how was the party?) could be "eser!" Finally, in honor of the quickly approaching High Holy Days, we turn our attention to Unetaneh Tokef, the mid-first-millennium piyyut that plays a central role in the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One line in the poem reads, "everyone who enters the world will pass before You like members of the flock," that is kivnei maron. The k- means "like," bnei means "members of" (look back in your notes for why kbnei become kivnei), and maron is related to the Aramaic word amarna, "lamb." However, another possibility traces the phrase to the Greek for "military formation," and rather than passing "like members of the flock," the point may have been that we pass "like in military formation," so that we can be reviewed. In this scenario, the k- still means "like," but the b- is also a prefix, "in." And the rest is the Greek word for "military formation": noumeron, a technical word that literally means - yes, you guessed it - "number." So as you see, numbers pop up in the most curious of places, which is yet one more reason that looking at words can be so much fun. Or, as they say, eser.n The writer is author of the forthcoming And God Said.