What's in a Word?

For the week ending 3 September 2016 / 30 Av 5776

My Three Suns (and Moons)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In Biblical Hebrew there are three words for the sun and three words for the moon. The sun is variously called shemesh, chamah, and cheres, while the moon is called yare’ach, levanah, and sahar. Rabbi Aharon Marcus (sometimes known as the “Chasid from Hamburg”) explains that not only does each word of these threesomes focus on a different aspect of the sun and the moon, but these words may also represent different stages of development in the history of man’s relationship with the sun and moon. In the Bible’s account of the creation of the world (Gen. 1), the words shemesh (sun) and yare’ach (moon) do not appear. The Bible only refers to the sun as “the great luminary”, and the moon as “the small luminary”, as if to say that their entire purpose is simply to serve as luminaries, but they do not possess any inherent importance. Thus, the sun and moon did not originally have names.

However, as the generations progressed, people began to worship the sun and moon, calling them Baal(literally, “master”) and Asherah, respectively. In order to counter this unfortunate development, early monotheists who fought against idolatry coined specific words to identify the sun and moon, yet still downplay their importance. That is, they called the sun shemesh which literally means “the servant”, highlighting its subservience to G-d; and, they called the moon yare’ach,which is related to the Hebrew word ore’ach (pathway), and refers to the moon’s orbital path in the heavens.

However, the names shemesh and yare’ach themselves came to be used as names of the idolatrous gods of the sun and the moon. In fact, archeologists have identified the worship of Shammash and Yarikh in ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia. Interestingly, place-names reflecting those old idolatrous practices are still in use today: Bet Shemesh (literally, “The House of the Sun”) and Yericho (related to yare’ach) were apparently ancient centers of the sun and moon cults before the Jewish People entered the Holy Land.

Anyways, using these names for idolatry necessitated coining new words to refer to the sun and the moon. For this reason the sun is later referred to as chamah (literally, “the hot one”) and cheres (literally “pottery”) to illustrate the sun’s scorching temperature and its ability to bake pottery — a mainstay of ancient civilization. Others explain that the sun is likened to pottery because of its reddish pottery-like hue at sunrise and at sunset. Similarly, the moon is later referred to as levanah (literally “the white one”) and sahar (“crescent”), to refer to its perceived color and shape. In short, Shemesh focuses on the sun’s utilitarian role in the celestial system meant to carry out Gd’s wishes, chamah refers to the sun’s heat, and cheres refers to the connection between the sun and pottery. Similarly, yare’ach focuses on the orbital path which the moon takes in travelling the solar system, levanah focuses on the moon’s color, and sahar, on its shape. Others note that sahar is not really Hebrew, it is actually an Aramaic loanword sometimes used to refer to the moon.

With time, even these words unsurprisingly also came to be associated with celestial idolatry, as those who worshipped the sun and the moon used ritual objects to “enhance” their cultic practices. The Torah (Lev. 26:30) refers to a ritual object known as a chaman, which was a type of idol that people erected on their roof to worship the sun, and Isaiah (Isa. 3:18) criticizes the Jews for wearing saharonim, which were talisman necklaces shaped like the moon.

Some might reject the historical aspect of this explanation because it would seem to contradict the notion of the Hebrew language’s Divine origins, but the basic argument still holds true. That is, the three words used to refer to the sun and the three words used for the moon somewhat parallel each other in their focus on different aspects of the sun and the moon.

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