The Torah commands that every seventh year be declared a Sabbatical Year, during which the Holy Land must be left fallow, and all loans are to be considered remitted. Last year — 5782 — was a Sabbatical Year, so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss two Hebrew terms used to refer to the Sabbatical Year: Shemittah and Sheviit. The first essay focused on the term Shemittah (“slipping away”) and explores various Hebrew words which appear to be synonymous with that term. This second essay focuses on the term Sheviit (“the seventh one”) and expounds on other related Hebrew expressions whose etymologies seem to be connected to the root of that word.
The Mishnaic tractate dedicated to discussion of the laws of the Sabbatical Year is dubbed Masechet Sheviit. The word sheviit literally means “the seventh one” and is plainly the ordinal form of the Hebrew word sheva (“seven”). This makes sense because, after all, the Sabbatical Year serves as the seventh year of a seven-year cycle. Indeed, the word sheviit already appears in the Bible when referring to the Sabbatical Year (Ex. 23:11, Lev. 25:4, 25:20, Deut. 15:12, and Nechemia 10:32) and is the common word in the Mishna for that year.
Another word related to both sheviit and sheva is shavua — but this word hold two distinct meaning, which are found in Biblical Hebrew and in Mishnaic Hebrew. Usually, the word shavua in the Bible means “week” in the sense of a seven-day period of time (e.g., Gen. 29:27–28, Lev. 12:5, Deut. 16:9), and the term appears multiple times in the Mishnah in that sense (Bava Metzia 9:11, Erachin 2:1, Negaim 1:3-4, 3:1, 3:3-8, 4:7, 5:1-2, 5:4-5, 7:3, 9:1, 10:1, 10:15, 10:10, 11:7, 12:6-7, and 13:1).
However, the word shavua can also refer to the seven-year cycle which is used to track the Sabbatical Year. In fact, every time shavua appears in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 4:24, 9:25-27, 10:2-3), it seemingly refers to a “period of seven years,” not a “week.” This is also the meaning of shavua several times in the Mishna (Sheviit 4:7-9, Bava Metzia 9:10, Sanhedrin 5:1, Makkot 1:10, and Parah 8:9), as Rashi constantly clarifies for us (see Rashi to Pesachim 12a, 86a, Moed Katan 12a, Sotah 44a, Bava Metzia 110b, and Sanhedrin 97a).
Besides shavua, there is another Hebrew word which means “week” that we might be familiar with. The Bible states: “And he [the Kohen] shall wave the Omer before G-d for your appeasement, on the morrow of the Shabbat shall the Kohen wave it… And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Shabbat —from the day of your bringing the waved Omer — seven complete Shabbatot shall they be, until the morrow of the seventh Shabbat shall you count fifty days…” (Lev. 23:11, 11:15-16) Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides clarify that in this passage, the word Shabbat has two different meanings. In the first two instances, the word Shabbat refers to a specific holy day (i.e., the first day of Passover), while in the latter two instances, the word Shabbat means “week” and refers to the counting of seven weeks from the Second Day of Passover until the Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). This understanding is reflected by Targum Onkelos who translates the first two instances of shabbat as yoma tova (i.e., Yom Tov, “holiday”), and the latter two as shavua. Indeed, Nachmanides correctly notes that shabbat as “week” can be found many times in the rabbinic vernacular (see Taanit 4:7, Megillah 3:4, Ketuvot 1:1, 5:6-7, Eduyot 4:10, Nedarim 8:1, Bava Metzia 9:11, Bava Batra 5:10, Sheviit 2:6, and Niddah 4:5).
As Nachmanides puts it, the word shabbat is thus a synecdoche, that is, a term which refers to both a part of something and the whole thing. In this case, shabbat refers to both a specific day within the week (i.e., Saturday), as well as to a whole week. By the same token, the Sabbatical Year is also called shabbat (Lev. 25:2, 25:4, 25:6, 26:34-35, II Chron. 36:21), and the seven-year cycle in which a Sabbatical Year falls out is likewise called a shabbat (see Lev. 25:8). This name for the Sabbatical Year, of course, highlights its Shabbat-like rules that require one to “rest” from working the ground
Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) points out that nowhere else in the Bible is the word shabbat used in the sense of “week” besides in the context of Counting of the Omer. Because of this, he argues that even in that context, the word shabbat does not literally mean “week,” but is related to shabbat in the general sense of “cessation/resting,” like the root SHIN-BET-TAV means in other places. Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the seven weeks of Counting the Omer are referred to by a cognate of shabbat because during the interim weeks between the Omer Sacrifice (offered on the second day of Passover) and the Two Loaves (offered on Shavuot), new grains are not used for ritual sacrifices in the Temple, so one can be said to be “ceasing” to use new grains until Shavuot. Thus, the weeks in question may be characterized by this “cessation” and can appropriately be called shabbat, because they resemble the weekly Shabbat on which we cease from all forms of creative labor.
Rabbi Mecklenburg traces both the terms shabbat (SHIN-BET-TAV) and shavua (SHIN-BET-AYIN) to the biliteral SHIN-BET, whose core meaning is “returning.” Even though in Rabbi Pappenheim’s biliteral root system, the letter AYIN is not one of the seven radical letters that join with biliteral roots to create a triliteral root, in the case shavua there is ample room to argue that SHIN-BET-AYIN can nonetheless be traced back to the biliteral root SHIN-BET because in Aramaic the word for “seven” is shav, which is the same as the Hebrew sheva without the letter AYIN.
Rabbi Mecklenburg relates these terms to the word shvuyah (“captive”), because one taken captive is stuck within a closed system, which repeats itself over and over and constantly “returns” back to the beginning. In the same way, the words shabbat and shavua represents circular periods of time which automatically restart when they have reached the number seven (whether seven-day periods, seven-week periods, seven-year periods, or, as mentioned by the Medieval Kabbalists, even seven thousand-year periods).
Rabbi Pappenheim offers a similar explanation, noting that when one successfully “returns” to one’s home, one no longer needs to engage in any further movement towards reaching that goal and thus effectively “stops.” As a result, shabbat in the sense of the cessation of movement or effort flows from the idea of “returning.” As a corollary of this, he adds that a “captive” has been deprived of her freedom of movement and is thus forced to remain in a state of “resting” as though she has already “returned” home.
When Hashem warns that He will punish those who sin “sevenfold” the amount of their sin (Lev. 26:18, 26:24, 26:28), the word sheva in that context does not literally mean “seven” in the numeric sense, but rather refers to excessive punishment which repeats itself over and over, as though it functioned like a shabbat/shavua. In the same vein, when one undertakes a shevuah (“swear/oath”), one voluntarily enters oneself into a closed system, wherein one is bound to follow certain rules. Whether one swears to do or not do something (or that he did or did not do something), he becomes obligated and tied down (like a “captive”), in a way that compels him to fulfill his word.
Rabbi Mecklenburg claims that the importance of the number “seven” and its cyclical nature is embedded in nature. Although the seven-day week does not represent any astronomical phenomenon (unlike the day, month, and year, which roughly correspond to the earth’s rotation on its axis, the moon’s orbit around the earth, and the earth’s orbit around the sun, respectively), Rabbi Mecklenburg sees evidence of seven-based cycles in music theory, which recognizes seven musical notes, and Rabbi Moshe Zuriel adds that the same can be found in color theory, which recognizes seven distinct colors of the rainbow. We may add to this other phenomena like the existence of seven planets visible to the naked eye, seven Hebrew letters that receive a dagesh, the seven orifices in the human head (see Sefer Yetzirah 4:3), and perhaps the reputed seven-chambered uterus. (Nonetheless, the first examples are not foolproof and could ultimately be understood as social constructs. The existence of seven notes and seven colors could easily be attributed to a human consensus that arbitrarily chose seven as an important number, and consequently sees those elements as reflecting that number. In reality, it is possible that the musical notes or colors on a rainbow can be broken up into any number, even though we are not socially conditioned to thinking of those elements in terms of other numbers.)
That said, Rabbi Mecklenburg still sees a difference between the words shabbat and shavua even when they both mean “week.” He explains that shabbat refers specifically to a “seven-day calendar week” which begins with Sunday and culminates with the Sabbath. To him, the fact that the week concludes with shabbat, allows the Sabbath to lend its name to the entire seven-day period preceding it. On the other hand, the word shavua is a cognate of the word sheva (“seven”) and simply refers to any seven-day period that need not necessarily start on Sunday and end on the Sabbath.
Interestingly, Rabbi Dr. Alter HaLevi Hilowitz (1906-1994) presumes that even shavua means “weeks” in the sense of calendar weeks, and not common weeks (i.e., any seven-day period). He thus explains that using the name of the holiday of Shavuot implies that the holiday’s date should be determined by calendar weeks that always start on Sunday and end on Shabbat. Because of this, he argues that the name Shavuot lends credence to the heretical Sadducean view that the Counting of the Omer always begins on a Sunday, so that Shavuot will always occur on a Sunday—after seven complete “calendar weeks.” Because of this complication, argues Hilowitz, the rabbis refrained from calling the holiday Shavuot and instead used the term Atzeret (see my previous essay “Stop! It’s Shavuot,” May 2018).
Earlier, we cited Rabbi Mecklenburg who intimated that sheva may sometimes not literally mean “seven,” but just “a lot.” This idea is seen in earlier sources, as well: For example, when Lemech laments the possibility of him sharing the same fate as his ancestor Cain, he says: “for sevenfold (shivatayim) has come up against Cain, and Lemech, seventy-seven (shivim v’shivah)” (Gen. 4:24). Yet, Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir (to Gen. 4:24) translates this passage into Arabic slightly differently: “for much has come up against Cain, and Lemech, more and more.” Thus, Rabbi Saadia Gaon takes the number “seven” in this context as non-literal, instead simply standing in for “a lot.” Similarly, another verse reads: sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam —“For seven [times], the righteous man falls and arises” (Prov. 24:16). Here too, Rabbi Saadia Gaon renders the word sheva as “many” instead of literally “seven” (see also Ibn Ezra and Gersonides there).
The Talmud (Shevuot 36a) cites Rava as ruling that when a person repeats a positive or negative utterance by saying “no no” or “yes yes,” then this constitutes an oath. Rashi explains that because in doing so, one repeats the word in order to “strengthen” what he is saying, this is conceptually similar to an oath, which is intended to strengthen the force of one’s verbalization. The famous Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon connects the two meanings of SHIN-BET-AYIN (“seven” and “swear”) by defining the latter as “seven oneself, or bind oneself by seven things.” In fact, we find in the Bible that the oaths of treaties were accompanied with seven animals (Gen. 21:23-33), or a multiple of seven animals (II Chron. 15:11-15). Thus, it seems that the number seven was somehow associated with affirming the oath taken, so all oaths came to be called a shevuah as a result. As Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 330) explains the connection between shevuah and sheva, repeating something seven times strengthens that speech act and symbolizes its everlasting value. Indeed, Targum Onkelos to Gen. 24:9 translates a cognate of shevuah into a cognate of kiyyum (“establishing/everlasting”).
The connection between shevuah and sheva is also noted by Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 21:31) and Nachmanides (to Num. 30:3), who cryptically comment on the relationship, but do not further elaborate. Elsewhere, however, Ibn Ezra offers a fuller explanation of the connection: Sefer Yetzirah (4:2) asserts that the first six numbers represent the six cardinal directions (up, down, left, right, forward, and backward), while the number “seven” (sheva) represents G-d Himself who is in the middle of everything (serving as the Prime Mover). Based on this, Ibn Ezra suggests in several places that shevuah is related to sheva, because when one undertakes an oath, one essentially draws a connection between that about which he swears and the existence of G-d (who is called “the Seventh One”) in order to make a truth-claim. It is as if the oath-taker said, “Just like G-d is true, I swear that such-and-such is/will be true.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 21:23) accounts for the connection between shevuah (“oath”) and sheva (“seven”) by explaining that ever since Hashem created the world in Seven Days, the number seven came to be especially associated with Him and came to universally symbolize His role as the Creator and Master of the Universe. Indeed, seven continued to be a significant stock number in many Ancient Near Eastern texts. Based on this, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the act of undertaking a shevuah actively places the oath-taker under Hashem’s direct control, as if to say, “If what I am saying is not true, then I hereby deliver myself into Hashem’s hand to do to me what is just.” Like Rabbi Pappenheim and Rabbi Mecklenburg, Rabbi Hirsch also sees a link between shevuah and shevuyah, arguing that just like the shevuyah has been taken captive, so too is the oath-taker “captured” within Hashem’s direct control.
Rabbi Moshe Elyakim Briah Hopstein (1757-1828) writes that shevuah is related to seviah (“satisfaction/satiation”) because taking an oath in Hashem’s name is one way to “cling to Him,” and the truly righteous are never satisfied until they have wholly clung to Him.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor Lubchansky of Milwaukee notes that the positive commandment to swear in Hashem’s name (Deut. 6:13, 10:20) — as opposed to the name of any other deity — is listed as the seventh positive commandment in Maimonides’ list of the 613 commandments. This again illustrates the connection between Hashem, swearing, and the number seven.
We conclude with the inspirational words of Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (1555-1630), author of Shnei Luchos HaBris (Shelah), who wrote that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh as a way of alluding that a person ought to utilize his entire lifespan — with the average human lifespan considered seventy years (Ps. 90:19) — for fruitful endeavors and not waste them. He adds that the Torah’s commandments that revolve around the number seven (like the prohibition of eating chametz for seven days, or the seven days of celebration after a bride and groom are wed) also serve to remind a person to fully take advantage of his seventy-year lifespan and never waste his days.