There is never an appropriate time to discuss this word. But at least Adar has not yet started, so I will squeeze this discussion in now.
“Sheol” appears over 60 times in Tanach. On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell. (But sometimes “sheol” refers only to an individual grave, and other times, it is used merely as a metaphor for distress.)
My question for this column is whether we can relate this word to our well-known Hebrew root “Sh-A-L” that appears almost 200 times in Tanach, with meanings like “ask a question,” “inquire,” “demand/ask for an object” and “borrow an object.”
The word “sheol” as a term for the netherworld appears only in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you at the end of this column with an insight from another language, as I sometimes do.
In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. (I believe such consultations persist in our time as well!) Recall the story of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation (I Sam., chap. 28). The word “sheol” is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, “sheol” can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.
Another widely proposed suggestion is that “sheol” derives from the root “shin-aleph-he,” and that the final “lamed” is not part of the root. This is the case, for example, in the word “carmel,” from the root “C-R-M.” (Another example is the word S-M-O-L, “left.” Most likely, the lamed is not part of the root.) The root “shin-aleph-he” has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins” and “desolation.” The first two of these meanings do not fit at all, and even “desolation” does not seem to have been a main aspect of “sheol.” “Sheol” was the destination of everyone.
(With regard to the root “shin-aleph-he,” probably it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g, “teshuot,” Zech. 4:7, the last verse of the haftarah for Chanukah. Then “shin-aleph-he” encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins.)
The very scholarly multi-volume work “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament” has a long discussion of the root “sheol,” presenting many possibilities. The most interesting approach suggests that we should not view the “shin” as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is “aleph-lamed.” The two-letter word “al” appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job. 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness” or “place of nothingness.”
A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Ps. 9:18). He states that the grave is called “sheol” because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that, while we attempt to live on earth, there is an opposing force called “sheol” that tries to pull us down below, like gravity. “Sheol” is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Ps. 18:6 (“chevlei sheol sevavuni;” see similarly II Sam. 22:6). (But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving “sheol.”)
A similar suggestion posits that “sheol” is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb). The idea that “sheol” is never satisfied is found explicitly at Prov. 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Is. 5:14 and Hab. 2:5.) This suggestion sounds the most reasonable of all the suggestions I have seen.
Of course, all these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that “sheol” probably just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root “shin-aleph-lamed.” “Sheol” is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach, such as one we recite daily in Mizmor Shir. (See Ps. 30, verse 4.)
It is, of course, ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the root “sheol.” This is as humorous as the fact that E. Klein, in “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English,” describes the word “safek” (doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!
Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps “sheol” is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth! (I thank Shulamis Hes for this profound thought.) We should all use our time here wisely!
Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh and blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say? “Lamah hirgaztani le-ha’alot oti? Why are you bothering me?” This suggests that “sheol,” presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the “sheol” references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Gen. 37:35).
It is also very interesting that, when Samuel was brought up, he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in “sheol” in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ez. 32:27 (warriors go to “sheol” with their war weapons).
There is one more insight that should be mentioned in any discussion of the root Sh-A-L. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were commanded to Sh-A-L items from the Egyptians. See Ex. 3:22, 11:2 and 12:35. We all know the root Sh-A-L from the Mishnah and later rabbinic literature as a term for a “borrower.” Were our ancestors misleading the Egyptians and pretending to borrow valuable items prior to leaving, with no intention of returning them?
Rav S.R. Hirsch deals with this issue. He points out that in Tanach, the root Sh-A-L rarely means “borrow,” so this is almost certainly not its meaning here. Rather, God told the Israelites to ask for these items at this time. As Rav Hirsch writes (comm. to Ex. 11:2): “God wanted the first foundation stone of the prosperity of His people to be acquired and consecrated through the recognition of their moral greatness by those who had hitherto despised and looked down on them… Their masters and oppressors…by their ready and generous acquiescence to their requests, seemed to be moved to make some slight atonement for their past behavior.”
(Rav Hirsch claims, in his comm. to Ex. 3:22, that the only time Sh-A-L means “borrow” in Tanach is at Ex. 22:13. Most others believe it means “borrow” in a few other passages as well. But Rav Hirsch’s general point is still valid. “Borrow” is a rare meaning of the root in Tanach.)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] When he has a large-enough number of difficult words, he may consult with “sheol” and bother the wise King Solomon for a consultation.