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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Definition of Hebrew Words

By Jeff A. Benner


Books, as we know them today, are a fairly recent invention. Before the invention of books, codices were used. Codices are similar to books but are square or rectangular sheets of papyrus or animal skin, with hand written text, which are stacked on top of each other and stitched on one side and usually included a wooden cover and back. Prior to codices, scrolls were used. Scrolls are long sheets of papyrus or animal skin, with hand written text, which is rolled up for storage. The Hebrew word for a scroll is ספר (seypher, Strong's #5612) and is also the Modern Hebrew word for a book.

The word seypher comes from the verbal root ספר (S.Ph.R, Strong's #5608) meaning "to count."

He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." (NRS, Genesis 15:5)

Hebrew verbs are able to express variations of the meaning of a verb by changing the mood and voice of the verb. The qal (active voice and simple mood) form meaning of the verb ספר is to "count," but the hiphil (active voice and causative mood) form means to "give an account" (note the word "count" in the word "account") or to "tell."

Consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels; that you may tell the next generation (RSV: Psalm 48:13)

The participle form of the verb ספר is סופר (sopher) and can mean "counting," "telling" or "one who counts or tells," a scribe.

And Sheva was scribe: and Zadok and Abiathar were the priests: (KJV: 2 Samuel 20:25)

From this verb comes the noun ספר (seypher), a scroll, which is used for recording counts or accounts and is written by a סופר (sopher), the scribe. Another noun derived from the root is מספר (mispar, Strong's #5457) meaning a "number."

None shall cast her young or be barren in your land; I will fulfil the number of your days. (RSV: Exodus 23:26)

Another noun derived from this root is ספיר (saphiyr, Strong's #5457), meaning "Sapphire" and is also the origin of the word "Sapphire." The connection between the Sapphire stone and the other words related to it, such as counting, scribe and numbers, may be that the Sapphire is something that is counted.

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