This root has a few meanings in Tanach: the verbs “count,” and “tell a story,” and the nouns “sefer” (= letter or scroll), and “sofer” (scribe). A major issue is whether all these meanings are related.
Let us first address the easy question. Is there a relationship between “count” and “tell a story”? There is such a phenomenon in English as well: “to count,” and “to recount” a story. Also, an “accountant” works with numbers, but a newspaper “account” is a retelling of a story. The word “tell” also had an original meaning of “count.” Think of a bank “teller.”
A relationship between the words for counting and telling a story is found in other languages as well, such as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian and Spanish. See, e.g., the column of Philologos of Jan. 12, 2014 in The Forward, and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 626. These languages are Indo-European languages, not related to Hebrew and the other Semitic languages.
The simplest explanation for all of this is that a story is the sum of details, and in telling a story there has been an enumeration and ordering of all the details. In Hebrew it means “to count” in the kal construct and to “recount, enumerate, tell a story” in the piel construct.
Now let us move to the hard question. Are the nouns “sefer” and “sofer” related to the “count” meaning?
First we have to define the nouns properly. The meanings of “sefer” in Tanach are: an inscription, a document, a letter, and a scroll (e.g., texts gathered together in the format of a scroll). Let us assume that the fundamental meaning of all of these is a “writing.” (The word “sefer” appears 185 times in Tanach. It never means “book,” like a bound modern book, but sometimes means “scroll.”)
As to “sofer,” it probably originally meant one who produces such a “sefer.” (A “sofer” may typically have been someone employed at a high level in the government. See Soncino comm. to Ezra 7:6. Interestingly, the word “sofer” does not appear in the Torah. It only appears in Nach.)
Modern scholars early on took the approach that the word “sefer,” with its assumed fundamental meaning of “writing,” was probably derived from Akkadian. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906). There was a word in Akkadian, “shipru”=message/letter, derived from the verb “shaparu”= to send, write, and this was viewed as the source for the Hebrew word “sefer.” More recently, it was discovered that S-P-R was also used in Ugaritic with the meaning “document.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 267. So in this approach, the Hebrew word “sefer” was derived from either Akkadian or Ugaritic.
Those who took the above approach did so because there was no verb in Biblical Hebrew “S-P-R” that meant “to write.” They further rejected any connection between the “writing” and “count” meanings. See, e.g., the Philologos column cited above.
But a widespread view today is willing to assume a connection between the “writing” and “count” meanings. See, e.g., the Kohler-Baumgartner lexicon, p. 765, and E. Klein, p. 439, entry for “sofer.” Unfortunately, neither of these two sources give an explanation for their thinking.
One suggestion I have seen is that “Biblical writings in general...were meticulously composed according to compositional techniques in which counting played a crucial role.” I do not like this vague suggestion.
The Kohler-Baumgartner lexicon is willing to claim that Ps. 87:6 is a verse where the verb S-P-R means “make a written record.” This is likely one of their reasons for assuming a connection between the verb S-P-R and “writing.” But I disagree with their reading this “written record” meaning into this verse. Since there are 106 other verses where the verb S-P-R does not mean “write” (or “make a written record”), there is a very strong presumption that that is the case in Ps. 87:6 as well. (Even if the verb did mean “write” here, this might simply be a later meaning of the verb that evolved from the noun “sofer.”)
A suggestion that deserves consideration is that the earliest writings were markings where items were being counted. Then the “writing” meaning of the verb S-P-R expanded to “counting.” Or perhaps the noun “sefer” originally meant “list” or “collection of words/ideas,” before it expanded to mean “writing.” Then we could connect it to the “count” and “recount, enumerate” meanings of the verb S-P-R. See, e.g., Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 5:1, and Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. II, p. 806.
A few other observations on this issue:
—At Ps. 56:9, we have both the “count” meaning (second word) and the “scroll” meaning (last word). But this is likely just wordplay.
—There is a passage at Kiddushin 30a that “soferim” were called this because they counted all the letters in the Torah. The passage then gives a few examples, e.g., the vav in the word gachon (Lev. 11:42) is the midpoint of all the letters in the Torah. Of course, the Biblical word “sofer” appears even outside of Torah writing.
—The word for “count” in some of the other Semitic languages is mem-nun-yod (or mem-nun-vav), related to the Hebrew “M-N-H.” Based on this, we can at least speculate that MNY/MNV/MNH was the original Semitic word for “count,” and that “S-P-R” could have meant “write” initially.
To conclude, whether the nouns “sefer” and “sofer” are related to the meanings of S-P-R as a verb is still a matter of dispute. See Theological Dictionary, p. 309. But it is very reasonable to take the position that all these words were originally related, just that the details of the original relationship have not been precisely determined yet. In this way, we do not have to look to Akkadian or Ugaritic for the origin of the word “sefer” and its derivative “sofer.”
What about the “cut” meaning of S-P-R? This meaning is not found in Tanach. It is found in Aramaic and, like many Aramaic words, it became integrated into Hebrew. See, e.g., Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:2 (haircuts by idol worshippers). Of course, I am not denying that a lot of storytelling goes on in a barbershop (=misparah), as my friend Yehuda Miller suggested to me!
We also have “sapir” (=sapphire, a gemstone) several times in Tanach. Most likely this is a shortened form of “sanpir” and not a Semitic word. (It means “dear to Saturn.”)
What about the Kabbalistic terms “sefira” and “sefirot”? These derive from the Greek word “sphaira” meaning “ball, globe, sphere,” which gives us English words like “sphere” and “atmosphere.”
Finally, Arabic has a word “safar”= journey, related to the Akkadian/Ugaritic “send” meaning mentioned above. This led to the Swahili word: “safari.”
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is an expert in counting (chronology) and writing (etymology). He does not (yet) travel the spheric world and go on safaris. He can be reached at [email protected]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.