Word of the Day Sha'on: How Diaspora in Ancient Babylon Brought Meaning to Time

It took a rabbi to find a short solution to a long-standing problem of what to call a clock.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The ingenious contraptions by which we tell time, whether watches or clocks, are called by Hebrew speakers "sha'on" (sha-ON) in the singular and "sha'onim" (sha-o-NIM) in the plural.

The ancient Hebrews didn’t have a concept of an hour as they didn’t have any accurate timepieces, thus the Hebrew word for hour - "sha'ah" - carries a different meaning in the Bible. Rather, it is a verb meaning “to turn.” For example in Isaiah: “At that day shall a man turn to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.” (17:7)

Later, after the exile to Babylonia the word sha’ah, influenced by the identical Aramaic word, picked up the sense of both a non-definite time period and a relative time period equal to a 1/12 (or possibly a different fraction) of the night or day that changes according to season.

An example of the non-definite meaning can be seen in this passage of the Mishnah: “He who passes the box and was mistaken, will have someone else go in his place, and will not refuse it at that moment.” (Brachot 5:3) and as a relative time period can be seen in this Mishanh passage: “It is the manner of the son’s of kings to rise at the third hour.” (Brachot 1:2)

Later, in the Middle Ages with the development of more accurate timepieces, the word sha’ah took on the meaning of a 60-minute time period as we know it today. At first, writers felt the need to distinguish these accurate timings from the relative hours of the ancients and called these hours straight hours ("sha’ah yeshara"), contrasted with crooked hours ("sha’ah akula").

This can be seen in the work of Abraham bar Hiyya ha-Nasi, a Jewish mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, also known as Savasorda, who lived in 12th-century Iberia. In his book “Form of the Earth” he wrote: “And if you add the hours of the day to the hours of the night together they will be 24 straight hours, and each and every one of the days and nights that are unequal are split throughout the whole world to 12 parts and each is called a crooked hour.” After a while “crooked” hours were forgotten and the word sha’ah was sufficient.

Hebrew writers came up with a variety of names for clocks before the word sha’on was devised. Among them were the word sha’ah itself, "klisha'ah" and "klishaot" (an instrument of hour or hours), as well as, "moreh shaot" (shower of hours), which caught on and made it into the 20th century. But it was long and cumbersome. A shorter, pithier name was required.

Along came Rabbi Yichiel Michal Pines and added the suffix -on to the word sha’ah to form the the word sha’on. And since then, despite some rumbling of critics, the word caught on and today we all use Pines’ word without thinking about it.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Credit: Tali Shani

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