In the Book of Genesis, God says to Cain after he slays his brother that anyone who kills the surviving sibling will be subject to “sevenfold” vengeance (“shivatayim yukam”). The classical biblical commentators offer various opinions on what the word (pronounced shee-va-TA-yeem) means: Perhaps revenge will be taken after seven (“sheva” or “shiv’ah”) generations, or perhaps the vengeance will be seven times as strong. The Renaissance-era Italian exegete Sforno even comments on the doubled form of “shivatayim,” which has the same ending as words like “hodshayim” (two months) and “shnatayim” (two years); he says “shivatayim” means seven times two, adding the punishment was so severe because Cain represented such a large proportion of the human population at the time.
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The word “shivatayim” is still used in modern Hebrew, but if Sforno and his fellow exegetes were to hear it in use today, they would probably drive themselves crazy trying to do the nonexistent math when they heard it in statements like the rhyming tooth-whitening ad “Halbanat shinayim, hayom ze kal shivatayim” (“Tooth whitening, sevenfold easier today”). As in that example, in contemporary usage, the word – though recognized as deriving from “seven” – is generally not used to denote a specific number. Instead, it means “a lot more” or “many times over” in a general way. As Cain himself might say if asked what has happened to “shivatayim” since biblical days: “Am I my word’s keeper?”