Hebrew Wordshops - A New Way to Connect to Hebrew: Books that Count

Written by Dr. Jeremy Benstein, "Hebrew Wordshops - A New Way to Connect to Hebrew" explores the potency of the three-letter roots that enrich our connection to Hebrew and Jewish values. 

The root of sefer, ס-פ-ר (s-p-r), gives us two phrases that at first seem unrelated, even opposite: לְסַפֵּר סִיפּוּר l’saper sipur means "to tell a story," while לִסְפּוֹר מִסְפָּרִים lispor misparim is "to count numbers." "Storytelling" and "counting" define the modern era's two cultures, which are often seen as being diametric opposites: humanities and the exact sciences, qualitative and quantitative.

But Hebrew knows no such dichotomy, treating them as related modes of reckoning, valuing, and evaluating the world. And in fact, English sometimes does the same thing, as with "counting" and "recounting," "telling" and "tallying."

There’s another homonym root that sounds like it could be connected. This root from the same three letters, ס-פ-ר, means "cut," giving us the words תִּסְפּוֹרֶת tisporet, "haircut," and מִסְפָּרַיִים misparayim, "scissors."

And what makes more sense than the barber, sapar, being the medium for many stories and tales? After all, the word for gossip in Hebrew, רְכִילוּת r’chilut, is probably related to רוֹכֵל rochel, a traveling salesman.

The actual connection between sapar and sipur, barber and story, may have come about because the first writing was actually inscribing, with a stick or stylus, and thus closer to a cutting action. Literary style, then, may indeed cut both ways. 

The noun סֵפֶר sefer appears in the Bible, probably meaning "letter" or "document." Only later did the word "book" become central to literacy and education, giving us the words for "school," בֵּית סֵפֶר, beit sefer, literally meaning "book house," and "library," סִפְרִיָּיה, sifriyah.

What we call a "book" today is technically better termed a "codex," a bound set of papers with writing on both sides. This type of book dates back to the first and second centuries CE, when it supplanted the previous print technology, the scroll, known in Hebrew as מְגִילָּה megillah, from the root ג-ל-ל (g-l-l), “roll."

Ironically, the digital technologies that threaten the continued existence of the printed book have brought "scroll" back in fashion, now as a verb, not a noun, performed with a mouse, not a quill, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have noted: "Textuality has come full circle. From tablet to tablet, from scroll to scroll" (Jews and Words, p. 8).

Perhaps it isn't so strange after all that stories and counting use the same word, given that the symbols of the Hebrew alef bet are commonly used as both letters and numbers. Each Hebrew letter has its own numerical equivalency, so letters are frequently used for dates, in citing chapter and verse from texts, and in gematria, a style of interpretation that compares numerical values of different words or phrases.

So in both mathematical and textual form, the idea of סֵפֶר sefer is an integral part of Jewish tradition and the history of Hebrew in ancient and modern times.


Benstein is the author of the recently released Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World.


Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and connect with us on social media!