The word sheol and its various forms appear close to seventy times in the Bible. Sheol’s literal meaning is “grave.” Interestingly, Ibn Ezra to Gen. 37:35 criticizes the Christian Vulgate for translating sheol in that verse into the Latin infernus (“inferno”), because Ibn Ezra maintains that sheol literally means grave. However, Rashi (there) explains that although the plain meaning of sheol is “grave,” exegetically it can refer to the post-mortem purgatory of the soul. The Malbim writes that sheol literally means a deep pit from which it is impossible to get out. This applies to both a “grave” and gehinnom.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that the root of the word sheol is SHIN-LAMMED which denotes something “thrown away” or “negated.” That meaning extends to the grave because death marks the onset of a plane of existence which is “away” from the realm of the living. My friend Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams takes a more exhortative approach in his book Root Connections in the Torah. He writes (p. 274): “The grave is called sheol because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big question (sheilah) mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed.”
Alternatively, we propose another connection between the word sheilah and sheol: sheol literally means “deep pit”, which serves as a metaphor for one who asks a question. A question creates a burning need for an answer. Just as a deep pit serves as a portal to the empty abyss, a question leaves a gaping hole in the questioner’s mind that begs to be filled.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
ANSWER: R’ Shlomo Papenheim (in Cheshek Shlomo and Yeriot Shlomo), holds that the underlying root of ‘שאל’ is actually the biliteral ‘של’, meaning that the aleph (one of the weak האמנתי”ו letters) is extraneous despite its middle position in the word. ‘של’ essentially means removing, as in שַׁל נְעָלֶיךָ (שמות ג:ה) – “remove”, from the root ‘נשל’ according to Radak (as in: וְנָשַׁל הַבַּרְזֶל מִן הָעֵץ [דברים יט:ה] “flying off,” וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ [שם ז:א] – “cast away”). The following is how he suggests שאול and שאלה are connected to ‘של’.
From the essential meaning of “removal” comes שאול, a place where the body is removed to upon death. And שאלה in the sense of borrowing (Ex. 22:13) essentially means removing an item, sometimes never to be returned (ibid. 3:22). שאלה in the sense of “asking” in essence is a request for someone to impart a portion of his knowledge, an action the providing an answer may not always be eager to do, such as when the information is proprietary, or confidential for some other reason. In any case, once an answer is provided, the “cat’s out of the bag”; it no longer belongs exclusively to the answerer – it has been removed from its previous possessor’s sole custody.
Other examples of of “phantom alephs” are “שאט”, whose Aramaic counterpart is 1. “שט”, per Rashi, 2. “צאלים”, per Ibn Ezra, 3. “חלאמה”, per Radak, as follows:
יחז’ טז:נז – בנות פלשתים השאטות אותך מסביב; רש”י – השאטות – לשון בזיון, ולא קרינן ‘א’. ויבז (בר’ כה:לד) מתרגמינן: ושט. אב”ע איוב מ:כא – צאלים – כמו צללים והא’ תחת אות הכפל כמו אשר בזאו (ישע’ יח:ב). רד”ק ש”ב י:יז – חלאמה – הוא חלם הנזכר והה’ כה’ מצרימה והא’ נוספת למשך.
Rabbi Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg