For those that haven't noticed yet, I made it to the Finals of the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards. As of this writing, it doesn't look like I'll end up first - rishon ראשון. But how bad would it be to be acharon אחרון ?
For the answer to this, I'll turn to a book by Avshalom Kor, Higiya Zman Lashon הגיע זמן לשון (strangely translated as It's Time to Tongue), 1994. I found it in my local library, but since it has a number of very interesting articles about things I'd like to write about (and some insights about topics I've already discussed), I'd love to get my own copy. If anyone knows where I can find one - please let me know.
Kor has a chapter in the book (page 63) where he discusses the meaning of the word acharon, generally translated as "last". He quotes Hagai 2:9
גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן, מִן-הָרִאשׁוֹן
"The glory of the acharon house will be greater than that of the rishon house".
Hagai was trying to solace the people who saw the Second Temple being built, but remembered the First Temple and were disappointed. He was telling them that the Second Temple will be more glorious than the first.
Kor then mentions a polemic between Christians and the Rashba about the meaning of acharon. They claim it means "last" - and therefore there will be no Third Temple. Rav Yisrael Rozen also quotes the Rashba here (note that he says "Yishmaelim" instead of Christians):
The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet, from thirteenth century Spain) tells about a debate he had with "one of the wise men of the Yishmaelites" with respect to the future redemption of Bnei Yisrael (responsa, volume 4, 187). The style of the debate was typical of the controversies of the Middle Ages, with both sides liberally quoting from traditional sources.
"He replied to me from another angle, saying: The Torah states that there will be no Temple after the Second Temple (that is, the Temple will not be rebuilt), as is written, 'The glory of this last house (habayit ha'acharon) will be greater than that of the first' [Chagai 2:9]. See, the Second Temple is called the 'last house.' How could this be if another house will be built after it?
"I replied: It is called 'last' only in relation to the first (that is, it is later than the first one, but not last in an absolute sense). This is similar to, 'He put the maid-servants and their children first, and Leah and her children last (acharonim), and Rachel and Yosef last (acharonim)' [Bereishit 33:2]. Leah and her children are called last even though Rachel and Yosef came after them.
"He said: This is true when people talk... but when a prophet, who knows the truth, speaks, it is not so! I replied: No, it even appears in Divine words to a prophet. For example, the Almighty said to Moshe, 'If they do not believe the first sign, they will believe the last sign (acharon). And if they do not believe these two signs, take water from the Nile... And it will be transformed into blood on the ground' [Shemot 4:9-10]. As you see, the second sign was called acharon, even though the sign of the water (the blood) came after it."
There are those who add a note from this week's Torah portion: "The blood will be a sign for you on the houses" [Shmot 12:13]. This is a hint that the sign of the blood, which came after the "last" sign, is a proof relevant to the "houses" - that is, a Third Temple will be built, even though the Second one that preceded it was called "last."
Kor points out that the later "proof" is from the Shelah.
I should mention that the meaning "last" does appear in the Tanach as well - see Shmuel II 2:26, 19:12.
And as Kor points out in another chapter, acharon can also mean "behind", as in Yam HaAcharon ים האחרון - the Mediterranean Sea, which is behind you, when you face forward, to the east. Klein writes that this is the earliest meaning of the word, and connects derivates of the root אחר to a sense of "he was behind, he was late". From here we get meuchar מאוחר - "late", achar אחר - "after", as well as achrai אחראי - "responsible", where Klein writes that the word:
literally denotes a person who stands behind someone or something, for whom or for which he has accepted responsibilitySo if you stand behind me (and please vote here), I can perhaps be acharon (next) and not acharon (last)...