Monday, October 07, 2019

nusach and nesiya

What is the origin of the Hebrew word nusach נוסח?

Before we delve into the etymology, let's discuss the meaning. Morfix offers "wording, version, style." This is true in the general sense, as in the wording of a particular document. More specifically, when discussing Jewish prayer, as the Wikipedia entry notes, nusach refers to "the style of a prayer service," signifying "the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition."

The related word, nuscha נוסחה means "formula, equation" and is used primarily in mathematical and scientific contexts.

Now to the origin. The original word, from Aramaic, was actually nuscha. It doesn't appear in Talmudic Aramaic, but rather first appears in the writings of the Geonim. Klein has the following entry:

נֻסְחָה f.n. MH 1 copy. 2 text, version. 3 formula. [From Aram. נֻסְחָא (= copy), which is prob. a loan word from Akka. nisḫu, nusḫu (= excerpt, copy), Arab. nusḫa (= copy), is prob. an Aram. loan word.]

 For nusach, he writes that it is a back formation from nuscha.

The authoritative dictionary of Akkadian, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, mentions the root nishu in a number of locations. (In this PDF, look at pages 23, 31, 289, 291.) Nishu derives from an earlier word, nasahu, meaning "to remove." The CAD provides many different contexts and usages for that sense of "remove." For nuscha meaning "excerpt", they also offer the meaning "extract", which, as in English, has a sense of "remove". Copy, excerpt and extract find their modern day senses in the word processing terms of "cut/copy/paste."

While nuscha only appears in post-Talmudic literature, a related root can be found in the Bible. This is the root נסח, which while appearing in that form in Devarim 28:63, is more commonly found in spoken Hebrew today in the hifil form, where the initial letter nun is dropped. The verb הסיח means "to remove, to put aside, to deflect" and appears in as a noun in the phrase hesech daat היסח דעת - "distraction" (literally, "removal of the mind.")

Dr. Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, in his book An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (page 241), makes an interesting connection between the root נסח and another, much more common root נסע  - "to travel":

The Biblical Hebrew verb נסע, a variant of נסח, is attested at least 9 times in reference to pulling, uprooting an object. ... e.g., הסיע גפן/עץ "uproot a vine tree" (Ps 80:9; Job 19:10) ... Accordingly, the semantic development of נסע = נסח is: "pull off the pegs of the tent > break camp > move off > travel."

From the root נסע, we get the words masa מסע - "journey" and nesiya נסיעה - "trip."

So we've gone from nusach to nesiya. What a trip it's been!