Sunday, May 01, 2022


A reader asked about the word shidah שִׁדָּה, translated by Morfix as "dresser, chest of drawers." That seemed like an easy task - but I didn't know what I was getting into.

The word shidah appears in only one verse in the entire Tanach. It appears twice in the verse, so I don't know if it counts as a hapax legomenon, but it certainly suffers from the same fate that other such words do - without multiple appearances, they are hard to translate. In this case, it's even harder, because the context of the verse itself leaves nearly infinite possible interpretations.

It appears in the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a section where the king is boasting about his possessions. Here is the Hebrew:

כָּנַסְתִּי לִי גַּם־כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וּסְגֻלַּת מְלָכִים וְהַמְּדִינוֹת עָשִׂיתִי לִי שָׁרִים וְשָׁרוֹת וְתַעֲנֻגוֹת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת

And the English (but I'm not translating - yet - our word shidah)

I further amassed silver and gold and treasures of kings and provinces; and I got myself male and female singers, and the pleasures of people, shida v’shidot. (Kohelet 2:8)

This is an incredibly difficult phrase to translate. What does shidah mean here? Why is the singular shida followed by the plural shidot?  Even the punctuation is hard to place properly, but I'll leave that aside for now. 

All we can really say is that it's something (or a set of things) that a king would list among his treasured possessions.

This question did not escape the Sages. In the Talmud (Gittin 68b), two interpretations are offered:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת הָכָא תַּרְגִּימוּ שֵׁידָה וְשֵׁידְתִין בְּמַעְרְבָא אָמְרִי שִׁידְּתָא

I'll translate the passage as follows:

"Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted the phrase as follows: 'male and female demons' [shedim]. In the West [= in the Land of Israel], they said it means shiddeta."

Let's put aside the "demon" translation. As Rav Hai Gaon (quoted by the Arukh) noted, this is a drash, and not the plain meaning of the verse in Kohelet. But what about the "Western" translation? I once again haven't translated it into English!

Well, if you look at the English translations, they say that in the Land of Israel they translated shidah and shidot as "carriages." This is clearly due to the influence of Rashi, the preeminent Talmudic commentator, who writes here that shiddeta (and shidah) refer to carriages for women and nobles: שידתא - שידה עגלה למרכבת נשים ושרים.

But with all due respect to Rashi, I'm not convinced that this is the only (or best) interpretation of the Talmudic passage, and as a result, the meaning of the verse in Kohelet.

The term shidah appears repeatedly throughout the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmuds. It frequently is part of a set, a shidah, a teiva, and a migdal - שִׁדָּה תֵּבָה וּמִגְדָּל. All of these are types of furniture. The Steinsaltz English translation renders them, for example in Mishna Shabbat 16:5, as "a box, a chest, and a closet." (The Ben Yehuda dictionary says the difference between these types of boxes is not clear). These identifications, or something similar to them, are offered by most translators, including Rambam. Rashi is the exception, who in almost all cases associates shidah with carriages (see the examples brought here). 

Why does he do that? I couldn't find any obvious examples in the Talmudic or Midrashic literature where shidah means carriage. There is mention of a shidah having wheels (Mishna Kelim 18:1-2), but this doesn't appear to be referring to carriages intended for nobles.

(The only possible exception is a midrash quoted by Torah Temimah on Kohelet 2:8, but I couldn't find the midrash anywhere, and in his commentary on the midrash he quotes Rashi. So something strange is going on.)

I assume the topic has been researched, and it's very likely I simply haven't seen more established theories. But here's my suggestion. I think that Rashi was trying to be consistent across all of his commentaries when he was defining words (this is something that Avineri discusses in his Heichal Rashi). In his commentary on Kohelet 2:8, Rashi writes:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת. מַרְכְּבוֹת נוֹי, עֶגְלוֹת צָב, וּבִלְשׁוֹן גְּמָרָא יֵשׁ: שִׁדָּה, תֵּיבָה וּמִגְדָּל:

This is translated as:

Beautiful coaches, covered wagons, a term used in the Gemara, "a coach [shidah], a chest and a closet."

So once again, Rashi is willing to interpret the shidah in the furniture set as a carriage (or coach). I think that this may be the source of the rest of his explanations. Why would a king boast about having a box or a closet? However, a particular kind of container, a carriage, does have royal associations. (See for example the apriyon, "litter", mentioned with King Shlomo in Shir HaShirim 3:9). So to explain Kohelet, Rashi extends his understanding of the word to other contexts, even when they don't fit as well. 

I admire Rashi's consistency here, but I don't know if it's required in this case. As I mentioned, it's incredibly hard to interpret shidah veshidot in Kohelet, and it simply might not be related to the shidah found in the Talmud. That certainly appears to be the opinion of Ibn Ezra, who writes in his commentary to Kohelet:

וענין שדה ושדות. הם הנשים ויורה עליו ותענוגות בני האדם ועוד שהזכיר דברי כל תאוות העולם מבנין ונטיעה ומקנה וסגולה ושמוע שירים ואין זכרון לנשים ונחלקו המפרשים במלת שדה והטוב שבכולם שהוא מן שדד הנשים השדודות הנלקחות בחזקה בשוד ושביה שיבחר מהן כפי תאותו וענין שדה ושדות אחת ורבות כמו רחם רחמתים לראש גבר בעלת רחם אשה אחת ושתים והענין שלא תאמר אחת לבדה כי יש מי שתפש שתים:

To summarize his comment, he says that shida and shidot means "women." His evidence is that the verse earlier mentions the "pleasures of people" and the earlier verses relate to all kinds of other desires, but don't mention women, which would be expected. He derives shidah from the root שדד, "to plunder", indicating women taken as captives. 

Ibn Ezra's explanation is accepted by a number of modern scholars as well, who also find support in an Ugaritic cognate meaning "woman" (see Daat Mikra on Kohelet, and Kaddari's dictionary).

But there are many more suggestions for the meaning of shidah in Kohelet, as well as the etymology of the word. Here are a few:

  • chests (Artscroll), coffers (New JPS)  - these translations (and others) are like Rashi in that they try to find consistency between shidah in Kohelet, and the appearances in later Rabbinic Hebrew. By translating the phrase as "chests and chests of them", it indicates an impressive quantity of the pleasures mentioned earlier, which they translate as "luxuries." That could indeed be fit for a king. As far as etymology, one theory that I've seen, connects shidah to shed שד, "breast." I think it is noteworthy that in English as well, "chest" can refer to both a box and to the breast, both holding something (in the latter case, the heart.)
  • wine, cup bearer, goblets - These renderings are found in the ancient Septuagint, Peshitta and Vulgate translations. BDB says these may be related to the Aramaic שדא - "to pour out."
  • musical instruments - this is the suggestion of Ralbag, who says they were shaped like boxes. This would fit with the previous phrase, "male and female singers."
Perhaps most the most audacious suggestion comes from Shadal, who suggests the verse in Kohelet should have a different vocalization, and says it should be read as sadeh שדה - "field." While that is certainly an interesting idea, I generally feel that such emendations should only be a last resort.