We have now reached the word של [Shel], which indicates ownership and possession. The main derivatives of this word are שלי [sheli] which means ‘mine’, שלך [shelcha] which means ‘yours’ and שלנו [shelanu] which means ‘ours’. The word של doesn’t appear in the Torah. It the first word on our frequency list which comes from Rabbinic rather than Biblical Hebrew. Rabbinic Hebrew is the language of the Mishnah and the Midrash. Although it has many things in common with Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew has its own grammar and vocabulary. Modern Hebrew was based on Rabbinic Hebrew.
In the bible, if you wanted to indicate possession, you used a combination of the words ‘אשר ל … ’ meaning ‘that is to’. For example, the verse וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר לְאַהֲרֹן – And they made Aaron’s clothes … [Ex.39:1] or וַיִּשְׁחַט אֶת-עֵגֶל הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ– He slaughtered his sin offering [Lev. 9:8]. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the word אשר meaning ‘that’ is usually shortened to the one letter prefix ש at the beginning of a word. The phrase אשר הלך in biblical Hebrew becomes שהלך in Rabbinic Hebrew.
Therefore, when the Mishnah wants to show the possessive, instead of saying אשר ל is uses 2 prefixs ש and ל. We can see this development very clearly in good manuscripts of the Mishnah.
In the picture you can see a section from the Kaufmann manuscript, one of the earliest manuscripts of the Mishnah. You can see clearly the phrase שלכהנים שללוים ושלישראל – of the priests, of the Levites and of the Israelites. From here, it was only a short development for the 2 letter prefix ש and ל to become a separate word – של – later in the Rabbinic or post Rabbinic period.
The only problem with this theory is that we can find the word של in some of the manuscripts that were found in Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls. That ruins our theory, because these scrolls predate the Mishnah. This suggests that the word של already existed before the Mishnah. If so, why does של appear as a double prefix in the manuscripts of the Mishnah?
One possible explanation is that the Dead Sea scrolls represent the Hebrew that was spoken in Judea, whereas the Mishnah represents the Hebrew of the Galilee. It is possible that the word של first emerged in Judea and only later did it enter the Galilean dialect.
In any case, the word של as a separate word was well established by the end of the Rabbinic period. Over time, early texts were ‘corrected’ by the scribes to reflect the later development of the language. The word של now exists only in its separate form. So much so – that it is now the 5th most common word in Hebrew .
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.