“Zaken,” “seivah,” “yashish,” “kashish,” “yashan,” and “atik” all mean old. Pirkei Avos (5:24) states that a person becomes a zaken at 60 and reaches seivah at 70. Based on this mishnah, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) argues that “seivah” describes someone older than a “zaken” (see also I Samuel 12:2 and Isaiah 46:4).
Interestingly, Rabbi Eliezer Reines writes in Maftechot HaDamesek that “seivah” is a contraction of “seva yamim” (satisfied with days), which refers to the age of 70 (see Rashi and Bartenuro to Avos).
The Radak in Sefer HaShorashim cites Job 15:11, which places “yashish” after “seivah,” leading him to conclude that “yashish” indicates a more advanced age than “seivah.” He accounts for the etymology of yashish by explaining that such a person has existed (“yesh”) for a very long time. Interestingly, “yashish” only appears four times in the Bible – all in the Book of Job.
The Targum translates “yashish” as “kashish.” The only etymological explanation I can find connecting these two words is an unlikely idea proposed by Rabbi Mordechai Tzvi Herzka in Divrei Chachamim. He suggests that aleph, yud, and kuf are interchangeable because, in gematria, they represent the first number in the ones, tens, and hundreds, respectively. Thus, he explains that the yud of “yashish” in Hebrew morphs into the kuf of “kashish” in Aramaic.
(Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter [1743-1826] writes in HaRekhasim LeVikah that “zaken” is used for people and animals, while “yashan” is used for plants and other flora.)
The Targumim tend to translate “zaken” as either “kashish” or “sav.” “Sav” is related to the Hebrew word “seivah,” and both these words form the basis of “saba,” which means “old man” or “grandfather.”
Another word for old is “atik.” The root ayin-tav-kuf in the Bible primarily refers to movement in terms of space (“vayaatek” – see Genesis 12:8 and 26:22). “Atik” is also used to refer to babies who are “weaned” away from nursing (Isaiah 28:9). In later usage, the root came to mean “copy” or “transcribe,” as though one took the information from one document and “moved” it to another.
“Atik” can also, though, refer to something far “removed” in time, i.e., ancient. Daniel refers to G-d as “Atik Yomin – Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9-22). (I used to think that the English word “antique” is a corruption of “atik,” but Rabbi Shaul Goldman told me that linguists parse the word differently: Anti-que is comprised of the prefix ant [“front” or “before”] and uque or okw [“to see”] in the so-called Proto-Indo-European language.)
Another possibly-related word is “vatik.” It is found in the Talmud in the form of “talmid vatik,” which is a veteran disciple or experienced student. The famous poem Yedid Nefesh, ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Azikri (1533-1600), refers to G-d as “vatik,” which one might connect with Him being called “atik.” We also know that men who rise early to pray at the earliest possible time are called vatikin.
In all of these cases, one might be tempted to say that “vatik” refers to being old, or at least an older-timer. However, there is a more plausible explanation: Ernest Klein writes in his etymological dictionary that “vatik” is related to the Arabic word “wathuqa” (firm, solid), as one achieves seniority and distinction by acting dependably and reliably. Accordingly, “vatik” actually refers to dependability/seniority in a specific position and not to any specific age.
A popular folk etymology connects “vatikin” to the Vatican as its leaders also claim to be dependable and reliable. Nonetheless, serious linguists reject this etymology and explain that Vatican is actually derived from the Latin words vates (“soothsayer” or “prophet”) and cano (“sing” or “chant”), and refers to that site previously housing a pagan oracle before it became the center of Christianity.
Insights from Rabbi Pappenheim
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces “zaken” to the root zayin-kuf, which refers to the decomposition of physical items and the discharging of their core components. To this effect, he notes that “mezukak” (Psalms 12:7) refers to refined/unadulterated metal that was melted down in order to expel its impurities, “zikim” (Proverbs 26:18) are projectiles ejected from a launcher, and “zikot” (Isaiah 50:11) are rays of light emanating from the sun. Accordingly, “zaken” refers to old age typified by the breaking down of one’s physical form (or a wise man whose wholly spiritual/intellectual endeavors have made his physical faculties almost obsolete).
Rabbi Pappenheim traces “yashan” to the root shin-nun, which connotes doubling. “Shnei” (two) is derived from this root, thus “mishneh l’melech” (second in command) and “shein” (a tooth – since people grow two sets of teeth: one as a baby and one as a child. Related words are “hishanot” (repetition), “sheinah” (sleep – since the brain rehashes its thoughts during sleep), and “shanah” (year – determined by the sun reaching the same spot as it did before. A yashan is one who has experienced many years.
The root of “yashish” is yud-shin, which means has, is, or exists. “Ish” (man) is derived from this root because a man – i.e., a mature adult – has everything he needs to be successful in life and stands at the pinnacle of his personal existence. “Yashish,” thus, is a man who has remained in the state of adulthood for a long time and is now on the cusp of old age.
Finally, seivah’s root is samech-bet, denoting a circular formation, giving way to words like “sivuv” (encircle), “mesibah” (party, where people sit around a table or guest of honor), and “soveh” (drunkard, who circles the streets looking for his next drink). “Seivah” denotes a person who is nearing the completion of his “circle of life.”