The Hebrew word ne’um (“word”) is overwhelmingly used in the bible to denote the word of G-d, appearing with this usage 362 times out of a total of 363. As applied to human beings, the word ne’um is only used in connection with King David (II Sam. 23:1), King Solomon (Prov. 30:1), and Balaam (Num. 24:3, 24:4, 24:15, 24:16).
What is the significance of ne’um and how does it differ from other words for speech like amirah, dibbur, and sichah?
Menachem, Ibn Janach, and Radak trace the word ne’um to the three-letter root nun-aleph-mem, but Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) contends in Yeriot Shlomo that ne’um is a poetic word used to denote veracity, serving to emphasize that what is being said reflects deliberate and accurate speech.
Rabbi Pappenheim thus explains that the biliteral root of ne’um is aleph-mem, whose core meaning is “if.” Other words derived from aleph-mem include emet (“truth”) and amen/ne’eman (“true,” “trustworthy”). In preaching, ne’um means representing one’s words as absolutely true. Thus, when Jeremiah criticized false prophets for speaking a ne’um, he focused on the fact that they pretended to be telling the truth when he knew they were not. (Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim also connects ne’um with “truth.”)
Even though one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q339) contains a list of false prophets that mentions Balaam, rabbinic tradition maintains that Balaam was not a false prophet but an evil prophet. He tried to induce G-d to convey to him a malevolent prophecy against the Jews, but in the end his prophetic declarations and utterances were true.
Additionally, it seems that King David and King Solomon used the word ne’um to describe their own words because as Divinely chosen kings whatever they said was true or would become true.
While the verb form of ne’um appears only once in the Bible, it is much more common in later post-Biblical Hebrew. For example, the Mishnah (Yevamot 16:7) uses the word numati/nimati to mean “I said” when relating Rabbi Akiva’s report about what he said to a sage in Babylonian about a complex halachic issue. Another form of this word found in the Mishnah is numeinu (“we said”), used in Gittin 6:7 (see also Tosefta, Sanhedrin 2:1, Nazir 4:7).
Halachic Midrashim like Mechilta (to Ex. 12:6, 12:21, 12:43) and Sifrei (Behaalotcha §65, Shelach §110, Pinchas §142) sometimes uses the non-standard phrase nam lo (“he said to him”) instead of the more common expression amar lo, which means the same thing. Interestingly, those works only use this expression when discussing disputes between Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Yoshiyah and not when relating debates between other rabbis!
In his responsa Noda B’Yehudah, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713–1793) points out that the common Talmudic term neimah (“let’s say”) is also a cognate of the Hebrew word ne’um and Aramaic nam.
In a poem customarily recited on Yom Kippur Mussaf, we pray to G-d: “Remember, O You who said (namta) ‘testimony shall not be forgotten from the mouth of his descendants.’” Abudraham explains that the word namta in this poem serves as a cognate of the Hebrew word ne’um. Rabbi Pappenheim, however, argues that the word cannot be read as namta, as that would mean “you who slumbered.” Instead, Rabbi Pappenheim suggests that the proper rendering of the word should be ne’umta (if the poet meant to follow a biblical Hebrew style), or numita (if following rabbinic Hebrew style).
Rabbi Pappenheim also mentions an alternate version that registers the word as sachta, a cognate of the word sichah, and endorses that version. This alternate version is also found in the Machzor edited by Ernst Daniel Goldschmidt (1895–1972). Nevertheless, Rabbi Landau ultimately concludes that namta as “You said” is also correct.
There are three more Hebrew words which refer to speech or speaking:
Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak trace the words yichaveh (Ps. 19:3), achaveh (Job 13:7, 32:10, 32:17), and the like to the triliteral root chet-vav-hey. Similarly, Menachem Ibn Saruk traces those words to the biliteral root chet-vav. However, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root chet-vav itself derives from the roots chet-yod (“life”) and/or aleph-chet (“brotherhood,” “unity”), both of which ultimately derive from the monoliteral root chet.
As Rabbi Pappenheim explains, speech in the sense of yichaveh/achaveh gives “life” to an idea by expressing it verbally instead of leaving it hidden away in one’s thoughts. In accounting for the interchangeability of vav and yod in this instance, Rabbi Pappenheim adduces the case of the vav in the name Chava (Eve), which is said by the Bible to be related to the word chai (Gen. 3:20), spelled with a yod. Alternatively, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that yichaveh/achaveh relates to the word ach (“brother”), because speech creates connection and comradery by linking the speaker with the listener.
Rabbi Pappenheim explains that yabia (Ps. 19:3) and abiah (Ps. 78:2) in the sense of “speaking” are derived from the two-letter root bet-ayin, which refers to “revealing from beneath the surface.” This root also yields the word mabua/novea (Prov. 18:4, Ecc. 12:6, Isa. 35:7), i.e., a “wellspring” whose waters spring forth from a hidden, underground source.
Similarly, yabia/abiah refers to speech as an expression that flows from the depths of one’s heart and reveals itself in an attention-grabbing way. Siddur HaRokeach and Peirush HaRokeach likewise explain that yabia/abiah entails speaking continuously, non-stop, like an ever-flowing “wellspring.”
The words yasiach (Ps. 119:23), asichah (Ps. 55:18, 77:4-13, 119:15, 145:5, Job 7:11) and the infinitive la’suach (Gen. 24:63) are related to the word siach/sichah (“speech”). Rabbi Pappenheim sees sin-chet as a derivative of samech-chet (“uprooting,” “removing,” “transferring”), explaining that it refers to the type of speech that involves a stream of consciousness and/or wandering of the mind intended to help the speaker forget about (i.e., “uproot”) his sorrows. Similarly, Peirush HaRokeach writes that sichah refers to speaking about a variety of topics/examples in one speech/conversation, which can be looked at as somebody “transferring” the discussion from one subject to another.