Etymology of Modern Hebrew: Words in School

Almost all Hebrew words are built upon root letters called a shoresh (שורש), and are formed in such ways that small manipulations can create many different but related meanings.

As we get ready to go back to school, let’s examine the many words stemming from the root ס-פ-ר (s-f-r), starting with the Hebrew word for school, beit sefer (בית ספר).

Books, Stories, and Scribes

Sefer, Sipur, Sofer

ספר, סיפור, סופר

The term beit sefer (בית ספר), literally translates to “house of book,” yet it is more commonly recognized simply as “school.” This word finds its origins in the Mishna, a written compilation of oral Jewish legal traditions. To the Sages at this time, the “book” they refer to was clearly the Torah and the “house” was where the children would go to study Torah. 

In the 18th century, the term beit sefer was expanded to describe a place of learning and teaching of either secular or religious content.

The word sipur (סיפור, “story”) also comes from this Hebrew root. This connection invites us to reflect on our school activities: here, we engage in learning about others’ narratives while becoming the authors of our own. The verb l’saper (לספר), to tell something like a story, also comes from this root.

Numbers and Counting



Misparim (מספרים) means “numbers.” Numbers themselves also tell stories. As you participate in math class consider the stories that numbers tell. The verb lispor (לספור, “to count”) also comes from this root.

Misparim also have their origins in the Torah in the book of Bamidbar. We refer to the book of Bamidbar (literally meaning “in the desert”) as the Book of Numbers. This is because, at the beginning of the book, God instructs Moses to count the number of Israelites.




The modern Hebrew word for scissors, misparayim (מספריים), uses the same root. This is an interesting word since it takes the Hebrew plural noun form (ending with a yud and mem) and yet it is a singular object. When we use scissors to make art, we are cutting materials and creating something different and creative.

Consider putting all of these ideas together:

At beit sefer, we may use misparayim to cut things. This also shares the same root as the verb meaning “tell a story.” The words we choose can also be used to make metaphorical cuts. As we enter the new year, we can consider how we use our words—to trim for improvement or cut to cause harm. In this context, our tools are both scissors and words—only we can choose what we do with them.


תחנות יסוד קשורות בתחום החינוך לישראל

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