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I understand the word Shemesh comes from Shamash which means to serve. According to Jewish philosophy, why is the sun called a servant? Why is it more of a servant than the moon, or the wind, or even grass?

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  • I asked this question under the assumption that there was a p'shat that had a good lesson to learn from it. It wasn't just a random "why is the sun called Shemesh" but rather "does anyone know a good vort on this topic because I vaguely remember such".
    – Tzvi
    May 9, 2014 at 20:47
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    This question isn't about language in the etymological sense; it's looking for a drush about the word - just like Chazal so often do for both Hebrew and Aramaic words (such as אלמנה - על שם מנה and in countless other places). The Shelah, Maharal, and so many more thinkers have given philosophical insights based on similar ideas, which have to do with theology, not etymology. (In short: I think this questions shouldn't be on hold. Maybe it can be reworded to say 'is there a lesson to be learned from...') May 11, 2014 at 1:37
  • Thank you @Matt that was my intention exactly. You explained it perfectly
    – Tzvi
    May 11, 2014 at 14:11

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Zohar Chadash (Beraishis 518) states that the sun is so called because it 'serves' humanity and sustains all life - משמש את הכל. This is also quoted in the relatively obscure Midrash Tadshe, no. 20, and a similar reason is given by the Maharal (Chidushei Agados Nedarim 7b). I believe this theory better explains why the sun, as opposed to the stars or constellations, was given this name, as it literally does support all of life on earth more than any other astrological body.

The theory that it needs to be emphasized that it's one of God's servants because people were wont to serve the sun (see Rambam Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:1) is one that I've heard as well, but cannot find a source for it.

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  • I've never heard my vort before. I thought it was my own chiddush lol
    – Tzvi
    May 9, 2014 at 20:48
  • I think it's the Meshech Chochmah -- originally the sun was "the great illuminator", but Avraham Avinu coined the term "shemesh", from the Aramaic for servant, to highlight that the sun should not be worshiped, as it's just doing God's bidding.
    – Shalom
    Sep 7, 2022 at 10:56
  • @Tzvi after 3,000 years of Jewish history, chiddishim are very rare lol
    – ezra
    Sep 7, 2022 at 12:08
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I had a nice thought, but of course no mekor, since I thought of it: The sun is one of the most powerful forces that humans know of. Perhaps God knew that one day people would worship other forces in the world other than Him chas veshalom. He knew that the sun would be a prime candidate for such worshipping, because of it's tremendous force and clear beneficence to this world. Therefore, He gave it a name that contains the root "servant" in it to show very clearly that the sun is only a servant of Hashem.

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  • In Breishit, in the story of creation, the sun and moon are called "me'orot" - "things that make light". Then it states that G-d placed the sun and moon "limshol bayom uvalayla" - and there is a debate as to what the word "limshol" means. One of the translations means "to rule" and another means "to be an example" (not sure , an example for what?) If you accept the first exmaple, "ruling" like a king, a king "serves" his people. (at least that is the Judaic concept of what a Jewish king SHOULD do.)
    – DanF
    May 9, 2014 at 15:04
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A personal theory: When Abraham grew up in Ur, he became familiar with the Babylonian myths. He rejected most of them along with the idols that his father made. But he kept some of the stories and names that he grew up with.

Shamash was the Akkadian name of the sun god. In mythology, Shamash was the sun of the moon god Sin, and thus the sibling of the goddess Ishtar. In later Babylonian astral mythology, Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar formed a major triad of divinities, which still today plays an important role in astrological systems, though under different names: Moon, Sun and Venus.

Whether because Abraham brought the name with him from Ur, or because of the linguistic connections between Akkadian and semitic languages generally, Shemash and Shamash are basically the same word for the same thing, except in Judaism the sun is just the sun, not a deity.

Note: the following is speculative, but the linguistic connection is not. In Canaanite myths, Shemesh appears several times as El's messenger. This could be a clue about why he is considered a servant. Also in the Babylonian myths, Shamesh is the son while Sin [the Moon] is the Father, so Shamash naturally takes the subordinate role. In Israelite tradition the moon was more important than the sun in terms of both festivals and the calendar. Finally, on the menorah, the Shamash is a sun-like candle that serves the others with its flame. About the grass: in science, the sun serves the grass, not vice versa.

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