Deuteronomy 17:6:

עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם עֵדִ֗ים א֛וֹ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה עֵדִ֖ים יוּמַ֣ת הַמֵּ֑ת לֹ֣א יוּמַ֔ת עַל־פִּ֖י עֵ֥ד אֶחָֽד׃

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall the dead person be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.

Usually, the adjectival form in Hebrew for "two" is שני. I would expect the Torah to have used the form שני עדים, in this verse. Why is the term שְׁנַ֣יִם עֵדִ֗ים used here?

Compare the usage of שְׁנַ֣יִם, here, with

Deuteronomy 19:15:

לֹֽא־יָקוּם֩ עֵ֨ד אֶחָ֜ד בְּאִ֗ישׁ לְכָל־עָוֺן֙ וּלְכָל־חַטָּ֔את בְּכָל־חֵ֖טְא אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶֽחֱטָ֑א עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ שְׁנֵ֣י עֵדִ֗ים א֛וֹ עַל־פִּ֥י שְׁלֹשָֽׁה־עֵדִ֖ים יָק֥וּם דָּבָֽר׃

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.

It is the same idea being discussed, but, the more common adjectival format, שְׁנֵ֣י is used.


2 Answers 2


First of all, from a strictly grammatical perspective, the use of this numeral is not particularly strange. While it also might not be particularly common, it does occur like this in other contexts as well. So, for example, שנים חדשים in 1 Kings 5:28, שנים כרֻבים in Exodus 25:18 and שתים נשים in 1 Kgs 3:16.

If you want to see some grammars that mention this as a normal function of the numeral, see Waltke and O'Connor (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §15.2.1j) and Joüon and Muraoka (A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, §142c). Neither of them give a particular reason for it either.

The number of mefarshim who remark upon it appears to be fairly small, and my suspicion is that while it's an unusual form it's not unusual enough to have warranted comment. That said, however, there are some people who do draw attention to it - particularly in relation to the fact that שני עדים appears in Deuteronomy 19:15.

So, the Baal haTurim for example (on 19:15) explains the difference between the two attestations as relating to the fact that the first verse (17:6) spoke of capital cases, while the second speaks of financial tribunals. In the former instance, intimidation of the witnesses is more important, and so the Torah uses a longer word in order to indicate a lengthier process. In his words: למעלה כתיב על פי שנים עדים דהכא איירי בממון ואין מאיימין עליהם כל כך כמו בנפשות.

The Netziv also remarks upon the use of שנים in 17:6, and his argument is an interesting one. Had the text said שני עדים, it would suggest that the two witnesses are somehow identical with one another. Rabbis Yehuda and Mordekhai Yaakov Kuperman, who provide glosses to the Haamak Davar (Jerusalem, 2011), give two other examples of the same phenomenon, as pointed out by the Gra:

Genesis 1:16 mentions שני המאורות הגדולים, and chazal learn out (Hullin 90b) that they were both the same size; Leviticus 16:5 mentions שני שעירי עזים, and chazal learn out (Yoma 62b) that they were identical.

The Netziv goes on to buttress this point in reference to R' Bahya ibn Paquda's interpretation of Exodus 25:18 - the injunction to make שנים כרֻבים implies that the two cherubim were both different from one another. In that case, that one was in the form of a male and the other in the form of a female. In our case, however, referring to the witnesses as שנים עדים implies that their opinions do not entirely harmonise.

The Netziv concludes by bringing a passage from the Yerushalmi (on Sanhedrin 5:2), to the effect that if the two witnesses in a capital case align too closely with one another, and based on the fact that two different people cannot possibly have exactly the same story without prior arrangement, then they need to be investigated.

As such, the Netziv finds a basis for the opinion of the Yerushalmi in the verse itself: we don't want the two witnesses to be exactly the same, but to be fundamentally different from each other. That they are described subsequently as שני עדים in 19:15 is because of the fact it is through their disagreement that they become one. In his words: ובזה הניגוד נעשים אחת.

  • This is really thorough research. Few commentaries explain the dichotomy, which is why I asked this question. Thanks for the thorough research and effort. I'll see if I can read the original source.
    – DanF
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 1:45
  • My pleasure, @DanF - I always appreciate an opportunity to engage with the Netziv's beautiful perush! He's actually fairly succinct, so if I get a moment I'll edit his full explanation into my answer.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 6:04

"Shenei" means "two of" (like "benei -- children of"). Shenei eidim is "two units of witnesses". The emphasis is on the eidim, and we're just giving a property of the set of witnesses -- it has size two. The pasuq at 19:15 is saying that it takes a set of 2 or 3 (or more) witnesses to establish a fact, and we darshen -- the fact it established equally regardless of the number -- terei kemei'ah (2 [witnesses] are like 100).

"Shanayim eidim" means "two witnesses", with the emphasis on the two-ness. Which fits how chazal darshen the pasuq (mishnah on Makkos 5b), that it's all about 2 or more being a unit. And either all as falsified as eidim zomemim or none. Notice the focus is on the number of the group more than the function of each unit.

Entirely pulled out of my own head, though.

  • I have to downvote b/c this is unsupported. I'm not discounting what you cited from Makot. However, see my edits to the question, as you will see that the common format is used in another verse to refer to the same idea. Your answer needs strengthening in view of a contradictory usage.
    – DanF
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 1:47
  • Well, since I concluded "Entirely pulled out of my own head, though." I am not surprised. But since you lso didn't ask for sources, I went ahead anyway. However, I contrast the two pesuqim you cite based on differences in the aspect idea being emphasized in a manner that's consistent with how each pasuq is used lehalakhah. I propose that "shenei eidim" makes sense when teaching terei kemei'ah while"shenayim eidim" makes more sense when the topic is eidim zomemim being all or none. So I don't know what the last 2/3 of your comment means. Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 10:16

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