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So I have been studying the meaning of the Hebrew word נַעַר. I understand that it's difficult to always find exact translations of certain words in the Hebrew vocabulary, but I have found in my search that the word generally means a young adult, child, or person who can already tell the difference between good and bad - a youngster.

In the Tanach, when the word נַעַר is used, sometimes it's (more or less) obvious what the young adult's age is. (See for instance Bereishit 21:17; we can see that Yishmael is no longer a toddler.)

But how can I tell what age range the word נַעַר covers, when no further information is given?

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    Interesting question to come from a user named Katan ;). +1 Btw. – רבות מחשבות Mar 18 '18 at 19:00
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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Katan! I've edited your question and corrected the grammar for you. If for some reason I've changed anything in your question, feel free to edit it back again. Hope to see you around! :) – ezra Mar 18 '18 at 19:39
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    "but I have found in my search that the word generally means a young adult, child, or person who can already tell the difference between good and bad - a youngster." Not exactly! see for example Shemot 2:6 and there are many more examples. According to Ramban (ibid) this term may even refer to a baby from the day he is born, thus this term is non-specific and may refer to both a baby and adult. – Bach Mar 18 '18 at 19:46
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    @ezra That usage with Eliezer and Yishmael is not referring to their age. It is referring to their profession. They were expert shepherds and knew how to time the defecation ניער of the flocks to fertilize fields. Like in Mishnah Tahorot 2:1. – Yaacov Deane Mar 18 '18 at 21:09
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    Can you give the specifics of the conclusions you've come to in your search, and what instances or groupings you've covered? – WAF Mar 19 '18 at 7:33
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Notice that the word נער can refer to anyone from birth (Bereishis 8:21) to 3 (24:28ff according to Rashi) to 12 (Ibid. according to Tosfos) to 13 (25:27 according to Rashi) to 14 (18:7) to 17 (37:2) to 37 (22:12 according to Rashi) to 51 (22:5 according to Rashi) to 54 (Shemos 33:11). So claiming that a נער refers to a young child doesn’t seem accurate in the slightest. (With all due respect to the Radak.)

Notice also the first passuk quoted above - רע מנעריו, which, while loosely translated as “evil from his birth,” more literally translates to “evil from his being shaken [out of the womb].” So the word נער somehow relates to being shaken.

Based on the above, a Rebbe of mine explains that a נער has nothing to do with age - it means an immature person, whose plan for life is a bit “shaky.”

  • @WAF I didn’t say I liked the pshat. I just said that my Rebbe said this. – DonielF Mar 19 '18 at 7:37
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    @WAF I didn’t take it as sarcasm at all. It was indeed originally intended as parshanus, from which he has developed a very intriguing pshat in Parshas Vayeishev. I like the understanding of נער as immature, but I don’t like how he got there. – DonielF Mar 19 '18 at 7:44
  • It's seems Rashi is most likely wrong here, not Radak. "Naar" is a young man either by age or by status, much like slave owners would call their slaves "boy". – nbubis Mar 19 '18 at 8:20
  • @nbubis Which comment of Rashi are you disputing? – WAF Mar 19 '18 at 13:45
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    Um... Why did I get the check mark, instead of Ploni’s answer? – DonielF Jul 18 '18 at 12:58
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Radak in Sefer Hashorashim (page 155 in this copy), explains that it refers to someone who is "young in years", without specifying an age. However, he continues, it can also refer to an attendant (since the young generally serve the elderly), or one who is young in wisdom (i.e. foolish).

Thus, there is no definitive age referred to by the word נער, and it largely depends on the context to define its meaning.

  • "one who is young in wisdom (i.e. foolish)". I'd be surprised if the term "foolish" should apply to everyone. Note that Yehoshua is called a Na'ar (parshat Ki Tissa). I don't rceall if any commentary, there, mentions how old he actually was, but I would venture that he may have been close to 30 or 40. – DanF Mar 19 '18 at 0:25
  • @DanF It's not that everyone is foolish. It can mean foolish, depending on the context. In the case of Yehoshua it means attendant. – Ploni Mar 19 '18 at 1:09
  • @DanF Possibly, althoughly probably not, related to the Yiddish נאר, fool. See here – Joel K Mar 19 '18 at 13:20
  • @JoelK I'm skeptical that The Yiddish translation is related to the Hebrew one, here. Na'ar is more closely related to "nun-ayin-resh" meaning "to shake". I saw something a while ago that explains this relationship to the noun form for "child", but I have to do a lot of digging to find it. – DanF Mar 19 '18 at 14:42
  • @JoelK The Yiddish word נאר comes from the German Narr. It has no connection to the Hebrew word נער, therefore they are false cognates. :) – ezra Mar 20 '18 at 3:40
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The word best translates to "boy" in the outdated sense. It can mean a young male child of various ages, a diminutive phrase for a servant (as in the now racially charged "Come here boy"), and also refer to a young soldier or troops (as in "Tell the boys the war is ended").

In short, you cannot know what age is being referred to, much like the English word "boy" - you have to tell from the context, though the last meaning, that of a young soldier or squire is by far the most common in the Bible.

A baby:

וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וְהִנֵּה נַעַר בֹּכֶה וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה

A small child:

וַתַּעֲלֵהוּ עִמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר גְּמָלַתּוּ בְּפָרִים שְׁלֹשָׁה וְאֵיפָה אַחַת קֶמַח וְנֵבֶל יַיִן וַתְּבִאֵהוּ בֵית יְהוָה שִׁלוֹ וְהַנַּעַר נָעַר

A young soldier / squire:

וַיִּקְרָא הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל צִיבָא נַעַר שָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו כֹּל אֲשֶׁר הָיָה לְשָׁאוּל וּלְכָל בֵּיתוֹ נָתַתִּי לְבֶן אֲדֹנֶיךָ

וַיֹּאמֶר לְיֶתֶר בְּכוֹרוֹ קוּם הֲרֹג אוֹתָם וְלֹא שָׁלַף הַנַּעַר חַרְבּוֹ כִּי יָרֵא כִּי עוֹדֶנּוּ נָעַר.

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@DonielF's answer alludes to the verb form which means "to shake".

This article cites several instances as well as explanations of the noun form נַעַר :

He says that there are 7 definitions, and one of them refers to a "youth" because a youth is someone who has "grown up" by "shaking off his immaturities". He further distinguishes on some level between a male and female (the term being na'arah for female) in terms of what needs to be "shaken off".

NOTES

*1 A simple approach is to take

GROW UP as a verb form of LAD But the RDK suggests in his book ROOTS that A YOUTH looks like A POLISHED VESSEL WITH DUST ON IT You have to DUST OFF THE VESSEL to make it look right. In a similar manner you have to REMOVE SOME IMMATURITIES DURING TEENAGE YEARS in order to look polished.

*2 The female form of LAD seems to refer to a teenage girl. Using our DUST OFF analogy we would say

A TEENAGE GIRL throws out ANNOYING BUT MINOR (SEXUAL) SIGNALS As she grows up she DUSTS HERSELF OFF until she reaches maturity and becomes a mature (polished) woman.

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