Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Origin of the name "shnayer"

Shnayer is a very common personal name, popular both among Chassidic and non Chassidic Jews[1].

Where does this unusual name come from? Unlike most Jewish male personal names, shnayer is neither biblical nor of yiddish origin. Its etymology is somewhat controversial with Anthroponomasticists disagreeing as to its exact origin.

Shnayer= Two Lights?

I recently came across an interesting article by Yechiel Gumperz in TARBIZ Vol. XXV which discusses the origin of the name Shanyer among others. Gumperz writes:

. Rabbi Shmuel Vidaslow in his book Beth Shmuel on the Even Haezer section of the Shulchal Aruch explains the name's etymology: "when both the paternal and maternal grandparents of the child is named Meir, he shall be called shnei-or". The Maharashal in his commentary yam shel shelomo on tractate Gittin, Chapter 3, article 26 relates an incident that occurred in his family ”a son was born to his grandfather who wanted to name the child Meir after his own father, however the mother wanted to name the child after her father whose name was Yair so they compromised by naming the child shnei or". However the name Shneir predates all of this and its origins are much older. shnayer is not equivalent to senior as shenei-or contains an aleph whereas the Sephardic sinior (Ladino for Moses) does not[2].

Gumperz does not expand on it but rather adds cryptically: "see Shem Hagedolim on the entry Shnayer b. Yehuda".

Indeed Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai in Shem Hagedolim likewise relates the aforementioned story of the maharshal but adds:

However It seems that the name shnayer is much older because Rabbi Yonah already quotes from his teacher Rabbi Samuel b. Shnayer. And likewise other Rabbi were named shnayer and therefore they named the aforementioned child shnayer because this name already existed in the world and it (also) alluded to the “two great lights” Meir and Uri[3].

Romance Elements in the Yiddish Language

Max Weinreich

(considered one of the foremost experts on the Yiddish language)
History of the Yiddish language opines that Yiddish arose via a fusion
of Hebrew, Loez (Western Loez is Judeo-French and Southern Loez is
Judeo-Italian) and German.

According to Weinreich, the Ashkenazic community began in what is now
Lorraine, France(referred to as Loter) and absorbed successive waves of
from other parts of France and Italy.

Weinreich also puts forth a possible explanation as to how the
erroneous (in his opinion) etymology for the name
Shnayer may have come about:

The name very old in Loter-Ashkenaz. Toward the end of the eleventh century there lived in Loter, apparently in Worms, an eminent Halachist, R. Shneur son of R. Judah son of R. Baruch. Among the victims of 1096 (the "First Crusade") the name Shneur is found four times in Mainz, once in Cologne, once in Worms. Despite its Hebrew orthographic garb, the name is of Loez derivation. Its proto ancestor is Latin SENIOR (the older). The traditionalization of the orthography came apparently in Ashkenaz, where the coterritorial population spoke no Romanic and the Jews no longer understood the original meaning; the /sen/ could have been conceived as a shin with a shva and a nun, and thereafter the name was interpreted by folk etymology as shne+ur (two lights)[4].

George Jochnowitz writes here:

French Jews fled to what is now Germany. Their language may have survived for a generation or more, but there is no record of it. Instead, we have Isolated words: cholnt from an Old French word meaning hot, related to Spanish caliente and modern French chaud; bentshn, 'to bless', perhaps from French but more likely from Provencal benzir or Italian benedicere; leyenen, which we have already mentioned. Then there are given names: Beyle from belle, meaning 'beautiful', which coexists with the names Sheyne and modern Yafa; Yente, probably from Judeo-Italian yentile, standard Italian gentile, meaning 'noble' and a man's name, Shneyer, from French seigneur meaning 'nobleman' or 'lord'. Nowadays people say Shneyer comes from Hebrew shnai or 'two light', but there never was such a Hebrew name before there was Yiddish.

I would also add an additional reason why shnayer can't mean "2 lights", because it would be grammatically incorrect. In Hebrew 2 lights would be "shnei orot", ("or" being the singular noun and "orot" being plural).


[1]. particularly Chabad where boys are often named after the founder of the movement, Rabbi Shnayer Zalman of Liadi[photo left]) and the Lithuanian "yeshiva world" ,particularly Lakewood, where boys are often named after Rabbi Shnayer Kotler[photo right]).

[2]. See Gumperz, Yehiel. Keriat Shemot B’yisrael in TARBIZ Vol. XXV April 1956, p. 346

[3]. See Shem Hagedolim p. 128 and Kuntres Achron ibid.

[4]. Weinreich Max, History of the Yiddish Language. p. 399

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At Monday, December 21, 2009 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>This latter name is nor equivalent to senior as shenei-or contains an aleph whereas the Sephardic sinior (a surname of Moses) does not.

That's ridiculous reasoning. Is he positing that our Askenazi ancestors were concerned with accurate transliteration?

At Wednesday, December 23, 2009 1:40:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Absolutely right. Makes about as much sense as the guy who told my friend that they couldn't be related because his family spells Weissman with 2 Ss while my friend's spell it with one....

At Wednesday, April 21, 2010 2:51:00 PM, Blogger Chabad-Revisited said...

While we're on the subject...
According to Chabad tradition, the fact that Rabbi Shnayer Zalman of Liadi was called by this name, reflected the fact that he would produce two "illuminating" works namely, the Tanya and the Shulchoon Aruch HaRav.
(I am not suggesting that this has anything to do with the actual source for the name...)

At Wednesday, April 21, 2010 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks Chabad. Do comment on some of the other posts as well. Thanks.

At Tuesday, July 30, 2013 8:38:00 PM, Anonymous P.B. said...

There's a family I met today whose last name is Schnur. I was showing off my knowledge (based partly off this site) that their name means "Senior", but they told me that it means "string." I'm sure they're right, but is there anything you'd like to add about this word "schnur"? Thanks!

At Tuesday, October 30, 2018 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


"Schnur" is the German word for "string".
Hope I could help.


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