Hebrew word of the week: Nasi’/President

The English word president and the verb preside are from the French-Latin presider(e), “sit in front (of everybody else)”; similar to the Hebrew yoshev rosh “sits ahead, chair.” Nasi’ is from the root nas'a’, whose basic meaning is “to raise”; hence, nasi’ is “one raised (above all others).” 

The name in the Bible refers to a tribal chieftain (Numbers 7:10-78); in Rabbinical times, nas'i’ was the head of the Sanhedrin, as Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi’ (died c. 193 C.E.). In modern times, nasi’ is used for the “president” of a state, as well as a company or an institution, as nasi’ bet ha-mishpaT ha-‘elyon, “Chief Justice.” The plural nesi’im means “rising vapors or clouds” (Proverbs 25:14).*

A variant form is (n)si’, for “summit, highest record.” Another possibility is that nasi’ is “a speaker” from the common sense nasa’ davar/ne’um “speak in public, give an address,” similar to nagid “rector, governor” from higgid “speak.”

*The proverb, “(Many) clouds, (a lot of) wind, but no rain,” which is to say: “A lot of hot air (empty promises), but none is fulfilled,” is applicable for demagogues.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.