I don’t normally link to Kabbalistic sites or delve into Kabbalistic teachings because they’re not purely Bible-based, but one site has a fascinating quote about the spelling of related words in an article about the connections between the themes of Chanukah and the number eight:
“In Hebrew, the word shemonah (eight) has the same exact letters as hashemen (the oil), neshama (soul), and mishna (transmitted teaching).”
Let’s ignore the mishnah connection because it refers to oral teaching that’s not a part of Scripture. But there are some very interesting connections between the other three words that link through a particular passage in Genesis.
First, though, it’s important to understand that neshamah really isn’t “soul” – the usual word translated as “soul” is nefesh (H5315), which is basically the state of being physically alive. (In Genesis 1:30, the beasts of the field and birds of the air are all described as having living souls – chay nefesh – although it’s translated as “wherein [there is] life”. So this word is not limited to people.) However, neshamah (H5397) is usually translated “breath” instead. The words are related, since usually if a person or animal is alive, it is breathing, and if it’s breathing, it’s alive. It’s possible to remain alive for short durations without breathing though, so it makes sense that “life” and “breath” are distinct things and have different words. Another related word is ruach (H7307), which also can mean breath, or wind, but also spirit, and it’s specifically used for God’s Spirit: Ruach Ha’kodesh is the Holy Spirit of God, occurring from the beginning in Genesis 1:2.
All that was just a preface to distinguish neshamah from other similar words. The critical thing to note is that because these three words (shemonah, ha’shemen, and neshamah) are spelled with the same Hebrew letters in different orders (shin, mem, nun, hey; hey, shin, mem, nun; nun, shin, mem, hey), their numerical value is exactly the same: 395. We can therefore draw thematic connections between them.
The general word for oil is shemen (H8081), but in this equivalence, it includes the definite article ha (the hey-prefix). Oil is used many times throughout Scripture for many different purposes including anointing, light, and food.
The number eight is shemonah, as the original quote indicates, which also corresponds to the Hebrew letter chet, the eighth letter. This letter is also the first letter in Chanukah (not hey, which you might think given the more common spelling of Hanukkah).
As an additional note, the word ha’shamayim (the heavens – definite plural form) also has a value of 395, but it’s not spelled with the same four letters as the other words here. It’s still a special word though because it’s the fifth word of the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 1:1. Note that 395 = 5×79. A verse that connects neshamah (breath) and ha’shamayim (the heavens) is Isaiah 42:5: “Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:”. It’s also the fifth verse in its chapter, so the use of neshamah here is a strong indicator of the hey theme of breath.
Another passage that draws these words together is Genesis 28:11-12, about Jacob’s dream of a ladder stretching to heaven and of the stones he slept on: “And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put [them for] his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Let’s skip past the rest of the actual vision. Also verse 18 is relevant: “And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put [for] his pillows, and set it up [for] a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.”
To start, the letter chet came from a shape that in ancient times looked like a fence or ladder. One theme of chet is of an enclosure or fence. Actually, the “ladder” here is a weak link, because in the Hebrew, it’s a word that’s only used the once, in this verse (cullam), and so there are no other examples to triangulate on the actual meaning. I’m not here to speculate on what this ladder actually might have been (considering it reached to heaven), merely to point out that it forms a thematic link to chet.
Verse 18 is actually the first use of “oil” (shemen) in Scripture, and the first description of anointing something – anointing people came later. However, the first use of the same definite grammatical construction of “the oil” is most likely not until Leviticus 14:16 with the instructions to the priests for using the holy oil of the temple. I say “most likely” because it’s much more difficult to search the Hebrew text for a specific sequence of letters that form a grammatical construction, rather than searching by well-indexed root words. Verses 16-18 there specifically describe using the oil to anoint someone who is to be cleansed.
The oil is therefore specifically the holy blend of oils for the temple. It’s not known whether Jacob would have used a specific blend of oils like that to anoint his pillar stone, or if it would have just been pure olive oil. After God’s Temple was established with its regulations, the holy blend of oils was forbidden to be used except for Temple purposes, but Jacob lived before the Temple, so he could have used it without breaking God’s rules for His people, just as he and the other patriarchs could individually offer burnt offerings on stone altars without needing a temple or priests.
So the act of anointing is what connects the holy oil with the breath of life. In ancient Israel, this was done by the priests for the purpose of cleansing. In New Testament times, after the church was established, anointing was done to request healing from God. As James 5:14-15 says, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”. So the anointing by elders may result in both healing and forgiveness, the restoration of physical and spiritual life.