When is Alef a consonant, when a vowel, and when silent?
vayar balak (Num. 22:2) Why is there a Dagesh in the Bet of balak? There is an ancient rule, recorded in the Aramaic terminology of the Masorah and handed down by the early grammarians, which states that each of the letters Bet Gimmel Dalet, Kaf Peh Tav (Begad Kefat) at the beginning of a word is soft (fricative) if it follows a word ending with any of the letters Alef He Vav Yud (Ehevi or Yehu); unless 1) it is expressed consonantally, 2) has punctuation indicating a pause, 3) is pressed close to the next word, or 4) has its stress at a distance (quoted by: Radak, Michlol, Lyck ed. p.80; Luzzatto, Sefer haDikduk leRamchal, Shaar 3, Chelek 6, Brieger ed. p. 106, and others). The word vayar concludes with Alef, one of the letters Ehevi, and its tune is a Mercha, which indicates flow- on rather than pause. The question therefore arises 'Why is there a Dagesh in the Bet of balak?'
R' Sh. Davlitzki points out that there is a difference in the writings attributed to the Gaon of Vilna as to whether or not there is a consonantally pronounced Alef (Chok Yehu umVatlav, ot He).
R' Chaim *Kesslin deals with this question. He argues that the Alef is silent, and therefore it is as though it were not there, so the rule stating that Ehevi softens the following letter, does not apply (Maslol, Mesilat haNikud 96). He can argue this way because the ancient rule is clearly one of phonetics, not of orthography (the issue is pronunciation not spelling).
However there is another approach to this problem. Nine letters in the Hebrew alphabet denote consonants articulated as plosives. These are sounds that are produced by building up of air pressure behind a closure in the vocal tract, opening suddenly and releasing the air. Which sound is produced is determined by the point (position) of closure. In addition to the Begad Kefat letters (in their strong form) there are Alef, Tet, and Kuf. Bet is produced by closure at the lips, for Gimmel the tongue rises to close the vocal tract at the hard palate. A particular feature of these letters in (Biblical) Hebrew is that two Shevas occur at the end of a word only when one of these nine appear at the end of the word e.g.: for Bet, vayishb (Num. 21:1); I have not found an example for Gimmel; for Dalet, nerd (Songs 4:14); for Chaf, vayevk (Gen. 27:38); for Peh, tosp (Prov. 30:6); for Tav, vayesht (Gen. 9:21); for Alef, chet (Levit. 19:17); for Tet, kosht (Prov. 22:21); and for Kuf, vayashk (Gen. 29:10). This pattern would seem to demonstrate that Alef here is a (plosive) consonant. Being a Guttural letter Alef must be produced by closure at the back of the vocal tract at the larynx (vocal cords), building up of air pressure behind it, and then releasing the air. This produces a slight sound. Rashi assumes that the sound of Alef is known (Rashi, Exod. 10:21). According to this argument the reason that there is a Dagesh in the Bet of balak is that the Alef preceding it is expressed as a consonant (exception 2).
If this argument is correct, we have Mapik Alef ('expressed consonantally') at the end of some words. Many words have a consonantal Alef at the beginning, e.g. Elokim et (Gen 1:1) ('G-d …') both words start with Alef which is vocalized, hence must be a consonant. Mapik Alef for the middle of words is mentioned explicitly in the Masorah (Psalms 136).
Alef also serves as a vowel as do He, Vav and Yud. These are sometimes referred to as Matres lectionis. In bereshit bara (Gen 1:1) ('In the beginning … created') both Alefs are not vocalized because they themselves are the indicators of the vowel to be read.
There are occasions where Alef is silent. This is so in all 18 occurrences of ruveni, in korim (Psalms 99:6), in all 5 occurrences of yeru et-hashem, and other words where Alef follows Resh. There is also one occurrence where Alef follows Tet. It is chotim (Sam. 1 14:33). Many of these are documented by Minchat Shai.
*A Haskalah grammarian (Berlin, late 18th - early 19th cent.), descendant of R' Yomtov L. Heller and mechutan of R' Akiva Eger. His authoritative Hebrew grammar, Maslol, was very popular; first edition Hamburg 1788, 19th edition Vilna 1893. A facsimile edition has been published in Israel. His Keriat haTorah, Berlin 1814, has an approbation by R' Akiva Eger. Both his books are listed in Friedberg's Bet Eked Sepharim, surprisingly he is not mentioned in Encyclopedia Judaica.
I will be
pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
For information on subscriptions, archives, and