Morsels of Hebrew Grammar  
This Week's Parsha | Previous Issues

Parashat Nitzavim 5761

Some basic units

It seems that the terms 'letters,' 'consonants,' and 'vowels' need clarification. A letter is a symbol. The Hebrew letters are the twenty-two symbols with which the Torah is written. A consonant is a sound that is produced by passing the air up from the lungs and fully or partly blocking the flow somewhere in the vocal tract (this is the area between the larynx or vocal cords and the lips). A vowel is a sound produced by passing the air into the vocal tract where it reverberates. The Hebrew alphabet is often thought to be consonantal because most of its letters indicate consonants only. However Alef, Heh, Vav, and Yud, have a double status. They may represent either consonants or vowels. However they do not fully represent the Hebrew vowel system. Vowels can also be represented in Hebrew by vowel points, technically known as 'diacritic marks,' made up of dots and little lines. Just as letters are the written symbols of all the Hebrew consonants and some vowels, so the vowel points are written symbols of all the vowels.

In Modern Hebrew where foreign words have been borrowed and incorporated into the language new symbols have been developed to represent the required sounds in writing. An apostrophe over Gimmel for the English [j] in 'jam', over the Zayin for [zh] in 'Dr Zhivago,' and over the Tzade for the English [ch] in 'chase,' is widely used for this purpose.

* * * *

A rare gizra

nitzavim (Deut. 29:9) This is an unusual word as the root is Yud, Tzade, Bet. The first letter of the root, Yud, is missing but a Dagesh in the following letter Tzade compensates for it. There are a few roots that have this feature, among them are Yud, Tzade, Gimmel; Yud, Tzade, Ayin; Yud, Tzade, Kuf; Yud, Tzade, Resh; and Yud, Tzade, Tav. The gizra ('group') is sometimes referred to as Chasrei Yud-Tzade.

* * * *

Five opinions

haravah hatzeme'ah (Deut. 29:18) ('the quenched' 'the thirsty') This is clearly a figure of speech for two levels of sin. Onkelos and Rashi explain them as 'inadvertent sin' and 'willful sin.' Rashbam explains the first as willful and the second as resulting from desire, somewhat less than willful. R' A. ibn Ezra quotes: 1) R' Yehuda HaLevy that haravah=righteous; tzeme'ah=evildoer; 2) R' Yonah the grammarian who said it means the good will perish with the evildoer; and adds 3) his own opinion 'the righteous will cover up for my evil.' Note the next verse 'G-d will not forgive him'

* * * *

Ketiv and Kerei

tzevoyim (Deut 29:22) ('tzevoyim,' a place name) It is written with two Yud's. The 'Jerusalem Bible' (Koren Publishers, D. Goldschmidt, A.M. Haberman, M. Medan, eds) and many other editions of the Bible give the regular Ketiv (written) form and a Kerei (to be read) form, which replaces the first Yud with a Vav and the second Yud has a Hirik. In the Bible edited by Rabbi M. Breuer (Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1989, 4th printing 1994), and widely accepted as authoritative, the Bet has a Holam and the first Yud has a Hirik. The second Yud is silent like a Yud of the plural. Thus there is no need for a Kerei form. It is worth noting that in 'Humash Ha'amek Davar' (Yeshivat Volozhin, Jerusalem, 1999, R' N. Tz. Y. Berlin, (NETZIV) comment & ed) the Ketiv has the same vowel points as R' Breuer's edition, and this is followed by the Kerei, which is the same as the Keter edition. It seemed to me that though both the spelling and the oral form are identical in all editions there should be some significance to the fact that there is a difference in how one arrives at the oral form from the written. I asked Rabbi Breuer what the significance of the difference between the editions is. He said there is no significance whatsoever. In the old manuscripts there is little consistency in matters of Ketiv and Kerei. It is, he said, not a matter of the Masora, and in his edition he tried to keep the number of Ketiv and Kerei to a minimum as they only serve to confuse the reader.

* * * *
Leshanah Tovah Tikateivu

The curses of this year were many. The time has come to pray for a blessed new year. I would like to thank the many correspondents who make sure that I think the issues through carefully. I do my best to respond to all questions related to Hebrew Grammar but sometimes may have failed to do so. The pressure of completing a page in Hebrew and English every week is my only excuse. I do hope that my occasional insufficient response will be forgiven. So here's wishing all readers that you be inscribed in the book of life and together we continue to enjoy the amazing intricacies of the Hebrew language and its scholars of all periods.

I will be pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919
E-mail address:


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel