Shema

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


Parashat Pinechas 5761

"Proper" Nouns

mishpachat hachanokhi (Num. 25:5) ('the family of the Chanokhite') Rashi comments 'The Holy One blessed be He impressed His name on theirs, Heh on one side and Yod on the other side this Name testifies that they belonged to their tribes, therefore in each He wrote hachanokhi ('the Chanokhite'), hapalu'i ('the Palu'ite') but in the case of Yimna he did not need to say "family of hayimni"' because the Name is fixed in it - Yod at the beginning and Heh at the end' (based on Midrash Shir haShirim Rabba and elsewhere).

hayamini (Num. 25:12) ('the Yaminite') R' A. ibn Ezra writes, 'Do not seek grammatical rules in proper nouns [that the Yod should have had a Sheva as in pakid which becomes pekidei - Weiser]. Similarly we find from Puva, Puni, and from Shefufam, Hashufami; so too leYimna mishpachat haYimna and it is not haYimni ' (Although R' A. ibn Ezra does not refer directly to Rashi, this appears to be a response to Rashi's commentary quoted above.)

The status of proper nouns as part of language must be examined. Every word in the language has a meaning that can be defined. Thus the word 'stone' denotes an object that has certain characteristics common to every other stone, and many of these characteristics do not fit objects called 'beam' or 'dust.' Therefore it is possible to define 'stone.' How is it possible to define a proper noun like Moshe or Miriam? Even though the names denote male or female persons this is insufficient, as it does not define them any more than the words 'male, female.' It is difficult to find common characteristics among people who bear the same name. Secular scholars have debated the status of proper nouns as part of language; what is the opinion of the scholars of the Torah?

Above we have seen a dispute between Rashi and R' A. ibn Ezra as to whether one may question grammatical irregularities in proper nouns. Both focus on the question as to why the Torah does not say haYimni. It seems that in the opinion of Rashi, proper nouns are a regular part of the language and irregularities in them need to be explained (just as one does when one finds other irregularities). This is why Rashi reports the Midrash. R' A. ibn Ezra maintains that this requires no explanation as it is not a problem: proper nouns are not ordinary parts of language and are therefore not subject to its rules. Nevertheless he maintains that Hebrew proper nouns cannot commence with Vav (Num. 21:14). It seems that R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi also deals with this problem and distinguishes between common nouns and proper nouns (Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Veha'emuna 1) but his Kabbalistic language is difficult to follow (see also Kuzari 4:3).

* * * *

The Silent Aleph

haruveni (Num. 26:7) ('the Reubenite') Even though in the name Re'uven the Resh has a Sheva, in the adjective haruveni the Resh does not have a Sheva, and this recurs throughout the Bible. Correct reading requires following closely that which is written. Here, if we search for a vowel which will help us pronounce the letter Resh we find the Shuruk, while the Alef is silent and is not to be read. The Minchat Shai refers to an author who says of this: 'it is written fully with an Alef and fully with a Vav.' Similarly, we find that in chotim (Sam. 1, 14:33) ('they sin'), yeru (Psalms, 34:10) ('fear'), korim (Psalms, 99:6) ('they call'), the Alef is silent. It has been suggested that the unusual vowels of yeru [G-d] were inserted to distinguish it from the word yir'u ('see') [G-d], thus avoiding blasphemy. Even though one should certainly avoid blasphemy, the above examples indicate that the reason for the unusual vowels is phonetic and not theological.

* * * *

Further on Transliteration

R' Steve Barmazel has suggested that kh is intuitively clearer than ch for English speakers. He may well be right. There is a historical connection between the Hebrew letter Khaf and the English letter 'K'. As the Hebrew alphabet found its way to ancient Greece with the Phoenician sailors (and perhaps their neighbors of the tribe of Zevulun), and from there to Rome and then across Europe, the order of the letters remained substantially the same up to 'T' (Tav) (check it out!). Accordingly 'K' is a distant but direct descendant of Khaf. On the other hand the widespread practice of using ch for Chet and Khaf derives from Yiddish speakers being familiar with German orthography. I will try a compromise - c h for Chet, and kh for Khaf. This will also help distinguish between Heh and Chet.

The above historical guidance would lead us to transliterate kuf (or quf) with q, which is its descendant. This is the policy of the Hebrew Language Academy and avoids ambiguity, but I find q counter-intuitive. What do readers think?

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: fredit@zahav.net.il

Shema

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 parsha@shemayisrael.co.il

http://www.shemayisrael.co.il

Jerusalem, Israel

732-370-3344