Morsels of Hebrew Grammar  
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Parashat Shemot 5761


A number of commentators have discussed the names of the books of the Torah (see introduction to Shemot in Ha'ameq Davar). Here we will examine a grammatical aspect of this matter. In Hebrew the fourth Humash is called Bamidbar ('in the desert'). Presumably this is because the words 'bemidbar sinai' ('in the Sinai desert') occur in the first verse of that book. The form 'bemidbar' is semikhut. (This is 'the construct state,' where a noun precedes another noun, usually with a slight change in vocalization, which indicates a relationship of belonging. The word in the construct state does not take the definite article 'ha,' hence here the Bet has a Sheva; the following word which qualifies it, may take the definite article 'ha.' In 'bemidbar Sinai,' because the following word is a proper noun, there is no need for the article.) When we call the book Bamidbar we are pronouncing the word in its 'absolute' or stand-alone form. This is grammatically correct. Similarly when people refer to the town Kiryat Sefer just as 'the town' they say Hakirya rather than Kiryat!

The word Shin, Mem, Vav, Tav also has an absolute or stand-alone form and it is 'Sheimot.' Its construct form is Shemot and that is how it is to be found in the first verse of the second Humash. If we wanted to be consistent with the previous analysis we would call the second Humash by the absolute form of the word - Sheimot.

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'Vav' Conjunctive ('and')

The basic form for the Vav is for it to have a Sheva: ve'asher (Exod. 1:5) ('and Asher'). When the Vav precedes a word beginning with Yud, which itself has a Sheva, the Vav has a Hiriq and the Yud becomes silent (it does not even have a Sheva) - vihudah (ibid v.2) ('and Yehudah'). If the word starts with any of the labial letters (Bet, Vav, Mem, Peh) the Vav has a Shuruq - uvinyamin (ibid v.4) ('and Benjamin'). Similarly if the word commences with a letter that has a Sheva, it takes a Shuruq - uzevulun (Gen. 35:23) (see R' A. ibn Ezra Exod. 1:2).

It should be noted that when the Vav has a Shuruq and no Sheva following, it has the weight of a Sheva -uvinyamin (Ta'amei Hamiqra, M. Breuer). Rabbi Yehudah HaLevy uses it as such in his Zionot whose rhythm is based on the distribution of the Sheva Na. The Zionot are read in synagogues on Tisha BeAv.

The use of the Vav is not consistent in the verses listing the names of the tribes. R' A. Ibn Ezra points out that there are a number of legitimate ways of distributing the Vav Conjunctive

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vatehayena et hayeladim (Exod. 1:17; 1:18) Rashi explains that according to the (Aramaic) translation of the first occurrence it means 'and they kept alive,' while the second is 'and you kept alive'. This, Rashi proceeds to say, is because in Hebrew verbs in the future, plural, feminine, second-person (you) and in the future, plural, feminine, third-person (they) the forms are identical and he provides examples. Although the verb vatehayena is translated as past tense, this is because it has a Vav Hahipukh ('Vav Conversive'); its grammatical form is future.

The following table illustrates Rashi's point:

Future of lehahayot ('to make live')


  I you he/she
Masc. ahaye tehaye yehaye
Fem. ahaye tehayi tehaye


  we you they
Masc. nehaye tehayu yehayu
Fem. nehaye tehayena tehayena

Is there sanctity in tables of verbs? Rabbi Yaaqov Emden writes that in essence there is not, but as one cannot study grammar without thinking of verses in the Torah one may not study them in places where the lack of purity forbids the study of Torah (She'elat Ya'avetz 10). It seems to follow that if Hebrew is taught out of secular books without reference to Torah, there is no sanctity in the study and it may be pursued anywhere.

I will be happy to receive comments on these notes in English on Hebrew grammar related to the week's Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919


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