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Parashat Vayeishev 5761


eile toledot ya'aqov (Gen. 37:2) There are two views among the commentators as to the meaning of this passage. One is 'These are the generations/descendants of Ya'aqov' while the other is 'these are the events/history that occurred to Ya'aqov.' The key to this problem is the meaning of the word toledot. If one examines its root Vav (or Yud), Lamed, Dalet, from which words such as yeled ('child') and holied ('begat') are also derived, one can easily see why 'generations' or 'descendants' seems to be an apt translation. In order to translate toledot as 'events' or 'history' one has to broaden the meaning so that it can apply to things non-biological.

Rashi here (but see Rashi Gen. 25:19) argues that the literal meaning is 'events,' while 'descendants' is a secondary meaning found in the Midrash. The latter interpretation relates to Joseph (the only son mentioned there by name) as the 'generations' referred to. Rashi's grandson, Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam), goes to great pains to point out the difference between peshat (plain meaning) and drash (homiletic interpretation). On the basis of this he disagrees strongly with Rashi, and argues that although the reference here cannot be to Ya'aqov's children (they were already born), the reference is to the birth of his grandchildren.

Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, the other great pioneer of peshat, takes the view of Rashi. He argues that the broadened usage is legitimate as we can see that this metaphorical use of the root Vav (or Yud), Lamed, Dalet, for 'events' is also to be found in 'what will be the event of the day,'(Proverbs, 27:1). To clarify the metaphor Rabbi David Kimhe adds that events are the children of days. Rabbi Yosef Caro reports Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi as having the same opinion (Bet Yosef, O.H. 423, sv veomedim). It seems that the use of Toledot Yisrael as the term for Jewish history in Ivrit relies on these latter scholars.

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vayitnakelu oto (Gen. 37:18) While vayitnakelu means 'and they were filled with enmity' oto is problematical. Because vayitnakelu is a hitpael verb one would expect it to be intrasitive (not taking a direct object). On first appearances oto appears to be a form which is inherently the direct object of a verb. Rashi therefore comments 'it is to be understood as ito (this requires no change in the spelling of the Hebrew text, only the diacritic marks are different), with him, that is to say towards him'.

The issue will be better understood if we remember that there are two words in Hebrew which are homographs, identical in spelling and in sound but having different roots and different meanings. These words are et ('with') and et (having grammatical meaning - introducing and indicating the object of the sentence). (In stressed positions in the Tenach both have the same, slightly different, vowel.) They can usually be distinguished by context, and in declension they sound very different. Thus et ('with') becomes iti et ('with me'), itekha ('with you'), ito ('with him'); while et (indicating the object of the sentence) becomes oti (me), otekha (you), oto (him). Hence the difficulty of oto following an intransitive verb.

The difference in roots can also be demonstrated. In Biblical Hebrew et ('with') in declension has a double 't' indicated by a Dagesh in the text (though not pronounced nowadays). Thus the three letters of the root are Aleph, Tav, Tav. On the other hand et (indicating the object of the sentence), seems from the form of the declension to have Aleph, Vav, Tav as its root.

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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