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Parashat Vayigash 5761


When is a Vav with a dot in it read as a vowel [u] and when as a consonant [v]?

vayivater hu (Gen. 44:20) (‘he remained’) Beginning-reading learners, both young and old, often ask how is it possible to distinguish between Vav with a dot in it which is a vowel [u] and one which is a consonant. Similarly when reading words such as metzavekha and mitzvotai (in ‘shema’) they sometimes wonder how to determine whether to read the Vav as a vowel [u] or [o] or as a consonant [v]. Native speakers of Ivrit claim that this is easy; their feelings guide them and so they ‘know’ how the word should sound. Even though this answer is correct it is insufficient for people who do not have this feel for the language. In any case those who know Hebrew well can read unpointed texts.

The decline of Hebrew as a spoken tongue was one of the reasons for the development of the system of inserting points (diacritic marks) into the ancient texts. It follows that provision was being made for people who had no feel for the language. As a result, the system of points was designed to be user friendly and sufficient even for a reader who understands no Hebrew. One should be able to follow it without being able to feel whether it sounds right or not.

In order to read all one needs to know is the alphabet and the point system. Not every point represents a vowel. A point in a letter may be a Dagesh that indicates the doubling (Dagesh Hazak) or hardening (Dagesh Qal) of that consonant. Normally Heh at the end of a word is silent; a point in a Heh at the end of a word indicates that that Heh is to be pronounced. For excellent reading, particularly reading of scripture, one should also learn to distinguish between silent and sounded sheva, and the intonation system.

In the system diacritic marks, all the letters excepting those at the end of a word have an indication as to how they are to be read (otherwise they are simply not to be read). The vowels (excepting Patah Genuvah) are read after the letter to which they belong. Patah Genuvah comes under final Heh, Het, and Ayin, but is read before them. A Sheva under a letter (sometimes an element of redundancy), indicates that no vowel is required. There are never two vowels following each other without a consonant – at least an Aleph – between them.

Accordingly, in the word vayivater where the Yud has a vowel (Hirik), and the following vowel is a Qamatz, the reader must find a consonant that this Qamatz vocalizes. The only possibility is the Vav, hence the dot in the Vav cannot make it into a vowel – there would be three vowels in a row without any consonants! The Vav must therefore be a consonant and the dot a Dagesh. In the following word hu the Heh requires a vowel. Therefore the dot in the Vav must indicate that it is to be read as a vowel [u]. In metzavekha the Tzade has a Patah, therefore it must be followed by a consonant. Hence the dot in the Vav must be a Dagesh. In mitzvotai the Tzade has a sheva - this means no vowel is required. Hence the Holam cannot indicate a vowel for the Tzade, it must be a vowel for the Vav. Therefore the Vav must be read with the Holam, - [vo].

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eineikhem ro’ot (ibid 45:12) (‘your eyes see’) The verb is feminine in form. This indicates that the word for ‘eye’ in Hebrew is feminine. Indeed the dual parts of the body are all feminine! HaKetav VehaQabbala (a commentary on the Torah with Kabbalistic ideas) suggests that the reason for this is that femininity is a characteristic of receptivity. The dual parts of the body receive their life-power from the heart. The word lev (‘heart’) in Hebrew is masculine.

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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