The Pronoun הִוא in Classical Hebrew

I should start by acknowledging that those of you who have heard about this phenomenon will be disappointed with the answer I will provide, or lack thereof. In the Torah (and this phenomenon seems to occur only in the Torah) in all but 5 places, the pronoun which הִוא means she is spelled with a vav (purists will prefer the representation waw, ו) rather than a yod (י, הִיא) which is the way it is spelled those 5 times and everywhere else in the Bible and after the Bible.

In an effort to pronounce what they see, I have occasionally heard people say “heeve” when they come across the word in the Torah. We know from our Masoretic tradition that this is incorrect. It should be pronounced “hee” just as if it were spelled the more usual way (at least outside the Torah).

It looks as if the author(s) of the Torah pronounced the word “hoo” regardless of whether the pronoun referred to “he” or “she” (I’m not claiming that this is how they actually pronounced the word, only that it was spelled that way.)  I am not aware of any tradition that suggests we should pronounce it “hoo” when it refers to “she.”

How do I know that the Masoretic tradition demands the pronunciation “hee”? Well, that’s what the vowel point is that is included in all the Masoretic manuscripts. The Masoretes never change a consonant in the text (although they may add variants), but they use the vowel pointing system to teach us how they believe the word should be pronounced.

One more pronunciation note to those who might be tempted to pronounce this word “heev”. Originally (and by originally I mean in all periods of classical Hebrew) the vav was pronounced “w”–therefore scholars occasionally refer to the letter as “waw” rather than the “vav” of later Hebrew. A trailing “w” will always have a faint pronunciation because of the phonetics of the letter. So at best we are speaking of the difference between “hoow” and “heew”.

Getting back to the accepted traditional pronunciation (“hee” rather than “hoo”), this is a particular case of the more general phenomeon of Q’ri and K’tiv. The Q’ri (what should be read out loud) is “hee”, the K’tiv (what is written) is “hoo”. At a future time I hope to return in greater detail to a discussion of the Q’ri-K’tiv issue.

Ultimately most Hebrew students want to know “Why this is?”  Why should “hee” be written “hoo” and why do we see this phenomenon only in the Torah. That is the disappointment I mentioned at the beginning of this article. No one knows. At least I have never heard a theory that satisfactorily explains this. If you have, perhaps you’ll comment here.

Abraham ibn Ezra and Chaim Citron and Me

My journey with Abraham ibn Ezra began on Sproul Plaza of the University of California. You might think I would have begun my studies of ibn Ezra in my first year of study in Israel. No. Perhaps when I began studying with Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Bokser. No. It began on a grey autumn day in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Sproul Plaza is one of those quintissential college locations. Organizations created by and for students set up their tables and did their best to snag anyone passing by and convince them of the hard and vast truth of their opinions. Chaim Citron’s “Encounter With Chabad” table stood out for the reason of its quietude. Day after day, Chaim would sit reading a book and chat with anyone who cared to chat with him.

At some point I discovered that Chaim was no ordinary Chabadnik. Actually, he wasn’t a Chabadnik at all, if by that term one means a person born and raised in the Lubavitch community. Chaim was a child of the same part of the world from which I hailed, the Bronx. If I remember correctly he was from the somewhat nicer sections of the North Bronx than the South which was my lot in early life. His education was traditionally Jewish, but not Lubavitch–he attended a synagogue and Yeshiva affiliated with the Young Israel movement. While to outsiders Young Israel might look like the ultra-Orthodox, they are better thought of as the moderate branch of Orthodoxy.

I can’t recall how Chaim decided to sign up with Chabad, but he did and somehow he drew the Berkeley portfolio. And so it was that he was sitting at a table in Sproul Plaza as I wandered by on my way to or from a class on rabbinic Judaism or Classical Greek. He had a table near Sather Gate draped with a banner that read “Encounter With Chabad.” Between visitors he would while away the hours reading, usually some exotic-looking Hebrew text. Normally I preferred to keep away from these tables, but there was something about Chaim I found enchanting–it was 1975 and so it is anachronistic to say–but he resembled Dumbledore. At some point we struck up a conversation, and then it became a friendship. For a while, I even attended services at Chabad House. (Eventually, my strong pro-feminist feelings made it too uncomfortable for me to continue doing so, but I never tired of talking to Chaim.)

One gray day in the late Autumn, as I passed by Chaim’s table I noticed him chuckling. I wandered over to see what was so funny and I saw that he was studying a page in the Miqra’ot G’dolot (the great Rabbinic Bible which includes the text of the Bible, translations into Aramaic, and a variety of commentators). “Care to share the joke?” I said. Chaim replied (and it is almost 40 years ago, so you’ll have to forgive the paraphrase), “I’ve read ibn Ezra’s comment to this verse in Genesis many times, but I think I understand it now!” What follows is my recollection of what we learned, slightly embellished to make things a little more plain for a general audience.

The verse is Genesis 29:17, and the story regards Jacob’s apprenticeship with his uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and asked for her hand. Laban agreed, but when the marriage was performed, Jacob found himself wed to the older daughter, Leah. The question of why Laban did this is easy to answer–he insisted that the older daughter had to be married first (and readers must recall that this was a polygamous society, so marrying Leah would be no obstacle to an additional marriage to Rachel). But why did Jacob not care for Leah to begin with? The author supplies the answer: “The eyes of Leah were rakot (רַכּ֑וֹת)”. I left the word in Hebrew because that is the crux–we know that the word rakh means “soft.” But what is the implication of “soft eyes”?

Various interpretations over the milennia have sought to explain the text. Even without Hebrew knowledge, you can test this by looking in some common English translations of this text. The oldest English translation in common use (the King James Version) says: “Leah was tender eyed, but Rachel was beautiful.” Why is tender not beautiful? The original version of the Jewish Publication Society (1917) says “And Leah’s eyes were weak but Rachel was of beautiful form.” This version seems to explain the Hebrew term as conveying a physical impairment which might explain why Jacob would have been uninterested. This is as good an explanation as any, but I am personally dissatisfied. Among other reasons, I don’t find anything in all the stories about the remainder of Leah’s life with Jacob to suggest that she has such an impairment. The revised JPS (1962) keeps the rendering weak. The American Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) also adopts the reading of weak.

The original version of the New English Bible–in my opinion one of the most innovative and interesting of modern translations reads the verse “Leah was dull-eyed, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” Still, what does “dull-eyed” mean?

By this point you may be getting impatient. So what is the correct answer? What was wrong with Leah’s eyes? And what does any of this have to do with Abraham ibn Ezra?

It turns out that a medieval commentator named ben Ephraim thought he had the answer. Ben Ephraim wrote a commentary on Genesis and at 29:17 he wrote haser aleph. We wouldn’t have heard of ben Ephraim if it weren’t for ibn Ezra, because ibn Ezra quotes from his commentary, but no full edition of ben Ephraim’s commentary has survived. ibn Ezra cites ben Ephraim, and then replies “v’hu hayah haser aleph.” What does this mean?

ibn Ezra goes on to explain that ben Ephraim was suggesting that the text was incorrect. Instead of rakot one should add back the missing aleph and read it arukhot (ארכות). arukhot means long. So ben Ephraim emends the text. Whatever you might think about the idea of emending the Biblical text, you have to ask, how does “long eyes” improve the meaning of the text? ibn Ezra’s caustic retort plainly says that it doesn’t. But what did ibn Ezra mean? That was the reason why Chaim Citron was chuckling–he figured it out.

v’hu hayah haser aleph roughly translates to: “And he was lacking aleph.” In Hebrew, the term “was lacking” can be rendered “he should have been lacking”. Just as ben Ephraim was suggesting that we should add an aleph into the text, ibn Ezra suggests that we remove an aleph from ben Ephraim. What happens when you remove the aleph? You get “ben Parim”, which translates to son of bulls. To get the full flavor of this in English, (and please forgive the crudity), ibn Ezra was saying, “and ben Ephraim was a bullshitter.” This may also convey something of the reasons why ibn Ezra led a peripatetic life in his last few decades. A more gentle explanation, by the way, is that “haser aleph” means “lacking an education” as the term aleph-bet is commonly used as an indication of learning.

So, you might ask, what was ibn Ezra’s explanation for rakot? He says simply, “It means what it means.” (k’mashme`o). In other words, it means soft. If you want to know what soft means, look at other instances of the word in the Bible. But the important lesson here is that whatever it means, ibn Ezra was a consummate grammarian and whether or not he would be open to the notion of emending the text, he certainly didn’t think it worth emending one difficult text to make it even more difficult!

Without intending to disparage my professorial mentors at Berkeley, I have to say that the lesson I learned at the side of Rabbi Chaim Citron that day had more of an intellectual impact on me than any classroom Bible lesson I can easily recall. The sparkle in his eye and the simple delight of getting a joke written a milennium ago was priceless.

Qametz Qaton

This is the first in a series of articles related to Hebrew Grammar, so I’m going to use it as the “guinea pig” for a number of issues such as testing my ability to get Hebrew characters into this blog.

One of the issues that bedevils not only new students of Hebrew but veterans as well is pronouncing words which contain the Hebrew vowel qametz qaton. The overwhelming majority of instances of the vowel qametz are pronounced a as in father. But a small percentage (less than 10%) are pronounced o as in hole. One well understood example of this is the Hebrew word כָּל which is pronounced kol (to rhyme with hole). This word means all or everything and and is common enough for most people to remember.

The Hebrew word כָּל is not in its most basic state, which for nouns is often termed the absolute state. Take a look at how the word is spelled in the absolute state: כֹּל. So if כָּל is not in the absolute state, what state is it in? The answer to that is the construct state. If you don’t know enough Hebrew grammar to understand this yet, no worries, its not relevant to to this article. If you know a little English or other European language grammar, it might help to know that the Hebrew construct state is similar to what we call the genitive case. But, again, there is no reason to worry about this now. I use the example because the word is so common that if you have had any experience with Biblical or any other period of Hebrew, you have probably seen this word.

The point is this–the absolute state of the word shows its base level pronunciation, and the vowel is clearly o as in hole. When a word is put into the construct state, the effect is to slightly hurry the pronunciation. Theoretically this means that the vowel of כָּל should be pronounced a bit more hurriedly, slightly slurred from the longer כֹּל, but in practice, most Hebrew speakers do not audibly differentiate the two sounds.

You might by this time be wondering what, if anything, is the difference in meaning between כֹּל and כָּל. You can get a better understanding of this in the article explaining construct state (not wrtitten yet–the italics will turn into a link when I write it). For now, all you need to know is that כֹּל means all or each or every (depending on context) while כָּל means all of or each of or every (also depending on context). Some examples should help this along:

  • He created everything בָּרָא אֵת הַכֹּל
  • All of the land כָּל הָאָרֶץ
  • Every person in the country כָּל אָדָם בָּאָרֶץ

(Sorry, I have to figure out how to format colums before the above will look right.)

(Future article: what is the relationship of these vowel signs to other Masoretic systems and pronunciations?)

This illustrates that there is some relationship between the vowel holem and the vowel qametz. Many other examples could be provided. When the vowel qametz is pronounced o as in hole it is referred to as qametz qaton (the small or short qametz). In most books which feature vocalized Hebrew (dictionaries, Bibles, etc) there is no difference in the printing of the qametz regardless of whether the normally pronounced (a as in father) or the o pronunciation. However, especially in prayer books, there has been a gradual movement to identify the qametz qaton by drawing it differently from the ordinary qametz. In the case of the first prayer books typeset in Israel (Siddur Rinat Yisrael) and in several American versions, the qametz qaton is printed with a large descender (a little counter-intuitive givent that it indicates the “small” qametz). I have also seen a few versions that identify the qametz qaton by drawing it as a patah with a dot below. This is an interesting round trip because the original Masoretic sign qametz (any qametz) was exactly that—a patah with point below. This was gradually morphed into the t shaped vowel we are familiar with today. But in case you’re getting lost, the important point (so to speak) here is that what the printers are trying to do is make the qametz qaton stand out so the reader will easily recognize it.

One more point about the pronunciation of the qametz qaton before I proceed to explain the rule. The audible distinction between the ordinary qametz and the qametz qaton has been preserved only in the Sephardic side of the Jewish population. In the Ashkenazi pronunciation, both are the same: aw as in claw. Although I’m not certain of the dating, I believe the decision to use the Sephardic differentiation in Modern (Israeli) Hebrew goes back to Eliezer ben Yehuda and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize Ashkenazi (Eastern European) culture in the Jewish revivalist circles of Turkish, Mandate and post-Mandate Palestine.

At long last it is time to give you the rule so that you will know exactly when to pronounce the qametz as a and when to pronounce it o.

A qametz (אָ) which is contained within a closed, unaccented syllable is regarded (and pronounced) as a qametz qaton.

(printed here with the consonant אָ until I can figure out how to position a qametz below a dash.)

That’s the whole rule. Of course, as they say, “the devil is in the details.” How do you know what is a closed syllable and what is an open syllable, and how do you know whether the syllable is accented or not? For Classical (Biblical and some Rabbinic) Hebrew, some of the guesswork is removed by the full vocalization (both vowel marks and accent marks) of the text. If you are using a fully vocalized text, then the Masoretes indicated every accented syllable. There are a few quirks to their system (better suited for an article on the accentuation system), but by and large you will be able to identify an unaccented syllable by the lack of an accent sign in the syllable.

The notion of closed or open sylables is related to the tendency of Hebrew to have logical syllables formed by either a consonant/vowel (open) or consonant/vowel/consonant (closed). Lets take a look at our previous example: כָּל. This is a monosyllabic word which consists of consonant/vowel/consonant. So it is not just a word, but also a closed syllable. From the rule I stated above, you should conclude that the qametz would be normal and pronounced a as in father. But, in fact, whenever this word is written in the Hebrew Bible (unless it is the word כֹּלwhich we have explained is the same word in the absolute state), it is written with the Masorete’s version of a hyphen, a sign called a maqef. Thus, you will see this type of construction:


The accent, or trope mark, will appear in the word אָדָם and there will be no accent mark in the word כָּל, so by this means you can see that כָּל is a closed, unaccented syllable and the qametz is qaton and pronounced o as in hole.

Hapax Legomenon

The term hapax legomenon stems from the Greek, hapax one and legomenon, said. Put it together and you have “said once”. This is applied to vocabulary which occurs so few times that defining or translating the word or phrase is complicated by the lack of contexts. You might think that the term should be kept strictly to words or phrases that can be found only once in a given language space–for example, the Hebrew Bible. But if a term happens to occur just twice and with the same context for both occurrences, the linguistic features remain the same.