Now a lesson in diachronicity – the persistence (or not) of grammar over time. Unless you have read a large part of classical Jewish literature – or even if you have – you might not realize that one piece of Biblical Hebrew survived the Babylonian Captivity almost intact. The nun epistemic, in a slightly different format and meaning, persisted into Mishnah, Gemara, the middle ages, and later times.
I believe that’s because it was integral to the legal system, documented in over a millennium of material. The very first Mishnah has three examples. Each of them reflects some legal issue.
מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית. מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁהַכֹּהֲנִים נִכְנָסִים לֶאֱכֹל בִּתְרוּמָתָן, עַד סוֹף הָאַשְׁמוּרָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, עַד חֲצוֹת. רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר. מַעֲשֶׂה שֶׁבָּאוּ בָנָיו מִבֵּית הַמִּשְׁתֶּה, אָמְרוּ לוֹ, לֹא קָרִינוּ אֶת שְׁמַע. אָמַר לָהֶם, אִם לֹא עָלָה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר, חַיָּבִין אַתֶּם לִקְרוֹת. וְלֹא זוֹ בִּלְבַד, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁאָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים עַד חֲצוֹת, מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר. הֶקְטֵר חֲלָבִים וְאֵבָרִים, מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר. וְכָל הַנֶּאֱכָלִין לְיוֹם אֶחָד, מִצְוָתָן עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר. אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים עַד חֲצוֹת, כְּדֵי לְהַרְחִיק אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעֲבֵירָה:
Qorin means that it’s halakhah to read the Shema. This mishnah is about the requirement to read it at night, not about an individual case that came before a Jewish court.
Chayavin means that the young men might be subject to the requirement for the nighttime reading. There’s a condition that applies – whether the dawn has begun – and the speaker (Rabban Gamliel, their father) can’t rule on the case. Why not? There are no eligible witnesses. He can’t do it, he’s a relative of the young men so he couldn’t testify. The young men can’t do it, they are parties to the case. Also, the father can’t serve as a judge in the case, being a relative. Supposing that dawn had not begun, the young men would be supposed to say the Shema, but he can’t say chayavim.
Neechalin is nifal, meaning a legal ruling; a legal ruling exists that certain sacrifices have to be eaten in one day (it’s in Torah) but we’re not talking about an actual example of such a thing involved in the current case, we’re just talking about the class of things to which the legal ruling applies.
This grammar persists into the Kitsur Shulchan Arukh of the 1830s CE and appears in Midrash Halakhah (600-800 CE), Mishneh Torah (1100s CE), Caro’s Shulchan Arukh (1500s), and Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav (right about 1800).
Another example (this picks up on something I said a few weeks ago) is that, while there are ayin vav and ayin yod verb root classes in Biblical Hebrew, and peh yod, there is only one peh vav verb (viter, in only one binyan) and no lamed yod or lamed vav classes. Gelb’s grammar of Akkadian shows these forms. Assyrian had all of these forms; Delitzsch, who wrote the basic grammar, shows that peh vav were dying out. It’s easy to see why when you know that vav is the Hebrew version of a sound that was used at the start of verbs throughout the history of Semitic languages (whether it mean “and” or whatever). It’s easier to pronounce words if you change or suppress one of the vavs at the start.
Remember back when I discussed how some peh yod verbs drop the yod in part of their conjugation? If they drop it, they were originally peh vav verbs. You can tell by looking up their cognates in Akkadian or Assyrian (dictionaries for these languages are available online). If they don’t drop it, they weren’t peh vav verbs (or they don’t have a cognate).
So yada, which drops the yod in imperfect, was a peh vav verb in Akkadian and Assyrian. So were yakhal, yaval, yalad, yashav, yarad, yaqar, yaraq, and yatsa. Not true of yatsar or yashar.
And no other Semitic language has the lamed heh verb root class, it’s only in Hebrew. Aramaic verbs that look like this have been adopted from Hebrew, as Jastrow’s dictionary shows, but non-borrowed verbs are lamed yod or lamed vav. In other Semitic languages, the cognate to a Hebrew lamed heh verb, is either lamed yod or lamed vav.
I let this post run on because it’s not crucial to understanding Torah, it’s just to expand your mind a little. Most of Hermann Strack’s Porta Linguarum Orientalium and Clavis Linguarum Semiticarum are available online for free and some are still useful. Use your search engine on the titles to find a list of them. Maybe you will discover your inner Assyriologist!
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved