On The Prefix ‘Vav’
Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
The prefix “ו” belongs with the group of the other prefixes, ב, כ, ל, presented here in an earlier note , and it follows their general rules. However, it deserves a separate exposition due to a unique property that it has, not shared with the other prefixes.
A. As the conjunction “and”, it is normally vowel-less, i.e., marked with a ‘sheva’: וְאִיש, וְהָאִיש . Exceptions to this rule are:
1). Before the letters ב, ו, מ, פ it is voweled with a ‘shuruk’:
וּבָשָׂר, וּוַשְׁתִּי, וּמֹשֶה, וּפַרְעֹה
2). Before a word that starts with a ‘sheva’, it is also voweled with a ‘shuruk’, since two ‘shevas’ cannot appear at the beginning of a word: וּשְמוּאֵל, וּלְעוֹלָם
3). Before a ‘yod’ with a ‘sheva’, it is voweled with a ‘chiriq’ and the ‘sheva’ disappears:
יְהוּדָה ~ וִיהוּדָה
4). Before a ‘sheva’- dominated ‘chataf’, it takes on the corresponding vowel of the ‘chataf’:
וַאֲנִי, וָאֳנִיָּה, וֶאֱמֶת
Notes: (a) with יְהוָֹה (read: אֲדֹנָי ) it is וַיהוָֹה (read: וַאדֹנָי )
(b) with אֱלֹהִים it is וֵאלֹהיִם
5). Before a stressed syllable, and in paired words, it is voweled with a ‘kamatz’:
יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, קַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, בָּשָׂר- וָדָם
P.S.: In Israeli street Hebrew, this ‘vav’ is always pronounced with a ‘segol’, וֶ, no exceptions. This is also true for the “easy listening” channels of radio and TV.
B. A unique usage of the ‘vav’ occurs in Biblical literature: Prefixed to a verb in the past tense, it converts the verb into the future, and vice versa: Before a verb in the future tense, it converts it into the past.
This ‘vav’ is called in Hebrew וָו – הַהִפּוּךְ literally, ‘the inversion vav’. In English, it is known as ‘vav consecutive’, or ‘the vav marking the past/future’ (the latter name is by the Academy of The Hebrew Language in Jerusalem).
It should be emphasized that it is not the conjunction “and”; it is merely a marker for a change of tenses. Examples:
וַיֹאמֶר מֹשֶה = Moses said
וְשָמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְרָאֵל = the children of Israel will keep
The voweling of this ‘vav’ from the past tense to the future follows the same rules as the conjunctive ‘vav’ (part “A” above), including the exceptions . Examples:
וְשָמְרו , the normal vowel-less ‘vav’.
וּבָאתָ אל הַתֵּיבָה , exception A 1) above.
וּרְדַפְתֶּם אֶת – אֹיְבֵיכֶם , exception A 2) above.
וִישַבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח , exception A 3) above.
וַאֲמַרְתֶּם כֹּה לֶחָי , exception A 4) above.
מְלָכִים יִרְאוּ וָקָמוּ , exception A 5) above.
The voweling of this ‘vav’ from the future tense to the past is normally with a ‘patach’, followed by a ‘strong dagesh’ in the next letter, e.g.,
וַיַּרְא , וַתֵּשֵב, וַנֵּלֵךְ . There are two exceptions:
1). Before an ‘aleph’ of the future tense, which cannot accept a ‘dagesh’, the ‘vav’ is voweled with a ‘kamatz’: וָאֶשְלַח , וָאֲדַבֵּר
2). Before a ‘yod’ with a ‘sheva’, the ‘vav’ retains its ‘patach’ but the ‘yod’ does not get a ‘dagesh’: וַיְהִי, וַיְדַבֵּר
Although this ‘vav’ does not mean “and”, a good translation, using judicious literary license, may introduce the conjunction “and” on occasion, in order to maintain the smooth flow of the text.
Examples: (italics added for clarity)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי-טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים
בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶךְ. וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם…
= God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day…
וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי -בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד = There was evening and there was morning, one day. (A similar conjunction is implicit in the Hebrew text.)
וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָו… = Esau ate, drank, rose, went his way, and spurned…
It is unfortunate that, in such instances, a respected translation like the Hertz/Soncino Press  introduces “and” practically every time there is a ‘vav consecutive’. The previous examples read there,
“And God said ‘let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day…”
“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”
“and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way, and spurned…”
Such a rendition is choppy and does not convey the fluid, majestic continuity of the Hebrew text.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the literary style of Biblical Hebrew, complete with the ‘vav consecutive’, is found also in secular writings. Notable among those is the first modern romance novel in Hebrew, “אַהֲבַת צִיוֹן “, by Avraham Mapu (1880-1867), an author of the ‘Haskalah’ (Enlightenment) movement.
Shmuel Yoseph (“Shy”) Agnon (1888-1970), a Nobel Prize laureate (1966), also used this style in some of his works.
. “On the Prefixes ב, כ, ל “. May 2, 2012.
. אַבְרָהָם אֶבֶן-שוֹשָן, “הַמִּלוֹן הֶחָדָש”. יְרוּשָלַיִם: קִרְיַת-סֵפֶר, תש”ל
. J.H.Hertz (Ed.),”The Pentateuch and Haftorahs.” 2nd edition. London: Soncino Press, 1976.
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