On Jacob’s Blessing to Joseph

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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).

In Genesis 49:22 we find the expression בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה which is problematic in that the subject is feminine plural, while the verb is feminine singular.

A majority of the English versions read, with small variations, “[Joseph is a fruitful bough,] his branches run [over the wall.]” We are interested here in the פשט meaning, not its דרש such as Rashi’s – “Young ladies: Each one of them stepped on the wall to admire his beauty” — nor with alternate versions, such as the JPS translation, presenting wild asses instead of branches. In any case, the mismatch in the Hebrew between subject and verb still exists.

A solution to this apparent problem can be found if we compare with Arabic grammar. Medieval grammarians such as Saadiah Gaon and Ibn Janah used Arabic to explain Biblical Hebrew.* Possibly, even words with the Arabic definite article are found in the Bible, e.g., אֶלְגָּבִיש, אַלְמֹג, אַלְקוּם.**

With this background, we recall that, in the Arabic syntax, a non-human subject in the plural is followed by a verb in the 3rd person, feminine, singular. (Following a human plural subject, a verb obeys normal rules: same as to person, gender, and plural.)

This, then, explains why (the non-human subject) “branches,” בָּנוֹת , is followed by the feminine singular verb צָעֲדָה. If we translate בָּנוֹת as “young ladies”, a human subject, we are not only back to the mismatch of subject/verb, but we also lose the symmetry of the two halves of the verse: “A fruitful bough upon the water <---> His branches run over the wall” a symmetry so common (and so beautiful!) in Biblical poetry.


* See Prof. Steven E. Fassberg, Review of “The Use of Arabic in Biblical Hebrew Lexicography” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 89, No. 1/2, Jul. – Oct., 1998, pp. 191-193.

** A personal note from Prof. Steven Fassberg, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

About Shlomo Karni

11 comments

  1. IH: thanks, but this raises the question ‘why did the Masoretes not
    use the ‘ketiv’ and ‘keri’ here, arguably as obvious here as in ‘shafcha’- ‘shafchu’

  2. I guess they might not have changed it here because it is a poetic passage, in which one might expect some unusual forms. Alter says that there are a number of such instances. Are you aware of any others?

  3. Matthew P: A good survey, with data, is found in the Wikipedia,
    under the Hebrew listing קרי וכתיב

  4. Prof. Karni — perhaps an e-mail to Prof. Alter will shed some light on his thinking (http://nes.berkeley.edu/Web_Alter/Alter.html). Do let us know if something comes of it.

  5. IH: I’ll be delighted to read what you hear from him.

  6. Something bothers me about this. Doesn’t an understanding of the text in this way, remove the the arguments about Gd’s name being in plural, but his verbs being in the singular? Similarly with the Rashi about all the Jews being of one heart when camping at mount Sinai.

  7. I meant: are there any more examples of this specific phenomenon of a plural noun and singular verb that are corrected by a קרי. I could not see this in the wiki article.

  8. Something bothers me about this. Doesn’t an understanding of the text in this way, remove the the arguments about Gd’s name being in plural, but his verbs being in the singular?

    That was never much of an argument. בעלים is Hebrew for owner, and Yosef is described as האיש אדני הארץ. The “royal they” is apparently quite common for people in positions of power and respect. God’s name would fit that pattern well.

  9. “That was never much of an argument. בעלים is Hebrew for owner, and Yosef is described as האיש אדני הארץ. The “royal they” is apparently quite common for people in positions of power and respect. God’s name would fit that pattern well.”

    Huh?

    It’s rarely if ever used in chumash.

    But there are numerous places where drashim and commentaries focus on places where it’s plural noun and singular verb, and learn something from it. This posts seems to suggest that those learned ideas are false, and really it’s just the way the grammar is supposed to work.

  10. The royal plural appears very early: נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו (בר’ 1:26) – it IS the majestic plural, without the need for the drash of ‘consulting with the heavenly court’.

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