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Thursday, August 28, 2014

It's Not You...It's Us -- with a little more depth (a grammatical interlude)

My friend, Steve Froikin, had a sharp critique of my previous post. I am bringing his comments immediately below and then my reply.

Again, if you're not into finer points of biblical grammar, you may want to skip this, although I hope you don't!

Steve said:

I don’t buy it for two reasons (sorry for rendering the Hebrew in English characters, but I can’t get it to work as mixed Hebrew and English text).

Basically you are saying that ETCHEM is the object of the verb YISHAL[CHA]. I put “CHA” in brackets to emphasize that YISHAL already has an object: CHA—“he will ask [you].” It would be very peculiar to have a second object, ETCHEM, that performs the same function. It is doubly peculiar to have that second object separated so far from the verb. And it is triply peculiar that the intervening text contains a verb, TZIVAH, that now lacks an object because you have attached it to the more distant YISHAL. ETCHEM makes total sense as the object of TZIVAH and is triply strained to read it as the object of YISHAL.

Your comparison of the Deut. 6 text with the Deut. 5 text doesn’t seem valid to me. In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward object (ETCHEM). In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward verb (or gerund, or whatever you want to call it: LEIMOR). Unfortunately, you stopped quoting Deut. 5 at a critical point. What you omitted, was a kind of object to the verb LEIMOR (namely, quotation of the ten commandments). In other words, Deut. 5 inserted the parenthetical “for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount” prior to LEIMOR because to do otherwise would have separated LEIMOR from its object (the quote). I actually see Deut. 5 supporting the proposition that verbs and their objects need to be close together.

By this reasoning, the wise son is still excluding himself from the community. 

And here is my reply:

You make some strong points and you added one more to me privately – namely that the object אתכם (to you – plural) does not agree with the earlier object of 'you' (singular) in the word ישאלך. This latter point was one I thought to bring up myself but was frankly too tired by the time I finished the post.

In any event, I will try to defend this position although I acknowledge it is not the obvious reading of the verse.

The fact that אתכם seems to be repetitive according to this reading is not unprecedented. Thus we see this verse:

בראשית פרק ל (כ) וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה זְבָדַ֨נִי אֱלֹהִ֥ים׀ אֹתִי֘ זֵ֣בֶד טוֹב֒ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ יִזְבְּלֵ֣נִי אִישִׁ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שִׁשָּׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ זְבֻלֽוּן:

Genesis Chapter 30 (20) And Leah said, God has given me a choice gift to me. This time my husband will exalt me for I have borne him six sons. And she called his name Z'vulun.

Standard translations will not bring the extra 'to me' since it is understood in context as not adding meaning. Although it may be peculiar, as you point out, it is not unknown in biblical Hebrew. See, also, Jeremiah 27:8 for another example.

The fact that אתכם is plural while ישאלך is singular seems more troubling. However, plural and singular do not always agree in biblical Hebrew.

Look at the beginning of our chapter (Deuteronomy 6), verses 1 and 2 (For the sake of brevity, I am not bringing a translation here):

דברים פרק ו (א) וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֪ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:(ב) לְמַ֨עַן תִּירָ֜א אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־חֻקֹּתָ֣יו וּמִצְוֹתָיו֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוֶּךָ֒ אַתָּה֙ וּבִנְךָ֣ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וּלְמַ֖עַן יַאֲרִכֻ֥ן יָמֶֽיךָ:

These two verses constitute a single sentence. Note that when Moshe is addressing the people here he first addresses them in the plural but later in the sentence addresses them in the singular. (Note, also, in the second half of verse two it says “...that I commanded you, you and your son and the son of your son...”, the second 'you' being repetitive.)

If you continue in the chapter, you will see the same pattern such as in v.4 and v.5 which is familiar to us as the beginning of the Sh'ma. Verses 10-12 are in the singular and then 13 is in the plural. You will see this switch over the next several verses, as well.

But perhaps the best example is the verse immediately following the question of the son:

דברים פרק ו (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֪ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְקֹוָ֪ק מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה:

Deuteronomy Chapter 6 (21) And you (singular) will say to your (singular) son, We were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong arm.

You might say that in this latter verse the response 'you' give is in the plural because you (singular) are telling the story of the nation as a whole. Yet, the verse could have just as easily said 'to your (plural) sons.' I understand that the 'we' could be understood collectively and not specifically about the person telling the answer. All I need to do, though, is to point out that it can be understood the way I have explained.

I think it is fair to say that the Torah, particularly in this context, was not trying to make singular and plural match. You can interpret each case where they don't match as having particular significance, but you can also say on the p'shat level that, at least in this context, they are interchangeable. This singular/plural issue appears many places throughout Tanach.

As far as the word צוה not having an object according to R. Hoffmann's reading: Actually, according to his reading, the object precedes the verb. The verse says:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

The 'testimonies, statutes and judgments' are the object of the verb 'commanded.' According to the more popular reading you are defending, the 'to you' at the end is an indirect object. Biblical grammar does not demand an indirect object. (I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong about the direct and indirect object here—but I think I got it right). The Torah has many examples of things being commanded without an indirect object stated. For example:

שמות פרק טז (טז) זֶ֤ה הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה יְקֹוָ֔ק לִקְט֣וּ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אִ֖ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְל֑וֹ עֹ֣מֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּ֗לֶת מִסְפַּר֙ נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם אִ֪ישׁ לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאָהֳל֖וֹ תִּקָּֽחוּ:

Exodus Chapter 16(16) This is the thing that the Lord commanded: Gather from it each person according to what he eats, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.

The verse doesn't say 'This is the thing that the Lord commanded to you.' Thus, one can argue in our verse that the אתכם ('to you') at the end does not necessarily refer back to the verb צוה ('command').

As far as differentiating between the example of אתכם being separated by a long clause from the verb at the beginning of the sentence and לאמר being separated by a long clause at the beginning – I think this it is valid to point this out. I admit that I haven't yet found the word אתכם or a variant separated by such a clause elsewhere in Tanach (although I am still looking). However, I think, with all the other points I made, that it is not wrong to see אתכם as belonging to ישאלך.

I believe this is a reasonable defense of the interpretation of R. Hoffmann. I understand it feels strained, but I think it is valid. If I find more precise proof texts, I will share them.

Also, I will point out again that even according to the more simple reading of the verse, this son does not entirely exclude himself from the community. He still recognizes that the Lord is 'our God.' One can say that he doesn't realize that he, too, is commanded. Or, he might think that due to his age he is not yet commanded.

Thus, we have this interpretation: “And it will be when your son asks you (אתכם) tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded?”

After all this, though, I will bring in the next post a different point that does not upset the syntax of the verse.


  1. Shel-- It's funny that you express a tiny bit of uncertainty about the direct/indirect object terminology. Even though I have been an editor for more than 30 years, I've never had to use the terminology. When I was writing my previous comment, I was trying to remember which was which and decided that it wasn't necessary to make my point. We seem to be thinking along the same lines. The same thing happened today regarding your Facebook post about NY bagels. Now, back to the verses...

    The reading you are defending is strained. But you defend it because you are the Chochom. I don't think that the Rasha would take the time to parse it all out as you have. That, not the grammatical argument, is the difference between the Wise son and the Wicked Son. I think you've said that before or, at least, hinted that you are coming to this in a future post.

    Even though I posted a grammatical critique (which was fun to do), I am more interested in the psychology. If, as you argue, the Chochom is NOT excluding himself, at least he is doing it with convoluted language that is difficult to understand. That fits the Chochom personality.

    But a stronger point is that the Chochom gets into the details. He is obviously interested, even if he trips himself up on the language. Even if the Chochom uses the word "you," it's clear that he wants to join in and become part of the group by learning about all the laws. (All the other chochomim, however, have to razz him about using the word "you" like the Rasha.)

    The Rasha, on the other hand, is sarcastic. His statement is a put down. "What's it TO ya?" He's definitely not part of the celebration. He isn't seeing himself as a part of the group and isn't really interested in joining in.

  2. I was also thinking that something should be said about the word 'command' -- I think regarding its transitive/intransitive characteristics. In the verse, the (direct?) object of 'command' is what laws are commanded and the (indirect?) object is whom is commanded.

    I tend to get a little befuddled by these grammatical terms. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

    In any event, I like how you add another layer of interpretation regarding the respective natures of the Wise and Evil son. I may incorporate that in future posts.

    Thanks and more soon!

  3. I asked my wife about direct and indirect objects. You are right about that. According to her, in a simplified form of the sentence we are talking about--"He will ask you the question"--the word "question" is the direct object and the word "you" is the indirect object. As she said this, I could imagine my 8th grade teacher Ms. Richardson saying this, so my wife--and you--must be right.

  4. Whew! I thought so and I even looked it up on the net before posting. I'm glad my life wasn't on the line, though.