Darkness Thickens As My Head Changes

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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If this week’s column strikes some of you as rather technical, you can blame Cantor David Nemtzov of Willowdale, Ontario, for a question he asked about my column of the May 8 issue, in which I pointed out that the Hebrew word ta’am, “taste,” is shortened to tam in Yiddish by the elision of its glottal stop.

Why, Cantor Nemtzov asks, do I say this happens just in Yiddish? Didn’t Hebrew itself sometimes lose the glottal stop as far back as the days of the Bible? Thus, in the description of the plague of darkness in Exodus 10:21, we have the phrase v’yamesh h.oshekh, which the great medieval commentator Rashi (1040–1105) took to mean “and the darkness grew darker,” understanding the verb yamesh to be an elided form of ya’amesh. The original root of the verb, according to Rashi, was alef-mem-shin, from the noun emesh, which in the Book of Job has the meaning of “darkness,” and commenting on it, he says: “There are many words in the Bible in which the letter alef [that is, the sign of the glottal stop] is missing, because its pronunciation was slighted.”

An interesting thing about this passage is that it is one of the relatively few places in which we find Rashi, who rarely takes idiosyncratic positions, disagreeing with practically every other rabbinical commentator of his or earlier ages. On the whole, the verb yamesh in Exodus was assumed by the rabbis to derive from the root mem-shin-shin, whose primary meaning, as in the verb mashash, is “to feel” or “to touch”; v’yamesh h.oshekh would accordingly mean, “And the darkness grew thick enough to touch.” We find this interpretation in ancient midrash, in Rashi’s great medieval peer Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), and in almost all Bible translations into other languages, starting with the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate and down through the King James Version and more modern renderings. Ibn Ezra, who was familiar with Rashi’s theory, dismissed it out of hand as “making no sense.”

But is this really so? Rashi, even when wrong, can never be dismissed lightly — and in this case, he was undoubtedly correct in maintaining that ancient Hebrew had some glottal stops that later disappeared, since the alef indicating them often goes unpronounced. Take, for example, the Hebrew word for “head,” rosh, spelled resh-alef-shin in the Bible, instead of resh-shin or resh-vav-shin as might have been expected. This spelling can be explained only by the word having been originally pronounced ro’sh, with a catch of the throat before the final consonant.

Such glottal stops before consonants are still common in Hebrew’s sister language, Arabic; however, already by Rashi’s time — and very likely long before that — they had vanished from Hebrew, which retained only the glottal stop between vowels. Rashi’s suggestion that Hebrew also may have lost some of its intervocalic glottal stops is therefore not, on the face of it, unreasonable.

Cantor Nemtzov is troubled by Rashi’s interpretation because, as he puts it, it seems to assume that “the Torah deliberately omitted the letter alef simply because people were not diligent about pronouncing it. But catering to the laziness of speakers would hardly seem an adequate reason for the omission of something, and I would be ever so grateful to find a better logic that would satisfy me.”

The logic that Cantor Nemtzov is looking for is actually quite elementary. Rashi, as far as I can make out, did not think that when Moses — as tradition has it — wrote the Torah, he omitted the alef from ya’amesh because, despite knowing it belonged there, he wanted to make things easier for those too lazy to pronounce it. Rather, he omitted it because he did not know it belonged there — that is, because the glottal stop in yamesh, as in certain other words, had disappeared before his time, so that he himself was no longer aware of what the verb’s original root was. Does this mean he thought it was mem-shin-shin, as did the rabbis of later ages? Not necessarily, because he may not have thought about it at all. He was a prophet, after all, not a grammarian, and Jewish tradition never claimed he was omniscient.

Such, it seems to me, is Rashi’s take on the matter. It exhibits a sophisticated grasp of historical development in language that is not generally found in the biblical commentaries of the Middle Ages. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, as one of the first of the great scholars of Ashkenazic Europe that was already in his time developing a Hebrew that sounded different from that of Southern Europe and the Middle East, Rashi was uniquely aware of how Hebrew pronunciation could change — and of how if it did so in the present, it might have done so in the past, as well. This should, I think, set Cantor Nemtzov’s mind to rest.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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