The God Who ‘Evenings Evenings’

Doubled Nouns and Verbs Give Hebrew a Unique Poetry

Double Your Pleasure: Unlike other languages, Hebrew has no aversion to pairing verbs with the nouns that go with them. So if you are God, you can ‘evening’ the evening.
thinkstock
Double Your Pleasure: Unlike other languages, Hebrew has no aversion to pairing verbs with the nouns that go with them. So if you are God, you can ‘evening’ the evening.

By Philologos

Published June 25, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Harvey Klineman has a question about the Hebrew phrase ha-ma’ariv aravim that occurs at the beginning and end of the opening prayer of the evening service — a phrase that means (referring to God) “who brings on evenings,” although a more literal translation of it would be “who evenings evenings.” Mr. Klineman writes:

“Since this is one of the only prayers that opens and closes with the identical phrase, I must assume that this phrase had a particular importance to its composer. Yet I can’t find any reference to its wording anywhere else. It seems to me to have been invented. Does it exist in any other context?”

The passage in the prayer book that Mr. Klineman asks about, from which comes the name of the evening service, Ma’ariv, has always seemed to me one of the most beautiful in the Jewish liturgy. For those of you who are not familiar with it, or would like your memories refreshed, it goes, in Jonathan Sacks’s translation in “The Koren Siddur”:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who by His word brings on evenings [ha-ma’ariv aravim], by His wisdom opens the gates of heaven, with understanding makes time change and the season rotate, and by His will orders the stars in their constellations in the sky. He creates day and night, rolling away the light before the darkness and darkness before the light. He makes the day pass and brings the night, distinguishing day from night: The Lord of hosts is His name. May the living and forever enduring God rule over us for all time. Blessed are You, Lord, who brings on evenings [ha-ma’ariv aravim].

As Mr. Klineman points out, the phrase ha-ma’ariv aravim occurs nowhere else in rabbinic literature and was the invention of the anonymous composer of this prayer, which dates to the early centuries of the Common Era. This was an era in which, paradoxically, Hebrew religious poetry was going through a period of great verbal expansion and experimentation at the same time that the last vestiges of spoken Hebrew were disappearing — a paradox explainable by the fact that the spoken language’s final demise freed the written language from the checks and restraints of spoken norms. The verb l’ha’ariv, for example, which comes from erev, “evening,” existed before, but only with the intransitive meaning of “to come in the evening,” as in the verse in Chapter 17 of the first book of Samuel, “And the Philistine [Goliath] came morning and evening [va-yigash ha-plishti hashkem v’ha’arev].” The composer of the ha-ma’ariv aravim prayer took the liberty of giving l’ha’ariv an additional, transitive meaning and coupled it with aravim, the plural of erev, to arrive at “who evenings evenings.”

And yet idiomatically, this is perfectly ordinary Hebrew. English and other European languages have an aversion to doubling up nouns with their related verbs. We do not in English “decide a decision,” “plan a plan” or “bow a bow,” but rather use auxiliary verbs like “make,” “have” and “take.” Classical Hebrew, on the other hand, favors such repetition. In the Bible, we read that “Jacob vowed a vow” (vayidor Yaakov neder); that Ezekiel prophesies “a slaughter being slaughtered in your midst” (beyhareg hereg b’tokhekh); that God, speaking through Hosea, tells the people of Israel that “I will hedge your way with thorns and wall it with a wall” (v’gadarti et g’derah) and so on.

Although in contemporary Israeli Hebrew, this tendency often yields under foreign influence to auxiliary verbs, one still encounters it. It is not uncommon to hear Israelis say things like, “I shod my shoes” (na’alti et ha-na’alayim), “He belted his safety belt” (hu ḥ agar et ḥ agorat ha-b’tiḥ ut) and “She stepped a big step” (hi tsa’ada tsa’ad gadol). “Who evenings evenings,” though more poetic, is just another case of this.

Nor is the ha-ma’ariv aravim prayer rare in beginning and ending with the same words. Indeed, right after it in the evening service comes another prayer that begins, “With everlasting love [ahavat olam] have You loved Your people, the House of Israel,” and ends, “Blessed are You, Lord, who loves His people Israel.” This pattern is common and can also be found in many of the blessings in the Sh’moneh Esreh, the Eighteen Benedictions (as in the one that begins, “Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed,” and ends, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Healer of the sick of His people Israel”). It is true that prayers like the ahavat olam begin and end with almost the same words, while the ha-ma’ariv aravim prayer begins and ends with exactly the same words, but this does not strike me as justifying Mr. Klineman’s judgment that the latter phrase had a “particular importance” to its composer. It was certainly important to him — but so, one assumes, was everything else in the prayer.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.