Why God Can Sometimes Sound Female

It's a Question of Grammar, Not Theology

Genesis of Grammar: Changes in gender are seen early on in the Torah in discussions of sin and the Tree of Knowledge.
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Genesis of Grammar: Changes in gender are seen early on in the Torah in discussions of sin and the Tree of Knowledge.

By Philologos

Published June 01, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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Irving Salzman has a question about an ancient Hebrew prayer, the answer to which involves some fine points of linguistic history that may not interest everyone. Yet since the prayer is one that all of you who are synagogue-goers know and may have wondered about, too, I’ll risk discussing it.

The prayer begins with the words modim anaḥnu lakh, “We thank You,” and is recited three times daily in the Shemoneh Esreh or “Eighteen Benedictions” in the morning, afternoon and evening services. In it, worshippers express their gratitude to God for “our lives that are in Your hands, and our souls that are at Your command, and Your miracles that are with us every day, and Your constant wonders and kindnesses, evening, morning, and noon.” But though there is nothing strange about the prayer itself, its first words may seem puzzling. This is because lakh, the second-person singular, dative case of the Hebrew pronoun “you” (the verb l’hodot, “to thank,” takes the dative) is its feminine form, the masculine form being lekha, with the stress on the second syllable. “Do you have an explanation for this?” Mr. Salzman asks. “I have never received a good answer, even from rabbis.”

Given the preoccupations of many contemporary American rabbis, I’m surprised that none has tried telling Mr. Salzman that here is proof that the God of Judaism is also female — but even our rabbis, it would seem, know better than to confuse grammar with theology. The real answer to Mr. Salzman’s question lies in a feature of biblical grammar known as hefsek or “stoppage,” which ordains that certain Hebrew words change their vowels when occurring at the end of a sentence or phrase.

The Bible is full of such words. An interesting example, because it influences Hebrew usage to this day, is the word perekh, “hard labor,” which becomes parekh (with the “a” as in “ah”) in a hefsek position, as it does in the verse in Exodus, “And [the Egyptians] embittered [the Israelites’] lives with grueling work in brick and clay, and in the fields, and everywhere… where they were subjected to hard labor.” Though the principle of hefsek has long vanished from the Hebrew language, to be sentenced by a judge to hard labor in modern Hebrew is to be condemned to parekh, not perekh. And this is also the reason why, while the Hebrew word for “vine” is gefen, the blessing over wine before a Sabbath and holiday meal praises God for being borey p’ri ha-gafen, “the creator of the fruit of the vine,” since the early rabbis who composed the prayer used the biblical hefsek form.

One of the many words affected by hefsek is the masculine pronoun lekha, which changes to the feminine-sounding lakh. We see this as early as the second chapter of Genesis, where God says to Adam, who has sinned by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, “Thorns and thistles shall [the earth] bring forth to you” — “to you” being lakh and not lekha. And as with gefen/gafen, this lakh was retained in the postbiblical modem anaḥ nu lakh prayer.

What the various hefsek rules — there are seven or eight of them — have in common is that all mandate a reversion to older, prebiblical forms of words that had become archaic by biblical times. Thus, although we have almost no written examples of prebiblical Hebrew, we know from other Semitic languages that lak (as in Arabic) or lakh (as in Aramaic) was the original form of Hebrew lekha, and that the shift to the latter took place after Hebrew had separated from the rest of its Semitic sisters. Similarly, gafen and parekh are older forms of gefen and perekh.

Of course, this only leads to another question. Why should the older, archaic forms of such prebiblical Hebrew words have been retained in hefsek positions after they had mutated elsewhere? The explanation has to do with the fact that one of the phonetic shifts undergone by prebiblical Hebrew in biblical times was the fronting and shortening of certain back vowels, like the a of parekh and gafen. It may hardly be noticeable, but it takes (try it and you’ll see) a fraction of a second less to say gefen than gafen. On a cumulative basis, such a sound shift eases the flow of speech — and yet wherever this flow pauses or stops because it has reached the end of a phrase or sentence, there is a tendency to slow down again. Hence, the older form was retained in such places.

In the case of the Hebrew second-person singular, masculine, dative pronoun, what probably happened was that an original lakh was first fronted to lekh and then gained a second syllable when speakers took to releasing a breath after the “kh.” Meanwhile, lakh remained unchanged when it occurred at the end of phrases and sentences. It’s a reasonable conjecture, anyway. It’s hard to know for sure about words spoken but never written more than 3,000 years ago.

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


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