Between Two Evenings

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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From Morton Steinberg comes this query:

“A word in Hebrew that has always troubled me is tsohorayim, ‘noon,’ which is in the dual plural form. Is the proper greeting for ‘good afternoon’ tsohorayim tov [with the adjective tov, ‘good,’ in the singular] or tsohorayim tovim [with the adjective in the plural]? And why is the Hebrew noun for ‘noon’ plural but the nouns for ‘morning,’ boker; ‘evening’ erev, and ‘night,’ layla, singular? And while we’re on the subject, could you comment on another Hebrew dual plural expression for a time of day — beyn ha-arbayim, literally ‘between the two evenings,’ which refers to dusk?”

Let me begin with a grammatical note for those who know no Hebrew, a language that has an ordinary plural, most often –im for masculine nouns and –ot for feminine ones, and a dual plural, -ayim, for things that occur in pairs. Thus, for instance, the plural of the feminine noun kaf, which means both “spoon” and “hand” or “palm,” is kapot in the former sense and kapayim in the latter, since hands and palms come in twos. However, since Hebrew adjectives have no dual form but only singular and plural, we have Mr. Steinberg’s first question: Which form of the adjective do you use with a dual plural noun like tsohorayim?

The answer is that you always use the plural form so that the contemporary Israeli expression for “good afternoon” is tsohorayim tovim and not tsohorayim tov. Tov would go only with the singular form of tsohar — a word meaning “dazzling light” or “zenith.” Literally, then, tsohorayim means “two dazzling lights” or “two zeniths” — something that has a puzzling relationship to the concept of “noon,” to which we will return.

First, though, let’s move on to Mr. Steinberg’s second question: Why is the hour of dusk called in Hebrew beyn ha-arbayim, “between the two evenings” —- arbayim being the dual form of erev, “evening”?

Since beyn ha-arbayim, like tsohorayim, is an ancient biblical word, this is a question that already occupied Jewish biblical commentators. Rashi, commenting on the verse in Exodus, “They shall slaughter it [the paschal lamb]… beyn ha-arbayim,” explains the expression as referring to the time between “the evening of afternoon” — i.e., late afternoon when the shadows begin to lengthen — and “the evening of night,” or the moments right before total darkness. And yet this seems, I must say, rather forced, especially since Hebrew has yet another, similarly puzzling expression for “dusk” or “twilight,” namely, beyn ha-shemashot, “between the suns.” Is there also, then, an “afternoon sun” and an “evening sun”? What is all this between-ness and duality about?

The only explanation that I can think of might be as far fetched as Rashi’s without having the advantage of his authority, but I’ll offer it for what it’s worth. It starts with the fact that Hebrew has two other dual plural nouns that are unusual because they, too, refer to things that don’t come in pairs: mayim, “water,” and shamayim, “sky.” Moreover, both these words, while having close cognates in Hebrew’s sister Semitic languages, occur in the singular there and in the dual plural only in Hebrew. Is this perhaps because, to the mind of the ancient Hebrew, water and sky, mayim and shamayim, were paired with each other in sound, in nature and by God at the time of Creation? Even more than earth and sky, they are the two halves of a symmetrical whole, the top and bottom of the world, as it were, each reflecting the other, so that, particularly if one is at sea or gazing seaward, they resemble each other and are difficult to tell apart at a distance — from which, looking out toward the horizon, they are easily confused.

Let’s take this a step further. As the sun crosses the sky, it, too, is reflected by water, forming a dazzle on the latter’s surface. Yet at noon, when the sun is directly overhead and all but impossible to look at, it is perceived as a dazzle in the sky, as well, the dazzle below becoming a mirror image of the dazzle above. And as dusk commences and the fiery sphere of the setting sun is reflected as a similar sphere in the water — the space between the two steadily diminishing until they merge on the horizon — water and sky are once again perfect mirror images of each other. Now we see two suns and two evenings, one above and one below.

There are then two times of day when mayim and shamayim, water and sky, are perfectly symmetrical: high noon or tsohorayim, the time of “the two dazzling lights,” and beyn ha-arbayim or beyn ha-shemashot, the time “between the evenings” or “between the suns.” (Of course, there’s dawn, too, but perhaps not enough ancient speakers of Hebrew were awake then.) Although I must admit that this is a rather poetic explanation for what in fact may be a more prosaic linguistic phenomenon, it does make sense of some odd expressions.

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






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