Gallantly Grammatical


By Philologos

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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A promise is a promise. I ended last week’s column with the pledge to tell you why the Hebrew phrase ma’asei merkavah, “the doings of the chariot,” is sometimes humorously applied by political commentators in Israel to the process of forming coalition governments, such as the one just put together by Prime Minister Sharon, and I’ll stick to my word.

It all goes back to the prophet Ezekiel. His first vision comprises one of the strangest chapters of the Bible. In it, he tells us, a “whirlwind” appeared to him from which emerged “four living creatures,” each with “four faces” and “four wings.” These creatures “ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning,” and each was mounted on a wheel, so that “when the living creatures went, the wheels went with them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up… for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

It is difficult to make sense of this chapter and impossible to reconstruct exactly what Ezekiel thought he saw. Yet whatever it was, many of the rabbis of the talmudic period were fascinated by it; influenced by the verse in Isaiah, “For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots, like a whirlwind,” they took it to be a vision of God’s chariot and a mystical key to imagining His surroundings. The “doings of the chariot” became a rabbinic term for a mystical exercise whose ultimate goal was to visualize an ascent through the seven heavens leading to God’s throne and to be vouchsafed an ecstatic glimpse of the Deity. Among scholars, this school of pre-kabbalistic rabbinic mysticism is known to this day as “Merkavah mysticism.”

You may be wondering where Israeli government coalitions fit into all this. It’s all just a big pun. The Hebrew noun merkavah comes from the verb rakhav, “to ride,” the hif’il or ergative form of which, hirkiv, originally meant (and still can mean) putting someone on a horse or donkey. From there hirkiv developed the additional meaning of attaching something to something else beneath it, and the still additional one of putting any two or more things together, such as a piece of do-it-yourself furniture, a puzzle — or a coalition government. And although the nominal form of the verb hirkiv is harkavah and not merkavah, some wag in the media, 10 or 15 years ago, took to calling the laborious negotiations that usually precede the formation of coalitions in Israel ma’asei merkavah, a comic term that stuck. I encountered it several times, on TV, radio and in the newspapers, during the coalition talks that have just ended with the presenting of Sharon’s new government to the Knesset.

* * *

MYRON A. MORSON of Bellerose, N.Y., writes:

I tried in vain to convince a friend that, when speaking to a B’nai B’rith group, it is not necessary to address them as B’nai [literally, “sons of”] and B’not [“daughters of”] B’rith, since the Hebrew word b’nei, besides meaning “sons,” also means “children.” But although that’s something that I know from my earliest Hebrew school experiences, not one dictionary that I consulted had a listing of b’nei with such a definition. How come?

I don’t know what dictionaries Mr. Morson consulted, but he is right that b’nei, the genitive form of banim, “sons,” can denote men and women together. The expression from Hebrew school that Mr. Morson most likely remembers is b’nei yisra’el or “Children of Israel,” which is how the entire people of Israel is often referred to by the Bible. Indeed, “children,” in such a phrase, is not a very good translation of b’nei either. The 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation of the Pentateuch, which renders b’nei yisra’el as “Israelites,” is both more modern and more idiomatically English.

In fact, in classical Hebrew, b’nei and its singular form of ben often do not have the sense of “sons,” “children” or “offspring” at all, but rather function as relational words. A ben torah or “son of Torah” is a student of the Torah; a ben mavet or “son of death” is someone liable to get the death penalty; a ben patish or “son of a hammer” is a little hammer. And a ben b’rit or “son of the covenant” is quite simply a Jew, which can be varied as bat b’rit “or daughter of the covenant,” b’not b’rit and b’nei b’rit. We should remember that Hebrew is a highly gendered language in which all nouns and verbs must be either masculine or feminine, there being no neuter forms at all. And the Hebrew grammatical rule, though it might strike some of you as sexist, is quite simple: Mixed groups of men and women are referred to by the masculine plural form. Thus, for example, while morot can only mean “female teachers,” morim, the masculine plural form, can mean either “male teachers” or “male and female teachers,” and while b’not b’rit, “daughters of the covenant,” can only mean “Jewish women,” b’nei b’rit can mean either “Jewish men” or “Jewish men and women.” Which is not to say, Mr. Morson, that, if you wish to be gallant and not just grammatical, you can’t begin your speech with “Dear B’nai and B’not B’rith” anyway.

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