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.This is a creative way of backing into the grammatical arcana of Hebrew pausal forms.
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.
Monday, June 02, 2014
Hefsek and the gender of God. Or not.
PHILOLOGOS: Why God Can Sometimes Sound Female. It's a Question of Grammar, Not Theology.