Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Liturgy: Griping about grammar

I suppose that, just as part one came to you courtesy of my egalitarianism, part two, here, comes courtesy of my background as the holder of a BA in French with a built-in sensitivity to language.*

Anyone who's ever been a baal(at) koreh/leiner/Torah reader, chanting directing from a sefer Torah, knows all too well that Hebrew grammar was not always as stable as it is now, as evidenced by the numerous times that a baal(at) koreh has to read "hee" ("she," or the feminine form of "it") where the word is actually spelled "hu" ("he," or the masculine form of "it") in the text, because the tradition recognizes that "hu" is no longer grammatically correct.

The instability of the grammar in older Hebrew texts is visible in the siddur/prayer book, as well.

For example, there's this prayer, from Birkot HaShachar/Morning Blessings: "U-t'neinu hayom, u-v'chol yom, l'chen u-l'chesed u-l'rachamim b'einecha u-v'einei chol roeinu, v'tigm'leinu chasadim tovim." The usual translation is roughly "And give us this day, and every day, grace, kindness, and compassion in your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow upon us good kindnesses."

For openers, the phrase "chasadim tovim, good kindnesses," a term used frequently in Jewish tradition, is interesting in itself. There's such a thing as bad kindnesses?

But what about that other major detail, namely, the repeated use of l' (l'chen u-l'chesed u-l'rachamim? If my limited understanding of Hebrew is correct, l' usually means "to," "for," " of," or "by." The l' is conveniently ignored in the translations that I've seen. Honestly, I was going to deem the l' anachronistic grammar and skip it, and say simply "chen, chesed, v'rachamim" until it occurred to me that the l' opened the possibility of a completely different interpretation: "And give us this day, and every day, for grace, for kindness, and for compassion," actions that we could do, and HaShem, for His part, would bestow "good kindnesses" upon us.

Further along, we get to the weekday "Yotzer Or (Who forms light)" b'rachah/blessing. There, we find the phrase "L'Kel baruch n'imot yiteinu, l'Melech Kel chai v'kayam, z'mirot yomeiru v'tishbachot yashmiyu," which the Koren Sacks Siddur translates "To the blessed God they offer melodies. To the King, living and eternal God, they say psalms and proclaim praises." This time, there's a different problem with l'--it doesn't include "the." The text should read laKel . . . laMelech . . . to the God. . . to the King . . ." The literal translation of the Hebrew as written would be "to (a) God . . . to a King."

Here's another instance of the same grammatical inconsistency, this one occurring just before the Amidah prayer: " . . . l'Melech Kel chai v'chayam . . ." To a King, God who lives and endures?? Nu, last I heard, there's only one King who qualifies as God. The text should be written ". . . laMelech, to the King . . . "

Reversing course, there's an unnecessary "la" in the "Yotzer Or" b'rachah of Shabbat/Sabbath: "Zeh shevach sheh-la-yom ha-sh'vii . . . " This is the praise that is of the seventh day . . . ," which should logically be written "Zeh shevach shel yom ha-sh'vii, This is the praise of the seventh day . . . "

In my opinion, the winner is this beauty (also from the "Yotzer Or" b'rachah of Shabbat, just a few lines farther down): "Shevach y'kar u-g'dulah yitnu l'Kel Melech yotzer kol," which I would translate, as literally as I'm capable of doing, "Praise, precious and great they will give to the G-d, King [___] forms (formed?) all." Say what? No, there isn't a "who" in the original Hebrew--not for nothing I left a blank there! Dikduk/grammar geeks, help me out: How should the Hebrew be written, "haMelech hayotzer et hakol?"

The floor is open, especially to the aforementioned dikduk/grammar geeks. Have fun with the siddur, Haggaddah, and other liturgical texts.

*See also "Musical license,"* or the case of the misplaced comma--A different way of listening to words and More "misplaced commas" :).



Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

תננו לחן ולחסד seems to use the verb לתת/נתן in the sense of "set", i.e. "place us in a state of..."

The rest of 'em with inconsistent "the" — yeah that's just how it is. Some variants have LA where you have L’, but it's still not necessarily consistent. Rabbinic Hebrew was not the most consistent dialect, considering it was mixing together Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic influences and random Greek and Latin influences too.

"shel" was originally a double prefix, "she-l(a)-"

Thu Sep 17, 09:29:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ah, "place us in a state of..." That makes sense.

"Some variants have LA where you have L’. . ." I've noticed that there are differences in L' and La usage even from one Orthodox siddur to another.

"Rabbinic Hebrew was not the most consistent dialect, . . ." So I've noticed. :)

Shanah Tovah!

Fri Sep 18, 11:38:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Hebrew Scholar said...

Thanks for your interesting post about the "inconsistency" of the Hebrew grammar in these places. Sometimes in the Tanakh the choice of le/la depends also upon the presence/position of the accents (teamim), rather than just to a/to the. Also sometimes in the Hebrew Bible le is used where you might not expect it, for example "ve-ahavta lereacha kamocha" is "love to your friend as yourself". The "le" might appear unnecessary in this place too.

Sat Sep 19, 01:05:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Now that you mention it, Hebrew Scholar, wouldn't that be "v'ahavta *et* reiacha kamocha" in modern Hebrew, or is my knowledge of Hebrew grammar still not up to speed?

Mon Sep 21, 10:21:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops--Steg and I may be keeping some of my readers in the dark. Here's the transliteration: "U-t-neinu [l'yom u-v'chol yom] l-chen u-l'chesed seems to use the verb latet [infinitive form]/noten . . . [usually translated 'to give' . . .]"

Mon Sep 21, 10:26:00 AM 2009  

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