Vayikra, “And He Called”: How Can a Book Start with “And”?
Naming Parashot and Biblical Books
The name of this Torah portion, like most others, is taken from its first word. As the opening portion in its book, Vayikra (which means “and he called”) is also the Hebrew name of the book as a whole, though early rabbinic sources refer to it as Torat Kohanim (priestly instruction). In fact, rabbinic literature often refers to Torah books by different names than those we use. For example, Exodus is sometimes called Sefer Ve-eleh Shemot (“The Book of ‘These are the Names’”) and Ḥomesh Sheni (Second Fifth), Numbers as Sefer Vayedaber (“The Book of ‘And He Spoke’”) and Ḥomesh Hapikudim (The Counting Fifth), and Deuteronomy as Mishneh Torah (“Repeated Teaching”).
The English name Leviticus, which originated in the Greek translation of the Bible and means “belonging (or relating) to the Levites,” likely reflects the conception that all cultic personnel, including priests (kohanim)—the main focus of the book—are from the tribe of Levi. Thus, its English name preserves the early rabbinic title Torat Kohanim rather than the later title Vayikra. However, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig called it “Er Rief” (“he called”), and Everett Fox, whose English rendering follows many of the principles of their German translation, named it “Now He Called.”
Beginning with a Conjunction
The word vayikra itself might seem like an odd way to begin a book for several reasons. The most obvious of these is that it starts with the conjunction va-, which means “and.” Remarkably, this is not the only biblical book that begins that way:
- Exodus (וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת)
- Numbers (וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה)
- Joshua (וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי מוֹת מֹשֶׁה)
- Judges (וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי מוֹת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ)
- Samuel (וַיְהִי אִישׁ אֶחָד מִן הָרָמָתַיִם)
- Kings (וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן)
- Ruth (וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים)
- Esther (וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ)
- Ezra (וּבִשְׁנַת אַחַת לְכוֹרֶשׁ)
All these books open with the conjunction ve- (or phonologically adjusted forms of it). Many sentences and even paragraphs in the Bible also begin with this conjunction.
The Meanings of the Biblical Hebrew Conjunction
One reason for the frequency of ve- in the Bible is that ancient Hebrew didn’t have the variety of conjunctions that English has. As the translators of the 1962 Jewish Publication Society version of the Torah note, biblical authors used ve- where we would use other words, such as “but,” “when,” and “after,” to connect clauses. The multiple functions of the Hebrew conjunction are even more complex when it appears before a verb, since an initial ve- or va- seems to affect the tense of the verb that it introduces.
Past or Future
Hebrew usually indicates past actions with suffixed forms, such as kara-ta (“you called”), and future actions with prefixed forms, such as ti-kra (“you will call”). However, the word yikra, with which Leviticus begins, clearly refers to the past (God called to Moses), even though its subject is marked by a prefix (yi-, third person masculine singular), which normally indicates the future tense.
The Reversing Vav (ו"ו ההיפוך)
Medieval Jewish grammarians such as the 10th century Karaite sage Yefet ben-Ali and his contemporary, Menahem ibn Saruq (author of the grammatical Maḥberet used by Rashi and others) attributed this to the conjunction ve-, which they thought reversed the verb’s tense. The 16th century scholars Elijah Levita and Abraham de Balmes, therefore, called it the “reversing vav” (vav ha-hipukh), since it seems to change the verb’s tense from past to future when attached to a suffixed verb or from future to past when attached to a prefixed verb.
Two examples, using the root ק.ר.א (“call”) highlight what these scholars claimed:
1. Suffixed Form (understood as “past”)
- Without a Vav (past)
שמואל א כו:יד וַיַּעַן אַבְנֵר וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אַתָּה קָרָאתָ אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Sam 26:14 And Abner shouted back, “Who are you that you called to the king?”
- With a Vav (future)
בראשית יז:יט אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן וְקָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִצְחָק
Gen 17:19 God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac.”
2. Prefixed Form (understood as “future”)
- Without a Vav (future)
שמואל א ג:ט וְהָיָה אִם יִקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ
1 Sam 3:9 And if He will call you
- With a Vav (past)
שמואל א ג:י וַיִּקְרָא כְפַעַם בְּפַעַם
1 Sam 3:10 And He called as before
When this vav is added to the suffixed form, the word is sometimes accented differently,
- Without a Vav (past)
משלי כב:כ הֲלֹ֤א כָתַ֣בְתִּי לְ֭ךָ
Prov 22:20 Indeed, I wrote down for you
- With a Vav (future)
שמות לד:א וְכָתַבְתִּי֙ עַל הַלֻּחֹ֔ת
Exod 34:1 And I will inscribe upon the tablets
Note that without the vav, the accent is on the next to last (penultimate) syllable, whereas the verb with the vav is accented on the final syllable.
Nevertheless, many scholars find the medieval understanding of the vav conversive inadequate, since it is hard to imagine why adding vav should “magically” change the tense of a verb.
Nineteenth-century German scholars also understood the vav as responsible for the shift in tense, but preferred the term “vav consecutive,” because they thought that these verbs describe a sequence of actions, with the second verb’s action following that of the first. The opening chapter of Genesis provides several examples of the same verb with which God commands something to happen being repeated to report that it did then happen, as in Genesis 1:3:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.
God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
Note that the first verb, which is a prefixed form, is imperative, while the second, closely connected to it and also prefixed but with a vav, reports that this event took place.
However, that explanation doesn’t account for the appearance of these forms at the beginning of books or, more often, the beginning of sections or paragraphs where they cannot reflect consecutive or subsequent action.
The Verb not the Vav
Several texts demonstrate that the vav may not be what changes the verb’s tense.
Prefix that Expresses Past
The book of Judges (2:1) uses a verb with a pronominal prefix (which typically indicates the future) but without a conjunction to describe an angel’s statement that God had brought the Israelites (who were already in Canaan) up from Egypt:
וַיַּעַל מַלְאַךְ יְ-הוָה מִן הַגִּלְגָּל אֶל הַבֹּכִים וַיֹּאמֶר אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וָאָבִיא אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם…
An angel of YHWH came up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you up from Egypt and I took you into the land which I had promised on oath to your fathers…”
This is unambiguously referring to something YHWH had previously done. Job, too, uses a prefixed verb without a conjunction to curse the day on which he had been born (3:3)—clearly an action in the past:
יֹאבַד יוֹם אִוָּלֶד בּוֹ וְהַלַּיְלָה אָמַר הֹרָה גָבֶר.
Perish the day on which I was born and the night it was announced, “A male has been conceived!”
Both of these prefixed verbs plainly refer to past events, even without a vav.
Suffix that Expresses Future
Conversely, in several places the Bible uses suffixed verbs to express the future. For example, Numbers 18:12 uses a suffixed form to report that God will give Aaron the best offerings after the Israelites reach the Promised Land. Such forms are especially common in prophetic books, as when Isaiah uses a suffixed verb to warn that God’s people will go into exile (5:13):
לָכֵן גָּלָה עַמִּי מִבְּלִי דָעַת…
Assuredly, My people will suffer exile for not giving heed…
The medieval grammarian R. David Kimchi (Radak, ca. 1170-1235) creatively attributed this to the fact that the prophet regarded the future event as so certain that it had effectively already been determined, making the past tense more appropriate.
Adverbs that Effect Tense
Certain adverbs also seem to affect a verb’s tense. For example, the words az (“then”) andṭerem (“not yet”) often precede prefixed forms (which would typically indicate the future) even though they plainly describe past actions. This is seen most famously in Moses’s Song at the Sea (Exod 15:1), which is introduced by the statement “then Moses sang” az yashir Mosheh. The ancient rabbis cited this anomaly as evidence that Moses will sing the song in the future.
Past and Present Usage: Inconsistent
Sometimes the same form that is used for the past in one passage expresses the future in another. For example, the prefixed form with which God says that He had (previously) brought the Israelites out of Egypt in Judges 2:1 appears in Exodus 3:17, where He describes what He is going to do:
Exodus 3:17 (future)
אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵעֳנִי מִצְרַיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי…
I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites…
Judges 2:1 (past)
אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וָאָבִיא אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם…
I brought you up from Egypt and I took you into the land which I had promised on oath to your fathers…
Similarly, the form that describes how Abram heard of his relative’s capture in Genesis 14:14 is used to tell how God hears (or will hear) the psalmist’s voice in Psalm 55:18:
Genesis 14:14 (past)
וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם כִּי נִשְׁבָּה אָחִיו…
And Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive…
Psalm 55:18 (future)
עֶרֶב וָבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרַיִם אָשִׂיחָה וְאֶהֱמֶה וַיִּשְׁמַע קוֹלִי.
Evening, morning, and noon, I complain and moan, and He will hear (or: hears) my voice.
So, too, the form that states how Abram restored captured property in Genesis 14:16 describes how God will turn evildoers’ deeds back against them in Psalm 94:23:
וַיָּשֶׁב אֵת כָּל הָרְכֻשׁ
He brought back all the possessions…
וַיָּשֶׁב עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת אוֹנָם
He will bring their evil back upon them…
Complicating matters even more, Exodus 33:7 contains a prefixed and a suffixed verb, both of which appear to refer to the past.
וּמֹשֶׁה יִקַּח אֶת הָאֹהֶל וְנָטָה לוֹ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה…
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp…
Plainly, these forms involve something more than tense.
Aspect not Tense?
All this led nineteenth-century German scholars such as Heinrich Ewald (1803-1875) to conclude that the biblical forms do not express tense, namely, when an action takes place (past, present, or future), but what grammarians call “aspect” – whether the actions they describe had been completed. S.R. Driver brought that idea to the attention of the English speaking world in his Treatise on the Tenses in Hebrew and Some Other Syntactical Questions (Oxford University Press, 1874).
English, which has a tense system (e.g. “he walks,” “he walked,” and “he will walk”), uses auxiliary verbs to mark whether actions are complete or not. For example, the progressive forms “was/were walking” express continuous action whereas the perfect forms “has/have/had walked” express completed actions. By way of contrast, Greek and Russian use distinct verbal forms to express these nuances. Scholars who think that biblical forms functioned similarly, therefore, refer to the prefixed forms as “imperfect” (i.e., incomplete) rather than “future” and the suffixed forms as “perfect” (i.e., complete) rather than “past.”
Comparison to Akkadian’s Two Prefixed Conjugations
Archeologists’ discovery of inscriptions from ancient Assyria and Babylonia provided further insight into this problem. These are written in the Semitic language Akkadian; however, unlike Hebrew, Akkadian employs two different conjugations that use prefixes. Thus, from the root prs “to cut,” we have (the preterite) iprus, “he cut,” which reflects a past action, and the durative form iparras, “he is cutting, he will cut.” The durative (sometimes referred to as the “present”) generally reflects a present or future, though it may also indicate an incomplete or habitual action (like some of the Hebrew prefixed forms noted above).
It has, therefore, been suggested that not all Hebrew prefixed forms need be from the same conjugation and that some of the Bible’s prefixed verbs, especially those that are preceded by a vav, may be comparable to Akkadian preterites, which describe past or completed actions. This possibility is supported by the fact that the vav in these cases has a different vowel than it does when it simply means “and” (i.e. va– rather than ve-) and is followed by a dagesh, which indicates that the subsequent consonant is doubled.
Suffixed Forms in Conditional Sentences
This does not account for the vav that precedes suffixed verbs, which has the same vowel (ve-) as when it simply means “and.”These forms may, therefore, be the product of an entirely different process. Some scholars have pointed to Phoenician texts that use suffixed forms to refer to (possible) future events in conditional sentences (e.g., “if x happens, then y will occur”) as the possible background for using suffixed verbs for future or incomplete events.
Hebrew Grammar Shifted Over Time
Scholars continue to debate the origin and nature of the biblical verbal system, and whether it represents a true tense system or is aspectual in nature. Yet, it is clear that the biblical verbal system is different from that of Modern Hebrew, which corresponds to the European tense system, and even from Mishnaic Hebrew. The ancient rabbis themselves recognized this when they said that “the Torah has its own language and the sages their own language” (לשון תורה לעצמה לשון חכמים לעצמן; b. Ḥullin 137b and b. Avoda Zara 58b). In fact, the phenomenon of “tense shifting” by using a prefixed vav was already beginning to disappear by the end of the biblical period. That should not be surprising: All languages are constantly changing, as modern readers discover when they try reading Shakespeare, not to mention Chaucer or Beowulf.
The Bible may seem familiar, but its language is actually quite different from our own, as well as from rabbinic and even modern (Israeli) Hebrew. As we have seen, biblical forms do not necessarily correspond to our own tenses nor those of modern Hebrew. Medieval grammarians already recognized that the Bible uses “ve-” in numerous ways that extend well beyond our conjunction and. That is why biblical books can begin with a grammatical form that looks peculiar to our eyes and would be unacceptable in contemporary usage. We should not impose the norms of Modern Hebrew onto biblical texts, but take account of their particular grammar in order to determine what they really mean.
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March 1, 2015
September 23, 2019
Professor Frederick E. Greenspahn is the Gimelstob Eminent Scholar of Judaic Studies at Florida Atlantic University. He earned his M.A. in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. He is the author of When Brothers Dwell Together, The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (1994) and An Introduction to Aramaic.
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