Monday, January 29, 2007

Beshalach and the Weak Fa

A quick explanation of the first Ibn Ezra on the parsha. The parsha begins {Shemot 13:17}:

יז וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא: כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, פֶּן-יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה--וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה. 17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: 'Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.'
What in the world is the vav doing in velo` nacham? We would have to translate it, "[and] it came to pass when Pharaoh had let the people go; and God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near..." The first portion before the and then appears to be a phrase in and of itself, standing alone. This is indeed plausible, as if to say that the following events happened when Pharaoh had sent them out. Yet it seems slightly awkward, especially with the ב of beshalach. It should be "when Pharaoh led them out something happened." Lop off the vav and it reads much better.

Ibn Ezra comments: ולא נחם: וי"ו ולא נחם כפ"א רפא בלשון ישמעאל.

It appears at first glance as if Ibn Ezra is saying that that vav in velo nacham is like the feh rather than the peh (fricative {rafeh} vs. plosive, with a dagesh vs. without a dagesh) in Arabic. So what does a feh mean in Arabic?

In fact, it means something different. If I recall correctly, many years ago in class, Dr. Steiner (most recently famous for the Egyptian Semitic snake incantation mentioned at PaleoJudaica) explained that it is not feh rafeh but rather fa rafeh, the weak fa in Arabic.

To cite Wikipedia:
The definite article "al-" is a clitic, as are the prepositions "li-" "to" and "bi-" "in/with" and the conjunctions "ka-" "as" and "fa-" "thus, so".
If I further recall correctly, "weak" here is not a phonological description (of f vs. p) but rather a syntactic description. Apparently, in Arabic there are strong fas and weak fas, where strong ones bear the full force of the word as above, and the weak one is just a weak connector.

Thus, Ibn Ezra is saying that vav in Hebrew is sometimes weak in this sense, being a weak connector rather than connoting "and." Thus, the translation above does not have the problem presented above. We can just imagine that the vav is not there.

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