Friday, February 1, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5779-Infinitive Absolute

Hebrew uses grammatical structure, as other languages sometimes do, to add nuance to words and phrases, provide explicative assistance.

Just yesterday I was subbing in a 7th grade English class where the teacher had task the students to fix up sentences with misplaced or dangling modifiers. Many of the students struggled with the task. Without providing them with answers, I tried working with individual students to help them understand why the way the sentence was written could cause confusion to the reader.  Many of them could not grasp the problem, because the overall context of the sentence, from their perspective, made it easy to understand what was modifying what.  Here’s on classic example they were given to fix:

Hungry, the leftover pizza was devoured.

It made perfect sense to them until I asked – “Who is hungry?” Hungry is an adjective. What is it modifying? Is the pizza hungry? Most of them got it at that point, but then couldn’t figure out what to do. Most of them simply tried rearranging the words in the existing sentence. A few had the courage to change the adjective to an adverb, and wrote

The leftover pizza was devoured hungrily.

(Being the pedant I am, I pointed out that adverbs of manner and type usually come after the verb in English.) Still, I asked students to think harder. Is there are way to not change the word “hungry?” I reminded them to ask “who is hungry?” Some saw the light, and tried a variation like

Hungry, I devoured the leftover pizza

It’s a nicer choice for many reasons, including it not being in passive voice like the previous version.

All of which is not all that relevant except that it leads me to what I was thinking about for this week’s musing. In this parasha, we find an example of a Hebrew grammatical style that is used frequently. It’s called the Infinitive Absolute. Most Biblical Hebrew textbooks describe is an intensifier. The classic definition comes from the old Gesenius Hebrew Grammar:

The infinitive absolute is employed according to § 45 to emphasize the idea of the verb in the abstract, i.e. it speaks of an action (or state) without any regard to the agent or to the circumstances of time and mood under which it takes place. As the name of an action the infinitive absolute, like other nouns in the stricter sense, may form part of certain combinations (as a subject, predicate, or object, or even as a genitive,[1] see below); but such a use of the infinitive absolute (instead of the infinitive construct with or without a preposition) is, on the whole, rare, and, moreover, open to question on critical grounds. On the other hand, the infinitive absolute frequently exhibits its character as an expression of the verbal idea by taking an object, either in the accusative or even with a preposition.

In other words, the infinitive absolute when combined with the regular verb in one of its acceptable forms, denotes an emphasis on the activity or action described by the noun.

Some examples:

נִשְׁאֹל נִשְׁאַל

earnestly asked

לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד

will not utterly destroy

On both of these cases the first word in the infinitive absolute form of the verb that comes after it. Their meaning in conveyed in the English by the adverbs “earnestly” and “utterly.”

Though it appears elsewhere in Torah, the example that caught my attention

מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת

put to death

It’s in the commandment against bestiality (Ex 22:18.) The verbal form appears without the intensifying infinitive absolute in a number of other commandments. Just a basic (he) will die with no emphasis or certainty. What bothers me here is that concept. What does the infinitive absolute convey here?  What does it mean to “intensely die?” To be “emphatically dead?” To be “More dead?”

Fortunately, for scholars of Hebrew, later writers of Hebrew Grammars have added many more layers of nuance to our understanding grammatical structures like the infinitive absolute. However, the basic understanding of the infinite absolute as emphatic remains. One scholarly friend has actively engaged in discussions with others on various erudite discussion forums arguing that the form need not be emphatic – that this is too strong an understand. He argues it is more of an assurance. Others, holding stronger to tradition, think this leaves the possible interpretation open to too wide an understanding.

I’m not sure. Maybe the infinitive absolute is equivalent to a modern “ALL CAPS” phrase like “he WILL DIE.” That sort of emphasis, implying that the doom is nigh. However, maybe it’s more long term, as in the wrongdoer will see the justice of death deserved at some point. Maybe the emphatic in this case is that others will most assuredly witness the wrongdoers death.

Does the agency of the justified death matter? In a more traditional view, the agency is always G”d, even in G”d takes G”d’s sweet time about it.

Additionally, the question must be asked why only certainly commandments (and other actions described in the Torah) are worthy of this emphatic infinitive absolute/verb treatment. I think I might spend some time looking through the entirety of Torah at examples of when and where the emphatic infinitive absolute is used the the verb for death/to die (as compared to when a non-emphatic form is used.) Is there a pattern. Does this blow up the whole idea that all the commandments are of equal weight? If that is the case, why do some contain emphatics and others do not?

All this from two simple words. This is why we turn it and turn it again. It’s the only way we’re ever going to make sense of it all. Torah herself says she is not to baffling for us to understand. I’ll Torah at her word and keep trying. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musing on this parasha:

Mishpatim 5778 - To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink Revisited
Mishpatim 5777 - Why I'm Still not Unplugging for the National Shabbat of Unplugging Next Week
Mishpatim 5776 - Might For Right
Mishpatim 5775 - Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 - Chukim U'mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mounrs the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

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