The Rabbi's Study

The Mysteries of Grammar

While Biblical Hebrew is a relatively simple language, it is not an easy language. Our brilliant commentators each carried with them particular interests which make up the bulk of their focus. For example, the Baal Ha’Turim typically focuses on gematria, notarikon, connections between words which occur only two or three times in Tanakh, and other esoteric features. The Or Ha’Hayyim will generally focus on ethical mysticism. Rashbam was a pashtan, meaning he focused on the surface meaning of the text. And in this commentary on one word in Parashat Be’shallah, we will focus on the contributions of three of the most well respected, and most widely read commentators: Rashi, who usually uses midrash to produce his commentary; Ibn Ezra, an exceptional linguist and grammarian; and Ramban, who uses philosophy, kabbalah, and logical reasoning to produce his commentary (who also has a penchant for disagreeing with Rashi). However, on this one particular word which will be our focus each of these giants seemingly departs from their standard practices.

Within our Torah portion comes to Shirat Ha’Yam, the Song of the Sea. The victory song chanted upon crossing the Sea of Reeds thought by some academic scholars to be the oldest scripture in Torah. The song uses an archaic Hebrew that is often difficult to translate because it relies on a poetic structure. So let’s dive in to this one word and the intense debate which emerges between Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban.

The second line of Shirat Ha’Yam says:

עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃

ozi v’zimrat yah, va’yehi li li’shu-ah; zeh eili v’anveihu, elohei avi, va’arom-men’hu

My might and strength is Yah, and God has become my deliverance; this is my God so I show God my honor; the God of my father, so I exalt God. (Exodus 15:2)

So here is what Rashi has to say:

Onkelos translates this as “my strength and my praise,” understanding ozi as uzi, with a kubutz (the pronunciation mark that has three diagonal dots rendering the sound ‘oo’), and zimrat as zimarti, “my song.” But I am surprised by the language of the verse, because you don’t find pronunciation like this in any text except for three places where it is connected to the word v’zimrat. In each of the other places it has a shuruk, such as: “hashem uzi u’ma’uzi” (Jer. 16:19), “uzo eilekhah eshmorah,” (Ps. 59:10). Similarly, any two-letter word which is pronounced with a holam (a vav with an ‘o‘ sound), when it is lengthened with a third letter the second letter never has a sheva (a pausing sound), and the first letter is pronounced with a shuruk, such as: oz becomes uzirok becomes rukihok become hukiol becomes ul’okol becomes kulo…but in these three cases of ozi v’zimrat yah – here, Isaiah 12:2 and Psalm 118:14 – the word is always pronounced with a hataf kamatz (producing an ‘o‘ sound). But in none of these is it written v’zimrati, only v’zimrat, and all of them are connectd to the phrase “va’yehi li li’shu-ah.” Therefore, I say in order to resolve the the language of the text that ozi is not like uzi, and v’zimrat is not like v’zimrati. Rather, ozi is a noun (i.e., the yud at the end is not a suffix implying “my,” but is stylistic and poetic) like “ha’yoshvi ba’shamayim, who sits in the heavens,” (Ps. 123:1) or “shokhni b’hagvei sela, who dwells in the clefts of the rock,” (Ovad. 1:3) or “shokhni s’neh, who dwells in the bush,” (Deut. 33:16). So this is the praise, that the might and strength of God, oz v’zimrat yah, has been a salvation for me, hayah li li’shu-ah. So v’zimrat is connected to the Divine Name, like in “l’ezrat hashem, for God’s help,” (Jud. 5:23) or “b’evrat hashem, with God’s wrath,” (Isa. 9:18) or “al dibrat b’nei ha’adam, over the people’s leadership,” (Ecc. 3:18). So the word v’zimrat is an expression related to the phrase “lo tizmor, do not prune,” (Lev. 25:4) or “z’mir aritzim, cutting-down tyrants,” (Isa. 25:5) – it is an expression of cutting and excising. So our verse means: The might and vengeance of our God was a salvation for us…

I know. That was ALOT of grammar. Rashi’s bottom line is this – based on the pronunciation of the word ozi, it cannot mean “my might,” rather the yud at the end is a stylistic feature that does not impact the grammar. Interesting to note that Rashi did not employ a single midrash in his comment, and was strictly grammatical. This is something we’d expect from Ibn Ezra, so what does he have to say?

Ibn Ezra says:

Rashi said there is a difference between ozi and uzi, and that the yud in the phrase ozi v’zimrat yah is superfluous. But he never shows us a similar example! He said that v’zimrat is connected to yah, and it should be read as if it is written “oz v’zimrat yah v’hayah li li’shu-ah,” becuase he thinks the vav in va’yehi is like “va’yehi b’yom ha’shlishi, and on the third day Avraham lifted his eyes,” (Gen. 22:4; this implies the vav denotes an imperfect verb form). But anyone who understands Arabic would know the difference between these examples… What Rashi is claiming is not a grammatical rule in either Hebrew or Arabic, there is simply no difference between ozi and uzi…Even in this song we have “ne’halta v’oz-khah el n’vei kod’shekhah, you guide with your might to your distinct abode,” (Ex. 15:13, and Rashi does not question the grammar or meaning)…In my opinion, the word ozi is in construct and it refers to a song about God, and this is a feature of the Hebrew language, so it should be read as if it is written: ozi v’zimrat, ozi yah, my might and the splendor of my might, is Yah…Regarding the word Yah, there is another mystery that is related to the number…

Ibn Ezra, an Arabic speaker and linguist, looks at Rashi and essentially says – stick to midrash, and if you want to get into language stick to French and German, you’re way outside your comfort zone here! But what he drops there at the end, there a secret about the number? Without getting into the details, Ibn Ezra is offering a kernel here saying, there’s deep kabbalistic significance in the structure of this phrase, and if you mess with the spelling you’ll erase the mystery! So let’s check out our resident mystic, Ramban.

Ramban says:

Ibn Ezra explains that the word ozi is a construct, and should be understood: ozi v’zimrat, ozi yah, my might and the splendor of my might, is Yah…Clearly this is the surface meaning of the verse. But it does not mention the full name, it only mentions two of the letters, but Moshe Rabbeinu always mentions the Great Name (YHVH) in full throughout the Torah because God said to him, “this is my eternal name, it is my denotation for each generation,” (Ex. 3:15). Our Sages have already explained in Midrash Tanhuma at the end of Parashat Ki Teitzei on the last verse in our Torah portion, “Yes, a hand on the throne (כֵּס, whereas it is usually spelled כִּסֵּא, with an aleph) of Yah, war for YHVH against Amalek in each generation,” (Ex. 17:16) that the Holy Blessed One swore an oath that the throne will never be complete (hence the missing aleph) nor will the name be complete (Yah, as opposed to YHVH) until the seed of Amalek is destroyed. But, according to The Way of Truth (Ramban’s code word for kabbalah), the salvation at the sea was all by virtue of the Messenger of God (elohim), of which it is written about “my name is within it,” (Ex. 23:21), and as it is said: “Yisrael saw the great hand,” (Ex. 14:31) – ‘the hand’ is a euphemism for the Attribute of Judgment, that is “the great hand,” and the vengeance; it is responsible for the splitting of the sea, just as the prophet explained, “Awake! Awake! Clothe yourself with might, uri uri livshi oz,” (Isa. 51:9), so what Moshe is saying is that God’s might and God’s strength is in this name, “because in Yah Hashem you have a fortress for the ages,” (Isa. 26:4)…

What Ramban offers here is two-fold – 1) don’t mess with Ibn Ezra on grammar, 2) when Ibn Ezra mentions it is “related to the number,” he means something much more significant than gematria.

Also, in case you didn’t pick up on it, by Ramban referencing Midrash Tanhuma, Rashi’s favorite collection of midrash, and the verse “Awake! Awake! Clothe yourself with might, uri uri livshi oz,” he’s seemingly taking a swing at Rashi by referencing words that have the same pronunciations that he argues are poetic features and grammatical rules. Even though Ramban never mentions Rashi, he still takes him to task. But back to the “Way of Truth.”

Ramban is telling us that it is about the association of the names as they relate to the Ten Sefirot. The name Yah is attached to the Sefirah of Hokhmah, which is the root of Divine Compassion, and the name Elohim is attached to the Sefirah of Gevurah, which is a manifestation of the Attribute of Judgment and is rooted in Binah, the root of Divine Judgment. The name YHVH is connected to Tiferet, which is the centralizing force of Divine Mercy – the balance of the Attribute of Compassion and the Attribute of Judgment. Similarly, the pronunciation sounds are connected to different Sefirot.

In his writings on the relationship between the Sefirot and the pronunciation sounds, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla reminds us that the letter yud of YHVH is associated with the Sefirah of Hokhmah (the same one connected to the name Yah). The shuruk sound, R’ Gikatilla, teaches is connected to the Sefirah of Gevurah, the manifestation of the Attribute of Judgment. He also mentions that the shape of the symbol, three diagonal dots, alludes to the holam, the dot above a letter rendering an ‘o’ sound, the shuruk as it appears as a dot in the middle of the letter vav, and the hirik, the singular dot beneath a letter rendering an ‘ee‘ sound. These three sounds connect to Keter (holam), Tiferet (shuruk in a letter, as opposed to under), and Malkhut (hirik). These three Sefirot make up the Kav Ha’Rahamim – the Column of Mercy. Remember, Tiferet is associated with YHVH, and remember the midrash that Ramban brought: “the Holy Blessed One swore an oath that the throne will never be complete nor will the name be complete until the seed of Amalek is destroyed.”

Well what happens at the end of our Torah portion? “Amalek came and fought with Yisrael at Refidim,” (Ex. 17:8). And remember the very last verse of our Torah portion which Ramban mentions, “Yes, a hand on the throne of Yah, war for YHVH against Amalek in each generation.” And Ramban’s example of a verse that juxtaposes Yah and YHVH, “because in Yah YHVH you have a fortress for the ages.”

Now, those readers who are feeling perplexed, confused, or otherwise distraught, I want you to know that I was torn whether to bring this intense disagreement on this word, or bring a more simple discussion around the meaning of an earlier verse in the Torah portion. On the other verse I considered bringing, there is a comment there made by Ibn Ezra which actually helps illuminate this intense debate over grammar and kabbalah – I will conclude with the words of what Ibn Ezra wrote on that other verse: “the thoughts of Hashem are deep.”

Indeed, dear R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, indeed.



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