Sunday, July 09, 2006

parshat Balak: Why the Etnachta in the Last Pasuk?

On erev Shabbat, I saw this devar Torah, and could not help but think of a gemara in Berachot 55a. It begins:
The following was apparently told over in a dream to his son by R' Shraga Feivel of Smargan...
and the gemara in Berachot states:
Yirmiyahu 23:28:
כח הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר-אִתּוֹ חֲלוֹם, יְסַפֵּר חֲלוֹם, וַאֲשֶׁר דְּבָרִי אִתּוֹ, יְדַבֵּר דְּבָרִי אֱמֶת: מַה-לַתֶּבֶן אֶת-הַבָּר, נְאֻם-ה. 28 The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath My word; let him speak My word faithfully. What hath the straw to do with the wheat? saith the LORD.
What is the connection of straw and wheat with a dream? Rather, Rabbi Yochanan cited Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: Just as it is impossible to have wheat without straw, so is it impossible to have a dream without nonsense.
That is, included in a dream, together with matters of substance, will be nonsense. In this instance, it is easy to find the chaff but less easy to find the wheat.

The dvar continues with a question: Why is there an etnachta in the middle of the last pasuk in parshat Balak, while there is no etnachta in the middle of a very similar statement in parshat Korach?

The pasuk at the end of Balak is Bemidbar 25:9:

ט וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה--אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף. {פ} 9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. {P}
with an etnachta, a disjunctive accent, on the word בַּמַּגֵּפָה. Yet, in parshat Korach, in Bemidbar 17:15:
יד וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה, אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף, וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת--מִלְּבַד הַמֵּתִים, עַל-דְּבַר-קֹרַח. 14 Now they that died by the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, besides them that died about the matter of Korah.
where there is no etnachta on the word בַּמַּגֵּפָה; rather, it is on the word מֵאוֹת, and thus, the entire pasuk up to that point has no conceptual division. Why the difference in our parsha?

There are several reasons I consider this question to be chaff.

The first is that the rules of trup are such that every pasuk is divided in two. This major dichotomy is most often marked by an etnachta, though on occasion it can be marked by a tipcha or zakef, two other disjunctive accents, when the point of division is extremely close to the end of the verse.

Therefore, the proposition that a pasuk should not have a major dichotomy, marked by etnachta, is not one that makes sense in the context of the science of trup. Of course there must be an etnachta in the last pasuk of Balak.

Why, then, is there no etnachta in the similar phrase in parshat Korach? Simply put, there was a better location to place it. There is an etnachta in the pasuk. That pasuk, again, is:

וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה, אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף, וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת--מִלְּבַד הַמֵּתִים, עַל-דְּבַר-קֹרַח

and the etnachta is on the word מֵאוֹת.

Why is this placement different for this pasuk? Well, the major dichotomy in the pasuk is always a logical dichotomy (while subsequent subdivisions are most often syntactic). In this pasuk in Korach, the best logical division one can find is on the word מֵאוֹת, such that we divide between those who died in the plague from those who died in the matter of Korach. In the pasuk at the end of Balak, there is no such stark logical division, and so the next best logical division is chosen - the statement that people died, from the actual number of people who died.

Do not think that just because the same symbol for dusjunctive accent is used in both instances, the semantic strength of the division is the same. The specific accent chosen does not bear an absolute disjunctive value, but rather bears a value relative to the clause it subdivides. (And on this and other matters in the posts, see Wickes' book, "Two Treatises on the Accentuation of the Old Testament.")

Indeed, it is also not the case that the phrase in parshat Korach is left undivided. So long as there are three words in a phrase, trup engages in a continuous dichotomy, dividing into smaller and smaller chunks.

Because there is another general rule that we cannot have two etnachtas in a single pasuk, this division is not carried out with an etnachta, but rather another taam which functions relative to the etnachta at the end of the clause. That is, in

וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה, אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף, וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת--מִלְּבַד הַמֵּתִים, עַל-דְּבַר-קֹרַח

it is true that the etnachta is on the word מֵאוֹת, but then the statement

וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה, אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר אֶלֶף, וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת

is further subdivided into two parts with a zakef on the word בַּמַּגֵּפָה. A zakef is chosen since it is the trup relative to an etnachta at the end of a phrase, when the position of subdivision is this many words from the end of the phrase.

The end result of this is that both phrases -- both the one in Korach and the one in Balak -- are divided equally, with the appropriate relative disjunctive accent on the word בַּמַּגֵּפָה.

But instead of giving this correct answer, dream R' Shraga Feivel gives an answer that "in order to lessen the blow of this plague, HaShem made it so that included in the 24,000 would be those who had reached their time to die anyway." Thus, the etnachta in the middle of the pasuk, such that we have the phrase by itself:

וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה

And it was, the meitim {those who were destined to die anyway} were in the plague.

The Weekly Shtikle adds an interesting parallel case of a midrash cited by Rashi about ki yipol haNofel mimenu.

And this all might stand nicely as derash, since it is close reading of text and granting omnisignificance to a specific phrase. And the question is a good one, because it allows us to focus on some features and behaviour of trup.

Why am I noting this and picking on this devar? There are several reasons. First, the attempt to prop up the dvar Torah as coming from R Shraga Feivel.

Second, that it came in a dream, and thus perhaps from the Yeshiva shel Maalah.

Third, in general I see rather silly divrei Torah, in which a question is asked which demonstrates lack of understanding of the sources, and a solution is proposed which takes it even further from the sources. And people are trained on this fare, and then cannot distinguish the good from the bad.

Or perhaps I'm just ornery.

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