Today Hebrew grammar is well understood and
there are many books on it. Rashi, however, lived
before the age of grammar books. A major Rashi method
is therefore the teaching of basic grammar.
Many students belittle this aspect of Rashi. They erroneously
think that because of modern methods we know more. However Rashi
will frequently focus on rare grammatical points not covered
in conventional textbooks.
There are many classical aspects to grammar whether
in Hebrew or other languages. They include
- The rules for conjugating verbs. These rules govern how you
differentiate person, plurality, tense, mode, gender, mood, and
designation of the objects and indirect objects of the verb. For
example how do you conjugate, in any language, I sang, we will
sing, we wish to sing, she sang it.
- Rules of agreement. For example agreement of subject
and verb, of noun and adjective; whether agreement in gender or plurality.
- Rules of Pronoun reference.
- Rules of word sequence. This is a beautiful topic which is
not always covered in classical grammatical textbooks.
Today we study a Rashi based on the grammatical rule governing pronouns. In English, generally,
there is only one form of each pronoun. However, the great Biblical grammarian, Malbim, correctly points out
that many pronouns have two forms: 1) a suffix or prefix letter and 2) an entire word.
The entire word pronoun form should be translated as emphasizing only that referent. Using
this principle Malbim elegantly explains many exegetical derivations.
Applying Malbim's principle as reformulated by us as involving use of the adverb, only
we would translate Nu35-25 as follows:
And the congregation shall deliver the slayer from the hand of the avenger of blood,
and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, where he had fled;
and he shall dwell there until the death of the high priest, that [the annointer] anointed
only him with the holy oil.
The underlined word only emphasizes that the death of only one high priest frees the negligent murderer.
The Bible doesn't specify which High Priest's death frees him but it is reasonable that the law refers to the High Priest at the
time of conviction. So if for example High Priest A died during the trial and High Priest B took High Priest A's
place and the murderer was convicted during the tenure of High Priest B then the negligent murderer must remain in the
refuge city till the death of High Priest B. The negligent murderer cannot argue that since High Priest A died he may
now go free.
Advanced Rashi: Several comments should be made on this Rashi to fully understand it.
First: There are two points made by Rashi. To appreciate Rashi's first point we note that most English translations
glibly translate the verse using the passive voice, ...the High priest who was annointed with sacred oil.
But the verse doesn't use the passive. It uses the active, ...the High priest that annointed him..... Rashi
points out that the use of the active vs the passive voice assumes an elliptical subject: The High Priest that
the annointer annointed only him with sacred oil.
Now Rashi technically says The elliptical subject is the simple way to read the text. But the advanced Midrashic
way is to exclude High Priests who died during the trial (As we have explained above). It appears that Rashi
is introducing a simple and Midrashic level of interpretation. Not so!!! Rather Rashi is commenting on two features of
the verse. First Rashi is commenting on the use of the active vs. the passive voice which as we have pointed above is overlooked
by many, even good, translations. Second Rashi is commenting on the use of the word-pronoun form vs. the suffix letter pronoun
form. So Rashi is indicating two grammatical comments for two features of the verse.
Rashi doesn't exactly explain the verse the way I have. Rather Rashi puns the verse's text: The text says
the negligent murderer dwells in the city until the death of the High Priest that he-annointed ... Did the
negligent murderer annoint the High Priest? Rather the text indicates it refers to the High Priest annointed during the
conviction of his trial (so it looks as if the High Priest was annointed by the murderer.).
This reading is a pun to help remember the Rashi coDecent. Clearly the above derivation is ungrammatical for the
full sentence sequence he---High priest---annointed only him in the translation
...negligent murderer ...until the death of the High Priest that he-annointed only him is clearly ungrammatical.
Therefore I have regarded Rashi's cited explanation as a pun. I then suggested that the true resaon for the Rashi comment
was the translation of the pronoun as meaning only him. The word only implies that only one Priest's death
frees the murderer. We then use logic to identify this one priest with the priest at the time of conviction vs. the priest
at the time of trial. Such a reading is not punchy and obvious since an element of logic and derivation appears. Yet it seems the best
way to take this Rashi. And as we have pointed out such a reading is consistent with many midrashim on single word pronouns
as meaning only him.