Hebrew Word: Vav That Reverses Time

Posted by on Aug 7, 2023

In the following, it will be beneficial for the reader to learn not only the grammar of the Hebrew word vav, “and”, but also some facts about Hebrew language and more, as we will go deeper in our study. We will try to show that the question of learning Hebrew words and grammar is far from being trivial and hope to provide a more interesting approach to Hebrew study for the reader.

Biblical Hebrew is a small language but large in meaning. The number of attested words is 8198, of which some 2000 are words that occur only once in the Hebrew Scripture. So, if one learns 6000 words, he or she can read Hebrew Scripture fluently.

Vav is the name of the sixth Hebrew letter, which has numerical value 6 in gematria (a traditional rabbinic system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase). It is used only in the Book of Exodus with the meaning of “hook” with regard to the building of the Tabernacle.

Hebrew letter Vav. On the left, it is the modern Hebrew vav, and on the right is its ancient pictograph.

Hebrew letter Vav. On the left, it is the modern Hebrew vav, and on the right is its ancient pictograph.

Note: Ibn Ezra ensures us that the Hebrew letter vav cannot be found to be a root letter at the beginning of a word except in the word vav (hook), as it appears in “the hooks of the pillars” (Exo 27:10).

In order to better understand the function of the Hebrew letter vav and the Hebrew language in general, we need to know that the language of the Bible is a verb-based language. This means that (with a few exceptions) all words are in fact verbs or more correctly: derivatives of verbs.

The Biblical Hebrew does not have tenses, past, present, and future, as we know them in the modern languages. Instead, it has only two “tenses”: “perfect” and “imperfect”; the perfect tense denotes a completed action with certain results, hence, it is translated as past tense, while the imperfect tense denotes a continuing action without results and is translated as present or future tense.

It is quite common for the past tense to be employed in prophecy instead of the future tense. When reporting prophecies, the Scripture very frequently describes future events in the past, as if they had already taken place: this is the so-called “past tense in the future”. The prophetic perfect tense is a literary technique used in the Bible that describes future events that are so certain to happen that they are referred to in the past tense as if they had already happened.

Unlike English that has subject-verb-object ordering, Biblical Hebrew has a verb-subject-object ordering, which means that generally the verb precedes the subject in the sentence. And very often the letter vav precedes the verb; it serves as a prefix to the verb, like in in וַיֹּאמֶר va-yomer, “he said”. This will be further explained in the interpretation of the verb.

In some languages, a clause that begin with “if” or “when” is typically followed by a clause that begins with “then”. In Hebrew, the first clause is typically introduced by the word כִּי kiy, “when”, “if”, “because”, “since”, indicating causal relations of all kinds, but Hebrew has no word for “then”, which may be supplied in the sentence by the translator. Instead of “then”, Hebrew uses the letter vav to open the second clause of the sentence or may not use it at all. The use of the vav as “and” or “then” can be best seen in,

If/when the Egyptians will see you, and say, “This is his wife”, and/then they will kill me and keep you alive. (Gen 12:12)

In some cases, vav serves to divide or separate two clauses in a sentence and as such has the function of “or”. The immediate context will show whether vav is to be translated as “and” or “or”, like in,

And he who curses his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exo 21:17)

In this case, if vav is translated “and”, the reader may wrongly assume that the prohibition is in force only if “he curses both father and mother”, even though it is not difficult to derive the correct meaning of the law, if “and” is chosen for the translation.

With this introduction of the Hebrew letter vav, we understand that vav is not just any letter in Hebrew but a letter that can have two important grammatical functions. The two grammatical roles of letter vav in Hebrew language are of (1) conjunctive vav and (2) reversive vav.

The conjunctive vav serves to connect nouns or events one after the other in succession without gaps. This is the most common usage of vav. The reversive vav used with verbs as a prefix has the function of altering or reversing the tense of the verb it is attached to. Below we will explain these peculiarities of the letter vav, and even more.

The conjunctive vav

Tent peg as a precursor of the letter vav.

Tent peg as a precursor of the Hebrew letter vav.

The ancient Hebrew letter vav (Hebrew spelling: וָו‎ or וָאו‎ or וָיו‎) was a word with the meaning of “hook, peg, nail, pin”, as its ancient pictograph represents a peg, which is used to secure firmly a tent in place.

In grammar, this Hebrew letter can serve as a “nail” in a sentence to add one thing to another. The Hebrew letter ו‎ vav, is normally a conjunction prefix to a word with the meaning of “and” and has the use of connecting nouns and/or phrases together, like in one of the most common phrases found in the Torah, “And YHVH said to Mosheh”. In these cases, vav functions as a consecutive word and for this reason is called “consecutive vav”. In the verb וַיֹּאמֶר va-yomer, “he said”, it denotes the order of thought and not necessarily the order of time.

However, this example also leads us to the next, more complex usage of letter vav, which follows below.

The reversive vav

The reversive vav is used mainly in Biblical Hebrew and is commonly mistaken for the conjunctive vav that connects words or phrases. The reversive vav also known as consecutive vav (the reason why it is mistaken for the conjunctive vav) indicates consequence of actions but also reverses the tense of the verb it prefixes: if the verb is in the imperfect tense (continuing action), it changes to the perfect tense (completed action) and vice versa.

Note: The reversive or consecutive vav is not used in modern Hebrew, in which the verbs have three tenses: past, present, and future. 

A good example of “reversing vav” is the word וַיִּקְרָא va-yikra, “and he called”, with which Leviticus begins. Hebrew reads literally,

And he will call to Mosheh, and YHVH will speak to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.

Who will call and who will speak to Mosheh, because YHVH spoke to him from the Tent? Because the Torah had concluded the Book of Exodus with the words: “The glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle, and Mosheh was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting”, it was necessary to write that YHVH called to him to invite him to enter. The reader therefore knows that this is not really a new story but a continuation of what has been said at the end of the Book of Exodus. This is the conjunctive function of letter vav.

However, the opening of Leviticus with letter vav, “and”, says more than just that. It introduces the reader to the other function of the letter: the reversive vav that reverses time. To which we now turn.

Reversing time

After all of the above, it remains for us to explain how the reversive vav reverses time.

If we know the tense of the basic verb in a sentence, then we know what time era we are in while reading the text. And if know the time era, then we know the direction of time expressed by the reversive vav. Considering the unique standing of the Hebrew word vav, which we explained above, it follows that we understand the way how Hebrew defines time. Consider this example in the words of Creation,

And Elohim said, “Be light!”, and light was. (Gen 1:3)

If we want to come closer to what took place at that time, we must pay attention to two Hebrew words here: vayomer, “he said” and va-yehi, “it was”.

The verbs in question are “said” and “was”. Both basic verbs (we will focus on) are in future tense: (1) yomer means “he will say” and (2) yehi means “it will be”. But the vav before these verbs reverses the direction of time from future to past: yomer “he will say” reverses to va-yomer, “he [Elohim] said”, and yehi, “it will be”, to va-yehi, “and [light] was”. Thus, the reversive vav turns the verbs in past tenses.

But how can we best explain the paradox that in the first two verses of Creation, the basic verbs are in future tense (yomer, “he will say” and yehi, “it will be”) but the descriptive verbs are in past (vayomer, “he said” and vayehi, “and was”)?

We view this verse as telling us that at the time of speaking (not the time of the narrative), light was not yet in existence, but it will come to be. In this example of the reversive vav, the time of speaking is in the present time (imperfect tense of continuing action), while the direction of time is in the past (perfect tense of completed action). It will be therefore clear to the reader that the perception of time is expressed by the unique usage of the reversive vav. Thus, the reader has been told that the light was planned to be created (before Genesis 1:1 begins), and then it was created in Genesis 1:3. In other words, Elohim first planned everything of what it would be in “past” and then made it in “future”.

Many translations seem to ignore the function of the reversive vav and add the word “and” in front of the word in question, thus confusing the reversive vav with the conjunctive vav. There are many examples of such a translation. Creation continues in verse 4 thus, וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב, va-yare elohim at ha-or ki tov, “And Elohim saw that the light was good”. This can also be translated: “Elohim saw that the light was good”; the conjunctive “and” is omitted letting the vav to serve its function in the verb וַיַּרְא va-yare to reverse time. Does this change much of the narrative? Not at all, as long as, the reader is aware of the presence of the reversive vav.

To sum up, letter vav reverses the time direction of a verb, hence it is named “reversive vav“: a verb in the past tense, preceded by the reversive vav, implies the future, and vice versa. To describe future events, the Bible uses verbs in the past tense, preceded by the reversive vav. And to describe past events the Bible uses verbs in the future tense preceded by the same vav.

With that said, the TORM reader has now been introduced to a “new” function of the reversive vav: that of the cosmic role of the Hebrew letter vav that reverses time of Creation. Thus, this letter unifies all time tenses in order to connect future with past, and past with future.

For further knowledge on the matter of Creation, the reader will do well to read what we have written in the section The Origin.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!


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