Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Es" and Naming

A transitive verb takes a direct object. In Hebrew, this object is preceded by the word es. But there is a caveat to be entered. Transitive verbs come in two kinds. Crudely speaking, a transitive verb represents an action taken in regard to an object. Now, sometimes, quite often actually, this object (its existence) antedates the action taken, as represented by the verb. However, in other instances, the object is brought into being by this action; it did not exist previously. Now, if we look around, we find that it is not in all instances that the direct object of a transitive verb is, in the Torah, preceded by es. Often it is; but sometimes it isn’t. What accounts for this? Without yet explaining it, I want to suggest that the situation bifurcates itself with whether the object of the verb in question is being brought into existence by the the action represented by the verb or it is not being brought into being but, already existing, is merely acted upon. In the letter case, there occurs an es; in the former one, not. It is as if the es implied that there was something there for the designated action to operate upon.

To this it will immediately be objected that the verse uses es with bereishi bara elokim. And here, the heavens and earth are represented as being first brought into being! This, to be sure, is a seemingly powerful rebuttal. But in amelioration, I want to suggest that the situation there is distinctive, in that not only did the object of the verb not yet exist, the materials from which it was to be composed were not in existence either. In other words, the heavens and earth were to be created ex nihilo. Indeed, the object in question was matter itself (see the Ramban). Now, I want to further suggest, that the reason that es is not used in conjunction with an object that does not already exist is that there is a lack of definitiveness; and an indefinite object does not command an es prefix. This indefiniteness arises from a state of affairs in which an object needs to be formed by means of a certain composition of preexisting matter; and the manner of composition is (as yet) unknown. It is indeterminate. However, where it is to be created ex nihilo, there is no unknown quantity, matter, to speak of. The object is thus independent of any unknown source. Consequently, it is not wanting in definitiveness. So it is suitable for taking an es prefix.

Good. But now another, seemingly more formidable problem comes to the fore. In countless places in the Torah we find es omitted in conjunction with an object that already exists. Furthermore (to make matters worse), we find one and the same object sometimes prefixed by es, sometimes not. A case in point (actually a series of them) is the use of es in this week’s parsha (Vayeitzei), where the word for a name - sheim - occurs several times in the position of a direct object, fully complemented by an es prefix. Thus we read: (Bereishis: 30,11) vatikra es shemo gad. And a few verses ahead we find vatikra es shemo asheir. There are similar other such instances. Yet, remaining ensconced in this very same context, we also find vatikra shemo re-uvein, vatikra shemo shimon, and other comparable instances in which the leading es is omitted. How are such disparities to be accounted for (on my theory)? Is giving a name creating something new or not?

Let us try to reason it through. Should shemo re-uvein be prefixed by an es or shout it not? On the principle that es is used to prefix an existing object but not to prefix a non-existent one, it might appear that it should not. After all, the name re-uvein had not pre-existed; it was first being formulated by Leah and applied, for the first time, to the newborn (unnamed) child. This logic would, then, account for all those instances in which sheim was not prefixed by es. But what about those instances in which it was? Perhaps we can conjure an entirely different logic. Perhaps, true though it be the the infant was newborn and being named for the very first time; nevertheless, the name that he was given was not per se new. The name had a semantical, connotative origin, delineated in the verse itself as an explanation of Leah’s decision to name him thus. Moreover, it was being applied to the infant who had already been born and, therefore, very much in existence. (Vatikra shemo... can thus be parsed something along the lines of vatikra es hayeled

This thinking, then, accounts for the instances in which es is used. But seemingly, it has got to be one way or the other, not both ways! Why, then, do we find vacillation among the verses in this regard – seeming inconsistency?

Here, then, is what it occurs to me to say. There are, indeed, two ways in which to refer to something (designated by the direct object of a transitive verb). One is as a fully specified independently existing thing. It needs merely to be identified, that is, picked out. Its description (or, at least, one of them) is presumed already known. The other is as something not so definite and not so objective. Its identity is not presumed already known but is furnished in place through description, provided in the very context in which mention of it is made. In the latter case, there is no occurrence of es; only in the former.

One and the same type of thing can be referenced in either way: as something needing merely to be identified or as something with whose essence acquaintance has first to be made. So it is with, for example, a newborn’s name. The name can be thought of as preexisting, taking the shape of an idea previously encountered, familiar from other contexts. It is merely being here re-applied. It can, on the other hand, also be thought of as conjuring up something novel: a newly configured aspect under which something is to fall, one whose contours have yet to receive definitive concretization. In the latter case only is a process of dynamic creativity at work. For this reason, it makes do without an accompanying es.

In the one case, the act of naming is conceived as merely specifying. The child is conceived of as inherently having a name; the mother (in this instance) does something to it, by specifying its identity. It is as if the name per se had preexisted. All that was needed was for it to be called something or other. It could be called any of a number of things. Whatever it is called, it remains the child’s name, something (a name) which the child had all along. It is as if an as yet unnamed child already had a name (which awaits being called something)! Perhaps the idea is that the name a child is ultimately given is one it had had all along – existing initially in an inchoate or undisclosed state. The act of naming merely crystallizes it or reveals it. In any event, in the other case, though, a name is thought of as something brought into existence through the act of naming.

It would be interesting to see if this theory is borne out. If it is, it will then turn out that es is withheld not only in connection with objects that reference things first being brought into being but, as well, with objects representing preexistent things whose contours have not, however, been (adequately) fully defined – and whose definitions therefore await elaboration from the very contexts in which these objects appear. 

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In philosophical anthropology we hear it said that language creates things, or that it at least creates properties of things. What properties a thing is seen as having is, it is maintained, a function of human interest. Man conceptualizes to suit his needs; consequently, untold (latent) aspects of things go unnoticed. They are unnoticed, because man has not (as yet) found any use for the thing in question under the aspect in question, a use that draws attention to it and gives it the status of an (identifiable, recognizable) aspect. This being so, the need to have a word corresponding to such an “aspect” does not arise. Thus it is that language creates features. In keeping with this, it is further said that different cultures employ different languages, having differing powers of conceptualization. Some languages make room for this-and-that aspect; others do not. What you see is therefore a function of the language you speak – the culture to which you belong. This is familiar philosophy.

Perhaps this is the idea behind the absence versus the presence of es of which I have been speaking.

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