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 Hebrew Past as Future

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Hebrew Past as Future

"Past as Future": וְאָכַלתָּ

Let's pick another section, which is probably much more familiar to everybody. Orthodox or Reform, you've probably been reading this text many times. It's taken from Dvarim 11, and this part we usually say with Shma Israel.

וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ

וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ. וְנָתַתִּי

עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.


וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל-לְבַבְכֶם

וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת

עַל-יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם.

Here we can see the same construct with the "Past Tense" ("Perfect aspect", to be precise) suffix, but with a -ו in front of it. Usually, וְ (sometimes וּ) simply means "and". But in this case, it also plays a role of a "Inversive Vav", turning the "Past" Tense into "Future". (Here is the true story of Inversive Vav.)


Read the above text, and try to recognize the Past forms we've learned in the previous lessons. Try to do it before you continue to the next section.


Let's try to recognize places in the text, where the Inversive Vav is used with a "Past" form:

וְנָתַתִּי1 מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ

וְאָסַפְתָּ2 דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ. וְנָתַתִּי3

עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ4 וְשָׂבָעְתָּ5.


וְשַׂמְתֶּם6 אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל-לְבַבְכֶם

וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם7 אֹתָם לְאוֹת

עַל-יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ8 לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם.

This is a "Past" form (what is considered Past Tense in today's Hebrew), and it's in fact a Perfect Aspect, i.e., the things are being said like they already happened because there is no doubt they should be this way. That's why the "Past" form, and the Vav helps to distinguish between the real Past Tense, and the "inverted" Past, "Past"-used-as-Future:

And I will give1 the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain,
that thou mayest gather2 in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give3
grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat4 and (thou shalt) be satisfied5.

Therefore shall ye lay up6 these My words in your heart
and in your soul; and ye shall bind7 them for a sign
upon your hand, and they shall be8 for frontlets between your eyes.

That's it about Past (rather Perfect) forms.



Let's also remember some of verbs we've seen in the text. Hebrew verbs are showin in dictionaries in their 3 person singular form. This form is considered as "the base", hence it doesn't have a suffix.

eat אָכַל
to be full, satisfied, not hungry שָׂבַע
collect, gather אָסַף
put שַׂם
bind, tie קָשַׁר


This is a very useful verb, and a special rule also apply to it: with its conjugation (i.e. when, adding the suffixes תִי, תָ, etc) the last Nun assimilates into the suffix consonant:

נָתַתִּי, נָתַתָּ, נְתַתֶּם, נָתַנּוּ


We are working now on understanding the text rather than learning grammar or speaking, and that's why I'm not going to give the full conjugation tables for all of those verbs. I'd suggest you to write down non-vocalized conjugation table for those verbs, and try to remember the visual patterns.

In the table below you have the full conjugation of the verb אכל (to eat) in the Past tense/Perfect. (We're bringing the vocalization to ease the reading, but we're not discussing it here, neither we explain about the rules of stress in the word, etc. For now we'll just say, that everything has its reason. :) )

I ate /
have eaten
akhalti אָכַלְתִּי
You (sing. m) ate /
have eaten
akhalta אָכַלְתָּ   You (sing. f) ate /
have eaten
akhalt אָכַלְתְּ
He ate /
has eaten
akhal אָכַל   She ate /
has eaten
akhla אָכְלָה
We ate /
have eaten
akhalnu אָכַלְנוּ  

You (pl. m) ate /
have eaten

akhaltem אֲכַלְתֶּם   You (pl. f) ate /
have eaten
akhaltem אֲכַלְתֶּן
They ate /
have eaten
akhlu אָכְלוּ  

In modern Israeli Hebrew the forms אכלתם / אכלתן have their stress on the second "A": akhaltem. Also, in the modern language the feminine form אכלתן is rarely used. Still, when reading the liturgy, one is supposed to read and pronounce according to classical Hebrew, with the stress on "-tem".

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