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This answer cites the Ralbag as interpreting a (critical-to-the-question) vav prefix on a verb as "or". I've heard before that a vav prefix is not always "and" and can be "or" or even "but". Is there any grammatical rule by which we can tell when to read it which way, or do all the non-"and" readings always arise from judgments about what would make most sense to the interpreter? Do Chazal generally agree on how any given vav is translated, making it received tradition and there are no explicit rules?

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    I don't think there are such grammatical rules. Note that in regards to the linked answer, not everyone even reads the vav as "or". Chazal, for instance, read it as "and" (Taanis 4a). On the other hand, in a case like "ומקלל אביו ואמו", everyone reads the vav of "ואמו" as "or", because that's what makes the most sense.
    – jake
    Commented Nov 2, 2011 at 16:26
  • @jake, can you be more specific about the Taanis source for the default reading of vav? I could not find it.
    – YDK
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 4:09
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    @YDK, It is not explicit. The gemara says that Yiftach acted improperly, vowing that he would sacrifice to God whatever exited his house to greet him first, even if it was not an acceptable sacrifice (אפילו דבר טמא). Chazal are thus not reading "והעלתהו עולה" as "or bring it as an olah offering"; otherwise, Yiftach may have only been referring to if what came out of his house was appropriate as a korban. Elsewhere, the midrash says that Yiftach actually sacrificed his daughter as a korban, in which case, clearly it is reading the vav as "and". See Abarbanel (Shoftim 11).
    – jake
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 4:30
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    Re "Do Chazal generally agree on how any given vav is translated, making it received tradition and there are no explicit rules?": that they agree on it doesn't mean there are no explicit rules. (Presumably, if there are rules, they agree.)
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 2:50
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    @msh210, I was starting to wonder (based on the comments and answer here) whether the problem is that there are no rules. If there are I would like to know them; if it's "you just have to know" I'd like to know that too so I stop looking for rules. Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 2:59

3 Answers 3

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Vav does not necessarily mean and or or. It is a conjunction and translated according to context. I translate most vav's as a "soft then"- a subsequent event where formal written English would not put a then, but in a conversation, one might say "so then I..."

Other possibilities: but (although, however), while, since, therefore.

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I thought to do the following experiment to test "and" vs. "or" in the way Targum Onkelos interprets the Chumash by searching for the word או on both sides of the equation. There is an extreme amount of vav-prefixes but a more limited amount of instances of the word או both in the Chumash and in the Targum (a total of more than 250 in each):

  1. Look for instances of או in the Targum and see whether they map back to instances in Chumash of vav-prefixes
  2. Look for instances of או in the Chumash and see whether they map back to instances in Targum of vav-prefixes

The results are as follows:

1 - In Targum:או to Chumash:vav, we have the following single exception in דברים כט:יז to the normal או=או match

פֶּן יֵ֣שׁ בָּ֠כֶ֠ם אִ֣ישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁ֞ה א֧וֹ מִשְׁפָּחָ֣ה אוֹ שֵׁ֗בֶט אֲשֶׁר֩ לְבָב֨וֹ פֹנֶ֤ה הַיּוֹם֙ מֵעִם֙ ה֣' אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ לָלֶ֣כֶת לַעֲבֹ֔ד אֶת אֱלֹהֵ֖י הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָהֵ֑ם פֶּן יֵ֣שׁ בָּכֶ֗ם שֹׁ֛רֶשׁ פֹּרֶ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְלַעֲנָֽה

דִּלְמָא אִית בְּכוֹן גְּבַר אוֹ אִתָּא אוֹ זַרְעִי אוֹ שִׁבְטָא דְּלִבֵּיהּ פְּנִי יוֹמָא דֵין מִדַּחְלְתָא דַּייָ אֱלָהַנָא לִמְהָךְ לְמִפְלַח יָת טָעֲוָת עַמְמַיָּא הָאִנּוּן דִּלְמָא אִית בְּכוֹן גְּבַר מְהַרְהֵיר חֲטִין אוֹ זָדוֹן

Perhaps Onkelos sensed that the very end of the pasuk: פֶּן יֵ֣שׁ בָּכֶ֗ם שֹׁ֛רֶשׁ פֹּרֶ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְלַעֲנָֽה is parallel to the very beginning of the pasuk: פֶּן יֵ֣שׁ בָּ֠כֶ֠ם אִ֣ישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁ֞ה א֧וֹ מִשְׁפָּחָ֣ה אוֹ שֵׁ֗בֶט where the clause at the beginning has a pure sequence of "or"s.

The תרגום המיוחס ליונתן there keeps it as a vav and doesn't switch it to an או.

2 - In Chumash:או to Targum:vav, we have the following single exception in במדבר יא:ח to the normal או=או match

שָׁ֩טוּ֩ הָעָ֨ם וְלָֽקְט֜וּ וְטָחֲנ֣וּ בָרֵחַ֗יִם א֤וֹ דָכוּ֙ בַּמְּדֹכָ֔ה וּבִשְּׁלוּ֙ בַּפָּר֔וּר וְעָשׂ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ עֻג֑וֹת וְהָיָ֣ה טַעְמ֔וֹ כְּטַ֖עַם לְשַׁ֥ד הַשָּֽׁמֶן

שָׁיְטִין עַמָּא וְלָקְטִין דְּצָבֵי טָחֵין בְּרִחְיָא וּדְצָבֵי דָּאֵיךְ בִּמְדוֹכְתָא וּמְבַשְּׁלִין לֵיהּ בְּקִדְרָא וְעָבְדִין יָתֵיהּ גְּרִיצָן וְהָוֵי טַעְמֵיהּ כִּטְעֵים דְּלִישׁ בְּמִשְׁחָא

Here Onkelos actually interprets או as "and" (with the caveat that things might have changed here due to the Targum adding in the word ּדצבי for explanatory purposes).

So it seems at least according to the פשט as interpreted by Targum Onkelos, while vav-prefix="and" and או="or", there can be rare exceptions.

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Technically, it both never and always means "and".

In Hebrew, each word derives its meaning from a combination of its letters and vowels, each of which has a single fundamental meaning. The Vav prefix consists of a single vav (shva is not a vowel at all, just a marker for pronunciation reasons). Therefore, it reflects the single fundamental meaning of the letter Vav.

The word "vav" in Hebrew means "hook". As with every letter, Vav resembles its meaning, appearing as a rod with a shallow hook at the tip.
The function of Vav as a prefix, therefore, is to connect the previous word or phrase to the word to which it is attached. In English, we usually use the word "and" for such a connection, but the connection indicated by Hebrew Vav is slightly more encompassing than that.

For example, in the Passuq "וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת", the verse is most literally translated as follows:
"And [whomever] curses his father, AND his mother, shall die death."
In Hebrew, the Vav prefix connects the word "Father" to the word "Mother" more strongly than the grammatical break indicated by the cantillation (which I represented using a comma). However, in English, the comma is stronger than the word "and", which turns the verse into nonsense. Removing the comma, however, would make the verse seem as if the death sentence applies only if he curses both his mother and his father, which is not the case. Therefore, the Vav is commonly translated as "or" to entirely avoid this problem:
"And [whomever] curses his father OR his mother shall die death."

In conclusion, the Vav prefix retains its usual meaning even in this case, where it's translated as "or."

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  • What does this add to previous answer?
    – magicker72
    Commented Jan 4 at 2:45

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