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
    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
    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
    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
    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. Dec 1, 2011 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


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.


Actually, it always means “and” (In fact, even within words, it has a sort of connective role between the meaning of the letters before and after it). It’s just that sometimes, to get the same point across in English or Modern Hebrew, we’d prefer to say “or”, or even “but”. Some translators account for this difference in language grammar, and some translate literally. Just know that Vav means “and”.

It should be noted that “and” is the nearest translation possible, but not completely accurate. Vav, at least in Biblical Hebrew, is more of a grammatical function. Similar to how “stones” effectively means “multiple stone” but “s” doesn’t literally mean “multiple,” so too ו connects to the word before it to form a phrase, but doesn’t literally mean “and”. Effectively, it does mean “and” no matter the context, but not as a separate entity.

  • What reason do you have to support this claim?
    – magicker72
    Jun 13 at 22:10
  • That there’s no evidence for the OP’s point, and Hebrew ו has always indicated pairing of words, or letters within words. It’s very name means “hook”. Unless there’s evidence against it, ו means “and”. If there is evidence against it, I need to see it to debate it. Jun 13 at 22:22
  • You brought the evidence: "Some translators account for this difference" and "sometimes, to get th esame point across in English or Modern Hebrew, we'd prefer to say "or", or even "but"". What else does "ו sometimes means 'or' or 'but'" mean except that in English, the meaning is expressed as "or" or "but" instead of "and"?
    – magicker72
    Jun 13 at 22:46
  • It means that really, saying “and” would work in English, but it would be a little bit complex to understand, so we use other words that make the meaning clearer. For example, in the Mishna, we might say, “if A and B happen, the result is C”. In English, ”and” would indicate that both have to occur simultaneously for C to happen. In Hebrew, it could mean that if either one happens, the result for each the same. It’s simply a different common usage of the meaning of “and”. Jun 13 at 22:49
  • You're arguing against a bunch of translations and dictionaries that translate ו as more than just "and", and so you need to support your answer beyond "I say so".
    – magicker72
    Jun 13 at 22:54

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