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In Tanach, the noun מַיִם occasionally is prefixed with a ב־.

  • When the noun is modified by an adjective, the word formed is בְּמַיִם, as in Bamidbar 24:7 "וְזַרְעוֹ בְּמַיִם רַבִּים", N'chemya 9:11 "כְּמוֹ אֶבֶן בְּמַיִם עַזִּים", Vayikra 15:13 "וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בְּמַיִם חַיִּים", and elsewhere.
  • When the noun is not modified by an adjective, the word forms is בַּמַּיִם, as in Vayikra 14–15 passim, Bamidbar 19 passim, Vayikra 11:9 "כֹּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ סְנַפִּיר וְקַשְׂקֶשֶׂת בַּמַּיִם", Ⅰ M'lachim 14:15 כַּאֲשֶׁר יָנוּד הַקָּנֶה בַּמַּיִם, and elsewhere.

Is the demarcation I note — whether an adjective modifies it or not — the deciding factor as to what form of במים is used in Tanach?

  1. If so, then why? Why does that determine the form of במים?

  2. If not, then what is the deciding factor?


(There's seemingly a dispute about Sh'mos 15:10 "צָלְלוּ כַּעוֹפֶרֶת בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים". Rashbam says it means "they sank like lead in powerful water". However, S'forno (perhaps following the g'mara M'nachos 53 amud 1) says it means "the powerful sank like lead in water". Presumably, then, at least S'forno doesn't hold of my rule: he interprets the verse as not having an adjective modifying בְּמַיִם. Or maybe he agrees with my rule when פשט-interpreting verses, and is commenting only on the דרש level.)

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The second, בְּמַיִם, means "in/with/at water(s)".

The first, בַּמַּיִם, has the definite article, and means "in/with/at THE water(s)". It would typically be used when talking about water which has already been mentioned. It is very normal in Hebrew for the definite article to be swallowed up into an prefix, there is nothing special about 'water' in this regard.

If you are looking at an unpointed text and there is an attributive adjective, then it should be easy to tell which variant is in play from whether the adjective is definite (has a ה prefix). It's a slight coincidence that your first group of examples do have such an attributive and your second don't (although first mentions of things may be more likely to have adjectives). A counterexample to your hypothesis, give or take a ו, would be ובמים החיים, which occurs in Leviticus 14:51.

  • My apologies!! I should've clarified in the question that I know the usual difference in meaning between ba- and b'- (definite vs. indefinite). But the split I've seen doesn't seem to be along those lines: specifically, can you support your claim that bamayim refers to "water which has already been mentioned"? It doesn't seem that way from the examples I gave in the question. – msh210 Jun 28 '15 at 17:07
  • You've got a really good point. And this isn't the whole answer. The tanach seems to be able to talk about 'the water' as a known concept. Isaiah 11:9 "as THE water(s) cover[s] the sea" as well as the common phrase "he should wash in the water" which you mention. The big question is what is/counts as 'the water'. – JeremyR Jun 28 '15 at 22:25

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