The word מַיִם is, as far as I know, pretty consistently grammatically plural in Chumash (and, incidentally, in more modern Hebrew also). That is, the adjectives that modify it are plural adjectives, and the verbs of which it's the subject are plural verbs. For example, we have (Numbers 5:22) "וּבָאוּ הַמַּיִם הַמְאָרְרִים הָאֵלֶּה", "this cursed water will come", where the adjective "this" and the verb forms "cursed" and "will come" are all grammatically plural (which is why the verse is usually translated as something like "these cursed waters will come" even though that's awkward in English).

Why does it say "וְלֹא הָיָה מַיִם לָעֵדָה", with a singular verb, in Numbers 20:2?

  • I suspect that the plurality by sotah has to do with the multiple curses and oaths associated with it. So it's closer to "these curses (through) the water will come." Can you provide other examples that use the collective noun without appended plural nouns, but still have plural verbs and adjectives? – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 28 '15 at 6:55
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    @IsaacKotlicky yikavu (Gn 1:9) intransitive nif'al verb, yishr'tzu (Gn 1:20) transitive kal verb, hayu (Gn 7:10) intransitive kal verb of the same root discussed in this question, chayim (Gn 26:19) adjective, and many more – msh210 Jun 28 '15 at 7:03
  • thanks! I feel these are much better examples than the one in your question. One remaining question: are there other locations using non plural adjectives and verbs? The Torah might be distinguishing between direct objects (oceans, a vessel filled with water, etc.) and conceptual water (to drink). This could be why their need is considered singular, but the water that came forth was plural... – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 28 '15 at 7:33
  • @IsaacKotlicky I don't know. Certainly the vast majority that are clearly plural or singular are plural. – msh210 Jun 28 '15 at 15:26
  • Consider asking this on biblical hermeneutics too – רבות מחשבות Jun 24 '18 at 11:38

This means that the word "water" is a general term. Thus, "There was no water (at all) for the congregation to drink just as in verse 5 ומים אין לשתות. Water as in sentence 8 ונתן מימיו is considered plural because it was a constant flow of water(s). The difference is in the usage of the word as a single entity as opposed to something that is made up of a group.

The comments above are based on the way Rav Hirsch and the Art Scroll chumash traslate verses 5, and 8.

Artscroll translation

verse 3 ... and there is no water to drink!

verse 8 ... it shall give its waters

Also "its waters" in verse 8 uses the plural possessive rather than the singular possessive.

See also in verse 11

ויצאו מים רבים

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  • It is not clear to me what differentiates the single entity water to which you refer from the composite. What would be a test case in which we would expect an instance of water to be treated as one or the other, everything else being equal? Is there reason to believe Artscroll was compelled grammatically to use "there is no water" over "there are no waters", and not aesthetically/stylistically/Englishly? – WAF Jun 24 '18 at 18:13
  • @WAF I think that the foundation of asking this question is that the Hebrew word for water has a plural ending ("-im"). Thus, one would expect the plural to be used, as it often is in Tanac"h. This verse, is thus, an exception. I won't comment on, specifically, Art Scroll's explanation. The point is that it's often difficult to translate exactly each Hebrew word. – DanF Jun 29 '18 at 16:20
  1. מים is always plural in Hebrew. In Biblical Hebrew it is very common that plural is replaced with single both with the noun or the verb. Examples:

    • וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר - instead of ויחנו and ישראל (single) instead of בני ישראל

    • וְהָרֹג בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם חֲמִשָּׁה וְשִׁבְעִים אָלֶף - not אלפים

    Similarly "לא היה מים" is identical to לא היו מים.

  2. In contemporary Hebrew we use this expression independently of the subject, for example: "לא היה לי עצבים", or "לא היה לי מים להתקלח". Maybe similar to English "ain't".

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