In B'ha'alotcha Miriam and Aharon complain against Moshe, and Miriam (alone) is punished with tzara'at. In looking at this passage I found problems with the translations I had available.

JPS, the Sapperstein edition of Rashi, and Nechama Leibowitz all translate the beginning of 12:1 thus:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses [...]

The problem is that the verb is "t'daber", which is singular and feminine, so they didn't speak (here). My biblical Hebrew is only so-so, so my question is: is the following a plausible translation of the verse?

[And] Miriam spoke, and Aharon was against Moshe on account of the Cushite woman he had taken [as wife], for he had taken a Cushite woman.

This preserves the singular feminine verb and also hints at why Miriam, but not Aharon, is punished: it suggests that she might have incited him to action. I haven't found anybody else who translates it this way, though. Rashi says that Miriam spoke first but he seems to say that both spoke. (They do both speak in the following passage, where a plural verb is used, but I'm asking about the beginning of the incident.)

3 Answers 3


וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה

Separating Miriam as the subject of one clause from Aharon as the subject of another clause is not syntactically plausible for a couple reasons:

  1. They are joined by the cantillation marks, which delimit "Miryam v'Aharon" as a noun phrase.
  2. The second clause "Aharon was against" is missing a verb in the original. Although it is common for copulas to be invisible* in Hebrew, the copular clauses (I believe)
    1. identify one entity as another (e.g. "זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם"),
    2. also have an invisible expletive for existential quantification (e.g. "לַכֹּל זְמָן"),
    3. or describe an entity's state of being/action (e.g. "אַף אֲנִי בַּחֲלוֹמִי").

The sense of "against" in the translation is the prepositional sense, a gloss of the preposition "-ב". Thus, the only candidate that would validate the clause "v'Aharon b'Moshe" is #3, the state-of-being usage. Since the meaning of "-ב" is "in" or "by means of" as a rule and only takes on other meanings (such as "against") in exceptional cases in conjunction with a verb,[citation needed] the meaning here would have to be "and Aharon was in Moshe" or something similar.

Joining Miriam and Aharon as the subject of a single clause is syntactically plausible, even as the subject of a phrase whose verb is in the singular feminine because Miriam is mentioned first. It is not uncommon in Biblical Hebrew for a verb to agree grammatically with the immediately following (i.e. first in a Verb-Subject-Object language) member of the nominative clause, which in this case is Miriam. (The only example that comes to mind is "וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ" but it is not the best example.)

Rash"i's explanation of the p'shat in this pasuk recognizes that although this form is syntactically valid, it would have also been valid to use vay'daber Aharon uMiryam, vay'dab'ru Miryam v'Aharon, or vay'dab'ru Aharon uMiryam and therefore comments on the significance of the [purposeful] wording.

* I am using the imprecise term "invisible" here to refer either to a word which is syntactically necessary but not realized in some well-formed phrases or a word which is only necessary in a different language - in this case English.

  • ואהרון במשה is a phrase too. The mafsik doesn't come until Moshe. The question is how we treat the word Miriam which has no mark. If we consider that to be a mafsik the OP's pshat will work.
    – Yitzchak
    Jun 16, 2011 at 2:29
  • @Yitzchak, ואהרן has a mafsik also, though a lower-level one than במשה does. מרים OTOH does not.
    – msh210
    Jun 16, 2011 at 2:48
  • @Yitzchak - The mahpach may be hard to see on "Miriam", but it's there and it's a m'chaber at the same level of the hierarchy as the pashta on "v'Aharon".
    – WAF
    Jun 16, 2011 at 3:11
  • @WAF, Just checked that in a print tanach. The mahpach is there and I stand corrected.
    – Yitzchak
    Jun 16, 2011 at 3:17
  • 1
    +1, for Rashi and the verb agreeing gramatically with the immediately following subject, which I learned from Rabbi Mordechai Breuer OBM. See also for example Shmot 4:29 or 7:6,10.
    – JXG
    Jun 16, 2011 at 9:08

Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bechayei on this verse both say that indeed Miriam was the only one who spoke out against Moshe, and that Aharon either just assented or said nothing at all. So to preserve the singular of ותדבר, according to this view, might require something like this translation:

"Miriam spoke - with Aharon [agreeing] - against Moshe..."


WAF has pretty much said what I'm going to say, but I'm going to try to explain it in a slightly more understandable and tangible way. This is going to sound strange and unrelated at first, but it will tie in at the end.

There is a common deviation that many Shuls take today in regard to how they call up the person for Hagbahah and the person for Gelilah. The standard text that the Gabbai is to say generally reads, "Ya'Amod [name] LeHagbahath HaTorah Ve[name] LiGlilath Hatorah," or in abridged format, "Ya'Amod HaMagbiah VeHaGolel." Many Gabbaim, however, assume this is grammatically incorrect and change it to "Ya'Amdu..." In fact, in older Hebrew, it is very common to identify the first subject after the verb with subordinate subjects following, and conjugate the verb in the singular for the sex of the first. In fact, one of the examples often cited for demonstrating that the modern Gabbai's innovation is unnecessary (because the older version is also correct), is the verse in your question with Miriam and Aharon.

  • Grr, Voice to text on my phone is awesome, But I did not say what I intended. It got the point across, though. I will try to fix it when I can.
    – Seth J
    Dec 23, 2011 at 20:16

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