The Sukkah: Nofelet or nofalet?

Even a change in a vowel can have a deep meaning in Judaism.

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Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
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David Rubinger

The addition to Birkat ha-Mazzon (the Grace after Meals) for Sukkot alludes both to the Sukkah and to the future redemption: הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יָקִים לָנוּ אֶת סֻכַּת דָּוִיד הַנֹּפֶלֶת, “The Merciful One – may He erect for us David’s fallen Sukkah!”.

Some Siddurim vowelise the final word הַנֹּפֶלֶת, ha-nofelet; others הַנֹּפָלֶת, ha-nofalet. It seems like a minor detail, barely worthy of attention, let alone the subject for an entire D’var Torah. הַנֹּפֶלֶת or הַנֹּפָלֶת – does it really matter?

But this seemingly minuscule detail goes to the very heart of the Sukkah and the redemption.

The Hebrew word for “fallen” is נֹפֶלֶת, nofelet (feminine singular, because Sukkah is feminine). Hence grammatically, the word should be נֹפֶלֶת.

But Hebrew grammar has a rule called צוּרוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת (“changing forms”), according to which the vowel of the last stressed syllable of a phrase or a sentence is lengthened – either from a shva (אְ), a half-syllable, to a short vowel (typically a segol, אֶ); or from a short vowel (such as a patach, אַ, or a segol, אֶ) to a long vowel (typically a kamatz, אָ).

This is the reason that, for example, גֶּפֶן, gefen (vine) changes to גָּפֶן, gafen at the end of a sentence. This is the reason that the name פֶּרֶץ, Peretz (Genesis 46:12, Numbers 26:20, 1 Chronicles 2:4) changes to פָּרֶץ, Paretz at the end of a sentence (Genesis 38:29, Nehemiah 11:4). This is the reason that the place-name עֶצְיוֹן גֶּבֶר, Etzion Gever (1 Kings 9:26, 2 Chronicles 8:17) becomes עֶצְיוֹן גָּבֶר, Etzion Gaver at the end of a sentence (Numbers 33:35, 1 Kings 22:49, 2 Chronicles 20:36). This is the reason that עֶבֶד, eved (slave) (e.g. Genesis 9:25) changes to עָבֶד, aved at the end of a sentence (e.g. Leviticus 25:39).

So according to this rule, it would appear that the final word of the phrase should be הַנֹּפָלֶת ha-nofalet.

As we noted above, this change of vowel occurs both at the end of a sentence and at the end of a phrase.

In Tanachic punctuation, the end of a sentence is marked by the cantillation-mark פָּסֽוּק-סוֹף, sof-pasuk (“end-of-the-verse”); the end of a phrase is marked by either an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, etnachta or by a זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל, zakef-gadol. That is to say, all three of these cantillation marks (the sof-pasuk, the etnachta, and the zakef-gadol) elongate the vowel.

Hence עֶצְיוֹן גֶּבֶר, Etzion Gever changes to עֶצְיוֹן גָּבֶר, Etzion Gaver in the phraseוַיִּסְע֖וּ מֵֽעֶצְיֹ֣ן גָּ֑בֶר, “they travelled from Etzion-Gever”  (Numbers 33:36), even though it is in the middle of the sentence: the etnachta under the name גֶּבֶר marks the end of the phrase, thus changing גֶּבֶר, Gever to גָּבֶר, Gaver. Likewise, “son of a slave” appears as בֶּן־עָ֑בֶד, ben aved (Judges 9:30) in the middle of a sentence, again because the אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, marking the end of a phrase, changes the עֶבֶד, eved to an עָבֶד, aved.

But all rules have their exceptions, and whenever there are exceptions to these rules in the Tanach, we should ask what the reason is.

Let us cite an example of an exception to the rule ­– one out of hundreds – in which the vowel is elongated even though the word is not at the end of a sentence or a phrase:

When Esau bewailed Isaac’s taking his blessing, he moaned, “My birthright he took, and behold now – he has taken my blessing!” (Genesis 27:36). His phrase אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתִ֣י לָקָ֔ח (“he has taken my blessing”) breaks the rules of צוּרוֹת מִשְׁתַּנּוֹת. The word לָקָח is punctuated here with a זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן, and should therefore be written לַקָח, with a ­patach (a short vowel) under the ל. But Esau wailed: אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתִ֣י לָקָ֔ח – he took my birthright, with a kamatz (a long vowel) under the ל! As though to say: That was the end for me! I had no continuation after that! Though לַקָח, “he took” my birthright in the middle of the sentence, punctuated with a זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן – for me that was a full-stop. The end of the sentence. He didn’t “לַקָח” – he “לָקָח”.

(Many printed editions of the Torah have an asterisk on the word לָקָ֔ח, and the Masoretic note קמץ בז"ק, indicating the peculiarity of a kamatz under a word with a zakef-katan.)

Let us also cite an opposite example of an exception to the rule – again, one out of hundreds – in which the vowel is not elongated, even though the word appears at the end of a phrase:

The word מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet means “knife”, and is the word by which the Torah calls the knife that Abraham took when he went to sacrifice his son Isaac.וַיִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָד֔וֹ אֶת־הָאֵ֖שׁ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת, “and he took in his hand the fire and the knife” (Genesis 22:6), and later, וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ, “and Abraham stretched forth his hand and he took the knife, to slaughter his son” (v. 10).

Both times, the word מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, etnachta, which marks the end of the phrase. The אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א should change the מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet to a מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achalet.

(Again, many editions of the Torah have an asterisk above the word הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת, with a Masoretic note סגול באתנחתא, calling our attention to this grammatical singularity.)

Why, then, does it remain a מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet?

– The Torah is subtly hinting to us: Even though this מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, and therefore should have the grammatical formulation of the end of the sentence – nevertheless it remains a מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet and does not become a מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achalet. Even though it is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, which grammatically resembles the end of a sentence – nevertheless, for Isaac this is not the end of the sentence! Isaac’s story does not finish with this knife, with this מַאֲכֶלֶת, ma’achelet! His life will yet continue!

And now, after this all-too-brief introduction to Tanachic grammar, we return to the question with which we started: Is David’s Sukkah הַנֹּפֶלֶת, ha-nofelet or הַנֹּפָלֶת, ha-nofalet?

The phrase in the Grace after Meals הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יָקִים לָנוּ אֶת סֻכַּת דָּוִיד הַנֹּפֶלֶת, “The Merciful One – may He erect for us David’s fallen Sukkah”, paraphrases God’s promise through His prophet that “on that day I will erect David’s fallen Sukkah” (Amos 9:11).

And the wordהַנֹּפֶלֶת , ha-nofelet in this verse is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, etnachta, which marks the end of a phrase and has the grammatical rule of the end of the sentence.

The אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א should changeהַנֹּפֶלֶת , ha-nofelet to הַנֹּפָלֶת , ha-nofalet. Why, then, does it remainהַנֹּפֶלֶת , ha-nofelet?

– The prophet is promising us that the redemption will yet come: Even though David’s fallen Sukkah is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, and therefore looks like the end of the sentence – nevertheless it isהַנֹּפֶלֶת , ha-nofelet and not הַנֹּפָלֶת , ha-nofalet. Even though it is punctuated with an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א which grammatically resembles the end of a sentence – nevertheless, this is not the end of King David’s story! His history, his dynasty, his rule over Israel, does not finish with his Sukkah falling! There will yet be a continuation!

Even though this is the end of the phrase, as marked by the etnachta, King David’s Sukkah is not הַנֹּפָלֶת, ha-nofalet. It is unequivocallyהַנֹּפֶלֶת , ha-nofelet!






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