However, it’s unclear if these are the primary tenses in biblical Hebrew. Rather, many translators — from traditional Teimanim to Genesius — understand Tanakh’s Hebrew to be based around two tenses: perfect and imperfect. The perfect tense is used to describe events that are completed. “He went.” Imperfect, actions in progress, “He was going.” Both of my examples refer to something in the past, but one is from the point of completion, and the other not; perfect tense isn’t the same as past tense.
How does this translate into biblical Hebrew? To continue with the example “go”, the perfect tense would be “halakh“, and the imperfect, “yeilekh“. To say “He was going”, we would use the imperfect tense. But we need to connect it to the point in time in the narrative that we’re up to, to say that it was still in progress at this point of the story, not at the time of hearing or reading it. Vav is the letter used to connect (and in fact a vav is a connecting hook, see Shemos 38:10), so we get “vayeilekh“. The vav hahipuch (tense reversing vav) is therefore not a distinct grammar rule, but follows logically. The switch from yeilekh (future) to vayeilekh (past) is possible because the placement in time is not a primary feature of the conjugation.
There is a significant philosophical implication. Time is only introduced to the sentence in relation to something else (which can equally be the time of telling or the time the story is up to). It makes biblical Hebrew better suited for communication between a Timeless Being and ourselves.
II Present Tense
What does it mean when we close the berakhah in Shemoneh Esrei with the words “bonei Yerushalayim“? Are we saying that Hashem is the “Builder of Jerusalem”? Or are we acknowledging that He is “building Jerusalem”, even today, although perhaps in a manner we won’t see until later?
In Hebrew there is what seems to be a basic ambiguity between the present tense and nouns. The word “boneh” is both “builder” and “is building”. Similarly a “shomeir” is a guard, but the same word is used to say “he is guarding”.
I said “seems to be a basic ambiguity because in order for a word to mean two things we have to be convinced that the two meanings are really different. Perhaps that is the whole point. In Western thought, we are taught to make a distinction between what a person does and who he is. However, in Hebrew, it is difficult to articulate that distinction.
“Hu omeir” — he said and during that while, was a speaker. One doesn’t say “He is speaking” but identifying him as a speaker. Again, it eliminates the role of time in Hebrew conjugation. Hashem isn’t currently building Jerusalem, because He has no time, no “currently”. However, we can call Hashem “the Builder”, and say that we relate to Him in our now in those terms.
Another apparent ambiguity arises earlier in Shemoneh Esrei. In the first berakhah we quote Moshe Rabbeinu who praises G-d as “HaKel haGadol haGibor vehaNorah“. Translations vary. Some render the phrase “The Great, Mighty, and Awe-inspiring G-d”. Others, including the Vilna Gaon, treat it as “The G-d, the Great One, the Mighty One, the Awe-Inspiring One”. One understands it as a noun and three adjectives, the other, as four nouns.
Again, in order for this not to be ambiguous, we have to identify adjective with noun, describing a feature of the thing with the thing itself. Aristotle makes a distinction between essence, what the thing is, and accident, properties it happened to pick up along the way. If Hebrew blurs the distinction, then the speaker of biblical Hebrew was discouraged from making this distinction.
So, in Biblical Hebrew, the same conjugation is used for nouns, present tense verbs, and adjectives.
There is a major mussar statement. You can’t fool yourself into saying that “really” you’re a good person, deep down. You are what you do. While you are building, you are a builder. You can’t fool yourself by saying that you just act one way, but deep down youare otherwise. (Of course, when speaking of ourselves, “otherwise” means “better”, and when speaking of others, we mean “worse”.) What you make of yourself isn’t simply adjectives, attributes atop your essence, it’s who you are.
We might see these possible sources of confusion as flaws, but in reality, we’re eliminating artificial distinctions that get in the way of understanding G-d and ourselves.