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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Vayeitzei 5768

This week's sedra tells of Jacob's stay with Lavan and marrying Leah & Rachel and building his family - the twelve tribes.

Genesis 29:15

And Lavan said to Jacob: Because you're my brother should you work for me for nothing? Tell what your wages are.


Should you work for me (Hebrew: Va'avad'tani") for nothing: Rashi: This is the same as "you shall work for me (Hebrew: V'ta'avdeini"). And likewise any verb which is the past tense and a "vav" is added in the beginning (of the word) that changes the word to the future tense.


Rashi points out a rule in Biblical grammar. The rule is that a "vav" before a verb may not necessarily mean "and" rather it may be a conversive "vav" - its purpose it to change the time tense of the verb either from past to future or from future to past. In our verse it changes the verb construction "avad'tani" meaning "you worked for me" to the future meaning "you will work for me." The change in tense is significant.

Do you have a question on this comment? I can think of two.

Your Question(s):


A Question: The "conversive vav" is very, very common in the Torah. The third verse in the Torah already uses it twice. "And He said 'Let there be light' and there was light." "And He said" is 'Vayomer' which takes the future verb "yomer" (He will say) and turns it around to past tense ("and He said"). There must be hundreds of such instances in the Torah before this one. Why does Rashi wait until now to make his comment? What is bothering him here that didn't bother previously?

A Second Question: The word "Va'avad'tani" can mean either "You will work for me" or "you worked for me." Why does Rashi think the future tense, and not the past tense, is the correct meaning of this word?

Can you think of an answer?

Your Answers:


An Answer: The fact that the word "Va'avad'tani" can have either of two very different meanings, is probably what prompted Rashi to comment here. In other cases of the "conversive vav" the meaning is clear. For example when it says "And he said" it is clear that the word must be in the past tense. This is usually the case where it is used. But in our verse the word can reasonably either be in the future or the past tense. Therefore Rashi had to comment here to clarify its meaning.


Rashi comments here precisely because the word can be interpreted in two very different ways. He tells us that it should be translated in the future sense.


This brings us to our second question. Why does Rashi prefer the future tense interpretation as opposed to the past tense meaning?

An Answer:

Let us remember, it is Lavan who is speaking to Jacob after he had been living with his uncle, Lavan, for a month's time. If the word were in the past tense it would mean "should you have worked for me for nothing?" This would mean that Lavan was asking Jacob how much he owes him for the work he had already done - which Jacob had done without asking for any payment. Knowing what we know of Lavan (who eventually tricked his son-in-law) that he wasn't such a considerate or straight fellow, it would not be characteristic of Lavan to be interested in paying Jacob for what he had already done for nothing! That would be the meaning of this verse if the word "Va'avad'tani" is in the past tense. ("You have worked for me last month - how much do I owe you?"). More characteristic would be that he sees Jacob working, so he then asks much this is going to cost him - from now on. But he considers the past month's work a gift, not even mentioning it.

Another reason to see the word in the future and the discussion about future wages is from Jacob's answer. Jacob asks to be given Rachel in marriage as payment for seven years work yet to be done. This answer is all future oriented with no hint of referring to the time and work Jacob had already put in.


The Ramban asks: How do we know that Jacob had worked for Lavan until now. The Torah only says he stayed with Lavan for a month's time (verse 14). Ramban's answer is that when Jacob helped Rachel at the well and gave her sheep to drink (verse 10), he continued to take care of the sheep, otherwise Rachel would have to do it. He was too much of a gentleman to let her do that!

Another answer to this question could be that Lavan had asked Jacob about the wages he should pay him; but he never even mentions if Jacob wants to work for him. This indicates that it was taken for granted that Jacob would work - because he had already worked for a month.

THE LESSON: We need to know more than grammar to understand what people mean when they speak; we need to know who is talking!

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" and the Megillas Esther volume can be purchased thru Feldheim on line at Feldheim.com

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