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New Perspectives in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew

Aaron D. Hornkohl
Khan Geoffrey

ה ָ י ָ ה in biblical hebrew

J. Wilson


A general consensus has emerged that the copula הָיָה licenses tense, aspect, and mood (TAM) in Biblical Hebrew (BH) and can also be used as a ‘true verb’ meaning become, happen, exist, etc. Exactly which features are licensed by הָיָה, however, has not been demonstrated in an exhaustive study. This article—based on an exhaustive study of הָיָה in BH—demonstrates exactly which TAM features and environments control the manifestation of הָיָה. The ‘true verb’ function of הָיָה can also be understood in a uniform way typical of auxiliaries. A thorough discussion of the roles of הָיָה also requires distinguishing predicational sentences from existential sentences. The semantics of existentials in BH also explains the function of הָיָה in many examples. Readers of BH will find that most finite forms of הָיָה in the Hebrew Bible can be explained using one of the conditions specified in this article.

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1.0. Introduction

  • 1 Andersen (1970); Bartelmus (1982); Waltke and O’Connor (1990, 72); Niccacci (1990; 1993; 1999); Mil (...)

1The relationship between subject and predicate is one of the most fundamental elements in natural human language. While there is certainly great diversity among the world’s languages in how this relationship is manifested, all languages seem to have a means of predicating an entity or property of a subject. Biblical Hebrew (BH), broadly speaking, presents a relatively straightforward system for this kind of relationship, which has experienced a robust research tradition.1 These works do not coalesce in agreement on every issue, but there has emerged an overall consensus which features the verbless (or nominal) clause as the construction for non-verbal predication in present tense and the verb ה ָ י ָ ה functioning in one of two ways: as a copula hosting tense, aspect, and mood (TAM) features, like an auxiliary, and as a ‘true’ verb in the sense of become, exist, happen, etc.

2As is often the case in the study of natural language, however, things are rarely as straightforward as they may appear. First, it has been accepted that the copula ה ָ י ָ ה licenses TAM features, but exactly which TAM features has not been demonstrated in an exhaustive study. Second, as Wilson (2018; 2019; 2020a) has recently demonstrated, it is possible to account for the semantic variation of ה ָ י ָ ה in a uniform way typical of auxiliaries. If so, the ‘true’ verb function observed by many can be understood as an extension of the role of ה ָ י ָ ה as an auxiliary. Third, in research on copular sentences, both theoretical and cross-linguistic, there is usually a separate construction—the existential—that shares many of the same morphosyntactic pieces as copular sentences, but that makes a fundamentally different assertion. In BH, the particles י ֵ ש and א ֵ ןי are typically discussed with respect to existentials, but examples such as (1) demonstrate that ה ָ י ָ ה may also be used in an existential construction.


ו ַֽ י ְ ה ִ ־י ִ א ִ֥ שי מ ֵ א־רה ֶ פ ְָ ר ֺ י ִ ם ּ שו ְ מ ִֹ֥ ו מ ִ י ָ יכ ְ ה ּ ׃ו
‘There was a man from the hill country of Ephraim and his name was Micah.’ (Judg. 17.1)

  • 2 This paper is based on a poster presented at the conference Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew: New Persp (...)

3Thus, the two goals of this paper are as follows. First, I will introduce existentials as a separate construction, distinct from copular sentences, which also utilise ה ָ י ָ ה . Second, I will demonstrate which TAM features are correlated with the presence of ה ָ י ָ ה , as opposed to the default verbless clause, based on an exhaustive study of the finite forms of ה ָ י ָ ה in BH. Before discussing these two points, it is necessary to provide a basic description of copular sentences with ה ָ י ָ ה in BH.2

2.0. The Basics of Copula Use in BH

4BH, like many other languages (Arabic, Russian, etc.), does not permit an inflected verb in present tense copular sentences, as in (2).


ְ או ָ ב ִ ךי ִ֙ ִ א ִ֣ שי מ ִ ל ְ ח ָ מ ָ ה
‘Your father (is) a man of war’. (2 Sam. 17.8)

5As is common in many languages, BH also utilises a copular verb to license future tense, as in (3).


ְ הו ָ י ִ תי ִ י ָ נ ָ֤ ע ו ָ נ ָ ד ִ֙ ב ָ א ֶָ ץר
‘But I will be a stranger and a foreigner in the land.’ (Gen. 4.14)

6One unique difference between BH and other languages, such as Arabic and Russian, is that an overt copula is not required for a sentence to be grammatical in past tense. In fact, Wilson (2018) states that there are more examples in the Hebrew Bible of past-referring verbless clauses than clauses with an overt form of ה ָָ הי .

  • 3 Thanks to Jesse Scheumann for discussion about these constructions.

7It has been noted that in BH, a verbless clause may carry the tense of the surrounding context without requiring an overt copula in every case. The sufficiency of context to carry the tense of an expression forward in other languages has been noted in research by Progovac (2006, 55). Examples are abundant in past-referring contexts in BH, but also occur less frequently in future-referring contexts, as in (4).3


ְ יו ִ תּ ִֵ֣ ן י ְ וה ָ ה גּ ִ֣ ם א ֶ י־ת ִ שׂ ְָ אר ֵָ֤ ל ע ִ מּ ְ ך ִ֙ ב ְ פּ־די ְ ל ִ ש ְ תּ ִָ םי ּ מו ָֹ ח ָ ר אַ ָ תּ ִ֥ ה ּ בו ָ נ ֶֺ ךי ע ִִ מּ ִ֑ י
‘so that Yhwh will give Israel as well as you into the hand of the Philistines and tomorrow you and your sons (will be) with me.’ (1 Sam. 28.19)

8Since it is the case that a context set in past time is sufficient to license the tense for copular sentences, the question arises: Why are there preterite and suffixed forms of ה ָ י ָ ה and what purpose do they serve? Do they serve merely to disambiguate the tense in copular sentences? An exhaustive analysis of the data reveals that a precondition for answering these questions is establishing the distinction between existential and predicational sentences. Second, it is necessary to recognise the reality of features in addition to tense that control the manifestation of ה ָ י ָ ה . Copulas and auxiliaries are frequently used to express different features in different contexts depending on the language. This is consistent with the analysis of auxiliaries by Bjorkman (2011). These points will be made in turn.

3.0. The Existential/Predicational Distinction

9Existential sentences are distinct from predicational sentences both semantically and syntactically, though in many languages the syntactic distinction is not as obvious as the semantic. In English, the distinction is often made through the expletive there and the inversion of the copula in an existential, e.g., the inversion of is and book in (5).


There is a book on the bookshelf.

10This is distinct from the predicational counterpart in (6).


A book is on the bookshelf.

11The semantic distinctions between sentences like (5) and (6) have been discussed thoroughly in Francez (2007, 2009). One of the defining features of existentials is the alternate encoding of the figure-ground relationship, which is also present in predicational locative sentences (Creissels 2014). Partee and Borchev (2002; 2008) provide a clever metaphor, which illuminates the semantic distinction between existentials and predicational locatives:

An analogy may be made with a video camera and “what the camera is tracking”. A predicational sentence keeps the camera fixed on the protagonist as she moves around (THING as Center); an Existential sentence is analogous to the way a security camera is fixed on a scene and records whatever is in that location (LOC as Center). (Partee and Borschev 2008, 156)

12The anatomy of existentials generally consists of a pivot, e.g., book in (5), and a coda, e.g., on the bookshelf in (5), and either a particle or a verbal copula (Bentley et. al. 2013). The pivot of an existential is considered the object, while the subject is the contextual domain which can be further specified by the coda (Francez 2007; 2009), though this point is debated (Stowell 1978; McNally 2011).

13In BH, the syntactic encoding of existentials is clearest in sentences employing the particle י ֵ ש for positive existentials (7) and the corresponding א ֵ ןי for negative existentials (8).


א ּ לו ִ֥ י י ֵֵ֛ ש ח ֲ מ ִִ שּׁ ִ֥ םי צ ִ ידּ ִֺ םק ב ְ ת ִֹ֣ ךו ה ִָ ע ִ֑ רי
‘Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city.’ (Gen. 18.24)


א ֵ ל־ןי ֶֶ ח ֶ ם ֹ לח א ֶ ־ל ַ תּ ַ ח ַ ת י ָ ד ִ י
‘There is no common bread on hand.’ (1 Sam. 21.5)

14The data demonstrate, however, that ה ָ י ָ ה is also used in both positive (9) and negative (10) existential sentences.


יו ְִ ה ָ֤ י ָ ער ָ ב ִ֙ ב ְ כ ָ ־ל ָ ה ִ֣ א ֲָ צר ָֹ תו
‘There was a famine in all the lands.’ (Gen. 41.54)


ו ְ ל ֹ ־א ָ ה ִ֥ י ָ ה מ ֺ י ִ ם ל ָ ע ֵָ ד ִ֑ ה
‘There was no water for the congregation.’ (Num. 20.2)

15These are clearly existential, because the nominal—ָ ער ָ ב ‘famine’ in (9) and מ ַֹ םי ‘water’ in (10)—must be a pivot, and not a subject, for the sentence to be grammatical. If ‘famine’ was the subject of a predicational sentence, it would likely have a definite article, since it is active in the common ground. ה ָ י ָ ה is present in sentences like (9), because BH existentials, as opposed to predicationals (cf. §2, ex. (4), above), require a form of ה ָ י ָ ה in both past and future contexts. Further comment is provided in Wilson (2020a) and Naudé, Miller-Naudé, and Wilson (2019; forthcoming) on the alternation and diachronic development of the existential particles and ה ָ י ָ ה in existential sentences. The fact that existentials as a distinct clause type require some form of ה ָ י ָ ה (when an existential particle is not present) accounts for many manifestations of the copula in the Hebrew Bible.

4.0. Features Controlling the Presence of ה ָ י ָ ה

  • 4 I adopt the definition of features in the research tradition of Distributed Morphology, specificall (...)
  • 5 Stassen (1997); Pustet (2003); Roy (2013).

16Copula systems in languages around the world represent different feature bundles that control the presence and shape of their copulas or copula-like elements.4 These feature bundles include TAM features, evidential features, and others. Often, taxonomic variables (i.e., types of predicates) also contribute to the variation in copular sentences.5 The copula system of BH is controlled by aspect/mood features, Aktionsart features, and additional eventive features, which are noted in Wilson (2020a).

17Imperfective/habitual aspect is reflected in (11) which, though existing in a past tense context, utilises the prefixed form to represent imperfective aspect.

  • 6 Also see Exod. 40.38.


בוּ ָ ע ֶֶ בר הי ְ י ֶֶ ה ע ֵַ ה־ל ַ שׁמּ ְ כּ ָָ ן כּ ְ מ ְַ א־האר ֹ שׁ ע ַ בּ־ד ֵ ק ֶ ר
‘In the evening, it would be over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning.’ (Num. 9.15)6

  • 7 For a review of the perfect as a conflicting category in theories of tense-aspect, see Ritz (2012).

18Example (12) demonstrates that the suffix conjugation can be used to represent the perfect tense/aspect.7 Wilson (2018; 2020a) argues that the suffixed copula in Gen. 1.2 should also be understood as (past) perfect, (13).


נא ְ ש ֵֵׁ֨ י מ ִ ק ְ נ ִֶ֜ ה ה ָ י ָּ֤ ו ע ֲ ב ָ ד ִֶ֙ ךי ִ֙ מ ִ נ ְ ע ּ ו ֵ ר ִ֣ ני ּ ו ו ְ ע־דע ָ תּ ָ ה
‘Your servants have been men of livestock from our youth until now.’ (Gen. 46.34)


ו ְ ה ָ אָ ֶ֗ ץר ה ָ י ְָ ת ֶ ה ֹ וּהת ו ָֹ וּהב
‘The earth had been formless and empty.’ (Gen. 1.2)

19The mood features controlling ה ָ י ָ ה are obvious, since they have distinct morphology. A well-known example is (14).


יו ִֹ֥ מא ֶ ר א ֱֹ ל ִ ה ֺ םי י ְִ ה ִ֣ י ִ֑ א ֹ רו
‘And God said, “Let there be light.”’ (Gen. 1.3)

  • 8 For the alternation between waw and yod as the second radical in some forms of the copula, see Katz (...)

20There are both jussive forms (3ms : י ְ יה 67 examples; 3mpl : הי ְ וּי 21 examples; 2fs : תּ ְ יה 28 examples; 2fpl : התּ ְ י ֶ ני ָ ה 4 examples) and imperative forms (ms : ה ֱ ו ֵ ה / יה ֵ ה 15 examples;8 fs : יוה / ה ֲִ יי 2 examples; mpl : וּיה 9 examples).

21In addition to these simple aspect/mood examples, there are more complex examples, which reflect different semantics in terms of subject and complement. Example (15) illustrates the well-known - ה ָ י ָ ה ל construction noted by Jenni (2000).


ו ְ א ָ תּ ֵ֛ ה תּ ִ ה ְ י ִֶ֥ ה ל ְ נ ִָ ג ֺ די י־לע ִ שׂ ְָ אר ֵ ל
‘You will become leader over Israel.’ (2 Sam. 5.2)

22This is rightly classified as an inchoative construction, which presents the subject as acquiring a state. This function of ה ָ י ָ ה moves beyond stative to eventive Aktionsart, and, more specifically, indicates an achievement (see, inter alia, Vendler 1957). It is not uncommon, even in English, to see copular sentences with eventive Aktionsart. Consider (16), which has an agentive subject and eventive Aktionsart.


Sam was rude three times.

  • 9 Adger and Ramchand (2003); Markmann (2008); Cowper (2010).

23Research on copular sentences in other languages has demonstrated how common this is.9 Another example of achievement Aktionsart in BH copular sentences is the ‘directional’ construction, as in (17).


ו ַֽ י ְ ה ִִ֙ י ְ י־רבדּ ְ וה ָ ה א ֶ ש־ל ְ מ ּ או ֵֺ ל
‘The word of Yhwh came to Samuel.’ (1 Sam. 15.10)

24In addition to a prepositional predicate, the directive heh may also be used, as in (18).


ְ הו ָ י ֶ וּ צת ְ א ָ ת ֹ וי ה ַ יּ ִָ מּ ָ ה
‘Its extremities went to the sea.’ (Josh. 16.8)

25Rather than inchoative, these examples demonstrate telic achievements with experiencer subjects. Marin and McNally (2011) have demonstrated the relationship between inchoative and telic achievements, which are similar though separated by a principal concern with boundary happenings. While inchoative achievements note the onset boundary, telic achievements note the end boundary. Normal events are concerned with intervals, while boundary happenings are concerned with points. Examples (17) and (18) are non-durative and focus principally on the points of the boundary happenings.

26One more example illustrates this phenomenon. These constructions are ‘complement-less’ copular sentences. They are also achievement predicates, which require the presence of ה ָ י ָ ה .


ְ או ֶ כ־ת ָ א־ל ִֵ֙ ל ֶ ה ִ֙ י ִָ ד ִ֣ י ע ָ שׂ ָ ת ָ ה יו ִ ה ְ י ִּ֥ ו כ ָ א־ל ֵֺ ל ֶ ה נ ְ א ֻ י־ם ְ ה ָ ו ִ֑ ה
‘ “All these my hand has made and all these came to be” declares Yhwh.’ (Isa. 66.2)

  • 10 Exod. 11.6; Deut. 4.32; Judg. 19.30; 20.12; 2 Sam. 13.35; 1 Kgs 1.27; Jer. 5.30; 48.19; Ezek. 21.7; (...)

27Interestingly, the achievement predicate function of ה ָ י ָ ה has led to the development of nifʿal נ ִ ה ְ י ָ ה , examples of which are all achievement predicates. Example (20) is the only instance of the inchoative sense. Example (21) demonstrates the directional. Example (22) is complement-less, which is the construction type with the most instances of . נ ִ ה ְ י ָ ה10

  • 11 Also 1 Kgs 12.24; Dan. 2.1.


ה ַ יּ ֤ םו ה ַ ז ֶ ה הנ ְ י ַ י ָ ת ֵ ל ְֹ ע ָ ם ל ַ הי ָ ו ֹ ה א ֹ ל ֶ ה ֵ י ָ ך
‘This day you have become the people of Yhwh your God.’ (Deut. 27.9)


ִ כ ִ֧ י מ ֵ א ִִ תּ ֵ֛ י נ ִ ה ְ י ָֺ ה ה ָ בדּ ִָ֣ ר זּה ִֶ֑ ה
‘For this thing has come from me.’ (2 Chron. 11.4)11


כיא ֶָ ה הנ ְ י ְָ ת ֹ ה ה ָָ ער ֶָ ה ה ֵַ תאזּ
‘How did these evil things happen? ’ (Judg. 20.3)

28In addition to these conditions, the manifestation of ה ָ י ָ ה can also be attributed to disambiguation in certain examples. Example (23), for instance, includes both a prefixed and a suffixed form of ה ָ י ָ ה for the sake of temporal disambiguation.


קר ִ הי ְ י ֶ ה י ְ ה ָ ו ָ֤ ה א ֱֹ הל ִֶ֙ ךי ִ֙ ע ִ מּ ָ ך אכ ֲ ש ִֶ֥ ר ה ָָ י ֺ ה ע ִ מ־ם ֶֹ הש
‘Only, Yhwh your God will be with you as he was with Moses.’ (Josh. 1.17)

  • 12 Other examples include 2 Sam. 4.4; 2 Kgs 8.17; 14.2; 15.2, 33; 18.2.
  • 13 Other examples include 2 Sam. 5.4; 2 Kgs 12.1; 16.2; 21.11, 19; 22.1.

29Another condition which controls the manifestation of ה ָ י ָ ה is related to participant agreement. BH age constructions reveal an interesting pattern in alternating between overt and verbless sentences. Example (24) has a suffixed form of ה ָ י ָ ה , which is sufficient for representing the pronominal subject.12 Example (25) has an overt subject and a verbless predicate.13


ב ֶ ע־ן ֶ שׂ ְִ ר ֵׁ֨ םי ְ חו ָ מ ֵָ֤ ש ש ָ נ ָ ה ִ֙ ה ָ י ִָ֣ ה ב ְ מ ָ ל ְ כ ָֹ ו
‘He was 25 years old when he became king.’ (2 Kgs 18.2)


בּ ֶ ע־ן ֶ ש ְ םיר שׁ ָ נ ָ ה א ָ ח ָ ז בּ ְ מ ָ ל ְ וכ
‘Ahaz (was) 20 years old when he became king.’ (2 Kgs 16.2)

30There is not enough space here to provide a detailed description of why the copula appears in example (24) instead of an independent pronominal subject and a verbless clause. A detailed explanation of this phenomenon is provided in Wilson (2020a).

  • 14 For other representative examples see Gen. 5.4, 11; Josh. 19.25.

31There is one rare taxonomic variable which appears to control the manifestation of ה ָ י ָ ה in a few examples. There are a few examples in the Hebrew Bible which are classified as specificational sentences (Higgins 1979; Stassen 1997), which utilise the BH copula, as in (26).14


ו ִ הי ְ י ִּ֣ ו ב ְ נ ֵ ־י ֹ֗ נ ֹ ח יה ֹ צ ְ א ִ םי ִ֙ מ ִ תּה־ן ֵ ב ָ ה ש ֵֺ ם ו ְָ ח ִ֣ ם ו ָָ י ִ֑ פ ֶ ת
‘The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.’ (Gen. 9.18)

32This is not a requirement, however, as there are many examples of verbless specificational sentences.

5.0. Conclusion

  • 15 A notable exception to this is the isolated הָיָה (also called a discourse marker, in previous stud (...)

33In this paper I have breifly summarised the features and environments that control the manifestation of the copula ה ָ י ָ ה rather than defaulting to the more common verbless clause. I have presented an account which claims that ה ָ י ָ ה can be classified as an auxiliary whose manifestation and shape are attributed to a feature complex for certain BH non-verbal predicates. Readers of BH will find that most of the finite forms of ה ָ י ָ ה in the Hebrew Bible can be explained using one of the conditions specified in this article.15 The complex copula systems of the world’s languages vary due to language-specific feature requirements which determine when and how copulas, or copula-like elements, appear. The BH copula ה ָ י ָ ה appears to be obligatory in existential sentences and is controlled primarily by aspect/mood and Aktionsart in copular sentences.



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— ——. 2020a. Syntactic and Semantic Variation in Copular Sentences: Insights from Classical Hebrew. Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 261. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

— ——. 2020b. ‘The Thetic/Categorical Distinction as Difference in Common Ground Update: With Application to Biblical Hebrew’. In Thetics and Categoricals, edited by Werner Abraham, Elisabeth Leiss, and Yasuhiro Fujinawa. Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 262. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Zewi, Tamar. 1994. ‘The Nominal Sentence in Biblical Hebrew’. In Semitic and Cushitic Studies, edited by G. Goldenberg and S. Raz, 147–67. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

— ——. 1999. ‘Time in Nominal Sentences in the Semitic Languages’. Journal of Semitic Studies 44 (2): 195–214.

— ——. 2013. ‘Nominal Clause’. In Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, edited by Geoffrey Khan et al., II: 830– 39. Leiden: Brill.


1 Andersen (1970); Bartelmus (1982); Waltke and O’Connor (1990, 72); Niccacci (1990; 1993; 1999); Miller (1999); Zewi (1994; 1999; 2013).

2 This paper is based on a poster presented at the conference Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew: New Perspectives in Philology & Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, 8–10 July, 2019. The work is a summary of some of the central claims of the author’s doctoral dissertation. The book-length adaptation of the dissertation published in Wilson (2020a) includes a much more technical treatment of these and many more issues. This paper distils the results of that volume and makes them accessible to those who may not work in the formal frameworks utilised in the original research.

3 Thanks to Jesse Scheumann for discussion about these constructions.

4 I adopt the definition of features in the research tradition of Distributed Morphology, specifically the Late Insertion hypothesis, which postulates that syntactic terminals are bundles of features which receive their pronunciation post-syntactically (Halle and Marantz 1993). For a more detailed account of how this works, see Wilson (2020a).

5 Stassen (1997); Pustet (2003); Roy (2013).

6 Also see Exod. 40.38.

7 For a review of the perfect as a conflicting category in theories of tense-aspect, see Ritz (2012).

8 For the alternation between waw and yod as the second radical in some forms of the copula, see Katz (1996, 143).

9 Adger and Ramchand (2003); Markmann (2008); Cowper (2010).

10 Exod. 11.6; Deut. 4.32; Judg. 19.30; 20.12; 2 Sam. 13.35; 1 Kgs 1.27; Jer. 5.30; 48.19; Ezek. 21.7; 39.8; Joel 2.2; Prov. 13.19; Dan. 8.27; 12.1; Neh. 6.8.

11 Also 1 Kgs 12.24; Dan. 2.1.

12 Other examples include 2 Sam. 4.4; 2 Kgs 8.17; 14.2; 15.2, 33; 18.2.

13 Other examples include 2 Sam. 5.4; 2 Kgs 12.1; 16.2; 21.11, 19; 22.1.

14 For other representative examples see Gen. 5.4, 11; Josh. 19.25.

15 A notable exception to this is the isolated הָיָה (also called a discourse marker, in previous studies), which precedes sentences, has defective agreement, and has no predication relationship with clause subject, i.e., does not itself function as a predicate. A thorough treatment of this construction has been provided by Wilson (2019; 2020b).


Daniel J. Wilson (PhD, University of the Free State, 2018) is the author of Syntactic and Semantic Variation in Copular Sentences: Insights from Classical Hebrew (John Benjamins, 2020), a reworking of his dissertation. He is a Research Fellow in the Department of Hebrew at University of the Free State and works in cooperation with the Department of Caucasian Languages in the Institute of Linguistics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. His research includes the application of formal approaches to syntax and semantics to Classical Hebrew. He is also actively engaged in fieldwork and documentation of endangered languages of the Caucasus, writing on interesting morpho-syntactic phenomena as they relate to discussions in theoretical linguistics.


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