I presented my dissertation lecture yesterday afternoon (in lieu of a formal defense we present a public lecture and take questions), and I thought it appropriate to open with a midrash on את. The human mind is endlessly searching for patterns and meaning. Randomness is anathema. Potato chips look like Abraham Lincoln. The virgin Mary appears on grilled cheese. And so, both grammarians and interpreters have often felt that the use of את to mark an object phrase must have some meaning. The following is a midrash on את which I came across somewhat by random (HT: Davar Akher).
Sefer HaBahir 1:32
דרש ר’ ישמעאל לר”ע מ”ד את השמים ואת הארץ אלמלא לא נאמר את היינו אומרים שמים וארץ אלהות הן א”ל העבודה נגעת אבל לא בררת כן דברת אבל את לרבות חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות ואת לרבות אילנות ודשאים וגן עדן
Rabbi Ishmael expounded to Rabbi Akiva, “Why does it say את השמים ואת הארץ? Had it not said את, they would think that השמים and הארץ were gods!”
He replied, “Good Lord! You have laboured, but you have not sifted, and so you have spoken; however, את includes sun and moon, stars and constellations; את includes trees and vegetation and the Garden of Eden.”
The midrash concerns the use of את for the phrase את השמים ואת הארץ in Genesis 1:1. Rabbi Ishmael gives a reasonable grammatical argument: had השמים and הארץ not been overtly marked as direct objects, it would have been grammatically possible to read the phrase in apposition to אלהים as the subject. This is a common explanation for את; when it is used it must be necessary to distinguish subject from object. Its grammatical function is indeed to indicate the object, but when one considers the distribution of את broadly, this is not a likely explanation for the variation in its use. There are numerous examples where את is used when ambiguity between subject and object is low or where it is absent in cases where ambiguity may be high.
Rabbi Akiva scolds Rabbi Ishmael for his interpretation, but not on grammatical grounds. Akiva’s midrash (see also Baba Qama 41b) plays on the fact that the object preposition את is a homonym of the comitative preposition את ‘with’. The idea is that wherever an object is marked by את, this also implies that there is something unsaid that should go along ‘with’ it. Here, את is alerting us that את השמים ואת הארץ should be taken as a hendiadys that includes all of the subsequent “structural” creation up to Eden (I assume his omission of birds, fish, animals, and humans was intentional). This is a good midrash, but a midrash nonetheless.
I have argued in my dissertation that the distribution of את is not random, but I wouldn’t say that its presence is particularly meaningful in the normal sense of the word. Fundamentally, את is a grammatical marker of the direct object, and the variability in its use is largely a by-product of the way object marking systems develop.