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Parashat Matot-Mas'ei 5761

Which is the plain meaning?

lo yachel devaro (Num. 30:3) ) Onkelos translates this 'He shall not yevatel his word' - we can obtain the idea of the Aramaic word yevatel looking at the range of translations in Jastrow's Dictionary: 'abolish, suspend, cancel, undo, neglect.' According to Onkelos the root of yachel is Yod, Chet, Lamed. The other famous Aramaic Targum, Yonatan ben Uziel, expands on this verse and writes 'He shall not desecrate his word, however the court can release him but he cannot release himself.' It follows that according to Yonatan ben Uziel the root of yachel is Chet, Lamed, Lamed. The Sifre (an ancient commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy) comments: He shall not make his word desecrated, if he was a scholar, he should not annul the vow himself this teaches that he transgresses 'you shall not desecrate.' (This is like Yonatan ben Uziel.) How do we know that he [also]transgresses 'you shall not delay?' It is learnt in 'When you make a vow to God do not be late to fulfill it.' (This is like Onkelos.) Thus we learn that he transgresses both 'you shall not delay' and 'you shall not desecrate.'

All the above three works are from the ancient Talmudic period. The medieval commentators dealt with the same question.

Rashi (11th century) in his commentary on the verse translates lo yachel 'do not desecrate.' Accordingly the verb lo yachel 'He shall not desecrate' refers to 'his word.' Thus Rashi follows Yonatan ben Uziel.

His grandson Rashbam writes:

'He shall not delay' refers to the vow; that is to say he shall not delay his vow beyond the festivals, as the Holy One Blessed be He commanded. lo yachel has the same meaning as it has in the verses 'And they waited until they were ashamed' (Judges 3:25), 'And he waited another seven days' (Gen. 8:10), 'Israel waits for G-d' (Psalms 130:7); that is to say Israel will tarry and wait for Him. And he who explains it as an expression of desecration has, according to the plain meaning, made a mistake.

Thus Rashbam criticizes Rashi and follows Onkelos.

R' A. ibn Ezra (12th century) writes: It is like lo yechalel ('he shall not desecrate') and it is not an expression of forgiving. His editor Asher Weiser (20th century) notes that this is written with the view of disagreeing with Onkelos.

The Chizkuni (13th century) writes:

It is like Israel waits for G-d (Psalms 30:7); that is to say he shall not delay fulfilling his word but shall do everything that proceeds from his mouth. Another interpretation is: he shall not desecrate his word himself - this means he shall not release himself from his own vow but others may release him.

For over one thousand years the correct interpretation was a matter of dispute. However, at the beginning of this period the Sifre, and at the end of this period the Chizkuni, both gave each interpretation equal weight.

It would seem that if the root is Yud, Chet, Lamed, then lo yachel is like lo yeyachel (Piel) for the negative imperative employs the future form just like we find lo teileikh rakhil (Levit. 20: ) ('you shall not go tailbearing'). The Chizkuni also uses the future form. However, if the root is Chet, Lamed, Lamed then yachel is Hiph'il future, masculine, third person. We derive meaning by analyzing the words and examining context and comparing the text with other places that have similar terms.

From the above discussion we can see the great difficulty that translators of the Torah face. The language is an ancient variety of Hebrew that modern Hebrew speakers have difficulty understanding, there is a range of traditions interpreting the text, and scholars throughout the ages have taken sides over the meaning of many passages. Let us briefly look at some modern translations of our passage. Koren (based on Friedlander, 1881) 'he shall not break his word.' R' S. R. Hirsch 19th century), (English by I. Levy) 'he must not make his word void;' R' S. R. Hirsch, (English, by G. Hirschler) 'he must not permit his word to remain unfulfilled.' The Rosenbaum and Silbermann Pentateuch (1933) 'he shall not violate his word,' and R' A. Kaplan (1981)'he must not break his word.'

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Why the Heh?

el-ha'aretz kena'an (Num. 34:2) Each of these words can be translated separately without difficulty. el-ha'aretz 'to the land,' kena'an is a proper noun usually rendered 'Canaan.' The problem is the unusual construction of the phrase. When two nouns come together so that the second one defines the first ('Semikhut') only the second takes the Definite Article Heh, and proper nouns have no need for the Definite Article Heh (they are definite without it); hence if the second of two nouns in Semikhut is a proper noun neither should have the Heh. Therefore R' A. ibn Ezra considers it as though it said 'to the land, the land of Canaan' and according to Ramban it means to the land [that is] Canaan.


I will be pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919
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