The 'Polite' Imperative

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

In several places in our Bible, the Hebrew imperative is followed by ‘lecha’, ‘lach’, or ‘lachem’, as appropriate. We examine here four typical examples:

  1. ‘Lech lecha’ (Gen. 12:1), when God commands Abram to leave his homeland and go to the Promised Land.
  2. ‘Lech lecha’ (Gen. 22:2), when God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
  3. ‘Shuvu lachem’ (Deut. 5:27), when Moses tells the children of Israel to return to their tents.
  4. ‘Lech berach lecha’ (Amos 7:12) when King Amaziah tells the prophet Amos to go away to the land of Judah.

(Other examples include Gen. 22:5, Gen. 27:43, Num. 13:2, and S. of S. 1:8, 2:13.)

A review of several commonly available English translations offers the following versions, respectively:

  1. ‘Go forth’ [1]; ‘Get thee out’ [2], [4]; ‘Go forth from’ [3]; ‘Leave’ [5].
  2. ‘Go’ [1]; ‘Get thee to’ [2], [4]; ‘Go to’ [3], [5].
  3. ‘Return’ [1], [3], [5]; ‘Return ye’ [2]; ‘Get you into’ [4].
  4. ‘Off with you’ [1]; ‘Go flee’ [4]; ‘Go away’ [5].

These translations either ignore completely the words ‘lecha’ and ‘lachem’, or use the ubiquitous ‘thee’ or ‘ye’.

The Hebrew idiom ‘lech lecha’ is not as harsh as the plain imperative ‘lech’, meaning ‘Go!’ It has a ‘polite’ slant to it, from Biblical Hebrew to contemporary Modern Hebrew. What is extremely rare –and beautiful, one might add– is that this ‘polite’ imperative has an exact idiomatic English version, namely, ‘Why don’t you go’, and, in general, ‘Why don’t you [imperative]’. Normally a form of a suggestion, this expression takes on a regal tone when issued by God, a master, or a king.

So, in the previous examples, we have:

  1. Why don’t you go’ – an encouraging, polite command to Abram to leave his homeland.
  2. ‘Why don’t you go’ to the land of Moriah to sacrifice Isaac – again, a polite imperative ( letting, perhaps, Abraham exercise his free will to make a choice between going and not going — which he does.)
  3. ‘Why don’t you return to your tents, etc.’
  4. ‘[Seer], why don’t you go flee to the land of Judah’, and one can easily imagine the dismissive motion of the royal hand accompanying this order.

[1]. “A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures.” Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962.
[2]. “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs.” Dr. J.H. Hertz (editor). London: Soncino Press, 1989.
[3]. “The Torah: A Modern Commentary.” W. Gunther Plaut (editor). NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.
[4]. “The Holy Bible.” King James’ Version. National Publishing Company, 1978.
[5]. “The Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition.” Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1968.

About Shlomo Karni


  1. Prof. Everett Fox renders “Go-you-forth” in The Schocken Bible which takes cognizance of the lech-lecha wordplay.

    I do not understand Prof. Karni’s sentence “It has a ‘polite’ slant to it, from Biblical Hebrew to contemporary Modern Hebrew.”

  2. I think “Why don’t you” doesn’t capture the flavor of many of the examples which do not seem to me to be polite requests but rather commands – and “why don’t you” is not nec. even a request! It can be a hint or literally a question. To illustrate the point, take the expression “da lecha” which is not properly translated as “why don’t you know.” It means that you should know, something like “know this!” or “be it known,” the aramaic equivalent “yediah lehave lach”

    I think it is fairer to say that there’s a connotation that the request is for the audience’s own good – this is reflected in commentaries of “for your own benefit” – and some of the examples such as “shuvu lachem leahalechem” and “lechu lachem leahaleychem” might really be polite requests.
    However, I think in many of the examples this connotation of “for your own sake” is not best understood as a polite request, and instead is more an emphasis that “it’s worth your while” (da lecha would also convey that it’s worth the other party’s while to know).

  3. “and some of the examples such as “shuvu lachem leahalechem” and “lechu lachem leahaleychem” might really be polite requests.”

    = actually, on reflection, I think these are statements by a person in authority granting permission, and therefore stated as commands. A request was made and the answer is “do as you requested.” But for example “shvu lachem po im hachamor” is a command, not a granting of permission (there was no request preceeding the command).

  4. Also, if the connotation was simply politeness, I think the imperative would be followed by “na,” like “shma na” it would be “lech na.” I don’t think the imperative followed by lecha, lachem etc is equivalent to the imperative followed by na.

    But regardless of the connotation of the lecha lechem etc following the imperative, “why don’t you” strikes me, as I wrote above, as ambiguous – it it a question? a hint? sarcastic (“why don’t you go jump in the nearest lake”). Do you really want to translate “psol lecha shnei luchos” as “why don’t you carve two luchos”????

  5. 1.Re “shuvu lachem le’oholeychem”: “Why don’t you return to your tents” sounds exactly like a strong ‘suggestion’,i.e., a command.
    2. Re “na”: to quote Rashi, “ein ‘na’ ela l’eshon bakashah” – ‘na’ is always a request, never a strong suggestion, much less a command.

    3.Re “psol lecha shnei luchot” – as I mentioned, when uttered by God, it is a strong, majestic ‘suggestion’:” Why don’t you carve…” Who is Moses to question or (gasp!) disobey it?!

  6. I fail to see the difference between a request that is phrased as an imperative followed by language of request (lech na) – coming from God, it would be a majestic suggestion – and a polite suggestion – which coming from God, becomes a majestic suggestion that must be followed.

    Either God’s suggestions become commands or they don’t. The imperative is what gives the language of command here. What is coupled with the imperative – na or lecha, lecham etc – is a modification. Your thesis is that following an imperative with the words lecha, lachem, etc. switches a statement from an outright command to a polite suggestion and encouragement, from “Go!” to “why don’t you go.” My contention is that the *imperative* coupled with the na (loshon bakasha) would have the function you claim for lecha/lachem, and clearly the imperative followed by lecha/lachem etc. has a *different* function. Shma na! Means “Listen up please!” Kach na es bincha is a *command* – kach is an imperative. The word na only turns it into a softer command. YOu are saying kach lecha means the same thing as kach na.

    Moreover, even if you were correct = so that e.g. kach lecha is a majestic suggestion aka command while kach na is only a majestic request and not a strong suggestion or command (and clearly avraham is being commanded re the akedah) – the phrase “why don’t you” in English really doesn’t sound like a command to me, or particularly majestic, or necessarily even a strong suggestion. I grant it can occasionally carry such connotations, but I think you are mistaken to assume that the phrase typically carries this meaning. Even a king can say “why don’t you” as a question or true suggestion rather than a command. the english translation “why don’t you” is IMO just way too ambiguous here for what you are trying to get at, assuming you are correct re the distinction between lech lecha/lech na, kach lecha/kach na etc.

  7. When the KBH says to Avram “lech lecha” it is not a polite suggestion. Aderaba,it is the ultimate impeative coming directly from Hashem. Rashi says “lecha” means “for yourself” ie for your own good. Another interpretation is “Lecha” means into to yourself look to your inner self and you will know that you must fulfill the Divine imperative. I think this is omek hapshat(IIRC I heard this from R’Uri Sharkey wh wa paraphrasing R’Tzvi Yehudah Kook)
    As someone already commented to put a polite slant on a command in Biblical Hebrew the word “na” is added. There are tens of examples of this.

  8. Do we ever see the command “lech” used without “lecha”?

  9. The term I learned in Semitics is “ethical dative.”

  10. Daniel Weltman

    >Do we ever see the command “lech” used without “lecha”?

    Ex. 4:19 לך שב מצרים
    Ex. 4:27 לך לקראת משה המדברה
    Num. 22:21: קום לך אתם

  11. I haven’t done a study of all the instances where a verbal command is followed by ‘lecha’. However, I can cite one instance where ‘why don’t you ___’ is not an evident translation. “Shelach lecha anashim veyaturu…” (Num. 13:1) should not be translated as ‘Why don’t you send men to scout…’. That would make it seem as if it were a divine initiative. It should rather be translated as ‘You may send..’,i.e., a divine response to the request by the people that was forwarded by Moshe.

  12. I don’t see “why don’t you..” fitting either the command to go to Eretz Canaan or to go and do the Akeda.

    Umberto Cassuto has an interesting suggestion as to what the “lecha” means, and it works nicely in these two cases, though I’d have to go back and look how well it seems to fit the other cases in the Torah where this formulation is used.

  13. Makes sense to me – I like this p’shat a lot. As a parent, when I use the phraseology of “why don’t you do X,” I almost always use it as a command. Conversely, if my boss at work tells me “why don’t you do X,” I would typically interpret it as an implicit command rather than as a d’var reshus.

    Apio and David Tzohar: I’m looking at the article again, and Shlomo Karni most certainly isn’t interpreting the quoted statements as merely being suggestions made by HKBH as opposed to commands.

  14. Very interesting.

    My one comment is that “Why don’t you …” may be a gentle way of speaking aloud, but does not translate (pardon the pun) well to written English. A better written version would be “May I [humbly] suggest you …”. Which gets us into the debate of word-for-word translation (with meaning) vs. translating the intended concept.

  15. How about this twist: Instead of “Why don’t you…..” perhaps “I think it’s a good idea that you…..” or “Don’t you think you ought to…….?” may work better. The end result is the same and the nuance is only slightly different.

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