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).
These prefixes are among the most frequent in Hebrew; yet, in some English transliterations, one often finds a prevalent error in vowelling and pronunciation.
The prefix ב is normally vowel-less, בְּ , as, for instance, in Hebrew dates: , בְּחֶשְוָן , בְּתַּמּוּז בְּתִשְרֵי. But Arbor Day, in English, is quite often miswritten and mispronounced as Tu B’Shevat.” Check your favorite calendar. (Ironically, the Jewish National Fund, whose forestations work in Israel made it synonymous with this holiday, made the same mistake.)
The correct form of this prefix here is בִּ, that is בִּשְבָט = Bi’ Shevat. The reason for this change, applicable to all these prefixes, is the rule: Two consecutive shevas (: 🙂 cannot come at the beginning of a syllable or (obviously) a word. Therefore, it is also בַּ אֲדָר, בֶּאֱלוּל In each case, the prefix ב adopts the vowel of the shva-dominated חטף of the word it precedes. (Here, בַּ does not mean “in the…”). Similarly, it is לִלְמֹד , but לְלַמֵּד; לִשְמֹר but לַעֲשׂוֹת ; כִּרְצוֹנוֹ ; בִּלְבַד. An exception to this vowelling occurs when the word begins with יְ ; the sheva then disappears : לִילָדִים, מִיהוּדָה , בִּירוּשָלַיִם
There is no problem when these prefixes include the definite article הַ or its variants הָ, הֶ : ;בֶּהָרִים, בָּרְחוֹב , לַדְּבָרִ ים, לַדְּבוֹרָה (to the bee) , but לִדְּבוֹרָה (to Deborah). In some religious writings one often finds a common mistake, e.g., a gift is dedicated as לְהַבָּחוּר הַבַּר-מִצְוָה , instead of לַבָּחוּר בַּר-הַמִּצְוָה , where, in addition to the לַ, the definite article ה must be affixed to מִצְוָה , not to בַּר , just as in בֵּית הַמִּדְרָש , not הַבֵּית מִדְרָש.
A distinction must be made with the word הַיּוֹם : If it means “the day”, then it is לַיּוֹם = “for the day”, but if it means “today”, then it is לְהַיּוֹם = “for today”.