On The Prefixes ב, כ, ל

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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).

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”.

About Shlomo Karni


  1. B’Shevat vs. Bi’Shevat seems like pedantry to me. I mean, we’re transliterating here. If anything, it should be Bish’Shevat as the dagesh is chazak, unless I’m mistaken.

  2. I take it back, I think it’s not chazak.

  3. Ah, but then it’s Bishvat.

  4. Of course, language is dynamic so we now have יומולדת

  5. Srully Epstein

    Sorry, but I disagree. The apostrophe is acceptable as a schwa in this case. Same with Tisha B’Av. Otherwise we’re looking at Ba’Av. In transliterating, one ought to give credence to visual aesthetics, which “B’Shevat” and “B’Av” accomplish.

  6. yitznewton: B’Shevat vs. Bi’Shevat seems like pedantry to me. I mean, we’re transliterating here. If anything, it should be Bish’Shevat as the dagesh is chazak, unless I’m mistaken.

    I don’t know why you think there is any dogeish at all in the word – aside from the trivial dogeish qal in the bais – so you can stop agonizing over it. In fact (almost) all words prefaced with Bi and followed by shwa in tanachic witness lack dogeish chozoq in the following letter. Which might disturb pedants who observe that when the third letter is a BGDKFT, it too invariably lacks a dogeish (qal). So one is left confused. No dogeish in the second letter implies the shwa is noch, necessitating – you might think – a dogeish qal in the third letter, which however never appears. On the other hand were the shwa noh, you might expect a dogeish chozoq in second letter, which also never appears. So pedants are confused and diqduqal wars fought over the proper pronunciation of such shwas by people who need to get a life. Bish’vot (oops, giving my own vote away) however never appears in tanach so one can claim pretty much anything you want about it.

    This hybrid is pretty uniformly witnessed when the prefix is bi, but randomly when the prefix is ki or li. I don’t know why, I just observe it is so.

  7. Forgive my ignorance, but why can’t you have two sh’vas in a row if the first is a shva na?

  8. b/c a sheva that begins a word is always a sheva na and the second of two in a row is always a sheva, which would mean that there would be two in a row that would be sheva na (which you can’t have)

  9. To Srully Epstein: It IS B’Av. The point is: no two shvas at the beginning of a syllable or a word.

    To Nachum : If the first shva is na, what about the second one? It can’t be na, nor nach. When you run into two shvas in the middle of a word, the first one is always nach, the second one na.

    The term “pedantry” can be applied to the entire field of dikduk, if you are so inclined. But then where will the language be? Ish hayashar b’eynav ya’asseh?

  10. Got it.


    “quite often miswritten and mispronounced as Tu B’Shevat.”

    i don’t get it. you’re proposed “Bi’ Shevat” is still wrong as it preserves the sheva na
    also, the mispronounciation of of be rather than bi represents a very common substition of sheva na for chirik. think תפילין. who says tefeeleen?

    btw this principles all discussed by ibn ezra in the beginning of sefer shemot, where he goes through lots of grammatical points (no pun intended)


    “On the other hand were the shwa noh, you might expect a dogeish chozoq in second letter, which also never appears. ”

    in some cases (i don’t know about this type of situation) it’s a matter of what comes first. once somthing becomes fixed in a word (in this case the bet rafa of the unprefixed שבט) it remained that way even when the the word changes to another form in which one expect some type of morphologic change?

  12. Great post. If there were a blog with just this kind of dikduk or vocabulary every day, I’d subscribe, promote, and support it.

    I live in Yerushalayim, and my experience with other North Americans coming to Israel (especially yeshivah and seminary gap-year students) is that they’ve been taught a Hebrew that is amateurish and good for reading knowledge at best, or for having a vocabulary of jargon, at worst. When called upon to actually use the words in speech or to read simple signs in the shuk, they are confounded. Call it “pedantry” if you wish, but it’s only Leshon HaKodesh, and it’s the only one we’ve got.

    (Yes, I am aware that Modern Israeli Hebrew is not the definition of correctness. But American Jewish Hebrew doesn’t even come close.)

  13. Since “hayom” is recognized as a noun, why can’t “habar mitzva” be similarly recognized as referring to the bachur (such that “habachur habar mitzva,” with implicit quotes around ‘bar mitzva,’ is acceptable)? Thanks.

  14. It feels more like pedantry to me when applied to transliteration; being that IMO transliteration in normal Orthodox circles (as opposed to academic) is always “lossy,” picking nits over ‘be’ vs ‘bi’ seems overkill.

  15. To Abba: I do not propose Bi’Shevat – the dikduk does. Te’fillin is the correct way to pronounce it: A shva na always sounds like a short “e”, while a nach – totally silent. Try: שוֹ-מְרִים
    with the (-) showing the syllables, and the mem having a shva na, vis-a-vis יִשְ-מֹר
    where the shva is nach. The first one is pronounced sho-merim, the second one yish-mor

  16. To yitznewton: I would not pick any nits if it were Bi, but it is wrong to have it B’ in front of a shva.

  17. To MP: “Hayom” = “the day”, or “today”. “Bar mitzvah” is a construct form, much as “Beit midrash”, “sof pasuk”, etc. A rule of dikduk says that when the definite article is attached to a construct form, it goes with the second word, not the first one.Thus,
    “bar hamitzvah”, beit hamidrash”, “sof hapasuk”. (a visual aid is often added to costruct forms in Hebrew, namely, a hyphen between the two words.)

  18. I would think it should be “libachur bar hamitzva” (that is, a shva under the lamed because no definite article on the bachur), since like “bar mitzva boy” in english, bachur bar mitzva seems to be kind of a double smichut. like “yoshvei beit hamidrash” [my transliteration is not meant to imply anything other than what Hebrew words I am talking about since the computer I am using makes it hard to type in Hebrew]

    Any comment on this and if I am wrong, what is the reasoning?

  19. “Bachur bar mitzvah” = A bar mitzvah boy. When you make it definite, it becomes “Habachur bar hamitzvah” = THE bar mitzvah boy –two “ha”
    since the compound “bar mitzvah” acts like a single adjective. (Compare “hahyeled hatov”).
    Now add the prefix “to” = “le” and you get labachur bar hamitzvah”,
    where “leha…” becomes “la…”

  20. …and on a closely related subject:It is “Lag Ba’Omer”, not B’Omer, i.e., the 33rd day of THE Omer, not of AN Omer.

  21. Lawrence Kaplan

    Prof. Karni: On dikduk grounds your argument in favor of Habachur bar hamitzvah seems unassailable. But I must have heard Bar Mitzvah boys called up to the Torah hundreds of times. It has always been “Ya’amod habachur habar mitzvah.” I think that if at this late date were a boy to be called up as “Habachur bar hamitzvah,” everyone would shake their heads and assume it was a mistake. Maybe it’s my fault, but it still doesn’t sound right.

  22. A P.S., prompted by most of the bloggers: as two ‘shvas’ cannot come שt the beginning of a word, the first one bקcomes a vowel: Bi’Shvat,
    Be’Elul, Ba’Adar (note: that vowel is influenced by the vowel which follows, Be’E…, Ba’A… . If the second one is a shva, then it becomes Bi’Sh…, Bi’Shechem, Bi’shevil. (B’Av, B’Tishrei…are normal, no need to modify).

    The second shva is traditionally called a ‘hovering shva’ = שווא מרחף

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