‘To Have’ and ‘Not to Have’

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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 a previous note[1], we discussed the Hebrew verb ‘to be’, with its unique properties and expressions. Similarly, the Hebrew verbs ‘to have’ and ‘not to have’ possess their own unique properties and expressions, with an affinity to ‘to be’ in the past and future tenses.
The basic form of ‘to have’ is יֵש לְ… ‘there is to…’, with the appropriate pronominal suffixes or nouns. Similarly, ‘not to have’ is formed with אֵין לְ… ‘there is not to…’, and so
יֵש לִי כֶּסֶף = ‘ I have money’; אֵין לִי כֶּסֶף = ‘I don’t have money’.
הָיָה לִי כֶּסֶף= ‘I had money’; לֹא יִהְיֶה לִי כֶּסֶף= ’I will not have money’.

It is essential to distinguish the grammar of the Hebrew expression from that of the English: כֶּסֶף is the subject; יֵש לִי/ אֵין , הָיָה לִי or יִהְיֶה לִי is the predicate (verb). In the English, ‘I’ is the subject, ‘have’/’don’t have’ is the transitive verb, and ‘money’ is the direct object.

So far so good. Trouble begins with the definite ‘the money’= הַכֶּסֶף: It is reasonable – and correct – to say:
יֵש לִי הַכֶּסֶף = ‘I have the money’; אֵין לִי הַכֶּסֶף = ‘I don’t have the money’
But, for no apparent reason, the preposition[אֶת [2 creeps into these sentences in the vernacular:
יֵש לִי אֶת הַכֶּסֶף ,אֵין לִי אֶת הַכֶּסֶף , יִהְיֶה לִי אֶת הַכֶּסֶף
Recall that אֶת precedes only a direct object , but here we know that הַכֶּסֶף is the subject, just like כֶּסֶף is earlier. It is as if the English (and other languages’) grammar ‘infected’ the definite subject הַכֶּסֶף and converted it into a direct object of the verb ‘have’ /’don’t have’ – but, pray tell, what is then the subject?? In brief: these expressions are wrong. (The vernacular, we know, has a life all of its own).

“Ah, wait” – you might challenge –“what about the Biblical verse[3] וְאִיש אֶת קֳדָשָיו לוֹ יִהְיוּ במדבר ה 10″?
The answer, I submit, is found in one of the secondary meanings of the preposition[אֶת [2,namely, it just stresses the subject קֳדָשָיו.

[1]. “To Be or Not To Be”
[2]. “One Preposition That’s Two”
[3]. “ויקיפדיה, ערך “יֵש אֶת

About Shlomo Karni


  1. Moshe Shoshan

    may i recomend a snappier title? To Have and To Have Not” after the Hemingway novel and Bogart film

  2. Moshe – bull’s eye!

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