The word את [et] is the most frequent word in Hebrew . It constitutes over 2% of the words in any text – making it more than twice as frequent as the next word on the list. And it doesn’t even mean anything. That is, it is a structural word that tells us something about the grammar of the sentence. The word את comes before a definite object. It has no equivalent in the English language – and therefore is difficult to translate.
It’s not a surprising that the most common word in Hebrew is a structural word. In every language structural words are frequent. Almost every sentence has an object and many of them are definite objects. Few sentences repeat the same content or meaning.
A quick word about definite objects for the grammatically challenged. Almost every sentence has an object – that is the part of the sentence that something is happening to. For example, in the sentence ‘The boy kicked a ball’ – the ball is the object because that is what the boy is kicking. If it is any ball – ‘a ball’ – then it is an indefinite object. If it is a specific ball – ‘ the ball’ – then it is a definite object – and in Hebrew it gets the word את in front of it to tell us that this is the case.
There are also other uses of the word את. The word את also means ‘with’. In Modern Hebrew it rarely appears in that form. It is very common in other forms such as the word אתו – with him, or אתה with her. But in the Torah את can come by itself. For example, in the verse: וגם ללוט ההולך את אברם היה צאן ובקר ואהלים / Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. / [Gen 13:5]
There is another word in Hebrew than means ‘with’ – and that is עם [im]. In modern Hebrew there isn’t a big difference between the two words, but in Biblical Hebrew they are used differently. If two people are together, but there is no strong connection between them, you would use the word את.
The word עם signifies a much closer tie. It tells us that the people were really together, with an identification in purpose or a spiritual connection between them.
This helps us understand one of the mysteries of the Torah. In the story of the prophet Balaam, the King of Moab approaches Balaam and askes him to go and curse the Children of Israel. Balaam refuses, saying that he is unable to do anything without God’s permission. Eventually God tells him to go, but as soon as he starts his journey God is angry with Balaam. The question is why does God get angry, when Balaam is only doing what God told him to do.
The answer lies in the use of the word את. When God tells Balaam to go He says קום לך אתם – arise and go with them – using the word את. But when Balaam actually goes, the verse reads וילך עם שרי מואב – and he went with the princes of Moab – using עם. God tells him to go with the Moabite princes – but Balaam identifies with the Moabites and becomes one with them – and that is his crime.
So את is a very small word, but can still seriously influence our understanding of the text.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner