2 – לא [Lo] – A Positively Negative Word

The second most common word in Hebrew is לא [LO], which means no. The word לא is 10 times more common than the word כן [KEN] which means yes. You might think that this is a sign that Hebrew is a particularly negative language – but the truth is that NO is more common than YES in most languages. The reason for this is that most languages have special words for  positive actions and things – but they don’t have special words for the lack of an action or a thing. You just add the word NO to the positive action to make the negative form – hence the frequent use of the word NO.

Being negative isn’t always a negative thing. For example, the life of an observant Jew is guided by 613 commandments.  There are 2 types of commandments – positive actions, known as MITZVAT ASEH and negative actions – known as MITZVAT LO TA’ASEH. Note that also here the negative is created by adding LO to the positive.

Tradition tells us that there are 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments. Most of them are introduced with the word לא. There are far more negative commandments than positive ones. But there is a real positive side to this negativity. It is much easier to observe the negative commandments than positive ones. To observe a negative commandment you don’t have to do anything. If you wake up in the morning and decide to stay in bed and do nothing, you are actually observing the majority of the commandments of the Torah!

Negative commandments take precedence over positive commandments in most situations. It is considered worse to transgress a negative commandment than to fail to observe a positive one. The commandment of not eating Hametz during the week of Passover is more severe than the obligation to eat Matza. The first is punishable by KARET – being cut off from the people of Israel. The second doesn’t really matter at all.

Using לא (NO) allows a much more nuanced form of expression than would be possible by simply using positive words. For example, there is difference between being NOT hungry and being full. I can be ‘happy’ and ‘not unhappy’ before I really get ‘upset’.

This distinction helps us understand the first use of the word LO in the Torah. When God created the world everything was perfect. There is no LO in creation. But as soon as creation was finished God noticed that לא טוב היות האדם לבדו  It is not good for man to be alone.  It is not good for man to be alone.  [Gen 2:18] Its not that God creation was bad – just that not being bad isn’t good enough to be good. And therefore creation is finished with the creation of woman.

In short,  to express ourselves properly we need both positive and negative language. LO figures prominently in the Hebrew language because frequent use of לא enables a real  richness of expression.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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5 comments

  1. At the risk of being unnecessarily pedantic, לא in the Bible at least almost always means “not”, not “no”. (I used to think that Biblical Hebrew, like Latin, did not have words for “yes” and “no”, but there are a few places where לא unequivocally means “no” in the Bible.) כן I’ve not seen to mean “yes” in the Bible; Klein’s “Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language” gives that meaning as being from mediaeval Hebrew.

    Of course, in the later stages of the language, particularly Modern Hebrew, לא and כן do indeed mean “no” and “yes”.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The blog isn’t limited to biblical Hebrew, although I do try to bring examples from well-known parts of the Bible and Rabbinic Literature.

      There are differences between Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew and modern Hebrew. The core vocabulary isn’t that different.

  2. How come when I look at interliner translations the word “no” or “not” seems to be an inserted word rather than a translated word? Please respond as this mistry has been troubeling me for years.

      1. Thank you for responding. Here is one example of hundreds that have been puzzling me:
        Exo 20:3
        Thou shalt have no other H312 gods H430 before me. H6440
        The verse above was copied from the Blue letter bible. Word # H312 means: other or another. Clearly “thou shalt have” are filler words to correct our Creator’s grammar (in the minds of men). However the word “no” changes the meaning of the sentence entirely, which made me question the translation. I have since learned Strong’s did not bother to include the translation for the Hebrew word לֹֽא which appears before “other” (H312) in the Hebrew text. I guess they did not consider it important, or worse yet, what if they did so to obscure places where translators chose to actually insert the word “no” or “not”. I have no evidence of the latter but it is comforting to now have the tools to confer or deny any such maliciousness.

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