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