9. כי [KEE] – WHEN, BUT, IF, PERHAPS AND MAYBE

The word כי  is very short, but very complicated. The reason is that it has many different meanings. You can only really figure out what it means from its context. The Talmud quotes Reish Lakish, a scholar who lived in the Land of Israel in the 3rd century, who famously said:

כי משמש בד’ לשונות: אי, דלמא, אלא, דהא

The word כי has 4 meanings: ‘If’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘Rather’ and ‘For’. [Gittin 90a]

Rashi gives a different range of means for the word כי. He writes:

Kee means ‘IF’ – as in the verse:

כי יקרא קן צפור’ / ‘If you come across a birds nest’ / [Deut 22:6]

It means ‘RATHER’ – as in the verse:

‘לא כי ברחוב נלין’ / ‘No – rather we will sleep in the street’ / [Gen 19:2 ]

It means ‘LEST’ – as in the verse:

כי תאמר בלבבך רבים הגויים האלה’ / ‘Lest you say – these nations are more numerous than I … Fear them not / [Deut 7: 17]

It means ‘WHEN’ – as in the verse:

‘והיה כי יביאך ה’ אלוקיך אל הארץ’/ ‘It shall come to pass when the Lord your God brings you to the Land’ / [Deut 7: 1]

It is even more complicated than this. Carl M. Follingstad published a 700-page book entitled Deictic Viewpoint in Biblical Hebrew Text: A Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Analysis of the Particle כי (kî). He delineates over a dozen different nuances of meaning for this word!

The main problem you face when you come across this word is deciding which of the meanings is being used. This is frequently ambiguous, and can lead to competing interpretations of a text.

Consider a well know verse from the Book of Deuteronomy:

For a man is like the tree of the field /  כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה  /  [Deut 20:9].

The Israeli poet Natan Zach’s poem ‘The Tree of the Field’ , made famous in the version performed Shalom Hanoch, is based on this verse.

[Embedded YouTube Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTjYHa4r_CQ]

He wrote:

For the man is like the tree of the field; 

Like the tree the man grows up.

Like the man, the tree also gets uprooted,

And I surely do not know where I have been and where I will be,

like the tree of the field.

This beautiful song is, however, based on a misunderstanding of the verse in the Torah. The word כי in this verse doesn’t mean ‘For’ [For a man is like the tree of the field], but rather ‘Perhaps’ [Is the tree of the field like a man?].  The Torah wants to say that we need to show compassion towards trees because they are not like us. The full verse reads: ‘Is the tree of the field a man, who can run away from you in a siege?’ It is precisely because the trees aren’t like us that we have to protect them and take responsibility for their wellbeing.

Language is the art of communicating meaning using words. A good reader needs to be sensitive to more than words; frequently the real meaning is found in the context, hidden between the lines, in the things that are not said. Perhaps no word tests our skill of reading the wider context of a word more than the short word כי.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner


Jewish Journeys with Rabbi Chaim Weiner. Now booking trips to Ethiopia (Feb 2015) and Uzbekistan (May and October 2015). Visit www.jewishjourneysltd.com for details.


My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.

 

 

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6 comments

  1. I’m interested in your sense of the range of possibilities in “pen” typically rendered lest… as a preventative. In the MT of Isaiah 6:9-10 we have the idea of God’s call for Isaiah to act as a hardening, blinding, deafening agent which seems a just response to those idolaters who have apostatized… but the use of pen seems to suggest that if Isaiah did not work such a work that these might repent and receive healing… so pen suggests a preventative of a likelihood. The LXX seems to have trouble with this notion changing the nature of Isaiah’s call and blaming the worshipers for their own hardness, blindness, and deafness… which they are no doubt responsible for in either case… but the LXX seems to shift the focus (as did the Qumran Scroll preservers who radically transform it)… but I want to ask about pen and its possible nuances here in the MT. Does this suggest that without G-d’s specific act to prevent repentance these might be saved… in Deut. 29, G-d claims that he will never be willing to forgive those who turn away from the covenant to worship idols and draw others into their sin, but the nature of this “never willing to forgive” changes somewhat if salvation is possible but denied vs. the idea of crossing a point of no return. Your thoughts?

    1. ‘Pen’ means lest – i.e. a possible outcome that one wants to prevent. The use of the word ‘pen’ here suggests that if the people would only open their eyes and ears, and really see and hear what is going on, they indeed might (perhaps even would be likely to) repent and then be forgiven. I would only change your words slightly, – instead of saying ‘so pen suggests a preventative of a likelihood’ I would say that ’pen suggests a preventative of a possibility.’

      In these verses is Isaiah speaking in a sarcastic manner. He says – ‘Don’t open your eyes or your ears, make sure you don’t know the facts – because if you had any awareness of reality you would repent.’ He is using sarcasm to say to the people that they should open their eyes and ears and get real.

      The implication is that if the people repented they would be forgiven.

      The question of whether it is possible to sin so much that forgiveness is impossible is one which is addressed in different ways in the Bible. The Book of Jonah is about that question. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he doesn’t want the people to repent and be forgiven. The story is a polemic against this position.

      The Rabbis understood that repentance is always possible. However, when one becomes mired in sin it becomes more difficult, because one loses the self-judgment that is necessary to repent. That is how they understood the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

      So Isaiah is told to tell they people to open their eyes see the facts and repent. But he knows (and God knows) that this is very unlikely, and therefore they will continue on the preordained path and suffer the calamities that have been foreseen.

      RCW

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