Why דָּבָר is NOT a ‘thing’: Mistakes in the CLT Classroom

Why דָּבָר is NOT a ‘thing’: Mistakes in the CLT Classroom

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

Those of us who teach Biblical Hebrew as a living language should be willing to admit our weaknesses—and weaknesses of the method—as we attempt to speak and teach fluency in this ancient language. One thing I have noticed after years of teaching is that our main strength tends to be more in the realm of morphology (i.e., how a different word inflects as in כָּתַבְתִּי ‘I wrote’, כָּתַבְתָּ ‘you wrote’, etc.). The communicative approach is phenomenal for teaching and internalizing morphology. It is far better than merely looking at paradigm charts. And I hope that such a statement, at least as it relates purely to morphology, would be uncontroversial.

In some other areas of grammar, however, we as communicative language teachers of Biblical Hebrew are not as strong. In the case of syntax, for example, we often operate according to the more general principles and do not really implement much of the nuance present in the biblical text into our speech. This is not so much of a problem, however, since this very same charge may also be laid at the feet of most introductory Biblical Hebrew grammars. Indeed, if a student learns the more common syntactic patterns in the classroom, they can discover the nuance for themselves as they read more and more of the biblical text in years to come.

Ironically, however, it is the realm of semantics that seems to be the most neglected among teachers of Biblical Hebrew as a living language. Though we may not so readily admit it, we often operate by looking at a mere gloss of a Hebrew word and simply applying that word wherever a similar gloss might fit in English. Or, for those of us who know Modern Hebrew, we are not careful to separate out the semantics of Modern Hebrew from that of the same word in Biblical Hebrew. These are significant mistakes, and yet they should be easy to avoid if we do our homework.

I can think of no better example to illustrate this than the way I would—but have since stopped—make use of the word דָּבָר or דְּבָרִים in my classroom when I first started teaching Biblical Hebrew as a living language. If you open a typical introductory grammar of Biblical Hebrew, the word דָּבָר is probably introduced in one of the early lessons, where it is glossed as something like ‘word, thing, matter’. In Modern Hebrew, the word דָּבָר typically just means ‘thing’ or ‘object’. In colloquial registers, the biblical sense of ‘speech’ or ‘matter’ is essentially obsolete. Therefore, when I began to teach Biblical Hebrew as a living language, a combination of typical glosses in Biblical Hebrew lexica and my Modern Hebrew influence led to a situation in which I would (incorrectly) use דָּבָר to refer to physical objects in the classroom.

Over time, however, as I continued to read the biblical text and search out examples for curriculum material, I realized that this usage does not really have any parallels in the Hebrew Bible. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the word דָּבָר refers to ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘matter, event’, or an abstract ‘thing’ or ‘action’. While there may be some rare cases of דָּבָר referring to a physical object in the Hebrew Bible, all of them occur in a specific environment that would not justify using דָּבָר for ‘(physical) thing, object’ generally in the classroom.

In the remainder of this blog post, then, I want to do three things.

  1. First, I want to outline the typical uses of דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים in the Hebrew Bible.
  2. Second, I want to discuss those rare cases in which דָּבָר might refer to a physical object.
  3. Third, I want to discuss alternative words (e.g., כְּלִי) and grammatical structures (e.g., null object)—i.e., the typical ones—in Biblical Hebrew for referring to physical objects in a classroom.

I will then conclude by summarizing how the words דָּבָר ‘word; matter; action’ and כְּלִי, often glossed merely as ‘vessel’ or ‘utensil’, might map onto different concepts as we speak and use Biblical Hebrew. Hopefully, this will lead to those of you who read this using that much more authentic Biblical Hebrew in your own speech and teaching.

דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים as ‘word(s)‘, ‘matter(s)’, and ‘action(s)’

As noted above, most of the time in the Hebrew Bible, the word דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים refers in some way or another to word(s), saying(s), or speech:


Exod. 4.30

‏וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה

‘And Aaron spoke all the words that YHWH had spoken to Moses.’


I Sam. 9.10

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר שָׁא֧וּל לְנַעֲר֛וֹ ט֥וֹב דְּבָרְךָ֖

‘And Saul said, “Your saying (i.e., what you said) is good.”’


Jer. 13.12

‏וְאָמַרְתָּ֨ אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה

‘And you shall speak to them this word


Jonah 1.1

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־יוֹנָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י

‘And the word of YHWH came to Jonah, son of Amittai’


Prov. 15.23

שִׂמְחָ֣ה לָ֭אִישׁ בְּמַעֲנֵה־פִ֑יו וְדָבָ֖ר בְּעִתּ֣וֹ מַה־טּֽוֹב׃

‘There is joy for a man by the answer of his mouth, and a word in its season, how good it is!’


In other cases, דָּבָר may be used to refer to specific matters or affairs:


Gen. 12.17

‏וַיְנַגַּ֨ע יְהוָ֧ה ׀ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃

‘And YHWH afflicted Pharoah and his house with great plagues on account of (the matter of) Sarai, the wife of Abram.’


Deut. 19.4

‏וְזֶה֙ דְּבַ֣ר הָרֹצֵ֔חַ

‘And this is the matter of the manslayer …’


I Sam. 10.16

‏וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שָׁאוּל֙ אֶל־דּוֹד֔וֹ הַגֵּ֤ד הִגִּיד֙ לָ֔נוּ כִּ֥י נִמְצְא֖וּ הָאֲתֹנ֑וֹת וְאֶת־דְּבַ֤ר הַמְּלוּכָה֙ לֹֽא־הִגִּ֣יד ל֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר אָמַ֥ר שְׁמוּאֵֽל׃

‘And Saul said to his uncle, “He surely told us that the donkeys had been found. But the matter of the kingdom, which Samuel had spoken about, he did not tell us.”’


Along these lines, there are some cases where דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים is used to refer to ‘event(s)’—these are one sort of cases that often get translated as ‘thing(s)’ in English versions:


Gen. 22.1

‏וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם

‘And after these things, God tested Abraham’


Josh. 24.29

‏וַיְהִ֗י אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַיָּ֛מָת יְהוֹשֻׁ֥עַ בִּן־נ֖וּן עֶ֣בֶד יְהוָ֑ה

‘And after these things, Joshua, son of Nun, the servant of YHWH, died.’


I Kgs. 13.33

אַחַר֙ הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לֹֽא־שָׁ֥ב יָרָבְעָ֖ם מִדַּרְכּ֣וֹ הָרָעָ֑ה

‘After this thing, Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way.’


I Kgs. 17.17

‏וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָלָ֕ה בֶּן־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בַּעֲלַ֣ת הַבָּ֑יִת

‘And after these things, the son of the woman, the owner of the house, fell sick.’


But in reality, the word דְּבָרִים in such expressions might just as well be rendered as ‘events’. It is certainly not referring to physical things.

The word דָּבָר can also be used to refer to an action, which is almost always rendered as ‘thing’ in English:


Gen. 20.10

מָ֣ה רָאִ֔יתָ כִּ֥י עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃

‘What did you see that you did this thing?’


Gen. 21.26

‏לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי מִ֥י עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה

‘I do not know who has done this thing.’


Note, however, that this is by no means a physical thing. In such cases, דָּבָר refers to an action.

All of these main types of uses of דָּבָר, whether for ‘word, speech, saying’, for ‘matter, affair, event’, or for an ‘action’, are abstract denotations. They do not refer to physical entities (Moshavi 2020, 339).

So does דָּבָר ever mean a physical ‘thing’?

Is there any evidence at all in the Hebrew Bible for דָּבָר as a physical thing? There is some, but it is not what you might think. As far as I could find, there are only two contexts in which one might claim that דָּבָר is used to refer to a physical object or thing. In my opinion, however, each supposed case of דָּבָר for a physical object occurs in a very localized context which involves its combination with a preceding negator or quantifier.

דָּבָר Negated by Particle לֹא for ‘nothing’

The first environment involves cases in which the singular indefinite דָּבָר is negated by לֹא:


Deut. 2.7

‏זֶ֣ה ׀ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֗ה יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹ֥א חָסַ֖רְתָּ דָּבָֽר׃

‘These forty years YHWH, your God, has been with you. You have lacked nothing.’


Exod. 9.4

וְהִפְלָ֣ה יְהוָ֔ה בֵּ֚ין מִקְנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּבֵ֖ין מִקְנֵ֣ה מִצְרָ֑יִם וְלֹ֥א יָמ֛וּת מִכָּל־לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל דָּבָֽר׃

‘And YHWH will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt so that nothing of all that belongs to the sons of Israel will die.’


I Kgs. 5.7

וְכִלְכְּלוּ֩ הַנִּצָּבִ֨ים הָאֵ֜לֶּה אֶת־הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה וְאֵ֧ת כָּל־הַקָּרֵ֛ב אֶל־שֻׁלְחַ֥ן הַמֶּֽלֶךְ־שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ חָדְשׁ֑וֹ לֹ֥א יְעַדְּר֖וּ דָּבָֽר׃

‘And those officers would supply provisions for King Solomon and all who approached the table fo King Solomon, each man in his month. They would let nothing be lacking.’


II Kgs. 4.41

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ וּקְחוּ־קֶ֔מַח וַיַּשְׁלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־הַסִּ֑יר וַיֹּ֗אמֶר צַ֤ק לָעָם֙ וְיֹאכֵ֔לוּ וְלֹ֥א הָיָ֛ה דָּבָ֥ר רָ֖ע בַּסִּֽיר׃

‘He said, “So bring flour!” And he threw it into the pot and said, “Pour (it) out for the people so that they may eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.’


II Kgs. 20.13

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע עֲלֵיהֶם֮ חִזְקִיָּהוּ֒ וַיַּרְאֵ֣ם אֶת־כָּל־בֵּ֣ית נְכֹתֹ֡ה אֶת־הַכֶּסֶף֩ וְאֶת־הַזָּהָ֨ב וְאֶת־הַבְּשָׂמִ֜ים וְאֵ֣ת ׀ שֶׁ֣מֶן הַטּ֗וֹב וְאֵת֙ בֵּ֣ית כֵּלָ֔יו וְאֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִמְצָ֖א בְּאֽוֹצְרֹתָ֑יו לֹֽא־הָיָ֣ה דָבָ֗ר אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא־הֶרְאָ֧ם חִזְקִיָּ֛הוּ בְּבֵית֖וֹ וּבְכָל־מֶמְשַׁלְתּֽוֹ׃

‘And Hezekiah listened to them and showed them his entire house, his treasury, the silver, the gold, the spices, the choice oil, his armory, and everything that was in his storehouses. There was nothing that Hezekiah did not show them in his house and all his kingdom.’


II Kgs. 20.15

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מָ֥ה רָא֖וּ בְּבֵיתֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר חִזְקִיָּ֗הוּ אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּבֵיתִי֙ רָא֔וּ לֹא־הָיָ֥ה דָבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־הִרְאִיתִ֖ם בְּאֹצְרֹתָֽי׃

‘And he said, “What did they see in your house?” And Hezekiah said, “They saw all that is in my house’. There was nothing that I did not show them in my storehouses.”’


II Kgs. 20.17

הִנֵּה֮ יָמִ֣ים בָּאִים֒ וְנִשָּׂ֣א ׀ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּבֵיתֶ֗ךָ וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר אָצְר֧וּ אֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ עַד־הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה בָּבֶ֑לָה לֹֽא־יִוָּתֵ֥ר דָּבָ֖ר אָמַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃

‘Look, the days are coming when all that is in your house and all that your fathers have stored up until this day will be taken away to Babylon. Nothing will remain, says YHWH.’


Isa. 39.2

לֹֽא־הָיָ֣ה דָבָ֗ר אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא־הֶרְאָ֧ם חִזְקִיָּ֛הוּ בְּבֵית֖וֹ וּבְכָל־מֶמְשַׁלְתּֽוֹ׃

‘There was nothing that Hezekiah did not show them in his house and all his kingdom.’


Isa. 39.4

‏וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מָ֥ה רָא֖וּ בְּבֵיתֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר חִזְקִיָּ֗הוּ אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בְּבֵיתִי֙ רָא֔וּ לֹֽא־הָיָ֥ה דָבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־הִרְאִיתִ֖ים בְּאוֹצְרֹתָֽי׃

‘And he said, “What did they see in your house?” And Hezekiah said, “They saw all that is in my house’. There was nothing that I did not show them in my storehouses.”’


Isa. 39.6

‏הִנֵּה֮ יָמִ֣ים בָּאִים֒ וְנִשָּׂ֣א ׀ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּבֵיתֶ֗ךָ וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר אָצְר֧וּ אֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ עַד־הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה בָּבֶ֑ל לֹֽא־יִוָּתֵ֥ר דָּבָ֖ר אָמַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃

‘Look, the days are coming when all that is in your house and all that your fathers have stored up until this day will be taken away to Babylon. Nothing will remain, says YHWH.’


The fact that this only occurs in negative clauses is significant. In the languages of the world, there are certain words or expressions that can only occur grammatically when a clause is negated or in other not strickly affirmative clauses, such as interrogatives and conditionals (Moshavi 2020, 335). In linguistics, such a word or expression is called a “negative polarity item” (NPI). We may illustrate an example of an NPI by looking at some uses of the English word anything. While we can make sentences and clauses like I didn’t see anything (negative), Did you see anything? (interrogative), If you see anything …(conditional), etc., we cannot make sentences like *I saw anything (Moshavi 2020, 337). Another example of a negative polarity item in Biblical Hebrew is the indefinite pronoun מְאוּמָה ‘anything’ in the sequence לֹא … מְאוּמָה ‘nothing’: e.g., ‏לֹא־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי מְא֔וּמָה ‘I have done nothing’ (Gen. 40.15).

Adina Moshavi has made a compelling case that the word דָּבָר in the phrase לֹא … דָּבָר has undergone grammaticalization and become a negative polarity item in Biblical Hebrew (see Moshavi 2018, 2020). As such, it should be noted that negative polarity items do not necessarily have the same meaning or semantics as the same word when used elsewhere. Indeed, as a negative polarity item, the word דָּבָר has the “semantically-bleached meaning ‘thing’.” Therefore, while the ordinary noun דָּבָר cannot be used to refer to physical entities, “the NPI דבר can be used in relation to physical, concrete entities” (Moshavi 2020, 339). Therefore, outside of the context of being used as an NPI, there is no reason to think that דָּבָר can be used to refer to a concrete physical entity.

דָּבָר Modified by Quantifier כָּל־ for ‘anything’

The other environment in which דָּבָר might be regarded as referring to a physical object involves cases in which the word דָּבָר is modified by the existential כָּל־ (or כֹּל) ‘any’:


Lev. 5.2

‏א֣וֹ נֶ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּגַּע֮ בְּכָל־דָּבָ֣ר טָמֵא֒

‘Or if anyone touches anything (at all) unclean …’


Num. 31.23

כָּל־דָּבָ֞ר אֲשֶׁר־יָבֹ֣א בָאֵ֗שׁ תַּעֲבִ֤ירוּ בָאֵשׁ֙ וְטָהֵ֔ר

Anything (at all?) that can stand coming through fire, you shall pass through fire and it will be clean.’


Deut. 17.1

‏לֹא־תִזְבַּח֩ לַיהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ שׁ֣וֹר וָשֶׂ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם כֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֣ר רָ֑ע כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

‘You shall not sacrifice to YHWH, your God, an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, anything (at all) wrong, for it is an abomination to YHWH, your God.’


Deut. 23.20

לֹא־תַשִּׁ֣יךְ לְאָחִ֔יךָ נֶ֥שֶׁךְ כֶּ֖סֶף נֶ֣שֶׁךְ אֹ֑כֶל נֶ֕שֶׁךְ כָּל־דָּבָ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּֽׁךְ׃

‘You shall not charge interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything (at all) that is lent with interest.’


Judg. 18.10

‏כִּֽי־נְתָנָ֥הּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּיֶדְכֶ֑ם מָקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֣ם מַחְס֔וֹר כָּל־דָּבָ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

‘For God has given it (i.e., the land) into your hand, a place where there is no lack of anything (at all) that is in the earth.’


Judg. 19.19

וְגַם־תֶּ֤בֶן גַּם־מִסְפּוֹא֙ יֵ֣שׁ לַחֲמוֹרֵ֔ינוּ וְ֠גַם לֶ֣חֶם וָיַ֤יִן יֶשׁ־לִי֙ וְלַֽאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְלַנַּ֖עַר עִם־עֲבָדֶ֑יךָ אֵ֥ין מַחְס֖וֹר כָּל־דָּבָֽר׃

‘Our donkeys have both straw and feed. And there is also bread and wine for me, my female servant, and the young man with your servants. There is no lack of anything (at all).’


Although these examples do not always involve a specific negative particle—though some do—they still fall under the umbrella of negative polarity items. Rhetorically, the existential quantifier כֹּל/כָּל־ ‘any’ can have the same effect as a negator, just like in our examples above (e.g., If you see anything, etc.). As Moshavi (2020, 340) points out, in the context of an NPI, the quantifier intensifies the idea to “anything at all.” The same principle thus applies here as applied above to cases of לֹא … דָּבָר. As an NPI, the semantics of דָּבָר are different. Even if דָּבָר used as an NPI can refer to concrete physical entities, the same cannot be said for the ordinary noun דָּבָר.

Conclusions

Therefore, while Biblical Hebrew usage would allow someone to use לֹא … דָּבָר ‘nothing’ or כָּל־דָּבָר ‘anything (at all)’ in contexts in which physical objects would be potential referents, there does not appear to be any evidence at all that דָּבָר by itself can mean ‘(physical) thing, object’ in Biblical Hebrew.

One might theorize that the use of דָּבָר in such contexts implies that ancient language users could have also used it for physical objects, even though this is unattested in the Bible, but the less concrete semantics of a phrase like ‘no … thing’ or ‘anything’ does not seem to justify this in my opinion. Indeed, Moshavi (2020, 340–341) concludes that we should think of דָּבָר as two separate, but homonymous, lexical items: (i) the ordinary noun דָּבָר, which means ‘word’, ‘affair’, or ‘action’, and (ii) the NPI דָּבָר, which is basically a synonym (but not a pronoun) of the overt NPI מְאוּמָה ‘anything’. Presumably, the latter developed from the former by the process of grammaticalization. One feature of grammaticalization is semantic bleaching and/or a broadening of the contexts or referents to which the item might apply. As such, we should not be surprised that the grammaticalized NPI דָּבָר has a wider application than דָּבָר as an ordinary noun.1

Note, however, that in Rabbinic Hebrew, the meaning of דָּבָר has been extended to refer to physical entitites (e.g., m. Ber. 6.3; m. Hal. 1.1). It is unlikely, however, that this developed from the NPI. Rather, this semantic extension in Rabbinic Hebrew probably reflects a semantic development from one of the abstract meanings of דָּבָר in Biblical Hebrew (Moshavi 2020, 342). One wonders if language contact in a later period might have had something to do with this.

In any case, in our classrooms, why would we want to use a word so frequently in a way in which it is never attested in the Hebrew Bible? There must be a better way, which we will outline in the following section.

So how do we say ‘(physical) thing, object’ in Biblical Hebrew?

If we as Biblical Hebrew teachers cannot use דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים to refer to physical objects in the classroom, what can we use? My readers and listeners may have other suggestions, but I have come up with three main ways in which I refer to physical objects in the classroom, one by means of a null object (i.e., one inferred from a prepositional phrase), one by means of a more specific categorization of the ‘thing’ you are talking about, and one by means of the word כְּלִי ‘vessel’:

1. Null Object or Prepositional Phrase

After I discovered that I had been using the word דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים inappropriately in my classroom for so long, I quickly tried to find other methods of accomplishing the same thing. Because one of my most common uses was telling students to “take something from the table” at the front of the classroom, I searched out comparable contexts in the biblical text. One of the first potentially relevant examples I found was in Gen. 3, in which the object is missing but implied by the context (prepositional phrase with מִן):


Gen. 3.6

‏וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל וַתִּקַּ֥ח מִפִּרְי֖וֹ וַתֹּאכַ֑ל

‘And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a pleasure for the eyes and that the tree was desirable for making wise, she took (some) of its fruit and ate.’


Gen. 3.12

‏הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תָּה עִמָּדִ֔י הִ֛וא נָֽתְנָה־לִּ֥י מִן־הָעֵ֖ץ וָאֹכֵֽל׃

‘The woman whom you gave (to be) with me, she gave me (something) from the tree and I ate.’


Gen. 3.1

כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ וַתֹּ֙אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ

‘Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree … ’


Note that the phrases ‘took (some) of its fruit’ and ‘gave me (something) from the tree’ do not have a syntactic object. In Hebrew, the phrase וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ literally means ‘and took from its fruit’ and the phrase נָתְנָה־לִי מִן־הָעֵץ literally means ‘gave me from the tree’. Note that this sort of construction, which has a prepositional phrase instead of an object, is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible:


Gen. 43.11

קְח֞וּ מִזִּמְרַ֤ת הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בִּכְלֵיכֶ֔ם

Take (some) of the choice produce of the land in your vessels.’


Ezek. 10.1

וָאֶרְאֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֶל־הָרָקִ֙יעַ֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים כְּאֶ֣בֶן סַפִּ֔יר

‘And I looked, and there on the expanse that was over the heads of the cherubim was (something) like a sapphire stone.’


Note also that an object, for which we might translate ‘something (physical)’, can also be totally absent:


Num. 35.20

וְאִם־בְּשִׂנְאָ֖ה יֶהְדָּפֶ֑נּוּ אֽוֹ־הִשְׁלִ֥יךְ עָלָ֛יו בִּצְדִיָּ֖ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

‘And if he pushed him out of hatred or threw (something) at him lying in wait and he died …’


I Kgs. 17.3

אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י בֹּ֖אִי עֲשִׂ֣י כִדְבָרֵ֑ךְ אַ֣ךְ עֲשִׂי־לִ֣י מִ֠שָּׁם עֻגָ֨ה קְטַנָּ֤ה בָרִאשֹׁנָה֙ וְהוֹצֵ֣אתְ לִ֔י וְלָ֣ךְ וְלִבְנֵ֔ךְ תַּעֲשִׂ֖י בָּאַחֲרֹנָֽה׃

‘Do not fear! Come, do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it, and bring it to me, but for you and your son, make (something) afterward.’


This is not necessarily the most common way to refer to a physical object or ‘something (physical)’ in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, for the contexts in which it applies, it is a nice authentic Biblical Hebrew way of hitting our mark.

2. The word כְּלִי

The common gloss of Biblical Hebrew כְּלִי as ‘utensil’ or ‘vessel’, words rarely used by your average English speaker, is incredibly misleading in my opinion. Although it is by no means a perfect overlap with English ‘thing’ or ‘object’, students of Biblical Hebrew would probably have a far better understanding of the semantics of דָּבָר and כְּלִי if they were glossed as ‘word; matter; action’ and ‘vessel; object; (physical) thing’, respectively. Indeed, there are many cases in which כְּלִי or כֵּלִים appear to hit close to the mark for the sort of word we might want to approximate English ‘(physical) thing(s)’. Note the following examples (translation of ‘things’ intentionally chosen to bring out this potential meaning):


Gen. 31.37

כִּֽי־מִשַּׁ֣שְׁתָּ אֶת־כָּל־כֵּלַ֗י מַה־מָּצָ֙אתָ֙ מִכֹּ֣ל כְּלֵי־בֵיתֶ֔ךָ שִׂ֣ים כֹּ֔ה נֶ֥גֶד אַחַ֖י וְאַחֶ֑יךָ וְיוֹכִ֖יחוּ בֵּ֥ין שְׁנֵֽינוּ׃

‘When you searched through all my things, what did you find of all the things of your house? Put it here before my brothers and your brothers that they may judge between us.’


Exod. 22.6

כִּֽי־יִתֵּן֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֜הוּ כֶּ֤סֶף אֽוֹ־כֵלִים֙ לִשְׁמֹ֔ר וְגֻנַּ֖ב מִבֵּ֣ית הָאִ֑ישׁ אִם־יִמָּצֵ֥א הַגַּנָּ֖ב יְשַׁלֵּ֥ם שְׁנָֽיִם׃

‘If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods/things to store.’


Jonah 1.5

וַיִּֽירְא֣וּ הַמַּלָּחִ֗ים וַֽיִּזְעֲקוּ֮ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אֱלֹהָיו֒ וַיָּטִ֨לוּ אֶת־הַכֵּלִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּֽאֳנִיָּה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם לְהָקֵ֖ל מֵֽעֲלֵיהֶ֑ם

‘And the sailors feared and called out, every man to his god and they cast the things that were in the ship into the sea to lighten (their load) for them.’


Although the word כְּלִי is often glossed as ‘vessel’ or ‘instrument’, this can mistakenly give us an overly narrow idea of its semantics. Apparently, it can be used to refer to just about anything in a house (e.g., Gen. 31.37), something you might lend your neighbor that is not money (e.g., Exod. 22.6), the cargo in a ship (e.g., Jonah 1.5), something made of leather (e.g., Num. 31.20), something made of wood (e.g., Num. 31.20), and clothing (Deut. 22.5). In fact, it would be difficult to prove that some physical object could not, at least in some contexts, be referred to as a כְּלִי. This last statement, however, must remain speculative. At least many cases of physical objects in a classroom could be referred to as כֵּלִים.

Nevertheless, there may be some cases in which the word כְּלִי/כֵּלִים does not seem to be broad enough to cover what one might want to call a physical ‘thing’ in English or a דָּבָר in Modern Hebrew. For those that do not fall into this group, note method #3 below …

3. More Specific Categorization

In English, we have no problem using the word ‘something’ to refer to a wide variety of physical objects. In Biblical Hebrew, however, it seems that in many cases we must think a bit harder. For us, we might look at a table of plates, cups, and toy animals, and say, “Take something from the table!” In Biblical Hebrew, however, not all of those items might fall under the same word. We might have to divide up how we refer to things. While a plate or garment might fall under the umbrella of כְּלִי, something like an animal would not. Then again, if the animal is conceived of specifically as a plastic toy animal (rather than the real thing), it might indeed be called a כְּלִי; it is difficult to know without native speakers. In any case, there will be at least some contexts in which we might want to think of a general noun denoting a potential set of other nouns.

Note, for example, cases in the biblical text where the idea of ‘something + ADJECTIVE’ (in English) might be communicated by a single noun in Hebrew:


Lev. 5.22

אֽוֹ־מָצָ֧א אֲבֵדָ֛ה

‘or has found something lost …’


Naturally, there are also many other semantic categories of nouns in Biblical Hebrew like people, animals, vessels, etc. When referring to items or props in the classroom, then, it might be better to use such terms (e.g., אָדָם, אִישׁ, בְּהֵמָה, חַיָּה, כְּלִי) to refer to the specific semantic categories. Rather than saying “This thing is a … ”, you might say “This animal is a … ” or “This person is a … ”

Honorable Mention: מְאוּמָה

We should probably also make honorable mention of the indefinite pronoun מְאוּמָה ‘anything’ here. As noted above, this word is a negative polarity item used to mean ‘nothing’ when it is preceded by the particle לֹא (or another negative particle), even though individually it probably means something like ‘anything’:


Gen. 22.12

וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה

‘And do not do anything to him!.’


I Sam. 20.26

‏וְלֹֽא־דִבֶּ֥ר שָׁא֛וּל מְא֖וּמָה בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא

‘And Saul did not say anything on that day.’


As such, the same principles outlined for לֹא … דָּבָר and כָּל־דָּבָר apply here. There are thus some verses in which מְאוּמָה might be regarded as referring to a physical object. For example:


I Sam. 12.4

וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ לֹ֥א עֲשַׁקְתָּ֖נוּ וְלֹ֣א רַצּוֹתָ֑נוּ וְלֹֽא־לָקַ֥חְתָּ מִיַּד־אִ֖ישׁ מְאֽוּמָה׃

‘And they said, “You have not oppressed us, you have not treated us harshly, and you have not taken anything from the hand of a man.’


However, such cases likely reflect similar semantic features to those exhibited by לֹא … דָּבָר and כָּל־דָּבָר above. As a negative polarity item, its semantic application is broadened.

There is one case, however, in which מְאוּמָה does seem to parallel our desired classroom usage somewhat in referring to a physical object without a negation:


II Kgs. 5.20

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר גֵּיחֲזִ֗י נַעַר֮ אֱלִישָׁ֣ע אִישׁ־הָאֱלֹהִים֒ הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ חָשַׂ֣ךְ אֲדֹנִ֗י אֶֽת־נַעֲמָ֤ן הָֽאֲרַמִּי֙ הַזֶּ֔ה מִקַּ֥חַת מִיָּד֖וֹ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־הֵבִ֑יא חַי־יְהוָה֙ כִּֽי־אִם־רַ֣צְתִּי אַחֲרָ֔יו וְלָקַחְתִּ֥י מֵאִתּ֖וֹ מְאֽוּמָה׃

‘And Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, the man of God, said, “Look, my master has prevented Naʿaman, this Aramean, from receiving from his hand what he had brought. As YHWH lives, I will run after him and receive something from him.’


Even here, though, it is significant to note that מְאוּמָה might be better rendered ‘anything at all’ here, emphasizing the fact that after a refusal of the gift entirely, Gehazi wants to at least get something. This would be consistent with its use as a negative polarity item with minimizing features. It should not be taken as justification for using מְאוּמָה generally in the classroom as a general word for ‘(physical) thing(s)’ or ‘something’. Note also the fact that מְאוּמָה does not inflect for number.

Conclusion: How should we use דָּבָר and כְּלִי, etc.?

So after all of this, how should we use words like דָּבָר and כְּלִי in the classroom? And if we just want to say ‘(physical) thing’ or refer to a physical object generally, how should we do that? Based on the study above, I would suggest the following:

Only use the word דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים to refer to ‘word(s), speech’, ‘matter(s), affair(s)’, and ‘action(s)’. The word דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים by itself referring to physical objects or physical ‘things’ should be avoided.

In phrases involving meanings like ‘nothing’ or ‘anything’ (or non-affirmative contexts generally), the phrases לֹא … דָּבָר and כָּל־דָּבָר may be used to refer to (at least potential) physical objects. One might say לֹא לָקַחְתָּ מִן־הַשֻּׁלְחָן דָּבָר ‘you did not take anything from the table’ or כָּל־דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר תִּקַּח מִן־הַשֻּׁלְחָן לְךָ יִהְיֶה ‘Anything you take from the table will be yours.’ Understand, however, that this is essentially a different dictionary entry than דָּבָר in the preceding paragraph; here it is used as a semantically-bleached negative polarity item.

As an honorable mention, the word מְאוּמָה as ‘anything’ might also, in some contexts, serve your purposes. You might tell one student to go to another student and take something from their desk by saying לֵךְ אֶל־רֵעֲךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵאִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה ‘go to your neighbor and take something (i.e., anything at all) from them’. This does not occur frequently enough in the biblical text, however, to justify making regular use of it to refer to ‘(physical) things’ or objects in general. Here too it would be used with a minimizing effect and possibly only applies if you mean something like ‘take anything at all’. The fact that מְאוּמָה does not inflect for number also suggests that it should be limited to cases where a rendering like ‘anything (at all)’ might also fit the context.

There may be some contexts where a prepositional phrase or a null object might substitute for English ‘thing’ or Modern Hebrew דָּבָר. So you might say קְחוּ מִן־הַשֻּׁלְחָן ‘take (something) from table!’ or something like בּוֹאוּ אֶל־הַשֻּׁלְחָן וּקְחוּ ‘come to the table and take (something)!’.

However, your go-to word for ‘(physical) thing(s)’ should probably just be כְּלִי/כֵּלִים

Although we cannot be certain that כְּלִי/כֵּלִים would apply to every context where you might want to use English ‘thing’ (or Modern Hebrew דָּבָר) to refer to a physical object, it almost certainly would apply to many of them. And it would certainly be better than דָּבָר/דְּבָרִים, which is never used by itself (as a non-NPI) to refer to a physical object. You might thus say something like שַׂמְתִּי אֶת־כָּל־כֵּלַי אֶל־אַמְתַּחְתִּי ‘I put all my things into my sack’. This is certainly a context where דָּבָר or מְאוּמָה would not work.

Bibliography

Moshavi, Adina. 2018. “On the Possible Grammaticalization of dābār as an Indefinite Pronoun in Biblical Hebrew.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 44: (1): 41–60.

Moshavi, Adina. 2019. “Biblical Hebrew məʾūmā: An Emphatic Negative Polarity Item.” Journal of Semitic Studies 64: (1): 67–90.

Moshavi, Adina. 2020. “Is There a Negative Polarity Item דבר in DSS Hebrew?” Dead Sea Discoveries 27: (3): 335–50.

Mylonas, Natalie, Stephen Llewelyn, and Gareth Wearne. 2016. “Speaking to One’s Heart: דבר and its Semantic Extension.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 16: (7): 1–26.

  1. According to Moshavi (2020, 341–342), the grammaticalization proceeded as follows: In stage #1, דָּבָר is just an ordinary noun meaning ‘word’, ‘matter’, or ‘action’. In stage #2, דָּבָר is used in the singular indefinite in non-affirmative contexts (e.g., negative sentences, conditions, questions), which on the whole have a minimizing effect. In stage #3, this minimizing effect is re-analyzed as part of the meaning of דָּבָר itself rather than the phrase as a whole. As a result, the noun דָּבָר now takes on the semantically-bleached meaning of ‘even a single thing’ and can thus refer to physical entities as well in non-affirmative contexts. This would be the last stage attested in Biblical Hebrew. In stage #4, which presumably occurs after the biblical period, the NPI דָּבָר becomes an indefinite pronoun NPI. This is reflected in formal registers of Modern Hebrew.
4 thoughts on “Why דָּבָר is NOT a ‘thing’: Mistakes in the CLT Classroom
  1. Joseph Justiss

    Fantastic article, Ben. Helpful and needed.

    October 11, 2022 Reply
  2. Mateus de Castro

    Great article. Much needed clarification. Will be a great help! Thanks a lot!

    October 11, 2022 Reply
  3. Ben

    Benjamin, thanks for sharing. I’ve seen this mistake made many times – by myself! 🙂 Also, on your latest article, I’ve enjoyed hearing about how they made you read through the whole OT in Hebrew over 4 semesters during your PhD program. In your experience, what has been the best way to learn new words? Just read… flashcards… digital flashcards… what has worked the best for you?

    October 18, 2022 Reply
  4. Nora

    I’m so happy to have discovered your blog and website! This is going to really help me. Thank you for sharing your knowledge for free!

    October 19, 2022 Reply

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