Hebrew In Israel | Gender Specification In Biblical Hebrew – Learn Torah

Children of Israel, Sons of Israel,

Hebrew In Israel | Gender Specification In Biblical Hebrew – Learn Torah

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Unfortunately, people write very long posts on subjects which are more of a dictionary entry when written by an expert.  This is the case for this subject, which has been presented in a very obscure and incorrect way by quasi-Hebrew scholars.  I am not going to speak about anyone in particular, but I do want to set the record straight about one specific word.

I get asked all the time about the word בן in Hebrew and its different meanings.  The point of this article is to explain gender specification when using a masculine form.

The word בן (Ben) in general means “Son”, and in most cases one should treat this noun as such.  However, anyone who speaks more than one language (and especially if they are languages of different families) will know that a language has ideas which it does not share with other languages.  This is a key element that I teach to all of my students:  What is used in your own language cannot always be implemented in another.  One misconception in particular is thinking that Hebrew uses words the same way English does, meaning that one word=one meaning.  However, unlike English, BH has a limited number of words, and words were used with different meanings in different contexts.

Besides the meaning of “Son”, בן also has a use that indicates the belonging of a person to a group.  This group can be of different types, and is not limiting to gender or nation.  Hence forms such as:

בני ישראל– Children (lit. Sons) of Israel

בני איש– Children of man

בן אדם– Human

בן מות– One who deserves death (lit. Son of death)

All cases are constructs with specific definitions and all will relate to a person of both genders as belonging to that group (1990, BHS Waltke&O’Conor p.149-150, 1906 BDB lexicon P.119-122, 2007 מילון העברית המקראית M.Kedari dictionary p.109-110) .

In particular, people ask about commandments in the Torah which are directed to בני ישראל.  When do we know that it is Sons, and when is it Children?  The answer is that unless the text limits the object by relating it to specific cases one has to assume that it is all of Israel–Men and Women.  For example:  When the Torah commands בני ישראל to keep the Shabbat, it is impossible to argue that only men have to keep it.  However, when a Cohen is the focus of a command, even if the opening of the text is to בני ישראל, the direction of speech is intended to the Cohen.

When I was asked about the subject of mixed groups this is what I wrote.

Here is the response, it is based on the words of the Hebrew Academy in Israel which us the highest authority in Israel for Hebrew:

The Hebrew masculine form is used not only in masculine.  It is also the form that we take when we do not need to distinguish gender – that is the form for casual, unmarked statements.  Therefore this form is also used for male and female, unlike the feminine form which only specifies female and excludes the masculine.  This is the way of Hebrew.  We say in the masculine ‘גן ילדים‘ (even if it has most of the girls), ‘בית חולים‘ and others.  Only when referring exclusively to women do we use the feminine such as בית יולדות -maternity hospital.  Casual sentences (such as’ כאן בונים -construction being done) will we be forced to use to the the masculine, even when it is clear that we are only speaking of women, such as איך יולדים ללא כאב -“how to give birth without pain”, using the masculine to indicate feminine (and not איך יולדות ללא כאב).  Moreover, it should be noted that throughout the generations, Hebrew speakers tend to cancel the feminine forms and substitute them with the masculine and not vice versa.  In reality the 3rd person feminine past has a fragmented representation only in Biblical Hebrew, and the main form is the masculine form such as הלכו.  Future tense and imperative in Biblical Hebrew appears as masculine (ילכו‘, ‘לכו) and take over all forms, even for the feminine (even in modern Hebrew feminine forms such as תלכנה‘, ‘לכנה are not used).

In conclusion, using the masculine, even if most of the addressees are women, is the way of Hebrew, and the Academy does not consider itself entitled to determine to change or contradict this linguistic determination.  If the speaker sees fit to take another way, it is of their own decision.


Originally Published:  17 August 2015

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