Are You Really With Me? [What's in a Word?]

Written by RC Klein, 11/7/2019

 Are You Really With Me?

The most common word, by far, in the Bible is et, which appears roughly 12,000 times! In general, the word et cannot be untranslated into English, because it usually serves a grammatical function, rather than a lexical function. Et is used to mark the object of an action, thus clarifying the difference between the subject and predicate. Rabbi Nachman Marcuson likens the word et to an arrow which points the reader to the object of a verb. Thus et functions more like punctuation than a word that has meaning. However, there are some instances in which et actually does have its own meaning. As Ibn Janach and Radak explain, et can sometimes mean to (e.g., Lev. 13:49, Num. 13:17), from (e.g., Gen. 44:4, Num. 35:26), next to (e.g., Gen. 40:4, 44:24), instead of (e.g., Lev. 22:17, II Sam. 12:6), on top of (e.g., I Kgs. 9:25), and with.

This article focuses on the word et when it means with. A suffix is commonly added to the word et to show with whom we are talking about, such that itto means with him, itti means with me, and ittah means with her.

However, those familiar with Hebrew know that im (AYIN-MEM) also means with. Im can also have suffixes appended to it create words like: imo (with him), imi (with me), and imah (with her). In fact, Rashi (to Gen. 37:18) writes that itto means imo.

These parallels between et and im lead us to the obvious question: What is the difference between the word et (when it means with) and the word im? Why does the Bible sometimes use one and sometimes, the other?

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (17201797), better known as the Gra or the Vilna Gaon, addresses this issue in the context of the story of Balaam. When Balaam first asked G-d for permission to go with Balaks men to curse the Jews, G-d answered, Do not go with them (imahem), do not curse the nation, because they are blessed (Num. 22:12). However, when Balaam asked G-d a second time for permission to go, He replied, Get up and go with them (itam) (Num. 22:20). The Torah subsequently reports that Balaam went with (im) Balaks men, and G-d was angered (Num. 22:2122). The Vilna Gaon asks: If G-d first told Balaam not to go with Balaks men, then why did He seemingly change His mind and later allow him to go with them? Moreover, if He allowed Balaam to go with Balaks men, then why did He get angry?

The Vilna Gaon bases his answer on the difference between the implications of et and im. The word im, he explains, means with in the fullest sense of the word. It implies the joining of two completely equal and cooperative bodies. While et also means with, it does not connote equality and congruence between the two who are with each other.

Accordingly, the Vilna Gaon explains that when Balaam first asked G-d if he may go with Balaks entourage, G-d barred him from going with them using an im-related word, because G-d did not want Balaam to join Balaks efforts to curse the Jewish People. After Balaam further pressed the issue, G-d said that he would allow Balaam to go with Balaks men using an et-related word, to imply that while He would let Balaam physically go with Balaks men, he was not to unite with them in completely join their efforts and help them achieve their goal of cursing the Jews. Ultimately, when reporting that Balaam went with Balaks men, the Torah uses an im-conjunction to indicate that Balaam was with them in the fullest sense. In doing so, Balaam had thus violated G-ds directive, causing Him to become angry.

The Vilna Gaon and the Malbim both derive the implications of et in the sense of with from ets more common grammatical function of indicating an object. Lets take the simple clause achalta et halechem, you ate [et -->] bread, as an example. There is an actor (you), and an object being acted upon (the bread), and the two are not equal (the person is eating the bread). Likewise, the wordet in the sense of with denotes an unequal relationship where one is dominant and active, and the other is passive. is a partnership of equals, while et is an unequal relationship where one is dominant and the other is passive...  

When the Torah says that Lot came with Avraham to the Holy Land using the word itto/et (Gen. 12:4). But when the Torah says that Lot and Avraham parted ways and Lot was no longer with Avraham, it uses the word imo/im (Gen. 13:14). The Malbim accounts for this change in wording by explaining that while at first Lot deferentially followed Avrahams lead, he later asserted his independence and tried to show that he was an equal player.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (17401814) in Cheshek Shlomo and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (17851865) in HaKsav VeHaKabbalah take the opposite approach. They explain that et denotes a stronger and more equal with. than im does. As Rabbi Pappenheim writes, the word im means with in a circumstantial way they just happened to be with each other, while etdenotes with in a more deliberate and absolute way. As we shall see below, Rabbi Mecklenburg uses this approach in several different contexts (although, curiously, in his commentary to the story of Balaam, his approach actually mirrors the Vilna Gaons).

For example, he uses this approach to explain why the Torah initially says that Lot came with Avraham to the Holy Land using an et-word, but later (after assorted differences of opinion with Avraham) says that Lot left and was no longer with Avraham using an im-word. Based on the above, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that this word switch serves as the basis for the Zohars (Genesis 78b) contention that Lot originally attached himself to Avraham in order to learn from him (and become equal to him), but was ultimately unable to reach that goal.

Similarly, Eliezer arrived at Betuels house with a whole entourage of men and camels to find a spouse for Yitzchak. Betuel brought water for washing Eliezers feet and the feet of the men who were itto, with him (Gen. 24:32). However, later in the episode, when describing the banquet Rivkas family held before sending her off to marry Yitzchak, the Torah says that Eliezer and the men who wereimo (with him) ate and drank (Gen. 24:54). To account for this switch from an et-word to an im-word, Rabbi Mecklenburg postulates that it reflects Rivkas familys attitude towards Eliezer and the men who came with him. Initially, Betuel had not realized that Eliezer was the main person charged with the bride-finding mission, he thought that Eliezer and the all the men with him were equally important. For this reason, the Torah first uses the word itto to describe the relationship between Eliezer and the other men that came with him. However, after Eliezer took charge and explained the situation, it became clear that he was the leader of the group, so when describing his relationship to them in a subsequent passage, it says imo.

In this vein, Rabbi Mecklenburg also accounts for a similar word switch concerning Yaakovs burial. The Torah reports that Yosef led the funerary procession from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, And all the servants of Pharaohthe elders of his houseand the elders of the Land of Egypt ascended [to Canaan] with him [i.e. with Yosef] (Gen. 50:7). The Hebrew term for with him used in this passage is itto. Several verses later, the Torah says, And also chariots and horse riders ascended [to Canaan] with him [Yosef] (Gen. 50:9). This time, the Hebrew word used for with him is imo. Why does the Torah switch words? Rabbi Mecklenburg answers that the elders of Pharaohs house and the Egyptian statesmen joined the funeral procession as equals or near-equals to Yosef. For this reason, their relationship to him is indicated with the word itto, which implies equality. On the other hand, when mentioning that chariots and cavalry which also joined the procession, the word imo is used, because they were much lower ranking than Yosef.

So in conclusion, we have three approaches explaining the difference between im and et: The Vilna Gaon writes that im is total unity, while et is a less complete joining. The Malbim writes that im is a partnership of equals, while et is an unequal relationship where one is dominant and the other is passive. Alternatively, Rabbis Mecklenburg and Pappenheim write that im means with in a circumstantial way, while et denotes with in the fullest sense. By extension, im and etcan also imply status. People who are im another person just happen to be physically with him, i.e. they are not his equals. But people who are et another person are more fully with him because they occupy the same social strata. Thus, we see that im and et are literary markers which indicate degrees of commonality regarding both intellectual and social identification.

Kol Tuv,

Reuven Chaim Klein

Beitar Illit, Israel

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