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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
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Lesson 7: Prefixes, suffixes and construct form
Prefix prepositions + the relative prefix (step 3 of 9)
Prepositions that connect

As we have already seen in our readings and songs, the most common prepositions in Hebrew are actually prefixes and not separate words. There are four such prepositions. While they all have a wide variety of uses, let’s look at their most common meanings.
בְּ — in, with, when
לְ — to, of, at
כְּ — as, like
מִ — from, than (a form of the distinct word מִן)
Something special about three of these prefix prepositions (ל, ב and כ) is that they usually absorb the definite article of a word (if one is present) and leave only its a-class vowel. That is to say, instead of בְּהַאֶרֶץ we find בָּאָרֶץ (“in the land”). This is often called a compound preposition + article prefix.
הַר
547x
mountain (noun)
prefix prepositions + the relative prefix
standard and definite article forms
בְּאֶרֶץ בָּאָרֶץ in a land / in the land
לְמָיִם לָמָיִם to water / to the water
כִּדְבַר כַּדָּבָר according to a word / according to the word
מֵהַר מֵהָהָר from a mountain / from the mountain
שֶׁהָיָה which was
The relative prefix

Something very similar to the prefix prepositions is the relative prefix שֶׁ (a form of the distinct word אֲשֶׁר). Like the prefix prepositions, it is a single letter prefix that connects words in a sentence with its own distinct meaning. Unlike the prefix prepositions, it does not introduce a prepositional phrase, but a verbal clause. It is typically translated as that or which and means the very same thing as the word “that” in the second sentence of this paragraph (in italics). 

Consider Ecclesiastes 5:14.
כַּאֲשֶׁר
יָצָא
מִבֶּטֶן
אִמּוֹ
עָרוֹם
יָשׁוּב
לָלֶכֶת
כְּשֶׁבָּא
וּמְאוּמָה
לֹא
יִשָּׂא
בַעֲמָלוֹ
שֶׁיֹּלֵךְ
בְּיָדוֹ׃
Prefix prepositions in the songs we’ve learned

There have been many! Let’s run through them and make a few observations.

בֵּאלֹהִים הִלַּלְנוּ — “In God we have boasted”
לְעוֹלָם — “unto eternity”

Note the form מֵעַל which appears twice below. Here, we actually see a prefix preposition connecting a stand-alone preposition (עַל in this case)—something quite common in Biblical Hebrew.

Secondly, observe that the word לוֹ is actually the prefix preposition connected to a pronoun suffix. That is to say, this word is made up of a prefix and a suffix without a base word! This is a dynamic that happens only with the prefix prepositions בְּ and לְ in combination with pronoun suffixes. (More on this in the next step.)

לָנֶצַח — “unto eternity”
מֵעַל כָּל־פָּנִים — “from upon every face”
מֵעַל כָּל־הָאָרֶץ — “from upon all the land”
וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא — “and he will say on that day”
קִוִּינוּ לוֹ — “we have waited for him”
וְנִשְׂמְחָה בִּישׁוּעָתוֹ — “and let us be glad in his salvation”

One more observation from this song. In the phrase וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, note that the word בַּיּוֹם has the prefix preposition + definite article combination as seen by the a-class vowel. As we will learn in lesson 9, a form that could literally be translated, “on the day the that one,” means simply “on that day.” (Note: The patach under the ל in לָנֶצַח is an effect of the נ, not an indication of the definite article.)

The first phrase below possesses two prefix prepositions, but the translation is difficult to make word-for-word in a sensible way due to the final word מִמֶּנִּי. This is the word מִן (the stand-alone version of the מִ prefix preposition) with a pronoun suffix. Without this final word מִמֶּנִּי, the phrase would translate “and I do not walk in great things and in wonders.” The word מִמֶּנִּי in this context introduces a contrast—“than me.” Put that all together, and you get the translation provided below.

וְלֹא־הִלַּכְתִּי בִּגְדֹלוֹת וּבְנִפְלָאוֹת מִמֶּנִּי — “and I do not walked in things too great and wonderful for me”
כְּגָמֻל — “as a weaned child”
מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם — “from now and unto eternity”

כְּאַיָּל תַּעֲרֹג — “as a dear pants”

There is no definite article ה absorbed in the לְ of לְחַצְרוֹת, but still we translated this the courts. The reason for this will be discussed later in this lesson as we look at construct chains.

לְחַצְרוֹת יְהוָה — “for the courts of the Lord

שׂוֹשׂ אָשִׂישׂ בַּיהוָה — “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord
תָּגֵל נַפְשִׁי בֵּאלֹהַי — “my soul will rejoice in my God”

Observe that once again we find see a couple instances of a prefix preposition in combination with a pronoun suffix (without a base word), in the form לָנוּ.

אֱלֹהִים לָנוּ מַחֲסֶה וָעֹז — “God is for us refuge and strength”
עֶזְרָה בְצָרוֹת – “help in troubles”
מִשְׂגָּב־לָנוּ – “a fortress for us”

Here, the prefix preposition + pronoun suffix comes in the form לִי. Clearly, this is a dynamic that happens quite frequently!

וַיְהִי־לִי לִישׁוּעָה – “and he has become to me unto salvation”
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם־מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן – “and you will draw water in joy”
מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה – “from the springs of salvation”
We move on now to pronoun suffixes.