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To have and to hold: The tricky talk of owning in Hebrew


Are you having a good day?  Do you have a cold?  Did you have a nice time?

I’ve said a million times that English is a lazy language compared to Hebrew, and here’s yet another way it’s true.  In English we have this awesome verb “to have,” which we use for almost everything.  We even use it to help other verbs:  “Had I known you had it, I would have chosen hot chocolate!”

But guess what?

This word is completely, 100%, missing from the Hebrew language.  In other words:  it has no has.  When I’m teaching, this is one of the most difficult things to get across – why kids need to be able to conjugate “to have” in English when it doesn’t exist at all, as a concept, in their native language…

But instead of “to have,” Hebrew has numerous different forms that you use depending on what, exactly, you want to say about you and the thing you own.  Here are just a few.  Well, okay… six.

Six Awesome Ways to Talk About Having in Hebrew

1. Yesh! – “There is”

This is the classic.  Back in Hebrew school, I learned the way around this:  “yesh.”  Yesh has two meanings:  to possess or to indicate. 

To Indicate:  you can indicate an object by saying, יש עיפרון על השולחן / yesh iparon al ha shulchan and it means “there’s a pencil on the table.”  Basic stuff (and hey, I’m not a grammar guru, so if there’s a better word than “indicate,” just let me know politely!). 

To Possess:  You can also say יש לי עיפרון / , yesh li iparon, which literally means “there is to me a pencil,” but basically means, “I have a pencil.”  Only without saying have.  The pronoun here conjugates nicely, so you can give anyone you like a pencil (thanks very much!):  יש לנו עיפרון / yesh lanu iparon / “there is to us a pencil” = we have a pencil.

So far so good.  For an English speaker, it takes a little thinking, because in English, all you have to do is figure out the simple pronoun (I, you, we, etc.) and then add HAVE, whereas in Hebrew, you need to conjugate (li, lecha, lach, lanu, etc.).

So that’s yesh, and it takes care of having – kind of.

2. Shel + Suffixes – “Of”

But what if you want to say you OWN something?  “We have a car.  The car belongs to us.”

Hebrew school taught me the easy way to do this –  האוטו שלי / ha-oto sheli / “The car is mine”.  But it doesn’t mean belonging.  This form is far more passive.  The car just sits there and “BE”s mine.

This way is flexible, though.  You just take the word “shel” and add on a variety of suffixes, depending on whose thing it is.

המחברת שלי – ha’machberet shel-i / “my notebook”

העץ שלך – ha’eitz shel-cha / “your tree”

הבית שלנו – ha’bayit shel-anu / “our house”

You can also use the suffixes directly on the thing you want to own, if you want, though this is sometimes more formal:

הבן שלי = Haben sheli / “my son” can also be written as בני = B’ni / “my son”

הבית שלי = Habayit sheli / “my house” can also be written as ביתי = Beiti / “my house”

המשרד שלנו = Hamisrad shelanu / “our office” can also be written as משרדנו = Misradeinu / “our office”

But again, you’re talking about the things themselves – you can’t use this form to say you own something.  Which brings us to…

3. Shayach – “Belonging”

For this, Hebrew has an odd verb – שייך.  This word is about ownership, or belonging, just like the English one.  Never learned it in Hebrew school, but it works the way one would expect, conjugating into masculine and feminine, singular and plural:  המפות שייכות לי / hamapot shaychot li / the maps belong to me. 

This is an important word, but it still isn’t the same as HAS or OWNS, which is a bit of a different thing altogether.  You can say הכלב שייך לי / hakelev shayach li / “the dog belongs to me,” and you can ask, “Who does the dog belong to?” / למי הכלב שייך / lemi hakelev shayach – but you can’t ask who the dog’s actual owner is with this word. 

And if you think about it, owning and belonging aren’t the same thing at all.  Humans belong to the family of mammals, but are not OWNED by the family of mammals at all!

Which is why we need this next form…

4. Baal – “Owning”

For talking about who owns stuff, we have the strange word בעלים / baalim.  This word comes from the very common word בעל / baal.  And yes, it is plural.  More about that later.

This word originated in the Torah has many meanings, from “master,” “holder,” and “owner” to “husband,” in both ancient and modern Hebrew.  It’s also the name of a god, one of the bad local Canaanite idol-worship ones.  But today we try to overlook that and focus on the ownership side of things.

A person who has a bachelor’s degree is בעל תואר ראשון / baal toar rishon / “holder of a first degree.”  Someone who has received a higher education is בעל השכלה גבוהה / baal haskala gevoha / “holder of higher education.”   The word baal conjugates nicely, singular, plural, masculine, feminine.  An apartment with four rooms is בעלת ארבע חדרים / baalat arba chadarim / possessor of four rooms.

But in popular usage, there is בעלים / baalim, a word which looks plural, but is actually singular:  “the owner.”

Thus, it’s possible to say:  אני הבעלים של הכלב / ani ha baalim shel ha kelev / “I’m the dog’s owner” without any grammatical trouble whatsoever.  And I have seen it used with a singular adjective:  בעלים חדש / baalim chadash / “new owner.”

To my English speaking ears, which have worked very hard to get used to Hebrew, this plural/not-plural word sounds crazy and awkward.

But don’t worry – there’s another way of having something that sounds almost more awkward still!

5. Im – “With”

This one came to my attention a few weeks ago when someone asked me, “?את עם אוטו” / at im oto / “do you have a car?”  I understood her immediately, but this also immediately struck me as Lazy Hebrew, like “baalim,” probably borrowed or copied from lazier languages (such as English).

This usage is also commonly used for diseases and medical conditions:  נשים עם תסמונת דאון / nashim im tismonet down / “women with Down Syndrome” can also appear as הוא עם תסמונת דאון / hu im tismonet down / “he is with Down Syndrome” which means, loosely, “he HAS Down Syndrome.” 

Like other lazy usages, “im” doesn’t conjugate at all – just like English, you just stick it after whatever pronoun you want to use.  But make no mistake – this is no verb, it’s just a little preposition, with none of the muscle of a verb.  So instead of having Down Syndrome, he is merely WITH  it.  But I believe this form is preferable to the bluntness (to my ears, anyway) יש לו / yesh lo / he HAS form, especially when it comes to a medical condition.

Finally, there’s one more way to talk about ownership, and this one is practically invisible…

6. Smichut (“When nouns meet nouns”)

Here’s what I mean by “invisible” ownership:

Many years ago, I went to the University of Toronto.  In the Torah, we read about the Children of Israel.  And last week, I went to Jerusalem on a trip of families from my son’s school.  Here’s how you’d write them if you were to use the “shel” form (see #2, above):

  • University of Toronto – isn’t that the university belonging to Toronto?  האוניברסיטה של טורונט / ha’universita shel Toronto
  • Children of Israel – um, the children belonging to Israel? הבנים של ישראל / ha’banim shel Yisrael
  • trip of families – because it’s the families’ trip? הטיול של משפחות / ha’tiyul shel mishpachot

But in Hebrew, you don’t use any of the above “of” or “having” of “withing” forms that I’ve talked about so far.  Because both of the things being joined are nouns, you use the smichut form, which I’ve written about here before.

Smichut means leaning on something… because you’re going to take those two nouns and just kind of lean them up together.  The most well-known example is the word for school, which – as you learned in School of Hebrew – is actually two words:  “book house” /  בֵּית סֵפֶר / beit sefer.  You take the book and the house and you just kind of lean them up together.  And everybody understands.

Same thing with these examples here, though sometimes the first noun changes slightly to show it’s in smichut.

  • Instead of  האוניברסיטה של טורונט / ha’universita shel Toronto, you say אוניברסיטת טורונטו / universitat Toronto
  • Instead of הבנים של ישראל / ha’banim shel Yisrael, you say בני ישראל / b’nei Yisrael
  • Instead of הטיול של המשפחות / ha’tiyul shel hamishpachot, you say טיול משפחות / tiyul mishpachot

Wow!  That’s six ways to talk about having and owning!  And I bet there are more that I don’t know about or have forgotten to mention here.  This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, since I don’t claim to know everything about this language yet.  If you know one I haven’t covered, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Postscript:  Does it matter???

You might be tempted to think that none of this really MATTERS, as long as you can make yourself understood.  Words are words are words, and whatever they mean, they mean.

But as I was finishing up this post, I came across a writer, Sharona Margolin Halickman, who says that it really does matter – and she’s putting her foot down

She’s decided not to use the term בעלי / baali (“my husband” or “my master” or (see above) “my owner”) to refer to her husband anymore. 

Because of all those icky connotations of ownership, she’s started using a different style, one which also has a source in the Tanach, as Halickman writes, “this week’s Haftarah (Hoshea 2:18-19) is no exception where we read: “It shall be on that day-the word of God- you will say ‘ishi’ (my Husband) and you will no longer say ‘baali’ (My master).”  She has decided, like some other Israeli women, to use אישי = ishi = “my man” (the same as “ish sheli,” only using the suffix built-in) instead of referring to him as baali.

In a discussion of the post on Facebook in which I was accused of being “passive-aggressive” for supporting Halickman’s right to think about the words she uses, one person contended, “its just a word.. It doesnt mean that "he" owns you...” [sic] and said that I, like Halickman, was making a big issue out of nothing.  Plus, she claimed, I am “overthinking” things, since we certainly have more important things to worry about in this country.

In fact, there were a couple of responses along the lines of “it’s just words” – and I’m sure lots of people think that reading Halickman’s post.  Do the words we choose matter?  Not according to these folks, maybe.

Someone else pointed out that “The meanings of words are not determined by their origins.”  Which is true, but as you can see from #4 above, this very Biblical word has retained many of the same connotations in modern Hebrew.

But even though this isn’t my issue personally (I say “baali” for my husband), I can definitely understand where Halickman and others who use “ishi” instead of “baali” are coming from.  And I do believe that words are important.

We have inherited a thousands-of-years-old tradition revolving around the sanctity of words.  So I think it’s dirty pool to dismiss this kind of analysis with the put-down "over thinking."  Did Rashi "overthink" things, too? Many would say yes, but what I'm saying is that our tradition affirms the importance of language - and of choosing words very, very carefully.

So the short answer is:  yes, it matters.  Words are how we define ourselves and understand the world around us.  And now you have not one but six great ways to talk about all the stuff you HAVE in Hebrew.

Have a beautiful, restful, peaceful good Shabbos from the land OF our ancestors…

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I really do enjoy Hebrew.
    And I tell my students that they must learn to use a real dictionary, not an electric one or google translate, or they'll find themselves like the hapless Waze travelers in Ramalla.


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