In morning davening, we say "שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ" (the only English I could find online, at Chabad.org, translates as "bound on the altar").

There are, though, 2 formulations of the three-word phrase. The more frequently found על גבי המזבח (Mishna Zevachim 8:12, for example) and the lesser used על גב המזבח (Eduyot 6:1). They seem to refer to the same concept -- something being poured onto the altar -- possibly its side? (as opposed to Isaac having been bound atop).

There are citations for the same schism when the phrase lacks the "ha" before "mizbei'ach" (even in cases where the word mizbei'ach ends the sentence).

Is there a difference in meaning or reference between Gav and Gabei?


The phrase גב המזבח actually dates back to Tanach (Yechezkel 43:13). Perhaps the phrase גבי המזבח is Mishnaic Hebrew, while גב המזבח is Biblical, and over time the latter morphed into the former.

Notice that the phrase גב המזבח isn’t just uncommon in Mishnayos; Eduyos 6:1 is its only appearance. Based on the above, this can be justified by noting that Eduyos dates back to Bo Bayom (Berachos 28a), which was in Rabban Gamliel’s time, two generations before Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi; if I’m correct that גב eventually morphed into גבי, the fact that Eduyos is older than the rest of Shas could have preserved the old spelling, before it changed.

The same could apply for its transition from מזבח to המזבח. The phrase גב מזבח never appears anywhere before the close of Shas: the earliest I see its usage is Rashi to the cited passuk in Yechezkel; both later usages I see are people quoting this Rashi.

On the other hand, גבי מזבח appears just twice in Mishnayos (Sukkah 5:5 and Temurah 6:4), once in Yerushalmi, and seven times in Bavli, while גבי המזבח appears 27 times in Yerushalmi and 24 times in Bavli. This would seem to indicate that this change took much longer to happen than the previous one.

(Note that these numbers aren’t totally accurate since Braisos are included in Bavli and Yerushalmi, but the general thrust of the point should remain the same. If someone wants to do their own search and divide it up further by generation, feel free.)

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  • Would this linguistic evolution mean that there is no difference in meaning between gav and gabei? – rosends Apr 22 '19 at 15:22
  • @rosends Correct. It’s just an artifact of how language changes over time. – DonielF Apr 22 '19 at 15:23
  • I should note that the expression גבי המזבח really shouldn’t make any grammatical sense in Biblical Hebrew - the י on the end indicates a plural, but there’s only one top of anything. – DonielF Apr 22 '19 at 15:24
  • that's what I was concerned about -- if the plural had to do with the sides and not the top. – rosends Apr 22 '19 at 15:45

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