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Usually, the suffix "־הם" is used to mean "them" as an object, as is "להם" or "אליהם". Or it is used to mean "their" in possessive form, as in "כליהם" or "אבותיהם".

But sometimes, the very same usage is applied to the suffix "־מו". A famous instance: "וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ" (Devarim 33:2). I recently encountered it used in Tehillim (2:3-5):

נְנַתְּקָה אֶת מוֹסְרוֹתֵימוֹ וְנַשְׁלִיכָה מִמֶּנּוּ עֲבֹתֵימוֹ. יוֹשֵׁב בַּשָּׁמַיִם יִשְׂחָק אֲדֹנָי יִלְעַג לָמוֹ. אָז יְדַבֵּר אֵלֵימוֹ בְאַפּוֹ וּבַחֲרוֹנוֹ יְבַהֲלֵמוֹ

My question is simple: What is the difference (if any) between the two grammatical forms? When would I use the former over the latter and vice versa?

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    I've always assumed that "מו" was an element of poetic style. – Isaac Moses Feb 14 '12 at 17:02
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    @IsaacMoses, Perhaps. That is what I would assume as well. But consider the approach of Malbim that no two words in Hebrew are exactly the same, and that the use of one over the other is always telling us something. What would he say? – jake Feb 14 '12 at 17:14
  • I’ve passed this question on to the b-hebrew mailing list. Perhaps someone from there will answer here; otherwise (if there’s an answer provided on-list) I’ll post it here. – J. C. Salomon Feb 14 '12 at 22:19
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I've done a bit of research on this in the last couple of months and it seems that most everyone is in agreement that the "מו" form is used in poetic contexts to denote the third person. It may very well be a form of archaism only found in Biblical poetry. This is why it is found only in places like Tehillim or Iyov, and in the Torah only within poetic portions like "Az Yashir", "Haazinu", or "V'zos Habracha".

Although it most often comes to denote the third person plural, it can be found occasionally being used as the singular, as in Tehillim 11:7. (See Radak's Michlol.) [I've also seen it claimed (by the author of the Anchor Bible's Psalms) to be occasionally used as the first person plural, but I have found no Jewish sources that agree.]

I have been wondering what someone like Malbim would say about this, given his general approach. However, I have been unable to find anywhere where the Malbim discusses this outright. (I would be grateful if anyone can find if/where he does.)

I have found, though, that R' Yaakov Tzvi Meklenburg, whose purpose in writing his commentary Hak'sav V'hakabbala was similar to that of Malbim, does discuss this phenomenon briefly (along with another common phenomenon we find in poetic contexts of "י"s being added to second person objects or possessives). He writes (Shemos 15:7) that the "מו" form is actually a contraction of the plural (with "מ") and singular (with "ו") third persons. It is then used when we want to imply that many people or things are separate entities in reality but that there is an element of unity (אחדות) among them. He compares this to using the singular pronoun to refer to a plural subject (as in the famous "ויחן שם ישראל") and the קרי וכתיב we often find where a plural noun (like "ידיו") is written as if it were singular ("ידו").

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It is equivalent script for "them" and is unique for poetry. source: השירה המקראית

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    Would you mind pointing out where on that webpage you are referring to? – jake Mar 6 '12 at 16:35
  • search for the word:"עתיקה" there is one reference of it – KingBabar Mar 7 '12 at 13:27
  • quote: "סיומת –מו ככינוי לנסתרים היא עתיקה ומיוחדת לשירה.13 ראה גם פסוק י." – KingBabar Mar 7 '12 at 13:34
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If you check the trop, the "הם-" suffix gets the trop mark and emphasis, but with the "מו-" suffix, it's the previous syllable that is emphasized. E.g. In Shemos 14:29, "וְהַמַּ֤יִם לָהֶם֙ חֹמָ֔ה מִֽימִינָ֖ם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָֽם׃" -- the trop is on the "-hem" of "laHEM". But a few pesuqim later, "תְּשַׁלַּח֙ חֲרֹ֣נְךָ֔ יֹאכְלֵ֖מוֹ כַּקַּֽשׁ׃" -- with the trop on the "-lei-" of "yokhLEImo".

The "מו-" suffix is used for poetry when it helps the word fit the meter.

Given the difference in meter, there is no reason to posit that it was about making poetry sound more archaic. And there is no proof "מו-" is indeed older. (See Linguistic evidence in dating early Hebrew poetry, David Robertson 1972, pp 65-66, 69.)

  • What is the meter of the Song of the Sea that this word needs to fit? I don't see how you can take a "difference in meter" as a given without identifying that meter. Iambic pentameter? Trochaic hexameter? Dactylic dimeter? I'm not seeing any obvious syllable pattern in the Song. – Double AA Feb 19 at 22:00
  • @DoubleAA It is in mixed meter, so you have to look at the thythm of sections. The pasuq of my example is iambic (.-) but “teviEimo vesitaEimo” is in tertiary peaon (..-.). – Micha Berger Feb 19 at 23:52
  • If it's mixed meter than why is there any preference to pick suffixes that have particular meters? Anything should be equally fine. יאכלם כקש fits iambic better btw and tevieim vetitaeim is anapestic. Why is paeon better than anapest? – Double AA Feb 20 at 0:04
  • @DoubleAA mixed meter doesn’t mean meterlessness. Just as a poem can use rhyme without having a consistent rhyming scheme. – Micha Berger Feb 20 at 2:13
  • Show me where using the Mo version is clearly better than the Hem version. We can name the outcomes for both ways but that's not proving anything. You have to somehow show why one should be preferred. – Double AA Feb 20 at 2:17

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