The verse in Shemos 19:23 says "וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־יי לֹֽא־יוּכַל הָעָם לַֽעֲלֹת אֶל־הַר סִינָי." Rashi says that although it uses the words "לֹֽא־יוּכַל" it means they're not allowed. Onkelos translates this as "לָא יִכּוֹל."

However, in Devarim 16:5, it says "לֹא תוּכַל לִזְבֹּחַ אֶת־הַפָּסַח בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ." Rashi again here explains that it means it's not allowed. However, in this case, Onkelos translates it as "לֵית לָךְ רְשׁוּ" (you do not have permission), more in accordance with its meaning that the literal translation.

Why in one place where the language of יכולת is used does Onkelos translate it as "לָא יִכּוֹל" while in another place where it means the same thing he translates it as "לֵית לָךְ רְשׁוּ"?

No one in the Mikra'os Gedolos on that verse seems to say anything that can solve it. I also checked this book which includes a commentary on Onkelos (by Rabbi Nathan Adler) and he says nothing either.

  • Did you check to see if other meforshim besides rashi differentiate between the two pesukim? – Double AA Feb 1 '13 at 19:20
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    No one in the Mikra'os Gedolos on that verse seems to say anything that can solve it. I also checked this book which includes a commentary on Onkelos (by Rabbi Nathan Adler) and he says nothing either. – b a Feb 1 '13 at 19:33
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    @ba, I've edited your comment into your question – Isaac Moses Feb 1 '13 at 21:00
  • Why do you say that in both verses it means the same thing? Surely the difference between them should be enough to indicate that while Rashi might have thought they both meant the same thing, Onkelos did not. – Shimon bM Feb 2 '13 at 4:33
  • (1) I think you're misunderstanding Rashi on Shemot 19:23: he is not saying that "Lo Yukhal" "means they're not allowed", but rather that they can't( "Lo Yuchlu") because they're not allowed( "ולא יוכלו לעלות שאין להם רשות"). So, "Lo Yukhal"/"Lo Yuchlu" still means "[they] can't". (2) Where's the Rashi you mention for Devarim 16:5? ( I could fin any Rashi on Devarim 16:5) – Tamir Evan Feb 2 '13 at 17:28

When we speak of 'ability', we mean one of two things: [A] the literal (“you can't eat Deadly Nightshade”), and [B] the figurative (“you can't eat here without membership”). Going through Chumash (Search keyword in Bar-Ilan: “+לא +וכל+”) it appears that Onkelos is meticulous in differentiating between instances where the behavior in question is truly unthinkable and where it is perfectly reasonable but merely being discouraged henceforth.

1 [A]: הִנֵּה נָא מָצָא עַבְדְּךָ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וַתַּגְדֵּל חַסְדְּךָ אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת נַפְשִׁי וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אוּכַל לְהִמָּלֵט הָהָרָה פֶּן תִּדְבָּקַנִי הָרָעָה וָמַתִּי. - בראשית יט:יט

הא כען אשכח עבדך רחמין קדמך ואסגיתא טיבותך דעבדת עמי לקיימא ית נפשי ואנא לית אנא יכיל לאשתיזבא לטורא דלמא תערעינני בשתא ואמות. - תרגום אונקלוס

In this instance, heading for the mountains was out of the question for Lot; not something anyone had forbidden him to do.

2 [A]: מַהֵר הִמָּלֵט שָׁמָּה כִּי לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת דָּבָר עַד בֹּאֲךָ שָׁמָּה עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הָעִיר צוֹעַר. - בראשית יט:כב

אוחי אשתיזב לתמן ארי לא אכול למעבד פתגמא עד מיתך לתמן על כן קרא שמה דקרתא צוער. - תרגום אונקלוס

It would appear that in this instance the מלאך was truly incapable of proceeding until Lot was out of harm's way.

3 [A]: וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵה' יָצָא הַדָּבָר לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ טוֹב. - בראשית כד:נ

ואתיב לבן ובתואל ואמרו מן קדם ה' נפק פתגמא לית אנחנא יכלין למללא עמך ביש או טב. - תרגום אונקלוס

At this point, disagreeing with Eliezer seemed unthinkable, but was certainly not the subject of anyone’s command.


Let's fast forward to example #13, the verse mentioned in the original question.

13 [A]: וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה' לֹא יוּכַל הָעָם לַעֲלֹת אֶל הַר סִינָי כִּי אַתָּה הַעֵדֹתָה בָּנוּ לֵאמֹר הַגְבֵּל אֶת הָהָר וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ. - שמות יט:כג

ואמר משה קדם ה' לא יכול עמא למסק לטורא דסיני ארי את אסהידת בנא למימר תחים ית טורא וקדישהי. - תרגום אונקלוס

While this verse isn't particularly clear, what Moshe seems to be saying is that it is inconceivable that the Jews would climb the mountain because: a) the mountain has already been cordoned off, or b) climbing was already stated to be at the pain of death, or c) when a new prohibition is introduced it is referred to in terms of ‘permission’, but once it has been established and accepted the act forbidden may be deemed ‘undoable’. Whatever the case is, it seems clear from the context that Moshe’s point here was precisely that for the Jews to climb the mountain would be unimaginable.

Skipping to example #17, we witness the first instance of the alternate translation.

17 [B]: וַיַּעַן בִּלְעָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַבְדֵי בָלָק אִם יִתֶּן לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת פִּי ה' אֱ-לֹהָי לַעֲשׂוֹת קְטַנָּה אוֹ גְדוֹלָה. – במדבר כב:יח

ואתיב בלעם ואמר לעבדי בלק אם יתין לי בלק מלי ביתיה כסף ודהב לית לי רשו למעבר על גזירת מימרא דה' א-להי למעבד זעירתא או רבתא. – תרגום אונקלוס

In this instance, accepting Balak’s offer seemed eminently doable and no known, established obstacle stood in Bilam’s way. Thus, Onkelos has Bilam state that he has no permission to do what he ordinarily found quite easy. This is in direct contrast with Balak’s following response.

18 [A]: וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל בִּלְעָם הֲלֹא שָׁלֹחַ שָׁלַחְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ לִקְרֹא לָךְ לָמָּה לֹא הָלַכְתָּ אֵלָי הַאֻמְנָם לֹא אוּכַל כַּבְּדֶךָ. – במדבר כב:לז

ואמר בלק לבלעם הלא משלח שלחית לותך למקרי לך למא לא אתיתא לותי הבקושטא הויתא אמר לית אנא יכיל ליקרותך. – תרגום אונקלוס

Balak retorts incredulously: “Would you honestly say that I am incapable of honoring you?!” Is there any conceivable, obvious obstacle of any sort standing in the way of my intention to properly fete you?

With the exception of 2 examples in Bilam’s speech, all the variations on לא יכול so far are intended in the sense of literal undoability. It is only in Parshat Re’eh where these words acquire the regular meaning of “I don’t let you”.

22 [B]: לֹא תוּכַל לֶאֱכֹל בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ מַעְשַׂר דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקָרְךָ וְצֹאנֶךָ וְכָל נְדָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּדֹּר וְנִדְבֹתֶיךָ וּתְרוּמַת יָדֶךָ. – דברים יב:יז

לית לך רשו למיכל בקרוך מעשר עבורך וחמרך ומשחך ובכורי תורך וענך וכל נדרך דתדר ונדבתך ואפרשות ידך. – תרגום אונקלוס

[Contrast with this other instance in Re’eh:

23 [A]: וְכִי יִרְבֶּה מִמְּךָ הַדֶּרֶךְ כִּי לֹא תוּכַל שְׂאֵתוֹ כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ. – דברים יד:כד

וארי תסגי מנך אורחא ארי לא תכול למטליה ארי יתרחק מנך אתרא דיתרעי ה' א-להך לאשראה שכינתיה תמן ארי יברכנך ה' א-להך. תרגום אונקלוס]

24 [B]: לֹא תוּכַל לִזְבֹּחַ אֶת הַפָּסַח בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ – דברים טז:ה

לית לך רשו למכס ית פסחא בחדא מן קרוך דה' א-להך יהיב לך. – תרגום אונקלוס

Another 6 instances possessing this latter meaning follow, as well as a few with the more common sense.

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  • A rather simple formula for ascertaining the correct translation occurs to me: if it's the kind of 'I can't do that' that's met with 'well, of course you can't' then it's 'לית אנא יכיל'; if it's met with 'huh, why not?' then it's 'לית לי רשו'. (Of course, anyone interested in improving or tweaking the proper distinction here is welcome to do so!) – Bar Uryan Jul 30 '13 at 4:28

I found a sefer that asks you question, see http://www.otzar.org/wotzar/Book.aspx?14138& pg. 427 and I found another sefer that gives a weak anwer that since HaShem forbid going up the mountain all the Jews looked at doing so as an impossibility and not just as a prohibition, see http://www.otzar.org/wotzar/Book.aspx?60336& pg. 52.

(I couldn't find these sources on HebrewBooks.org, so I gave the sources from OTZAR hoping that some of you have this service even though it is not free).

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  • You could have cited the actual sources, instead of just linking to the books on the OTZAR web-site and giving a page number, so that anyone who doesn't have access to the full books there, but may have access to the books in question from elsewhere( like a library with an extensive Jewish section, or somewhere else on the web that quotes it) can see for themselves. ... – Tamir Evan Aug 4 '13 at 8:41
  • ... For example, though Me'at Tzori (מעט צרי), from you second link, isn't on HebrewBooks, and neither is Nefesh ha-Ger (נפש הגר) in the format it is on the OTZAR web-site( your first link), the later does exist, in a different format, on hebrewBooks. I assume in the first part of your answer you are referring to Nefesh ha-Ger on Devarin 12:17, but can't be sure, as you didn't cite the source, or quote it, and I don't have access to beyond the first 40 pages on the OTZAR web-site. – Tamir Evan Aug 4 '13 at 8:51

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