The beginning of Parshas Ki Seitze says:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ

וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה

If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives,

and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife

(Translation courtesy of Chabad.org)

The word for captives in the first verse seems to be masculine, שבי (conjugated to be possessive, שביו), as opposed to in the second verse it is feminine, שביה. Does the word have ambiguous gender, and even if so, why the switch?

(I lost my Mikraos Gedolos, so I have done virtually no research.)

  • 2
    So, in other words, what you're asking is: Why doesn't either the first verse use שביתו (Shivyato, "his captives [in feminine form]"), or the second verse use בשבי (ba-Shevi, "among the captives [in masculine form]")? Am I correct?
    – Tamir Evan
    Sep 7, 2014 at 13:43
  • 1
    @TamirEvan precisely. (As I just pointed out to SabbaHillel in a comment before seeing your comment here.) Sep 7, 2014 at 17:26
  • 1
    I wonder if the switch here is like דג and דגה.
    – Double AA
    Sep 9, 2014 at 17:14
  • @DoubleAA Is that a reference to something? Sep 9, 2014 at 17:39
  • @YEZ To two words found in biblical texts which potentially have a parallel grammatical structure?
    – Double AA
    Sep 10, 2014 at 17:56

3 Answers 3


שבי means "captives" referring to the people themselves.

שִּׁבְיָה means "captivity" referring to the state of being imprisoned.

Compare the use of the term שִּׁבְיָה in the Mon. - Thurs. davening just before returning the Torah "Acheinu kol bet yisrae'l..." the term שִּׁבְיָה is used, there because it means the state of captivity.

The use of the 2nd term makes sense, and the reason for the switching in terms is that in the 1st verse, the Torah talks about the general results of the war, in other words, it is explaining the circumstance. You went to war, G-d made you successful, and you took all its captives שבי .

Now, you have all these captives. You see a beautiful woman. You want her as your wife. The woman has emotions about her being imprisoned, and the Torah is speaking about her state of captivity and what that does to her and how you should treat her feelings; not so much of her "physical" status of being a captive. Hence, the use of the term שִּׁבְיָה, since the Torah is instructing you how to deal with her feelings of captivity - the emotions and her captivity status, not the fact that she is a "captive". A careful analysis of the following verses indicates that once you intend to take her as your wife, she is no longer like the rest of the "captives", but, since she has to shave her head and mourn her parents (who may still be alive, actually), she is still in the state of "captivity" until she officially becomes your wife a month later.

Another way to view things:

The 1st verse means - "You shall take its (the enemy's) CAPTIVES" The 2nd verse means - "You shall see a woman in captivity" vs. having said (if it had used the word שבי in the 2nd verse,) "You shall see a woman among the captives".

So, there is a BIG difference in meaning.

The Torah (G-d) chooses (His) its words very carefully...

  • This is a good answer to half the question. The asker also asked why it would switch.
    – jim
    Sep 9, 2014 at 20:47
  • @jim It asked why it would switch gender. This answers that it isn't switching genders; it's switching words.
    – Double AA
    Sep 10, 2014 at 10:54
  • I think you could have explained the switch with your approach in a more straightforward way. She isn't in captivity until you take her captive. So first you take captives, then the captives are in captivity. But you have to captivate her (them) first. +1 IAE. Sep 10, 2014 at 17:52
  • @DoubleAA I could have been clearer in my question, but I did say "even if so [=ambiguous gender]," but even if the answer isn't ambiguous gender I wanted to know why the switch in words. But Dan covered that anyways. Sep 10, 2014 at 17:54

The Malbim, commenting on the second of the two verses, explains that שבי refers to someone who is already definitively a captive, i.e. it has already been decided that they will be taken and kept as a captive/slave. שביה, on the other hand, refers to those who are still under consideration whether they will be taken as captives.

Thus, the Midrash understands ושבית שביו - you shall take their captives - to include even Canaanite captives, who normally we must not let live, we can take as captives. The Midrash understands the verse to say that we can take those captives who were captives of the nation we defeated - those who were already decidedly captives before the war, which could include Canaanim. Even them we can take as potential captives. The next verse is referring to the camp of prisoners that have just been captured and are being considered for whether or not they should be kept.


My dikduk skills are lacking but the word שביו is the posessive of the nation. שביה on the other hand is not a possesive term as evidenced by the fact that it is not written with a מפיק הא, in פסוק י׳ג for instance her שמלת שביה does have a מפיק הא. This also holds true also in Targum where שביו is given possesive treatment שביהון, & on the other hand בשביה is בשביתא.

Why the plural of שבי is שביה I'm not sure. Perhaps being conquered is effeminate. But that would be a different question.

  • He's not discussing the possessiveness.
    – Double AA
    Sep 7, 2014 at 22:32
  • But that is what defines the gender terminology in the first passuk. Belonging to the nation which is male.
    – user6591
    Sep 7, 2014 at 22:48
  • 2
    That's what defines the gender of the possessive suffix, not the gender of the word. שבי conjugates to שביו while שביה conjugates to שביתו. So why in the first verse does it use שבי (conjugated to שביו) and then change to שביה (unconjugated)?
    – Double AA
    Sep 7, 2014 at 22:52
  • But you jumped to conjugate שביה. Being that we are dealing with a single lady, we have to start from שבי.
    – user6591
    Sep 7, 2014 at 23:38
  • 1
    I dont understand your last comment, nor do I think you understand the question.
    – Double AA
    Sep 8, 2014 at 2:32

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