There is a well-known statement by Resh Lakish in Gitin (90) that

כי" משמש בד' לשונות: אי, דלמא, אלא, דהא"

"ki" expresses four meanings...

There has been discussion over the ages as to what exactly those four meanings are, despite their listing by Resh Lakish (since even the lingua franca of Aramaic is now obscure to us). Whatever the meanings, what exactly is he saying? The two possibilities I have in mind are:

  • that there are four homophonous and homonymous words, written "כי" or
  • that there is some concept or meaning that is approximated in translation by the range of these other four, and therefore can express any one of them in different contexts.

What is underlying Resh Lakish's words?

  • I wanted to answer simply, "Yes." But I couldn't because I needed 30 characters. Great question!
    – Seth J
    Aug 17 '11 at 14:02
  • Not sure if this question is still of interest to the questioner, but in 2001 SIL published a 700-page book by Carl M. Follingstad, entitled Deictic Viewpoint in Biblical Hebrew Text: A Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Analysis of the Particle כי (kî). He delineates over a dozen different nuances of meaning, based on discourse analysis. Knock yourself out ;)
    – Shimon bM
    Oct 23 '12 at 1:57
  • 1
    By the way, @WAF, I'm not being entirely tongue-in-cheek. If you grab it from your library, he gives an exhaustive overview of the history of Jewish scholarship on this topic, from the tannaim and amoraim (including Reish Lakish) through to the mediaevals (§2.4.1).
    – Shimon bM
    Oct 23 '12 at 2:02
  • @ShimonbM I didn't interpret it as such! Thanks for the recommendation. I would guess it addresses my question directly, as it is a syntagmatic and paradigmatic approach.
    – WAF
    Oct 23 '12 at 3:09

No source that I know of, but I'd venture that something closer to your second possibility is correct: there is one word כי in Hebrew, but it has a lot of nuances.

Consider how, in English, the word "then" has several different meanings: temporal comparative ("first A happened, then B"), temporal noncomparative ("things were good then"), nontemporal comparative ("he says A, but then I disagree"), and so forth.

In somewhat the same way, then, it may be that the underlying meaning of כי is "a conjunction of some kind," tying two clauses together; the exact type of tie (whether one is a dependent clause of the other, or they're independent, etc.) depends on context, and can be translated using various Aramaic (or English) conjunctions.

  • 1
    +1. Re "conjunction of some kind": specifically, a subordinating one, according to Rashi in Gitin, I think.
    – msh210
    Aug 17 '11 at 6:29
  • @msh210 Which Rashi?
    – Ypnypn
    Jan 10 '16 at 17:43

I think the correct answer to "what exactly is [Resh Lakish] saying" is simply that the word "ki" may mean different things in different contexts.

It's definitely only one word in Hebrew, and IMHO there's no single underlying concept or meaning uniting all the terms.

Rather, if you're an Aramaic speaker, and you want to translate/explicate/darshen a pasuk, you will find yourself reaching for different terms for the same word.

To give an example from English, I think this is similar to trying to translate the word "with." (Davar b'shem omro, I learned this from Russell and Norvig.)

  • I ate spaghetti with a fork.
  • I ate spaghetti with dinner.
  • I ate spaghetti with friends.
  • I ate spaghetti with meatballs.
  • I ate spaghetti with abandon.

Every English speaker knows that there's only one word "with." But if you translate those sentences into other languages, you may find that correct idiomatic language use compels you to use different words for different situations.

I think that there is no single concept or meaning here, because the only possibility for that concept would be "togetherness" or perhaps "unity," but squashing all the above meanings into the concept would (a) unite too many disparate things, and (b) not explain when to use "with" and when to use a different word. I expect some people to disagree with me, but not if they fluently speak languages other than English.

I'd also like to give an example of what Resh Lakish is not saying. In Hebrew, the word "`etz" can be translated into Aramaic as either "a`a" (that's אעא) or "ilana." In English, these would be rendered "wood" and "tree," but note that in English you might also need to use "lumber." In this case, it's still a single word in Hebrew, but there is a concrete understanding that it encompasses trees and things made out of what used to be trees.

  • "It's definitely only one word in Hebrew, and IMHO there's no single underlying concept or meaning uniting all the terms." You seem to be drawing a little from each of the two choices in the question. Could you clarify what you mean, please?
    – msh210
    Aug 18 '11 at 13:25
  • I think (but I will try to map this out in more detail and find sources) that all of your 'with' examples fit the conceptual definition "non-equal accompaniment", which applies slightly differently to nouns and verbs. Some of the distinctions in your examples are simply differences if syntactic scope.
    – WAF
    Aug 18 '11 at 17:47
  • what's the difference between spaghetti with dinner, and spaghetti with meatballs? (in the meaning of the word with)
    – avi
    Aug 18 '11 at 18:46
  • @msh210, I was just trying to indicate that I didn't quite agree with the presentation in the question. I tried to offer a different explanation.
    – JXG
    Aug 21 '11 at 7:06
  • @avi, spaghetti with dinner says that dinner includes the spaghetti; spaghetti with meatballs says that the spaghetti includes the meatballs.
    – JXG
    Aug 21 '11 at 7:09

Rashi explains (at great length, with many examples) that the word כי is used in place of these four different words/concepts. So when you see the word כי it has one of these four meanings. One word - four potential meanings (which I think might be closer to your first bullet point).

  • I don't see that that is machria between the two options in the question....
    – msh210
    May 17 '11 at 6:07
  • As I understand the question, it is: are there four different words represented by כי (option 1) or does כי approximate all four concepts at the same time (option 2). I think that Rashis explanation is that it is used in four different ways, and that it seems like this is closest to option 1 - since in each place כי means something different, it is not a convergence of the four concepts.
    – Yaakov Ellis
    May 17 '11 at 6:27
  • 1
    @YaakovEllis - Hypothetically if Rash"i intended the second option, how would his explanation look any different? It seems to me it could be identical, making it a difficult test case.
    – WAF
    May 17 '11 at 13:14
  • If Rashi meant the second option, then he wouldn't have gone to such great lengths to give examples of how כי is used in so many different places with different (not convergent) meanings.
    – Yaakov Ellis
    May 17 '11 at 13:21
  • I guess "convergence" was a poor choice of word. What I had in mind was actually a series whose values are "attracted" to a certain curve, thus approximating it on average, but don't actually converge to it.
    – WAF
    May 18 '11 at 2:45

"Ki" does seem to mean different things. In modern Hebrew, "ki" means the following:

  • that
  • but
  • since
  • although
  • as
  • because
  • for

Now, I can say that all of these are 'interuptors' or some such thing, but they don't seem to fit into a single word or concept, other than it's purpose in a sentence. This might be similar to the word את which has no direct translation. In English, I don't believe there is a single term that encapsulates all those meanings, nor is there a single concept that I can wrap my head around to fit all those words into. And in Aramaic, I assume some of those English words fit into the same word/concept.

I once found in the Jastrow dictionary, the same thing with the word "אין". Jastrow gives three possible definitions:

  • yes
  • no
  • maybe (lit. whether, if)

(Page 52 in the Jastrow)

  • 1
    +1 for -yes, -no, -maybe. Check page 52 here. Also, on the point of את, there are two distinct (and definable if not translatable) words spelled that way. One is אֶת and the other is אֵת (although under many conditions they are spelled the same). The former is the object marker or nota accusativa and the latter means "with" in its accompanying sense.
    – WAF
    Aug 17 '11 at 16:54
  • Upon further thought, the modern Hebrew range of meanings could be confounded by influence of the Aramaic word ki - interrogative particle.
    – WAF
    Aug 18 '11 at 17:43

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