‘O’ in the Bible

While listening to your latest podcast I noticed something while you were reading scripture. In the past I have heard you state the importance of each word in a scripture passage. My question is about the word O. Something in me feels the importance of the word O, but intellectually I cannot see the need for that exclamation.  

I am not nit picking; I am seeking knowledge or an intellectual reason for my feeling. I hope I am not wasting your time, but I see you as an authority who would have the answer.  Thank you for your consideration.

Nona D.

Dear Nona,

When it comes to the Five Books of Moses, there are questions for which we may not have answers, but there is no such thing as nit-picking. Your question is quite a good one.

There are certain Hebrew words that are relatively common in Scripture that do not translate into English. One example is the Hebrew word, E-T. The first verse of Genesis is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” For this purpose, we will accept that translation, but one Hebrew word, repeated twice is completely omitted.

The Hebrew says, “In the beginning, God created ET the heavens and ET the earth.” Leaving the word out does not change the surface meaning, yet it yields a deeper message that isn’t our topic today.

One word often translated as “O” or “Lo,” and frequently left out of translations altogether, is HiNeH. (You didn’t provide a verse so that we could make sure we are answering in the context of your question.) In our Bible classes, we translate it as “wow” because it tells you that something unexpected is happening. Often, what is taking place seems fairly commonplace to us. The word “HiNeH” tells us to look for the surprise.

Here is one example. The beginning of Genesis 18:2 can be translated as: “And he [Abraham] lifted his and he saw three men…” The Hebrew more accurately says, “And he lifted his eyes and WOW he saw three men…”

What is the unexpected surprise being conveyed to us? This event took place on the third day after Abraham’s circumcision. Knowing that Abraham excelled at searching for and taking care of those passing by his tent, God made it a particularly scorching day, the kind that discourages travel. The HiNeH prods us to discover this piece of ancient Jewish wisdom, telling us that there has to be something surprising about the commonplace occurrence of Abraham welcoming guests. It now makes sense to us that these guests actually were not human, but angels.

In other words, your instincts are spot on. Every word in the Torah has meaning.

Keep asking questions,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

Fascinated by the wisdom flowing from the Hebrew language?


 Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language Aleph-Bet: A Fun, Rhyming, Bible-based Introduction to the Hebrew Alphabet

4 thoughts on “‘O’ in the Bible”

  1. Yes!! What about the word translated “behold” in the Old Testament, I have often wondered about the “lo” and “behold” signifying that something miraculous is about to take place. Also, with the word “HiNeH”, how is that related to “Hineni”, which I have understood to basically mean a willing “here am I” ?

  2. Glad this was brought up. How about the Shema? “Hear, O Israel!” Is that looking for a surprise or just important emphasis?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Cy–
      The “O” does not appear in the original Hebrew of Shema Yisrael. There is no O there. But the translators inserted it in order, in their view, to indicate the vocative voice.

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