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I noticed that in German (Luther's translation) it says "Du sollst nicht" for "thou shall not." To me, this sounds more like "thou should not," which makes more sense to me, because if the Almighty says "thou will not" or even "thou may not" it stands to reason that to do so would be impossible. Saying "thou should not" makes more sense to me because it implies that you have the ability to disobey.

I guess I am sort of asking for a short lesson on ancient Hebrew grammar of, as well as the original Hebrew (and English transliteration) of "Thou shalt not" as it is used in the ten commandments.

I apologize if this is off-topic. I appreciate if anyone could answer or direct me to a good link.

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No, "shall" is not necessary in Biblical Hebrew. Look at some of the 10 Commandments from Young's Literal Translation:

17‘Thou dost not murder.

18‘Thou dost not commit adultery.

19‘Thou dost not steal.

20‘Thou dost not answer against thy neighbour — a false testimony.

Biblical Hebrew does not have past/present/future tense like English; they have perfect tense and imperfect tense. In Young's translation, he has made the imperfect verb "kill" present tense with the word dost. The actual Hebrew says nothing more than "not do kill".

Also, I agree. Saying shall (future tense and interchangeable with will) should be reserved for predictions, otherwise it means God was wrong on multiple occasions (Genesis 2:16).

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    However consider Merriam-Webster's definition of "shall", specifically definitions 2a and 2b. – Matt Gutting Aug 9 '17 at 14:59
  • @MattGutting Yeah I noticed that. I was just offering my opinion that "shall" is misleading. I think a more appropriate translation would simply be "do not kill", especially in modern English. – Cannabijoy Aug 10 '17 at 9:42
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To me, "should not" (or even "ought not") would be a poor phrasing. It just seems too weak - makes it sound optional, subjective or tentative. I understand that it is optional in the sense that we have free will. But I would still expect a rule or commandment to be phrased with "must", "shall" or "do not". Still more so in formal usage, and I would expect a commandment from Heaven to be phrased in formal language when rendered in English.

It's notable that Acts of the UK Parliament and Acts of the US Congress use "shall" to express rules. They aren't predicting the future - they are laying down the law. They are setting down the rules.

For example, within the last few months, Acts of Parliament have provided that:

Acts of Congress have stated that:

  • "No act shall be certified by the Secretary as an act of terrorism if" (...etc). (Apologies, I don't have enough reputation to paste more than two links, so you can find this one for yourself if interested.)
  • "-Not later than 5 calendar days after reaching an agreement with Iran relating to the nuclear program of Iran, the President shall transmit to the appropriate congressional committees and leadership".

These are requirements / obligations.

It's not just in law either. The rule books of political parties, social clubs etc contain similar usage. In the UK, this is true of both the Labour and Conservative parties. The Labour rule book provides, for example, that "The panel of the NEC responsible for assessing applications from socialist societies to affiliate to the Party shall have regard to procedural guidelines determined by the NEC, which are available from the Compliance Unit." And the Conservative Party rules include provision that "The Board shall meet not less than six times each year."

  • This answer does not address the Hebrew texts as the OP requested. – bradimus Aug 19 '17 at 13:42
  • OK, shall I delete it? I'm sorry, perhaps it would have been better as a comment, but I don't have enough reputation to make comments on the OP. I was just trying to be helpful, since the OP suggested that "should not" would make more sense than "shall not", and I was suggesting reasons why this might not be the case. – rjpond Aug 19 '17 at 13:59
  • @rjpond Welcome to the site! You can delete it if you want to, but if the community has a real problem with the appropriateness of a post, they also have a mechanism to delete it through community moderation. Please consider taking the tour and checking out our help centre to learn more about how the site works. – bruised reed Aug 19 '17 at 22:37
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The syntax of the Hebrew is consistent with other prohibitions throughout the legal texts of the Torah. That is, the negative particle לא (lo) is followed by an imperfective verb. Although imperfective verbs in other contexts are sometimes translated as simple future tense (i.e. indicative1) verbs in English, those in the Decalogue are clearly volitional — Yahweh is expressing a prohibitive injunction, not merely a statement of fact.

Biblical Hebrew has imperative verb forms, similar to English ("Go and do your homework!"). However, unlike English, imperative verbs in Hebrew can not be negated. Instead, to express negative commands (i.e. prohibitions), imperfective verbs are used. Unfortunately for English translators, this can at times be confusing since the imperfective is also used to express simple present and future tense ideas. One simple (though not fail-safe) test for identifying volitional uses of imperfective verbs is that the verb generally comes first in its clause. This is the case throughout the Decalogue, e.g. Exodus 20:4:

לֹֽא תַעֲשֶׂה־לְךָ פֶ֣סֶל֙
You shall not make for yourself an idol....

Perhaps the most straightforward rendering in modern English would be,

Do not make for yourself an idol.

However, the construction "you shall not..." is consistent with traditional English grammar, where "shall" with second and third person verbs expresses volition (whether desire, injunction, or prohibition). This nuance is frequently neglected in modern English, and the persistence of "you shall not" in most translations of the Decalogue may in part reflect the pervasive nature of the KJV tradition. It's also the case that the use of the particle לא (lo) rather than the alternative negative particle על (al) indicates a more permanent and absolute sort of prohibition. In modern English, the use of "shall" tends to invoke an elevated register which may better accommodate the sort of nuance invoked by an absolute prohibition direct from the mouth of Yahweh.


1. If applied to the decalogue, an indicative verb would entail a translation such as "you will not kill", as a statement of fact. However, imperfective verbs are not necessarily indicative. This is territory covered by any Biblical Hebrew grammar; see, e.g., Waltke & O'Connor §31.5.

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Thank you for the interesting link. I see there and elsewhere http://www.therain.org/studies/tenhtl.html that the original Hebrew for "Thou shalt not steal" is simply two words: "Lo' tignob" which seems to translate literally as simply "no steal" and is the correct way of saying "Do not steal." Therefore, I think that "do not steal" is a more direct translation.

Adding "thou" captures the "familiar" aspect of the verb in the second person. https://billyshax.wikispaces.com/file/view/Language+Handout_Folger.pdf Thou in English corresponds to "tu" in French and Spanish, and "du" in German. This is significant, because God was not speaking formally, but like a father to his own children. Unfortunately this quality does not come though in translation, even with the use of "thou," because "thou" is an old form that is no longer used and actually sounds more formal now.

Also I note that the origins of "shall" included "ought to" and it is related to the German "soll" meaning "should." http://www.dictionary.com/browse/shall?s=t Therefore I accept "Thou shallt not" in that sense.

I avoided using the prohibition on killing, because I think the word used is not just "kill" but the wrongful killing of a human being, which could allow for self-defense.

  • I'm not sure mentioning "thou" here is relevant. Hebrew, unlike many Indo-European languages, doesn't have a T-V distinction. "You" is simply אתה for males and את for females. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Apr 1 '18 at 1:36

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