Mar 2, 2011

It's a Negative Mitzvah to Not What?

Concise Book of Mitzvoth (The Torah Classics Library) (English and Hebrew Edition)There are a lot of really horribly written and poorly edited pieces of Judaica out there. I've kvetched about plenty, including one that was required reading for my conversion that was more confusing than it was worth (don't use your oven on Shabbos! okay, you can use it, but only in this way! did we mention NEVER to use your oven?). But this one, folks, takes the cake for ridiculousness.

The book? The Concise Book of Mitzvoth.

The translation on this is horrible. Horrible to the point of being absolutely blasphemous. The problem? In Hebrew, double-negatives are the norm. For example, to say "No one was there," you would say אף אחד לא היו שם. Translate that into English literally and you end up with "No one wasn't there," which means people were there. Thus, well, just ... look at this.

No! That doesn't give you right to start oppressing me, just because a book compiled by The Chafetz Chayim says so. But reading all of the negative commandments gave me a huge laugh. If a non-Jew picked up this book, they'd probably have some serious material to work with (of course, until they read the Hebrew, which is clear as day). I'll leave you with this one, which is just downright disturbing.
This is when literal translation goes wrong, wrong, SO wrong. Oy.


Isreview said...

Oh wow shocking that book was sent to print with all those translation errors...Well maybe I should not be so shocked!

At times, it can be funny or cute when Israelis want to "practice their English" in conversation with me and end up using double negatives but when it comes to a book like this it is simply terrible that they got away with printing it with all the mistakes.


Debbie said...

I like the new look, Chaviva. Very pleasant.

These blunders are amazing! You should write to Feldheim or just send them the URL of this blog post.

If you do, let us know what they say.

S. said...

If they had just added a colon or even a comma it could have worked.

Funny, since I knew what it meant I never would have even thought it was saying the opposite of what it means - I think I'm just used to lousy translation from Hebrew.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I must have been studying bad English translations too long. The text looks completely clear to me "It is a negative commandment" (you are being told what action to refrain from) "Not to steal".

How would you phrase it? "It is a negative commandment to steal" makes no sense. I might be little more verbose "It is a negative commandment to refrain from stealing". Is that better or is it still a double negative?

Sean M. Teaford said...

This is one of the many examples of why one shouldn't rely solely on what they read and their own interpretations. Torah and Talmud are meant to be discussed/debated and when expounding upon them through the written word it is important to discuss with others first to make sure that what you are saying is clear. With that said, we are all guilty of being murky with our words at some point. Some people, myself included, make this mistake too often.

micha berger said...

Also not clear what the problem is. It is not like the translator rendered it "It is prohibited not to oppress..." What is one of the negative commandments? "It is a negative commandment not to oppress a righteous proselyte ..."

In "a negative commandment" "negative" is an adjective to "commandment", and doesn't modify the clause describing the contents of the commandment.


sheldan said...

From what I can tell, it seems as if the intention was to classify the commandment as positive or negative and then list the commandment itself.

I would agree that the placement of "It's a negative commandment" and "not to" seems to imply that what is in reality prohibited should actually be done (the phrase "don't not do something" seems equivalent to "do something"), which is absurd when taken to this conclusion. Maybe the commandment ("Do not do...") should be stated, followed by the words "Negative commandment." Hopefully a future translation will make things clear.

sheldan said...

With all due respect to Larry Lennhoff and Micha, the less skilled reader could come to the absurd conclusions stated in this post. Unfortunately, that is a problem with a literal translation--it would be better to be a little less literal and more clear.

micha berger said...

I'm a programmer. It does develop the habit of reading exactly what's there. It is rare that that matches the intent better than a more normal person's read, but in this case it does.


Ilana said...

Terrible! I now remember that someone gave me that very book on the occasion of my bat mitzvah... I never read it all the way through, and maybe that's a good thing!

Those are some serious errors!

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

I fully intend on emailing them ... I mean ... I'll edit the darn thing for them!

As for those who say there isn't something wrong with the language, their is. Seriously. How can you not see it!?

"It is a negative commandment" = It is wrong "not to oppress a righteous proselyte."

Thus, if you want to be in the right and good, you must oppress the proselyte. And that's not what it says in the Hebrew, and that's not what is meant.

My fear is non-Jews or people who have it out for the community will read this and be like "see!!!"

Jay said...

"As for those who say there isn't something wrong with the language, their is. Seriously. How can you not see it!?

I think you may want to recommend another editor.

micha berger said...

"It is a negative commandment" does NOT equal "It is wrong". It says "there is a commandment that tells you that something is wrong". The commandment "do not oppress the proselyte" is a negative commandment -- it tells you such oppression is wrong.

"Negative" tells you what kind of commandment it is. It does not tell you "you're supposed to do the opposite of the commandment."

E.g. imagine if we were discussing negative civil laws, in the sense of ones that harm society. A city ordinance requiring theft would be a negative law. But my saying that isn't the same as discussing a city ordinance that bans theft.


merav said...

I'm with those that don't see a problem. A negative commandment is just a commandment telling you NOT to do something. We're taught in English not to use double negatives, but we all understand what they mean, right?

Larry Lennhoff said...

Perhaps a clearer approach would be to avoid using the phrases negative and positive commandment. The problem with this is that the classic sources do classify commandments that way, and that it isn't always clear from the statement of the mitzvah whether a commandment is negative or positive.

Imagine the page was headed "Negative commandments of the Torah" and that it then had a list of commandments. How would you list the
commandment to refrain from oppressing the convert?

David Tzohar said...

BTW the double negative is improper grammatically in Hebrew. One should say אף אחד היה שם without לא. The problem is that people often translate not from Hebrew to English but to a related language that I call American Yeshivish where the double negative is normative.

Shalom Rosenfeld said...


What the translator was trying to get across is the original text's point that the commandments fall into two categories: "yes-do" ("thou shalt") and "don't-do" ("thou shalt not") (or in Hebrew, "aseh" and "lo taaseh"). Because "yes-do" and "don't-do" don't sound fancy enough, someone decided to translate them as "positive" and "negative", which makes all sorts of problems.

The original text was listing the mitzvas and starting off each one by telling you if it's a "yes-do" or "don't do."

(Now some "yes-do"s obligate you to be passive, such as "thou shalt rest on shabbos"; and some "don't-do"s obligate you to be active, "don't just sit there if someone's life needs saving." But I digress.)

The intent here was:

There exists a "don't-do" commandment called "don't oppress a convert."

Yes the translation here is overly clunky and mechanical, but it's not translating a Hebrew double negative in this case; it simply used a confusing translation of "lo taaseh."

micha berger said...

Double negative is proper Biblical ("al ta'as lo me'umah") and Rabbinic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is as much a child of Yiddish and other western languages as of earlier dialects. (Although when the guy in the song "Roni" is dumped by the girl who the sone is named for, he does beg "Roni, bil'adaikh ein li shum kivun". I doubt that's a Yeshivishism.)

Witness the use of word order in Modern Hebrew, eg subject-verb-object, rather than the use of the empty preposition "es" to distinguish sentence structure. In Tanakh, verb-subject-object is the norm. (Never mind the loss of the misnamed vav hahifuch, which is part of the whole shift from perfect vs imperfect tenses to past vs future.)

I just don't think a negative in one clause and a negative in another is a case of double-negative.

Larry, the problem isn't just that earlier discussion divided mitzvos into chiyuvin/mitzvos asei and issurin / lavin/ mitzvos lo sa'asei. It's that the book being translated does. Which means that your suggestion would be to skip part of the book in the translation.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

What you say about the double negative is interesting, because at three different schools with multiple Hebrew teachers, including many Israelis, we've always been taught to say "Af echad lo ..." so ... I'm guessing it's Israelis who have bastardized the language. Even my textbooks (including the one made for Ulpan in Israel) has a lesson on this.

By the way: Feldheim emailed me back very promptly and said that the separation of the book into two sections -- positive and negative commandments -- should be explanation enough, but that they have been revisiting the language in each of the texts, so they might reconsider how this is written.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

And then they said this ... uh?

Anyone who looks at the book, may decide to say the translation is not to their liking, but I don’t think there is any room for misunderstanding the intent of half the book.

However, if you are concerned about misuse of non-Jews of people with an agenda, then I think the worst thing is to put a small, easily misinterpreted excerpt, up on a blog. Maybe for future you can think of this angle and direct your input first to the publisher , instead of leaving it open to misuse in cyberspace..

E said...

I have to say that, on first reading, I do not find this language as baffling as you seem to find it, and I think it is highly unlikely that anyone would misunderstand their meaning. However, I will agree with you that it is not technically correct.
I am a philosophy student, and in philosophic writing we often speak about "negative duties" and "positive duties." A negative duty is a duty not to do X, or a duty to refrain from doing X. A positive duty, then, is a duty to do X. (Personally, I would phrase a claim about a negative duty like this: "One has a negative duty against oppressing a ger.")
Extending that logic, a negative commandment would be a commandment to refrain from doing X, while a positive commandment would be a commandment to do X.
So, when we say, "It is a negative commandment to do X," what we are saying is, "It is a commandment to refrain from doing X." Thus, the statement: "It is a negative commandment not to oppress a ger" really means "It is a commandment to refrain from not oppressing a ger."
To the previous commenters - whatever the grammatical conventions may be in the original language of this text, this is a book written in English and aimed at English speakers, and it should follow English grammatical conventions. If English translations of chumash included the double negative Hebrew construct whenever it appeared, we would have a lot of confused schoolchildren and baalei teshuva.

Anonymous said...

Just a small comment on the grammar:

As far as I know, Hebrew has no nouns which refer to "nothing". כלום actually means "something", and to say "nothing" you must use לא כלום. Similarly, שום דבר also means "something" and you need to write שום דבר לא היה שם. And אף אחד לא היה שם means literally "even one (person) wasn't there".

So in summary, there is no double negative, rather the (single) negation of existence.


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