Jewish tradition holds that the Torah given at Mount Sinai consists of 613 commandments: 248 commandments that can be classified as “positive commandments” (“thou shalt…”) that generally require a person to go out and actively do something, and 365 are categorized as “negative commandments” (“thou shalt not…”) that typically demand that a person refrain from performing certain actions. Negative commandments in the Torah can usually be identified by the use of the terms lo or al (“no” or “do not”), as in the case of the final five of the Ten Commandments (“lo tirtzach,” “lo tinaf,” etc.) In rabbinic sources, however, references to these Torah prohibitions use the word bal instead of lo or al. In this essay, we will consider whether the word bal is a true synonym to lo and al or whether it expresses something slightly different from the terminology used in the Torah.
Various prohibitions in the Torah use the word lo when mentioning a proscribed act while the rabbis instead use the word bal. For example, the Biblical phrase lo tashchit (Deuteronomy 20:19) becomes bal tashchit in rabbinic sources (Bikkurim 4:2, Kiddushin 1:7). Similarly, lo tossif (Deuteronomy 13:1) becomes bal tossif (Zevachim 8:10); lo tishaktzu (Leviticus 20:25) becomes bal tishaktzu (Shabbat 90b, Makkot 16b, Meilah 17a); lo ye’raeh (Exodus 13:7) becomes bal ye’raeh (Pesachim 3:3, 9:3), and so forth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, bal is essentially used in an to refer to a specific prohibition already outlawed by the use of lo/al in the Torah.
The truth is that the word bal is not a rabbinic neologism – it already appears in the Bible itself, close to 70 times. These Biblical appearances of the Hebrew word bal are concentrated in four books of the Bible: Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Hosea, Job 41:15 and I Chron. 16:30. This means that while the word bal does appear in the Bible, it does not appear in the Torah (Pentateuch) nor in most books of the Bible.
Rashi (to Isaiah 26:10) writes that the Biblical bal means the same thing as lo, as does Machberet Menachem when explaining the first category of words derived from the biliteral root bet-lammed. That being said, in most of the word’s Biblical appearances it does not signify a prohibition but rather that something does not or cannot happen. For example, Psalms praises Hashem by saying “He even prepared the world [in a way that] it will not (bal) falter” (93:1, 96:10), and Proverbs praises the righteous man by saying that he “does not (bal) slip” (10:30, 12:3).
Nevertheless, there are cases where the Bible uses the word bal in stating a fact but the rabbis used their exegetical prowess to give the verse a proscriptive dimension. For example: “He told His words to Jacob / His statues and His laws to Israel / He did not do so for all the nations / And laws He did not (bal) make them know / Hallelujah!” (Psalms 147:19). This passage is clearly talking about the historical fact that Hashem revealed the Torah to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, and that He did not offer a similar revelation to other nations. Possibly because of the word bal, however, the rabbis saw this passage as instructive and not merely historical, and therefore they derived from it that we do not transmit Words of Torah to gentiles (Chagiga 13a). They thus took the word bal in this passage in the same sense that they themselves used the word bal, that is, to prohibit certain courses of action.
All of this leads us to the obvious question: Why did the rabbis prefer using the word bal when discussing Biblical prohibitions instead of using the Bible’s own wording of lo?
Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi (1520-1592) in his Shitah Mekubetzes (to Temurah 6b) cites Rabbi Meir HaMeili, who cryptically explains in his Sefer HaMeorot that the rabbis switched out the Biblical lo for the rabbinic bal because the latter is apparently somehow easier to pronounce and conveys a clearer meaning.
This may be related to the answer proposed by Rabbi Reuven Margolios (1889-1971). He posited that the rabbis of the Oral Torah replaced the Written Torah’s verbiage lo with the term bal in order to disambiguate the meaning of lo in the context of negative prohibitions, as listeners might otherwise confuse lo (“no”) with its homonym lo (“to him/for him”) and totally miss the meaning of what is being conveyed. To avoid such confusion, the rabbis replaced the word lo altogether when talking about prohibitions and used bal instead.
Several other answers to this question have been proposed over the generations, however. Because they are not as well-known, we are citing these more obscure answers with the hope that perhaps some of them will resonate with today’s readers.
Rabbi Ber Oppenheimer (1760-1849) opts for a technical answer to the question. He posits that the word al always serves as a negative imperative, meaning that it always means “do not” in reference to something that one might do in the future; it is never used in reference to an action that happened in the past (with the exception of I Samuel 27:10). Lo, on the other hand, refers to the past in a factual manner or to the future as an imperative command. In the sentences “You shall not eat the cookie” and “You did not eat the cookie,” in both cases the word lo is appropriate. When the word bal when it appears in the Bible, he says, it is a term of negation for both the past and future, like al, but it is never used in the imperative sense as a command.
Based on this, Rabbi Oppenheimer explains that when the rabbis used the term bal to refer to one who has violated a prohibition, they did so because it is not just a reference to something that happened in the past. For example, one who violated bal tigzal refers to one who stole and still holds the stolen goods in his possession without returning it. Similarly, other uses of the term bal in the Rabbinic Hebrew sense refer to a person who has variously committed other violations and has yet to repent for the sins which he committed. In these cases, the point is not that one is prohibited by Divine fiat from doing a certain action, but rather the fact that one has already taken a forbidden course of action.
If I understood him properly, Rabbi Aharon Maggid (1909-1978) explains that lo denotes a command given directly to a second person in very concrete terms (“you shall not…), while bal refers to the commandment in a more abstract way (“the prohibition outlawing…”), without a concrete focus on to whom the prohibition applies.
Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher (1795-1874) offers what he admits to be a novel take on our question. He suggests that whenever the rabbis switch out the word lo for bal when referring to a given prohibition, they mean to focus on the added rabbinic extensions to the core Biblical prohibition but not to the actual core Biblical prohibition itself. For example, the plain meaning of the Biblical prohibition of lo tashchit only entails actually destroying a literal fruit tree, as explicitly mentioned in the Torah; but when the rabbis use the term bal tashchit it refers to the rabbinically-expanded prohibition that outlaws any sort of non-constructive destruction of property, even if does not technically fit into the words of the original Biblical prohibition. Rabbi Gutmacher qualifies his explanation by noting that he would have to go through the entire Talmud and test whether his theory pans out. (Spoiler alert: I don’t think that it does.)
In a similar way, Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshawitz (1887-1941) writes in Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun that lo implies an absolute, unconditional “no,” while bal implies a general “no” that is more flexible. Accordingly, he explains that the rabbis who interpreted the Torah’s prohibitions and explained exactly when they do and do not apply opted to use the more flexible verbiage than the Torah’s original wording to reflect their efforts.
Interestingly, some scholars have suggested that the term bal is not actually a rabbinic expression but was created by later copyists of rabbinic texts who wished to abbreviate the word b’lo (“included in the [prohibition of] ‘do not…’”). This theory has not gained much traction, however.
Here’s my own pet theory to answer the question: The famed Chatan Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), writes in Toras Moshe (Leviticus 10:1) that one of the names of the Angel of Death is lo. He sees this as alluded to in the passage concerning Nadav and Avihu’s death after engaging in a ritual “that was not (lo) commanded to them” (10:1). Based on this, we may argue that the rabbis switched out the word lo for bal when discussing negative commandments in order to avoid invoking the name of the Angel of Death, which might cause accusations against the Jewish People who may have sometimes failed to uphold those very commandments.
What do you think about that?