Mi Yitein

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, January 7, 2010

There are many ways in Hebrew to say “if only”. Abraham pleads “Lu that Ishmael might live by Your favour” (Genesis 17:18). The Jewish Publication Society translates lu as “O” — an exclamation of strong yearning.

Naomi Shemer’s song, “Lu Yehi” (O, may it be!) — inspired by John Lennon’s Let it be — is a song of hope after the agony of the Yom Kippur War. “May peace abide within our land and strengthen all those near and far, may it come to pass, lu yehi.”

Another expression of “if only” is mi yitein. Its literal translation is “what would give”. When Joshua implores Moses to arrest Eldad and Meidad for prophesying right in the middle of the camp, Moses replies, “Mi yitein (Would) that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). Moses had no vested interest in a monopoly on prophesy.

Whereas Abraham’s lu expressed a hope that his wish may indeed come to pass, the biblical mi yitein suggests recognition of the desire’s implausibility. “Mi yitein that I had the wings of a dove,” imagines the Psalmist (55:7), “I would fly away and find rest.” Today’s mi yitein can also be used for conceivable dreams.

Last updated: 10:43am, January 7 2010