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The Eternal Echo of 'מה נשתנה' Amidst Modern Struggles

The most famous song in the Passover Haggadah is "מה נשתנה". Why don’t we say "מה השתנה"? And in modern Hebrew, should we say "התבקשנו" or "נתבקשנו"? A discussion on the verbs "התפעל" and "נתפעל".



As every Jewish household gathers on the eve of the Seder and sings "מה נשתנה" together, it’s poignant to reflect that nothing has changed. 133 individuals are still held captive by Hamas in Gaza, and the conflict persists. Yet, it's interesting to note how the form has evolved since we usually declare that nothing has changed. Phrases like "A new advisor was appointed to the company," "We were asked to help," "Flaws in the system were discovered" – in contemporary Hebrew, we often encounter "נתפעל" forms, beginning with a "נ," instead of the more traditional "התפעל" forms starting with a "ה" (e.g., התמנה, התבקשנו, התגלו). What is the origin of these forms? When is it appropriate to use them, and is there a significant difference between them and "התפעל" forms?


The "התפעל" and "נתפעל" forms primarily differ in their linguistic layer: "התפעל" is typical of biblical language, whereas "נתפעל" belongs to the language of the sages. Both are considered standard, and generally, there is no significant difference in meaning. In modern Hebrew, "התפעל" forms are common across all language stages, while "נתפעל" forms might replace them mainly in written and formal language. The use of "נתפעל" forms is typically limited to passive verbs, such as נתבקש, נתמנה, or verbs where the subject is not the agent of the action, such as נשתנה, נשתמר, נתרחב (primarily verbs indicating a change of state).


In the language of the sages, the "התפעל" structure evolved into "נתפעל," beginning to replace the biblical "פועל" as its passive equivalent of "פיעל," for example: נתבשל, נתברר, נתבקש. Since the "נפעל" structure is prevalent in the language of the sages for passive instruction, it is believed to have influenced the shift to the "נתפעל" form starting with "נ".


The linguist Aba Bendavid noted that alongside the passive use of "נתפעל" in the language of the sages, it also denotes actions performed by the subject itself, such as נזדקן, נתעלם, נתייפתה, and sometimes even replaces the simple form (קל) – especially to denote behavior, such as נתגאה, נתרחק, נתיירא.


Today, the distinction between "התפעל" and "נתפעל" forms is primarily a matter of stage: "התפעל" forms are usual in all language stages, while "נתפעל" forms may sometimes appear in their place mainly in written and formal language as a stylistic choice by writers and speakers. The usage of "נתפעל" forms today mainly encompasses two groups of verbs:

  • Passive verbs – for example: נִתְבַּקֵּשׁ, נִתְגַּלָּה, נִתְמַנָּה, נִתְחַיֵּב, נִתְפָּרֵשׁ.

  • Verbs where the subject itself is not the doer of the action (anacoluthonic verbs) – for example: נִתְבַּדָּה, נִתְקַיֵּם, נִתְחַוֵּר, נִתְבָּרֵר, נִזְדַּקֵּק, נִשְׁתַּמֵּר, נִתְאַפְשֵׁר. Many of these verbs express a change of state, such as נִתְרַחֵב, נִשְׁתַּנָּה, נִתְרַחֵק, נִתְחַבֵּר, נִתְבַּקֵּעַ, נִתְפּוֹרֵר, נִתְכַּוֵּץ, נִתְמַלֵּא.

The tendency to use "נתפעל" forms mainly in these two groups aligns with their common use in the language of the sages – since their instructive function in this linguistic layer likely stems from the transformation of the "התפעל" structure into a form expressing passivity or similar meanings. However, it's essential to emphasize that this is only a tendency, not a binding rule. In literature, other "נתפעל" forms can also be found: נִתְיַשֵּׁב, נִתְלַוָּה, נִצְטַעֵק, נִסְתַּלֵּק, and many more, with some having roots already in the language of the sages.


Choosing between "התפעל" and "נתפעל" forms is thus a stylistic choice left to the discretion of the writers. On a personal note, what truly needs to change is bringing everyone home now! Wishing all of Israel a happy Passover.

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