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"To" or "El"? The Answer is Simpler Than You Think

Updated: Jun 27

One of the questions we keep getting from our students is whether there is a difference between the two prepositions 'to' (ל) and 'el' (אל). If you're wondering too, you should read the following post.

Many Hebrew speakers notice that the prepositions el (אל) and le- (ל־) can be interchanged in many sentences, but this interchange is not possible in the inflected forms of these prepositions. For example:

A. All rivers flow to the sea = כל הנחלים הולכים לים. (And in inflection: כל הנחלים הולכים אליו. But the sentence "כל הנחלים הולכים לו" is not correct.

B. It is forbidden to approach the queen = אסור להתקרב למלכה. It is forbidden to approach her = אסור להתקרב אליה (and not: "אסור להתקרב לה").

How do speakers decide between these two prepositions? And how can we explain these rules to someone for whom Hebrew is not a native language? Let's pay attention to the many cases where only the preposition le- (ל־) is suitable, both separately and in inflection, and it cannot be replaced by el (אל):

C. Mom bought Ruthie a balloon. She bought her a blue balloon = אימא קנתה לרותי בלון. היא קנתה לה בלון כחול.

D. You did not explain your position to the child. You need to explain to him why you think so = לא הסברת את עמדתך לילד. אתה צריך להסביר לו מדוע אתה חושב כך.

E. The use of plastic is harmful to the environment. It harms it in many ways = השימוש בפלסטיק מזיק לסביבה. הוא מזיק לה בדרכים רבות.

F. Try to forgive your family members. Forgive them for their mistakes = תנסו לסלוח לבני המשפחה שלכם. תנסו לסלוח להם על הטעויות שלהם.

We have before us two different models of sentence construction:

In the model in sentences A-B, the prepositions אל ("to") and ל־ ("to") are used separately, while in the inflection, only אל is used.

In the model in sentences C-F, only the preposition ל־ is used separately and also in the inflection.

Let's compare the role of the noun following the alternating prepositions אל/ל־ in examples A-B with the role of the noun following the preposition ל־ in examples ג–ו. The common denominator is directionality: something is done "toward" someone or something. The difference is that in the first group, the noun indicates a target of actual or metaphorical movement, whereas in the second group, the noun indicates someone (or something) receiving something tangible or abstract.

We could label model (1) as the "target model" and model (2) as the "recipient model."

Model (1) is not limited to motion verbs that require an indication of a physical target. It is also found with other verbs; for example, in verbs like נכסף (yearn), השתוקק (long), and התגעגע (miss), the object of desire is a metaphorical "target"—someone or something towards which the emotion is directed. Therefore, one says "את מתגעגעת אליהם" ("you miss them") and similar expressions (and not "את מתגעגעת להם"). Similarly, verbs related to relationships, such as 'התחבר אליו' (connect with him), 'התייחס אליו' (relate to him), and verbs of address, such as 'התפלל אליו' (pray to him).

In model (2), the role of the noun complementing the verb is even broader. Besides clear giving verbs, this model includes a wide variety of verbs: לעג (mock), בז (despise), סלח (forgive), דאג (worry), קיווה (hope), קינא (envy), סגד (worship), נכנע (submit), and more. The noun complementing all these verbs denotes someone or something that "benefits" or "is harmed" by the action in some aspect.

Is it always possible to decide whether a verb belongs to model (1) and will require the preposition אל (to him) or belongs to model (2) and will require the preposition ל־ (to him)? Some verbs allow for flexibility. Verbs whose meanings involve sending and transferring might belong to both models with slightly different nuances in meaning. One might say "אימא שלחה לך את החבילה" ("Mom sent you the package") and also "אימא שלחה אליך את החבילה" ("Mom sent the package to you"). According to the first formulation, the second party (you) is interpreted as the recipient of the package, while the second formulation focuses on the destination of the shipment, namely the recipient's location, for example, where they live.

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