Knowing your prefixes is necessary – both when studying biblical Hebrew, and speaking modern Hebrew, and one of the most important differences that one should know is the difference between the prefix ל, ‘to/for’, and ב, ‘in’.
To give some insight into why this is so important, Gemara Brachot 64a quotes a teaching of Rabbi Avin HaLevi who states: “When you part ways from your friend, don’t say to them לך בשלום (go in peace), but rather לך לשלום (go to/for peace). [And why is this so?] For Yitro said to Moses לך לשלום – ‘go to/for peace’ (see Shemot 4:18) and he continued to ascend and be successful, whereas David said to Avshalom לך בשלום – ‘go in peace’ (see Shmuel II 15:9) and we went and was hanged.” To be clear, there is nothing inherently more sinister with the prefix ב, ‘in’ than the prefix ל, ‘to/for’. However, in terms of its usage with the word שלום (peace), the former has an implied association with death, while the other has an association with safety and success.
One reason I mention this is because this distinction between ל, ‘to/for’, and ב, ‘in’, is mentioned in today’s daf (Ketubot 54b) where Rabbi Abahu quotes a teaching from Rabbi Yochanan about a father who commits material goods to his widow and children where, if the father stated that the field is למזונות ‘for support’ then he has increased his support, whereas if he said that the field is במזונות ‘in support’ then he has fixed the amount of his financial support.
However, a further reason for mentioning this is because, especially having just started the month of Ellul, many Jewish schools are starting today or are about to start, and with this in mind I’d like to share a short story about the legendary Rav Mendel Kaplan z’l (1913-1985) who taught at the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva) and then became a Rebbe at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia told by one of his students: ‘The first thing Rav Mendel Kaplan did on our very first day was to ask every talmid to write down his hebrew name on an index card. He was not looking to give us an עליה לתורה – an Aliyah to/for the Torah. Instead, he was looking to help us have an עליה בתורה – an Aliyah (ascent) in Torah and simply wanted to daven for our success.’
Over the years I’ve shared this story about Rav Kapan many times because I sincerely believe that a teacher should – in addition to preparing their lessons with care and teaching energetically – also pray intensely that they be a successful teacher and that their students should not only increase their knowledge and skills through their studies, but also achieve an עליה בתורה through what they learn.
May the heartfelt tefillot of our teachers be answered, and wishing both students and teachers starting or going back to school this week much success.