Is it true that the superlative in Hebrew is formed by saying the adjective thrice? I've been told that in order to say the Lord is the holiest, one would have to say he is "holy, holy, holy."


The short answer is no. There are many ways to form a superlative in Hebrew, and in the Bible threefold repetition is not one of them.

The long and technical answer is: In Hebrew the superlative may be expressed in a number of ways (for those who aren't familiar with the technical syntactical terms, hopefully the examples will suffice):
  • One is the construct form of anarthrous singular noun with the anarthrous plural of the same noun: "X of Xs" (as in "Song of Songs").
  • Another is related to "X of Xs" in that in relies on the construct relationship, but it uses a substantive adjective in construct with a noun: "Adjective of Noun" (as in "wisest of men" where "wisest" is really just the word "wise").
  • Another is the use of the preposition mn or min (meaning "from") in a construction such as "the X mn Y" (as in "the best from/of your children" where "best" is really just the word "good").
  • An articular predicate adjective may also indicate a superlative (as in "he was the youngest" where "youngest" is really just the word "young").
  • Another is the use of a qualifying noun or adjective that indicates a superlative quality (as in "majestic splendor").
  • Another is the use of some divine name in construct or as a qualifier (as in "very great mountains" rendered from the "mountains of God").
  • Closely related to the form immediately above is the use of another majestic name in place of that of God, such as the king or a prince (as in "mansion" rendered from "prince's house").
  • Similarly, the superlative may be formed by references to death or hell (as in "vexed to death").
  • Another is the use of the term m'od ("very") or the phrase 'ad m'od ("unto very," meaning something like "unto veriness") after an adjective (the form "X m'od" as in "best" rendered from "good m'od").
  • Another is the use of a pronominal suffix on an adjective, as in "the best of them" rendered from "the good of them."
  • Also, the first term of a definite construct chain may sometimes be taken in the superlative (as in "the best of his sons" rendered from "the good of his sons").
  • A definite adjective may also indicate the superlative when indicating one in a group prefixed by the preposition b (i.e. "among") (as in "the fairest among women" rendered from "the fair b women").
  • The term mcol ("of all," "from all," "above all") may also indicate the superlative (as in "the most cunning" rendered from "the cunning mcol").
  • An abstract term of quality (e.g. "good," "bad") used with a definite genitive (or with a pronominal suffix, as above) may also indicate a superlative (as in "the best of the land" rendered from "the good of the land"; or "the foremost nation" rendered from "the first of the nations").
I have often heard people say that thrice repeating a word is the "only" way to form the superlative in Hebrew, but this is not the case. In fact, Isaiah 6:3 is the only place we find a three-time repetition in the Hebrew Bible, and while the traditional view was that it was a superlative construction, most modern grammarians do not believe this to be the case. Rather, as our modern Hebrew texts indicate (via the vowels), it is probably a chant rather than an intensive construct. That is, it probably just means "holy, holy, holy," and not "holy of holy of holy" or "most holy."

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.