Hebrew For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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The ancient language of Hebrew is still spoken today, and if you want to speak it, you need to know common greetings, basic questions, and the Hebrew alphabet. A Jewish blessing in Hebrew shows the language in action.

If you’re attending a Shabbat dinner, familiarizing yourself with the common rituals of the special event is a great idea to help you thoroughly enjoy the night. The information below will help you understand what Shabbat is, common Jewish traditions, the Hebrew phrases and language to know, and what to expect from the night of festivities! Don't forget, in Hebrew, you read sentences in the opposite direction of English, from right to left.

Going to Shabbat dinner

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest and is considered to be the holiest day on the calendar of the Kabbalist. This important day is observed weekly on Friday nights at sundown and lasts until sundown on Saturday. The celebration begins in Jewish households in Israel and around the world during the Friday-night dinner.

אֲרוּחַת שַׁבָּת (ah-roo-ḥaht Shah-baht; Shabbat dinner/meal) is the focal point of the week, and families often take extra measures to ensure that the dinner and evening are special for family members and friends. The table is often decorated and set with aמַפָּה לְבָנָה (mah-pah leh-vah-nah; white tablecloth) and pretty dishes. Atop the table sits the כּוֹס לְקִדּוּשׁ (kos leh-kee-doosh; Kiddush cup), which is held when the blessing over the Sabbath day is said. Before the meal, Jewish people sing a song to welcome Sabbath angels and follow it with בְּרָכוֹת (brah-oht; blessings) over the יַיִן (yah-yeen; wine) and לֶחֶם (lehehm; bread).

In some traditional households, people ritually wash their hands — an act called נְטִילַת יָדַיִם (neh-tee-laht yah-dye-eem) — before consuming bread. Traditionally, Ashkenazi Sabbath dinner foods include עוֹף (ohf; chicken), צִימִיס (tzi-mehs; stew with carrots), and sometimes בָּשָׂר (bah-sahr; red meat).

If you are dining with a Mizrahi family, they might serve יְרָקוֹת מְמֻלָּאִים בְּבָשָׂר (yeh-rah-koht mem-loo-eem beh-bah-sahr; meat-stuffed vegetables). Eating דָּג (dahg; fish) on שַׁבָּת (shah-baht; Sabbath) is also a traditional practice. One reason for this custom is connected to the גִּמַּטְרִיָּה (geh-mah-tree-ah; numerology) of the fish. In גִּמַּטְרִיָּה, (geh-mah-tree-ah; numerology) each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value. The numerical values of the letters in the Hebrew word for fish total seven, and שַׁבָּת shah-baht; Sabbath is the seventh day of the week!

On a typical שֻׁלְחָן עָרוּךְ לְשַׁבָּת (shool-ahn ah-roo leh-shah-baht; a table set for שַׁבָּת/Shabbat), you may also find:

  • כַּפִּית, כַּפִּיּוֹת (kah-peet, kah-pee-oht; teaspoon, teaspoons)
  • כּוֹס, כּוֹסוֹת (kohs, kohs-oht; cup, cups)
  • כּוֹס לְקִדּוּשׁ (kohs leh-kee-doosh; the Kiddush cup over which a special blessing for the Sabbath is recited)
  • מַפָּה לְבָנָה (mah-pah leh-vah-nah; white tablecloth)
  • מַפִּית, מַפִּיּוֹת (mah-peet, mah-pee-oht; napkin, napkins)
  • מַזְלֵג, מַזְלְגוֹת (mahz-lehg, mahz-lah-goht; fork, forks)
  • פְּרָחִים (puh-rah-cheem; flowers)
  • סַכִּין,סַכִּינִים (sah-keen, sah-kee-neem; knife, knives)
  • צַלַּחַת,צַלָּחוֹת (tzah-lah-aht, tzah-lahoht; dish, dishes)

People often say הַשֻּׁלְחָן הָיָה עָמוּס בְּאֹכֶל (hah-shool-chahn hah-yah ah-moos beh-oh-chehl; The table was loaded with food!) on Friday nights because of the sheer amount of food present.

Speaking of favorite Hebrew expressions

Even outside Israel, Hebrew is an important part of Jewish life. Throughout history, the Jewish people have continued to hold on to the language of their native land.

  • Today, although the majority of the world’s Hebrew speakers live in Israel, about a million Hebrew speakers live outside the State of Israel, most of them in North America. Even if they don’t speak Hebrew fluently, most Jews know a Hebrew phrase or two. Here are ten Hebrew phrases you’re likely to hear in Jewish communities both inside and outside Israel:
  • מַזָּל טוֹב (mah-zahl tohv; literally: a good sign) This phrase is used to mean congratulations. Guests shout it at Jewish weddings when the groom stomps on a glass, breaking it in memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as a reminder that the world is still broken today. You can also say מַזָּל טוֹב to someone on other happy occasions — a birthday, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a new job, or an engagement. Here’s something funny: In Israel, whenever someone accidentally breaks a glass or a dish in a restaurant, the entire restaurant shouts out מַזָּל טוֹבin unison.
  • בְּקָרוֹב אֶצְלֵךְ (buh-kah-rohv ehtz-lehḥ; literally: soon so shall it be by you) This expression is a good way to respond when someone wishes you a hearty מַזָּל טוֹב. Its most common use is by brides in response to their single women friends congratulating them on their wedding, but you can use it in any circumstance. If you want to say בְּקָרוֹב אֶצְלֵךְ to a guy, you should say בְּקָרוֹב אֶצְלֶךָ (buh-kah-rohv ehtz-leh-ah).
  • תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ (teet-ḥah-dehsh; literally: you shall be renewed) This is a nice thing to say to males when they make a new purchase, whether they’ve bought clothing, a new car, or a new house. If you’re speaking to a girl or woman, you should say תִּתְחַדְּשִׁי (teet-ahd-shee). To a group of people, say תִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ (teet-ahd-shoo).
  • בְּתֵאָבוֹן (buh-tay-ah-vohn; literally: with appetite.) בְּתֵאָבוֹן is the Hebrew equivalent of bon appetit! A host may say this when presenting a dish, and a waiter or waitress may say it to customers in a restaurant. When you dine with someone, you can say this phrase to each other before digging in.
  • בְּעֶזְרַת הַשֵּׁם (beh-ehz-raht hah-shehm; literally: with help of the Name) In religiously observant circles, Jews often refer to the Holy One (God, that is) as הַשֵּׁם (hah-shem) which literally means the Name. Because God’s name is so precious, you never even recite it in prayer, let alone in conversation. But sometimes, you do want to talk about God in the course of conversation, so religiously observant folks mention God by referring toהַשֵּׁם (hah-shem; the name). People often use this phrase when they speak about the future and want God’s help.
  • יָשָׁר כֹּחַ (yih-shahr koh-aḥ; literally: straight power) You can use this expression when you want to say, good for you, way to go, or more power to you when someone has accomplished something. People often use this phrase in the synagogue after someone has received an honor such as leading a portion of the prayer service or reading Torah. The proper response to this phrase is בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה (bah-rooteeh-hee-yeh) to a guy and בְּרוּכָה תִּהְיִי (bh-roo-ah tee-hee-yee) to a girl or a woman. Both phrases mean you shall be blessed.
  • דָּשׁ (dahsh) is an acronym for דְּרִישַׁת שָׁלוֹם (duh-ree-shaht shah-lohm), which literally means wishings or demands of peace. דָּשׁ is used to mean regards. You ask someone to send דָּשׁ just like you’d ask to someone to send your regards. For the full Hebrew phrase, use either of the following:
    • תִּמְסֹר לוֹ דַּשׁ מִמֶּנִּי (teem-sohr loh dahsh mee-mehn-nee; Send him my regards.)
    • תְּמָסוּרִי לָה דַּשׁ מִמֶּנִּי (teem-sah-ree lah dahsh mee-mehnnee; Send her my regards.)
    • You can also send warm regards with דַּשׁ חַם (dahsh ahm).
  • נוּ (nuuuuuuu) This phrase has no literal translation into English. After a friend has gone out on a hot date the night before, when your mother has an important interview, or when your child has a big test at school, you’ll probably want to inquire about how everything went. So, you say ? נו expectantly and wait for a reply.
  • כָּל הַכָּבוֹד (kohl hah-kah-vohd; literally: all of the respect) You can use this little phrase when you want to say all right, way to go, or a job well done. You’re picking up all kinds of new information with this focus on phrases ! כָּל הַכָּבוֹד
  • לְחַיִּים (leḥa’im; literally: to life) לְחַיִּים reveals a lot about the Jewish approach to life. The phrase is not to a good life, to a healthy life, or even to a long life. It is simply to life, recognizing that life is indeed good and precious and should always be celebrated and savored. ! לְחַיִּים

Making sense of Hebrew syntax

The syntax (the arrangement of words to make sentences), or תַּחְבִּיר (tahbeer), of a Hebrew sentence is quite different from that of English. Take a look at the basics of word order — what syntax looks like in English and how Hebrew is different. Also discover how to say there is and there isn’t, because if you can use this simple sentence construction, you can say a lot. Just plug in the noun of your choice, and you’ll be speaking Hebrew!

Putting your sentences in order

When you read or hear modern Hebrew sentences, you may think they’re oddly constructed compared with sentences in English or any other European language. In English, so much depends on word order. In Hebrew, on the other hand, less depends on word order. In Hebrew, you could say either of the following:

  • מֶמְשָׁלָה חֲדָשָׁה קָמָה (mehm-shah-lah ah-dah-shah kah-mah; literally: government new arises)
  • קָמָה מֶמְשָׁלָה חֲדָשָׁה (kah-mah mehm-shah-lah את ah-dah-shah; literally: arises government new)

Both of these phrases mean the same thing: A new government rises. The order of the words doesn’t affect the meaning.

Look at another example in English. “Mollie kissed Harry” isn’t the same as “Harry kissed Mollie,” is it? Certainly not to Mollie — or, for that matter, to Harry.

In Hebrew, sometimes a verb, especially one without an object, comes before its subject, not after it as in English. Under certain conditions, you can identify the direct object (person or thing acted upon, as opposed to person or thing doing the acting) because the word אֶת (eht) precedes the direct object.

You know it was Mollie who did the kissing whether you say:

  • מָלִי נִשְׁקָה אֶת פְרֶאד (moh-lee neesh-kah eht fred; literally: Mollie kissed Fred)
  • מָלִי אֶת פְרֶאד נִשְּׂקָה (moh-lee eht fred neesh-kah; literally: Mollie Fred kissed)

These sentences, despite their different word order, all mean essentially the same thing: Mollie kissed Fred.

To say there is or there are, use the word יֵשׁ (yehsh) before the noun you want to talk about. To say there isn’t or there aren’t, use the word אֵין (ayn) before the noun. For example:

  • יֵשׁ בָּנָנוֹת (yehsh bah-nah-noht; There are bananas.)
  •  אֵין בָּנָנוֹת (ayn bah-nah-noht; There aren’t any bananas.)

Now, pick a noun, any noun, and put a יֵשׁ or an אֵין in front of it. You’ll be speaking Hebrew!

Questioning

When you make a question, you don’t change the order of the words like in English. You can ask a question in a few different ways. The first is by simply taking a statement and putting a question mark in your voice (by raising your voice at the end of the sentence.) Thus, when asked with the proper intonation, this statement can be a question ?יֵשׁ חָלָב הַמְּקָרֵר (yesh ah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr ?; there’s milk in the refrigerator?)

Another way to turn this statement into a question is by adding the word נָכוֹן (nahohn; correct) to the end of the statement. In grammar-speak, this word is called a tag. For example: ? יֵשׁ חָלָב הַמְּקָרֵר, נָכוֹן (yehsh ah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr, nah-chohn?; there’s milk in the refrigerator, correct?)

Yet another way to turn a statement into a question is to add the question word, הָאֵם (hah-eem) in front of the sentence. For example: ? הָאֵם יֵשׁ חָלָבהַמְּקָרֵר (hah-eem yehsh ah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr; is there milk in the refrigerator?) This last option is the most formal option, so you won’t hear it often.

While Hebrew differs from English in that you don’t need to flip the order in a statement in order to turn it into a question, the word-order flexibility of Hebrew allows the speaker to stress a particular part of the sentence by putting it at the beginning.

For example, if someone just said there are no strawberries in the fridge, you may ask: ? בָּנָנוֹת יֵשׁ (bah-nah-noht yesh; literally: bananas there are?; but are there bananas?) Or you may also ask: ? בָּנָנוֹת אֵין bah-nah-noht ehn?; literally: bananas there aren’t?; aren’t there bananas?)

Greeting and saying good-bye in Hebrew

Hebrew offers you many choices of ways to say hello and good-bye. Here are a few things to say in greeting:

  • שָׁלוֹם (shah-lohm; Hello; peace.)
  • ? מָה עִנְיָנִים (mah -in-yah-neem; How are things?)
  • ? מָה נִשְׁמָע (mah neesh-mah ; What’s up?)
  • ? מָה שְׁלוֹמְךָ (mah sh-lohm-ah; How are you? Literally: How is your welfare?) (Masculine singular)
  • ? מָה שְׁלוֹמֵךְ (mah sh-loh-meh; How are you? Literally: How is your welfare?) (Feminine singular)
  • ? מָה שְׁלוֹמְכֶם (mah sh-lohm-chehm; How are you?) (Masculine Plural/ Feminine Plural)

Ah, but parting is such sweet sorrow. When you have to hit the road, use one of these phrases to say good-bye:

  • שָׁלוֹם(shah-lohm; Peace.)
  • כָּל טוֹב (kohl toov; Be well.)
  • לְהִתְרָאוֹת (leh-hee-trah-oht; See you soon.)

Greeting all day long

In Hebrew, as in every other language, the time of day you greet a person often determines what you say. But Hebrew throws a bit of a twist into the standard mix. It also contains particular greetings that depend on whether you greet someone before or after the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath starts when the sun begins to set on Friday night and ends about 25 hours later at sundown on Saturday night when the sun has completely set.

In the morning, you can say בֹּקֶר טוֹב (boh-kehr tohv; good morning). If someone greets you in this manner, you can say בֹּקֶר טוֹב right back to him or her, or you can say בֹּקֶר טוֹב (boh-kehr ohr; morning light). In the afternoon, you can say צָהֳרַיִם טוֹבִים (tzoh-hoh-rye-eem toh-veem; good afternoon). In response, you can simply repeat the same words back.

The pattern of simply repeating the greeting as a reply holds true for all the time-sensitive greetings. The morning greeting is the only exception because you can reply with either בֹּקֶר טוֹב or בֹּקֶר אוֹר.

So, in the evening, you can say עֶרֶב טוֹב (eh-rehv tohv; good evening) whether you’re greeting someone or responding to another person’s salutation. At night, you can say לַיְלָה טוֹב (lye-lah tohv; good night). And, if someone is headed off to bed, you can wish him or her חֲלוֹמוֹת פָּז (ah-loh-moht pahz; golden dreams)!

Got that? Good. Now on to the Sabbath-related greetings. All day Friday and during the Sabbath, greeting people with the words that wish them a peaceful Sabbath is customary: שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם (shah-baht shah-lohm; have peaceful Sabbath). When the sun sets on Saturday night (and you can see three stars in the sky), the Sabbath is over. On שָׁבוּעַ טוֹב Saturday nights and even on Sundays, it’s customary to greet people with a cheery (shah-voo-ahtohv), wishing them a good week.

The Book of Genesis describes each day as beginning in the evening: “There was evening; there was morning; a first day.” Therefore, days and holidays on the Jewish calendar begin in the evening with the setting sun and last until the sun is completely set 25 hours later. The reason for 25 hours is just for safety. It should be exactly 24 hours, but rabbis added the extra hour so that we’ll never start the Sabbath too late or end the Sabbath too early.

Replying to a greeting

Knowing how to say hello and good-bye is a great start. But, if you want to get past the initial hello, you need a few more phrases in your back pocket (like what to say when someone asks how you’re doing). Who knows? These phrases could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

  • Some responses to greetings are:
  •  שְׁלוֹמִי טוֹב (sh-loh-mee tohv; My welfare is good.)
  • אֶצְלִי בְּסֵדֶר גָּמוּר (ehtz-lee buh-seh-dehr gah-moohr; With me, things are completely okay.)
  • בְּסֵדֶר (beh-seh-dehr; Okay.)
  • מַמָּשׁ טוֹב (mah-mahsh tohv; Really good.)
  • לֹא כָּל כָּךְ טוֹב (loh kohl-kah tohv; Not so good.)

Dressing by the Jewish calendar

Of course, when you buy clothes, you want to dress for the season. Whether you are wearing בְּגָדִים יוֹמוֹמַיִם (beh-gah-deem yoh-mee-eem; casual clothes), לָבוּשׁ (lah-voosh chah-gee-gee; dressy clothes), or even your בִּגְדֵי שַׁבָּת (beeg-day shah-baht; Sabbath clothes, the Hebrew equivalent of “Sunday Best”), or if you live in a climate with four seasons, you want to have handy all kinds of clothes for the different weather.

Fall fashion

Ah, fall — when the air is crisp and the leaves are colorful! On the Jewish calendar, fall is the time of the High Holidays, including Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. Fall is a time for new beginnings. It’s also a great time to get some new clothes.

The following Hebrew words are a few fall items you may want to have on hand:

  • אפוד (ah-foo-dah; vest)
  • מְעִיל קָצָר (meh-eel kah-tzar; jacket or short coat)
  • מְעִיל גֶּשֶׁם (meh-eel geh-shem; raincoat)

The winter look

Winter! What a magical time of year. If your home area receives snow, this time can be especially fun — and cold! Thus, you need to bundle up. Following are some special items of winter clothing you may want to take out of storage when the temperatures start hovering around freezing:

  • כְּפָפוֹת (k-fah-foht; gloves)
  • כּוֹבַע(koh-vah; hat)
  • מַגָּפַיִם(mah-gah-fye-eem; boots)
  • מְעִיל(meh-eel; coat)
  • צָאִיף (tzah-eef; scarf)

Spring attire

Spring is wonderful! The days grow longer and warmer. Trees and flowers begin to bloom. And you can finally stop wearing those wool gloves and toss off that heavy coat in favor of a lighter jacket. You can now wear:

חֲלוּצָה עִם שֶׁלְּבוּלִים קְצָרִים (ool-tzah eem shahr-voo-leem keh-tzah-reem; short-sleeved shirt

מִטְרִיָּה(mee-tree-yah; umbrella)

Summer wear

The dog days of summer! Long sunny days! Ice cream cones! And, of course, the clothes you can wear only on the hottest days of the year:

  • בֶּגֶד יָם (beh-gehdyahm; bathing suit)
  • מִכְנָסַיִם קִצְרִיִּים (Mi-nah-sah-yeem Ktzah-reem; shorts)
  • מִשְׁקְפֵי שֶׁמֶשׁ (meesh-kah-fay Sheh-mesh; sunglasses)
  • סַנְדָּלִים(Sahn-dah-leem; sandals)

When you put two nouns together to form one word, you have a dependent relationship or a compound noun. In Hebrew, you call this compound a סְמִיכוּת (smeeoot). A good example in English is the word “fireplace.” Basically, two words combine to make up one word. In Hebrew, when both nouns are singular, putting them together in סְמִיכוּת (smeeoot) is easy.

For example, the word for swimsuit in Hebrew is בֶּגֶד יָם (beh-gehd yahm), which means “sea suit.” Note: In Hebrew, the order is the opposite as it is in English. In the previous example, בֶּגֶד means clothes or suit while יָם means sea. So literally that means “clothing of the sea.” Furthermore, if the nouns have only one syllable, their pronunciation remains the same. The one exception is the word for room חֶדֶר (eh-dahr). In סְמִיכוּת (Smiḥut), חֶדֶר (smeeoot, eh-dair) becomes חֲדַר (chah-dar). Hence, the Hebrew word for “dressing room” is חֲדַר הַהֻלְבַּשׁ (ah-dar hahl-bah-shah). If the first word in the סְמִיכוּת (Smiḥut) is masculine plural, the final מ (mem) drops off. For example, sunglasses is מִשְׁקְפֵי שֶׁמֶשׁ (meesh-kah-fey sheh-mesh). One more tidbit: If you want to add the word the ( הַ; hah) to a סְמִיכוּת (Smiḥut), put it in front of the second noun.

For example:

  • בֶּגֶד הַיָּם (beh-gehd hah-yahm; the bathing suit)
  • חֲדַר הַהֻלְבַּשׁ (hah-dar hah-hahlbah-shah; the dressing room)
  •  מִשְׁקְפֵי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ (meesh-kah-fey hah-sheh-mesh; the sunglasses)

The Hebrew alphabet

The Hebrew alphabet is comprised of 24 letters and a point system that denotes vowel sounds because the alphabet itself has no vowels. The following table lists the letters and their sounds followed by the points and which vowel sound each represents.

Hebrew alphabet chart

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jill Suzanne Jacobs, MA, is a writer, Jewish educator, and part of the editorial team of MyJewishLearning.com. She has taught and helped create course materials for Hebrew and Jewish studies classes.

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