A Guide to Hebrew - 10 facts about the Hebrew language

Tomatoes and cucumbers at the market © Tal Green, fotolia.com

Translation in Hebrew

Check the Hebrew-only version

1. Where is Hebrew spoken?

Hebrew is one of the official languages of the State of Israel, as well as Arabic. Hebrew is spoken in Israel and in many Jewish communities around the world, and you are likely to find Hebrew speakers where there are large Jewish communities, for example in the USA (where there are more than 5 millions Jews), France (approximately 490,000 Jews) and Canada (approximately 375,000 Jews).

The Hebrew language found in the Bible (with the other language found in the Bible being Aramaic) is considered Classical or Biblical Hebrew  עברית קלאסית [ivrit klasit]. This language evolved towards the end of the 19th century, into a language used for daily life - Modern Hebrew  עברית מודרנית [ivrit modernit]. It is this Modern Hebrew that is now spoken around the world, while Classical Hebrew is still used for prayer.

2. What you already know about Hebrew

There are many names which come from the Bible and are widely used as English names, such as Adam  אדם, Benjamin  בנימין, Daniel  דניאל etc. Other commonly used words come from Biblical Hebrew, such as amen  אמן, literally so be it; Babel  בבל, from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel; hallelujah  הללויה, literally praise the Lord.

If you have seen any recent Hollywood comedies you will recognise words such as  מזל טוב [Mazal tov], which literally means good luck but is used as ‘congratulations’, and  שלום [shalom] meaning literally peace and used as ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

Most new words, commonly added due to advances in technology, are similar to English, such as  אינטרנט, internet and  טלפון, telephone. Russian speakers will be familiar with some words, such as  דמקה [damka] – backgammon;  חלטורה [chaltoora] – a sideline, moonlighting, shoddy work or low quality performance;  פלקט [plakat] - a placard.

3. How hard is it to learn Hebrew?

It could be difficult to learn the Hebrew alphabet, which contains 22 characters. Unlike in most European languages, words are written from right to left.

As with most Semitic languages, there are certain sounds that will be new and difficult to pronounce. These are mostly created at the back of the throat. For example, in the word  חבר [chaver], friend the sound of the first syllable 'cha' is a very similar sound to the one uttered for the 'ch' in the word ‘loch’ in Scotland.

The pronunciation of the R sound in Hebrew is a guttural sound, much like in French. The Hebrew version of the famous “The rain in Spain”,  ברד ירד בדרום ספרד [Barad yarad bidrom sfarad], literally Hail fell in southern Spain, is a good example for practising this sound.

Verbs take a different form depending on whether the subject of the sentence is male or female. For example, a man would say  אני לא מבין [Ani lo mevin], I don’t understand, whilst a woman  אני לא מבינה [Ani lo mevina], which is the feminine form of the same sentence.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

שרה שרה שיר שמח

[Sarah shara shir sameach]
Sarah sang a happy song

גנן גידל דגן בגן דגן גדול גדל בגן

[Ganan gidel dagan ba’gan. Dagan gadol gadal ba’gan]
A gardener grew rye in the garden. Large rye grew in the garden

נחש נשך נחש

[Nachash nashach nachash]
A snake bit a snake

אנחנו לא מהממהרים אנחנו מהממהרות

[Anachnu lo mehamemaharim, anachnu mehamemaharot]
We are not from the group of rushing men, we are from the group of rushing women.

5. Know any good Hebrew jokes?

Hebrew jokes are found on a variety of subjects. There are self-deprecating jokes that will play up to Jewish stereotypes and there are political jokes that will make fun of political leaders in Israel. In addition, you will find the broad range of in-laws, wives, and region-specific jokes, with Israelis often the punch line of these.

Some jokes are also a bit silly or based on play on words:

איש אחד חלם בלילה שהוא מת. הוא קם בבוקר וראה שזו אמת.

[Ish echad chalam balaila shehoo met. Hoo kam baboker veraa shezo ehmet.]

A man dreamt that he was dead, only to wake up in the morning to find out that it is true. In Hebrew, the masculine singular form of 'dead', מת [met] rhymes with 'truth', אמת [ehmet], giving rise to this surreal play on words.

איש אחד שאל את נהג האוטובוס אם הוא יכול לעלות לאוטובוס עם כלבו. הנהג ענה שאסור מותר אך מותר אסור.

[Ish echad shaal et nehag haotoboos im hoo yachol laalot laotoboos im kalbo. Hanehag ana sheasoor mootar ach mootar asoor.]

A man asked a bus driver whether he can board the bus with his dog. The driver replied: "Chained is allowed, unchained is prohibited." In Hebrew, 'chained' and 'prohibited' are the same word: אסור [asoor]. The same is for 'allowed' and 'unchained': מותר [moosar].

ישראלי נכנס למסעדה בניו יורק ומזמין עוף. המלצר אומר שאין יותר עוף בתפריט ועל כך עונה הישראלי שהוא יודע את זה.

[Israeli nichnas lemisaada benew York oomazmin off. Hameltsar omer "Chicken is off" veal kach oneh haisraeli shehoo yodeaa et ze.]

An Israeli tourist walks into a New York restaurant and orders a chicken dish. "The chicken is off", says the waiter. "I know", replies the tourist. The punchline to this joke is due to a play on words: in Hebrew, עוף [off] means 'chicken'.

מה אמר טרזן כשראה פילים רצים במורד הגבעה?
הנה פילים רצים במורד הגבעה.
מה אמר טרזן כשראה פילים במשקפי שמש רצים במורד הגבעה?
שום דבר, הוא לא הכיר אותם.

[Ma amar Tarzan keshera’aa pilim ratsim bemorad hagivaa?
-Hineh pilim ratsim bemorad hagivaa.
Ma amar Tarzan keshera’aa pilim bemishkefei shemesh ratsim bemorad hagiva’aa?
-Shoom davar, hu lo hikir otam.]

What did Tarzan say when he saw elephants running down the hill?
- Here are elephants running down the hill.
What did he say when he saw elephants wearing sunglasses running down the hill?
- Not much, he could not recognise them.

6. If I learn Hebrew, will it help me with any other languages?

Hebrew shares similarities with other Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Arabic.

You will find similarities with the vocabulary, especially with regards to numbers. For example,  אחד [ehad] in Hebrew and واحد [wahad] in Arabic both mean one. Similarily,  עולם [olam], means world, the same as the Arabic عـالـم [alam]. In Hebrew, peace is  שלום [shalom], whilst in Arabic سلام‎ [salam]. However, even if there are similarities in the way in which the two languages sound, they use two completely different alphabets.

7. What not to say and do

As with most languages, embarrassment is most often found in mispronunciation. If you tell someone you are wearing khaki trousers
  אני לובש מכנסי חאקי [Ani lovesh michnesei khaki] they may well think you have soiled yourself, as khaki means faeces in Hebrew, though in Hebrew the word is pronounced with the 'ch' sound mentioned above.

The English word 'me' sounds like the Hebrew  מי, which actually means 'who'. If you point at yourself and repeat "me" over and over, a Hebrew speaker might think you're having an identity crisis!

Just like in any other places of worship, remember to wear appropriate clothes when visiting a synagogue or mosque. As a general rule, cover your arms and legs. In a synagogue, men should always cover their head. The traditional cap worn by men in a synagogue is called  כיפה [kippah].

If you meet an Orthodox Jewish man or woman and you are a member of the opposite sex, do not try to shake hands with him/her, as according to their beliefs a man and a woman should not touch each other unless they're married.

8. Famous quotations

Theodor Hertzl, the man who pioneered the movement towards a Jewish state in 19th century, said  אין דבר העומד בפני הרצון [Ein davar ha’omed bifnei haratson] meaning There is nothing that stands in the way of your will, a Hebrew variant of the classic, "Where there is a will, there is a way".

Rabbi Hillel, renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar who lived in Jerusalem in the 1st century, also gave a Hebrew account of the well known as "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow":  מה ששנוא עליך אל תעשה לחברך [Ma shesanoo aleicha al ta’aseh lechavercha].

While Shakespeare may have made popular the phrase "All’s Well That Ends Well", this proverb can also be found in the תלמודTalmud (a central text of the oral Jewish law) in the Hebrew form of  סוף טוב – הכל טוב [Sof tov – hakol tov]. Literally: "When the end is good, it is all good".

9. First written records

One of the earliest records of written Hebrew dates between 1200BC and 587BC and consists of 20 of the books included in the Bible. After this period and up to 70AD, there was a large literary output which included the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

10. How to be polite and show respect

The well known word  שלום [shalom], meaning peace, is used as both hello and goodbye in conversation.

In Hebrew, there is no way to say ‘I would like’. Therefore, when asking for things, you use the verb to want,  רוצה [rotseh], with the word please,  בבקשה [bevakasha].

One shekel coin © voddol, fotolia.com

Facts about Hebrew

10 things to know about the Hebrew language

Hebrew new year's card - 'shana tova' © mellow7, fotolia.com

Hebrew key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

Close up of Hanukkah dreidels  © Elisheva Monasevich, fotolia.com

The Hebrew alphabet

All the sounds, from alef to tav

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.