The Hebrew language is associated with a very rich history and culture, having existed in a primitive form since the tenth century B.C. The language is associated with the Jewish religion, with Biblical Hebrew being one of the earliest forms of written Hebrew; it is often referred to as the Holy Language by followers of Judaism. While classical Hebrew is still spoken and written in religious contexts, the Modern Hebrew language is spoken in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and recognized as a minority language in the nation of Poland. If you are studying Judaism, planning to travel to Israel, or simply interested in the Holy Language, this guide to Hebrew phrases will introduce you to Hebrew as a classical language, and teach you how to communicate in its modern form.
The History of Hebrew
Most of us are probably familiar with Hebrew because the Torah, the Jewish Holy Writings that make up the first five books of the Bible, is written in Classical Hebrew. A typical cultural instance of hearing Hebrew spoken or seeing it written occurs at bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, ceremonies in which young Jewish children read from the Torah and celebrate reaching an age of religious maturity. Though earlier examples of Hebrew do exist, the sixth century B.C. is the time period in which Classical Hebrew is believed to have developed and spread. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were the locations for the development of spoken Hebrew, though how widely spoken the language was is often debated by scholars.
The Hebrew language went through several transformations throughout history, resulting in several differing forms of written Hebrew, including: Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Samaritan Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew. Though many distinct Hebrew dialects existed in different regions of the Middle East, by around the eighth century A.D., spoken Hebrew was considered almost extinct as a language. However, traditional written Hebrew remained important in a religious and scholarly sense. Spoken Hebrew nearly died out completely, going the way of Vulgar Latin, and did not become prominent again until the late nineteenth century. The arrival of many Jewish people in Palestine contributed to this process, as the Jews began to transform Hebrew from a liturgical language to a modern daily vernacular. In Europe, a similar process occurred simultaneously, as Hebrew literature grew in popularity, contributing to more widespread education about Judaism and the Hebrew tongue. The revival of spoken Hebrew is an example of a very rare linguistic phenomenon, considering how quickly the language transformed from nearly extinct to incredibly widespread, eventually becoming the official language of the State of Israel in the mid-twentieth century. Today, there are roughly nine million people world-wide who speak Hebrew, with around seven million being fluent speakers. About seventy percent of Jewish citizens of Israel have a level of high proficiency in spoken Hebrew.
The Hebrew Alphabet
The Hebrew alphabet is sometimes referred to as square or block script, due to the square shape that many of the characters form. Hebrew characters are written and read from right to left, making them strikingly different from the traditional Latin alphabet, and the Hebrew alphabet contains twenty-two distinct characters. The original Hebrew alphabet consisted only of consonants, though as modern Hebrew developed, so did written ways of indicating the presence of vowels within words. Modern Hebrew is often written with vowels indicated in between the consonant characters. Furthermore, five of the Hebrew letters change form when they are placed at the end of a word, another distinct difference from the Latin alphabet. The twenty-two Hebrew characters are named: Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet, He, Vav, Zayin, Het, Tet, Yod, Kaf, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pe, Tsadi, Qof, Resh, Shin, and Tav. Learning to write or read Hebrew requires familiarizing yourself with the Hebrew alphabet, though beginning Hebrew phrases, questions, and answers can be learned without extensive knowledge of the characters of the alphabet.
These Hebrew phrases can help you greet others, introduce yourself, and engage in basic conversation. These are great phrases with which to begin your study of the Hebrew language. The English words are followed by their Hebrew translations; for the most part, the Hebrew words are pronounced phonetically, or the way that they are spelled.
Hi / Hello – Shalom
Good morning – Yom tov
Good evening – Erev tov
Welcome – Barukh haba
How are you? – Ma shelomkha
Good, thanks – Tov, toda
And you? – Veata
Thank you very much – Rav todot
You’re welcome- Eyn davar
What’s new? = Ma nishma?
Good night – Layla tov
Goodbye – Shalom
See you later – Nitra’e bekarov
Excuse me – Bevakasha
My name is – Hashem sheli
What’s your name? – Ma shimkha?
Do you speak English? – Ata medaber Anglit?
Do you speak Hebrew? – Ata medaber Ivrit?
Nice to meet you – Naim meod
Where are you from? – Meayin ata?
I’m from the United States – Miamerika
I’m from Israel – Miyisrael
I am American – Ani amerikai
Where do you live? – Eyfo ata gar?
I live in the United States – Ani gar beamerika.
I live in Israel – Ani gar beyisrael
How old are you? – Ben kama ata?
I am (number) years old – Ani ben (number)
These phrases will help you to question something you don’t understand, and to ask for an explanation, as well as to ask a variety of other clarifying questions.
I’m sorry? – Efshar lahzor bevakasha?
Sorry – Ani mitstaer meod
Can you say that again? – Efshar leagid shuv?
I don’t understand – Lo hevanti
I don’t know – Lo yodea
What is this? – Ma ze?
What does (word) mean in English? – Ma ze (word) beanglit?
How do you say (word) in Hebrew? – Eykh omerim (word) beivrit?
Write it down, please – Efshar likhtov li et ze
My Hebrew is bad – Ha ivrit sheli garua meod
I’m lost – Ibadti et haderekh sheli
Can you help me? – Ata yakhol laazor li?
I’m looking for (word/name) – Ani mehapes et (word/name)
How much is this? – Kama ze ole?
One moment, please – Rak rega bevakasha
I feel sick – Ani hole
I need a doctor – Ani zakuk lerofe
These are the Hebrew words for the numbers one through ten:
One – Ehad
Two – Shenayim
Three – Shelosha
Four – Arbaa
Five – Hamisha
Six – Shisha
Seven – Shivea
Eight – Shemona
Nine – Tishea
Ten – Asara
Other Helpful Terms
Here are some more, miscellaneous words and phrases that are useful to know when studying and speaking Modern Hebrew.
I love you – Ani hoev otkha
What time is it? – Ma hashaa?
What? – Eyfo?
Where? – Heykhan?
Look – Tistakel
Really – Beehlet
Me – Ani
You – Ata
Him – Hu
Her = Atem
This – Ze
That – Hu
Here – Po
There – Sham
I am hungry – Aniraev
I am thirsty – Ani tsame
Yes – Ken
No – Lo
Today – Hayom
Now – Akhshav
Tomorrow – Mahar
Yesterday – Etmol
Good – Tov
Bad – Ra
Bless you – Laberiyut
Enjoy – Beteavon
Congratulations – Kol hakavod
Good luck – Meahel lekha mazal tov
Happy birthday – Yim huledet sameah
I have to go – Ani tsarikh lalehet
I will be right back – Azhor miyad
I like Hebrew – Haavti et ivrit
Expanding Your Knowledge
These basic phrases, questions, and words will provide a foundation for your study of Hebrew, and assist you with any traveling you plan to do in Israel or other Hebrew-speaking regions. The Hebrew language is unique in that it is so closely associated with a major world religion, it has experienced an unprecedented revival after nearly dying out, and it is spoken almost exclusively in one nation. Perfecting these Hebrew phrases will help you on your way to better understanding Jewish culture and the Hebrew language.