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You walk into a synagogue for Friday night services, and an usher hands you a prayerbook, a sheet with announcements, and says, brightly — something in Hebrew. Or… something. Then someone else says… something… to you as you take a seat. You don’t know any Hebrew. You’re paralyzed. What to do?
If you are a little intimidated by the Hebrew phrases spoken casually around Jewish communities, you are not alone. Here are some tips for coping, and some of the most common phrases you’ll encounter:
1. MOST PHRASES ARE ROUTINE. Most of the phrases like “Shabbat shalom” (see below) do not require more than a smile or a repetition back. No one is going to ask you a real question in Hebrew. Most American Jews do not speak Hebrew. (This makes rabbis sad, but it is the truth.) No one will say “The building is on fire” or “Your car has its lights on” in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ugaritic. I promise. It’s almost certainly some variation on “Hi.”
2. PEOPLE WHO TALK TO YOU ARE POTENTIAL NEW FRIENDS. They are friendly. It’s OK to say, “What does that mean?” In fact, that gives you an opening for a real conversation, which is how you get to know people.
3. YOU GET POINTS FOR TRYING. When you begin learning greetings, you may mispronounce things, or use a phrase incorrectly. That is OK. Mistakes are how you learn. Your best bet is to develop a sense of humor about it. Two examples:
- When I first became a Jew, several people came to me and said, “Mazal tov!” (Congratulations!) I was not sure how to reply so I said, “Mazal tov!” back to them. Eventually someone explained to me that “Thank you” might be better. As far as I know, everyone thought it was, at worst, a little dumb but sweet.
- My spouse, Linda, mis-heard “Boker Tov” (Good morning) and when she tried to say it to someone else the first time, she said, “Boca Raton!” The person she greeted did burst out laughing – she had inadvertently hit on a very entertaining pun, since lots of retired Jews live in Boca Raton, FL. But again, she got points for trying. And ever since, at home we say “Boca Raton!” because it’s fun.
4. IT IS OK TO REPLY IN ENGLISH. Below, when I write “you can reply” I mean “you can if you want, or you can reply in English.”
Here are some common phrases you may hear, with possible replies:
Shalom! means Hello! or Goodbye! and you can answer: ShaLOM!
Shabbat Shalom! means Happy Sabbath! and you can answer: ShabBAT ShaLOM!
Boker tov! means Good morning! and you can answer: BOker TOV!
Lie-lah tov! means Good night! and you can answer: LIE-lah TOV!
Toe-dah rabbah means Thank you very much! you can reply: b’VAHkaSHA
Mazal tov! means Congratulations! You can reply Toe-DAH! (Thanks!)
Some phrases are not Hebrew, but Yiddish:
Goot Shabbes! means Happy Sabbath! and you can reply Goot SHAbes!
On holidays, there are special greetings:
Shanah tovah! means Happy New Year! you can reply Sha-NAH toVAH!
Chag sameach! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Chag saMAYach!
Goot Yuntif! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Goot YUNtif!
There are more greetings connected with particular holidays, but those are the basic ones. There are words for things you may often hear, but I’ll do a separate post for them.
Remember, it’s just people being friendly: the universal reply to all of them is a smile.