Greetings in Hebrew for Beginners

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.

What Does Hallelujah Actually Mean?


There are a number of words in Hebrew that have made their way into English. One of them is Hallelujah.

Hallel means “praise.” There is an entire service of praise we sing to praise all the many attributes of God. We sing Hallel on all major festivals, on Rosh Chodesh, and at Chanukah. It includes parts of several psalms (notably Psalms 113-118) and other prayers, and hallelujah in various forms is repeated many times.

The “oo” sound in the middle lets us know that in this case, hallel is actually a verb. Hallelu means “We praise.”

Finally Yah (often transliterated “jah”) is one of the many names of God, possibly a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, the name of God that Jews do not pronounce. In the Bible, Yah appears in Psalm 68:5 (in a Jewish Bible) and Psalm 68:4 in other Bibles. We also see it as part of names: Elijah means “My God is Yah;” Isaiah means “Yah is salvation;” and Hezekiah means “Strengthened by Yah.”

Thus Hallelujah means “We praise God,” which is exactly how it is used by both Jews and Christians. In pop culture, we most often hear the word used by fundamentalist Christians, but the origins of the word are Jewish and in fact, observant Jews sing or pray psalms every day containing the word.


Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

There's an Easy Way?
There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.


Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration

Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)
Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.

Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.

For instance, consider these words:

יום כיפור

If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.

If I transliterate:

Yom Kippur

Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.

That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:

Yohm Kee-POOR

Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”

If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.

That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.



What’s a D’var Torah?

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asked: What’s the difference between a “drash” and a “d’var Torah?”

First of all, let’s talk definitions:

DRASH is an interpretation of something in scripture.

e.g. Rabbi Akiva gave a drash that explained the crowns on the letters of the Torah scroll.   OR

e.g.: “That’s an interesting drash,” the teacher said, after Abe speculated that perhaps the burning bush was a door into another dimension.

D’VAR TORAH (duh-VAHR toh-RAH) (literally, a “word of Torah”) is a short teaching linked to a passage of Torah. (Please do not refer to it as a “d’var.” That means “a word of,” which is annoying; a word of what?)

e.g. Will you give a d’var Torah to open next week’s meeting?

While we’re at it, let’s look at some related D (for Dalet) words:

DRASHAH (drah-SHAH) is the same as drash, but usually refers to something more formal, like a sermon or lesson.

e.g. On the High Holy Days, Rabbi Cohen’s drashah might be as long as 45 minutes.

A DARSHAN (dar-SHAHN) is a man who gives a drash. When a woman does it, we call her a DARSHANIT.

e.g. I asked Rivka to be the darshanit for next week’s service, but if she can’t do it, ask Robert to be the darshan.

MIDRASH (mi-DRASH or MID-drash) – See What is Midrash? 

e.g. The story about Abraham’s father the idol maker is a midrash.


So the answer to the original question is “not much!”

The Perfect Word

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?

Kaddish, Kiddush, Kodesh – what’s up with that?

Kuf Dalet Shin
Kuf Dalet Shin

Hebrew is cool. It’s a Semitic language, and it works very differently from English.


Most words in Hebrew grow from a three-letter ROOT. The root expresses a general idea, a family of possible  words with three basic consonants. We add vowels, endings, and prefixes to make the variations on the theme.


For instance, K-D-Sh (Kuf, Dalet, Shin) is a root whose general idea is “holy.”  With appropriate vowels, etc we get:


Kaddish – (kah-DEESH or KAH-dish)* The prayer mourners say, which also divides the service into sections.


Kiddush – (Kee-DOOSH or KID-ish) The blessing-toast for Shabbat and holidays, or a meal that begins with that blessing.


Kodesh – (KOH-desh) – (adj.) Holy


Kiddushin – (kee-doosh-EEN) – Jewish marriage, in which each partner is sacred to and set apart for the other.


Can you think of any other words in this family that you’ve heard around synagogue?


Are there any other Hebrew words you’ve heard that sound like each other and confuse you?


*Some words have two pronunciations listed. The first is the modern Israeli pronunciation, and the second is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which sometimes pops up in American English. Both are correct.

Also, in the illustration above, remember that English reads left-to-right but Hebrew reads right-to-left. The Shin is the letter on your left.