Have you ever wondered why so many Hebrew words are pronounced differently, and why so many Jewish things have two names?
One Jew wears a yarmulke, and another a kippah. [Little hat.]
One keeps Shabbos, another keeps Shabbat. [Sabbath]
One reads from the TOYrah, another reveres the ToRAH. [Torah]
One prays to AdonOIand the other to AdoNYE. [Adonai, substitute for the Name we don’t speak, sometimes pronounced HaSHEM.]
One goes to synagogue at Bays SHOlom, the other at Bayt ShaLOM. [name of a synagogue, meaning “House of Peace”]
One celebrates the Yuntiff, the other a Yom Tov. [holiday]
What’s a newcomer to do?
Get used to it. Just as there are many answers to most questions, there is more than one way to say many words.
Know that most of these come from the two pronunciations of Hebrew. The first word in each pair above is pronounced according to the Ashkenazi or Yiddish form from Eastern Europe. (Yarmulke is actually a Yiddish word.) The second word is pronounced according to the Sephardic pronunciation, as Hebrew is pronounced on the street in Israel today. Both are correct.
While both are correct, it is a little mishuggeh [Yiddish for crazy] to mix the two (although trust me, you’ll hear it. “Shabbat Shalom! Will you be in town for the Yuntiff?” is mixed-up but you might hear it at synagogue. However, it is good manners and somewhat less mishuggeh to pick one language form and stick with it.
In general, in the US you will hear the Ashkenazi pronunciation from older Jews. The Sephardic pronunciation has been on the rise in America since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
First of all, there is no need to stress: no one is going to try to tell you that the building is on fire in Hebrew, unless you are in Israel. In an American synagogue, anything someone says to you in Hebrew is almost certainly (1) friendly and (2) not mission-critical. So take a deep breath, shake the tension from your shoulders, and try on a few new phrases of Synagogue Hebrew.
These are phrases you might hear in connection with a service:
CHOOmash – a book containing the Five Books of Moses.
sid-DOOR or SIDdur – prayer book
YARTZ-eit – the anniversary of a death (or on the first year, anniverary of a burial.)
KADdish or KADdish yaTOM – Mourner’s Kaddish, prayer said by those in mourning or on a Yartzeit.
KIDdush or KIDdish – the blessing made on Shabbat or holidays over wine, a kind of toast to the day. It may also refer to refreshments after the Saturday morning service.
Oneg or Oneg shaBAT – refreshments after the service, usually on Friday night.
YAsher KOach (with a gutteral ch, as in “Bach”) means, “Good job!” (Literally, “may you have strength”) If someone says it to you, you can smile, you can say the traditional reply baRUKH ti-hi-YEH (to a man) or bruCHAH teh-HEE (to a woman.) Either way, the reply means “May you be blessed.” You can also say that in English, or simply say toe-DAH (Thank you.)
yaSHAR koCHECH means “Good job” as said to a woman. However, in many places you will hear “Yashar koach” said to people of both genders.
BEEmah is the elevated area in the synagogue where the Torah is read, and where the service leader may stand. Depending on the architecture, it might be in the front of the room, or the middle of it.
HAGbah is the lifting up of the Torah scroll after reading. Someone may call for a SHTARker (Yiddish for strong person) to lift it, although that is a little undignified – they should have found him or her before the service began.
aleeYAH or aLEEyah means literally “to go up.” It has two main uses: (1) “An aliyah” is a Torah reading, or the honor of saying the blessings for a Torah reading. (2) “Make aliyah” means “move to Israel.”
Are there phrases you’ve heard and wondered about? You can look them up at the Jewish English Lexicon, or leave me a comment below.
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.
My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way. My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book. After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?
It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)
So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?
1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment. Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize. Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.
2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.
3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.
4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out. That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is ר and dalet is ד are smiling at the tushie thing. Now see? You are smiling too.
5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.