Useful Hebrew Phrases and Words for Intrepid Travel to Israel
Are you brave enough to try some Hebrew phrases?
You can get around almost anywhere in Jerusalem speaking only English and using (polite) hand gestures. But if you can add some Hebrew words to your vocabulary, you'll have lots more fun.
To try your hand at it, here are a few Hebrew phrases you are likely to hear over and over again during your stay.
A word of warning – don’t be insulted if, after trying your best Hebrew words on them, Israelis reply to you in English. Just like you’d like to practice speaking Hebrew, they’re happy to have a chance to practice their English. Besides – they probably figure they’ll help you more by giving you directions in a language you understand better, than if they rattle off a string of rapid-fire Hebrew!
The Hebrew language has its own script, written from right to left. (Click here for a Hebrew alphabet chart.) To save you from having to learn the Hebrew alphabet first, though, we've written all the Hebrew phrases below as you would pronounce them in English.
So, for the intrepid linguist – here goes:
Shalom Bet you got that one already. This can mean “hello” or “goodbye.” (see how easy? You only have to remember one word for both occasions!) Occasionally, it is a man’s name, which results in greetings like: “Shalom, Shalom!”
Literally, the word “shalom” means peace. In this part of the world, it is our most fervent desire – expressed each time we meet or part.
Lehitraot (le-HIT-rah-ot) This is more advanced – for those who aren’t satisfied with the multipurpose “shalom”, you can substitute “lehitraot” instead of “shalom” when you take leave of someone you plan to meet again. The word means “au revoir” – in other words, we’ll see each other again. If you are fourteen years old and want to sound hip, shorten to “lehit!” which translates to “See ya!”
For most people – stick to Shalom, or the universal “Bye!”
Na’eem meh’od Pleased to meet you.
Eh’ch korim lach “What’s your name?” when speaking to a woman. The “ch” in the first and last words is a hard, guttural sound. Try clearing the back of your throat as if you were gargling, but without liquid, and you’ll get a good approximation of what it sounds like. Gagging when you do this is bad form, however.
Eh’ch korim lecha “What’s your name?” when addressing a man.
Shmi + your name “My name is …”
Shmo + name “His name is …”
Shmah + name “Her name is …”
Just to confuse you, “shma” also means “listen!” and is the name of Judaism’s most famous prayer. It’s all a matter of spelling … so you’ll just have to guess by context. For example, if you hear:
“Shmah Israel” – definitely the prayer. If you are not at a prayer service and lots of people suddenly start screaming “Shmah Israel,” run for your life. Chances are you’re in an earthquake or an out of control bus. However, if your buddy’s name is Israel, you would say, “Shmo Israel” (His name is Israel). Get it?
“Shmah Sarah” on the other hand, is “Her name is Sarah.” Not a prayer, unless you happen to be in love with her or writing a song …
This is where the effort of learning the right Hebrew phrases can pay off. If you can smile prettily and ask the vendor for a discount in passable Hebrew, odds are high the price will drop.
Kama zeh oleh? “How much does this cost?” The starting point of all negotiations.
Mah ha mehir? “What’s the price?” Ditto.
If you are in the shuk, no matter what the answer to the above questions, the proper reply is:
Lo, seliha, zeh yoter mee die. “No, sorry, that’s too much.” Shake your head and start moving away. Price should start dropping rapidly.
If you aren’t prepared to walk away from the thing you want to buy, though, and you’re on friendly terms with the seller, you can ask nicely:
“Ta’aseh li ketzat ha’naha?” This means, “Would you give me a little discount?”
One of the most profitable Hebrew phrases, this is a question that’s worth asking especially when you are buying several items. This holds true even in the nicer stores where haggling is frowned upon. For example in a small up-scale designer boutique, you shouldn’t bicker over the price tag. But if you’re buying three sweaters, don’t be shy about asking nicely for a discount. You will almost always get a little something knocked off the total.
After a while, you develop a sixth sense about which stores you can negotiate in and in which ones you shouldn’t dream of doing so.
Rule of thumb: don’t haggle in groceries, department stores, restaurants or pharmacies. Any where else, go ahead and try your luck. All they can say is no, and many times the answer will be yes.
What time is it? Mah ha sha’ah? Refer to the numbers above to figure out the answer. The pivotal words to listen for will be either: veh (and) or leh (to). As in:
Assarah leh shtayim – 10 to 2:00
Shtayim veh assarah – 2:10.
Personally, I’d say just wear a watch.
Of course, both shopping and telling time will be a lot easier if, in addition to these few Hebrew phrases, you've also practiced your Hebrew numbers.