Eight Hebrew Words and Phrases You Can Use Every Day!

December 21, 2023Crystal Hill

Learning new words and phrases can be enjoyable, but when they're in a new language, they can also be daunting. When I began my Jewish journey, I started singing with my congregation's choir. At my first practice, I was relieved that the first song we tackled was in English. However, once we began working on songs that were in Hebrew, my confidence began to falter. When we got to Yiddish (which is a Judeo-German language), I felt a bit more comfortable since I had taken a couple years of German in college, though I wouldn't say I'm fluent.

As the weeks and months wore on, I noticed that my discomfort with Hebrew songs began to dissipate, especially as I started to understand what we were saying and began to pick up a (very rudimentary) feel for how the sentence structure worked. Three years later, I'm far from an expert but I am more comfortable with speaking and singing in Hebrew and Yiddish. I even took the online Learn to Read Hebrew class offered by the URJ, which also helped me feel more at home.

If you'd like to build your own Hebrew vocabulary, here are a few words and phrases that you can use in everyday conversation. Yallah (let's go)!

1. Chai - This is another important word in Jewish culture. Ever wonder why the number 18 is emphasized so often, especially when someone is giving the gift of money for a wedding, b'nei (bar or bat) mitzvah, or donating to a charity? It's because the numerical value of the word "chai" (hetand yud), which translates to "life," is 18. Thus, by giving money in multiples of 18 to a person or an organization, you are also expressing your hope for their continued longevity and good fortune!

2. Am Yisrael Chai - This Hebrew expression might be one you've seen floating around social media lately. In Hebrew, "am" refers to a specific people or nation. Therefore, this expression can be used as both a statement of solidarity with the nation of Israel ("The nation of Israel lives") and an affirmation of the continued survival of the Jewish people and cultures around the world ("The people of Israel live"). Either way, am Yisrael chai is a powerful declaration of pride, resilience, and survival.

3. Mishpacha - This Hebrew word, meaning "family," can be used to describe your extended family and close friends. If you hear someone say they've invited "the whole mishpacha" to dinner, it's probably safe to assume you're in for a lively get together (think of the family cookout in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").

4. Chag Sameach - This Hebrew greeting is a great catch-all for most Jewish festivals (except Yom Kippur) and means "happy holiday!" Whether you're greeting the Jewish new year on Rosh Hashanah or sitting down to a plate of dairy-filled delicacies on Shavuot, wish your friends a chag sameach as you celebrate! If you want to be specific, put the name of the holiday in the middle of the sentence: " Chag Hanukkah Sameach!"

5. Tzedek - This one Hebrew word carries a whole lot of weight! Tzedek means "justice," and is a cornerstone of the Reform Movement's values and social justice work. It is also a word you may see printed on signs as part of the verse "tzedek, tzedek tirdof,"which translates to "justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:18). Finally, many Jews don't use the word "charity," but instead opt for the more equitable term "tzedakah,"which emphasizes that helping others is crucial to bringing about a more just world.

6. Mazel tov - You may be familiar with this Yiddish phrase if you've announced good news or seen a production of "Fiddler on the Roof." " Mazel" in Yiddish, or "Mazal" in Hebrew, means "star" or "constellation," and "tov" means "good." Thus, wishing someone "mazel tov"is basically saying that the event occurred "under a good star." One notable exception to this is when someone announces a pregnancy, to which you should say "b'sha'a tovah" (see below).

7. B'sha'a tovah -When someone announces that they're expecting to welcome a child, it's considered bad luck to wish the expectant parents mazel tov.Instead, "b'sha'a tovah"is considered a more appropriate expression of your well wishes, as it expresses the hope for a birth occurring "in a good (or favorable) hour." Since pregnancy (while it can be a happy time) isn't so much a sign that good luck has occurred but is rather a process that will hopefully end at a favorable time for both the birthing parent and the child.

8. Sababa - Derived from the Arabic word tzababa,this is one of my favorite Hebrew words, as it translates to "cool" or "awesome" and is a great catch-all term! If, like me, you sometimes have trouble recalling unfamiliar phrases at the right time but remember that your usual response doesn't quite fit the situation, "sababa" is a great way to express your excitement for anything from a pregnancy announcement to the announcement that you're having homemade pie for dessert!

I hope you've enjoyed this list of Jewish words and expressions. If you're interested in learning Hebrew, check out our online Learn to Read Hebrew and Reading Hebrew Prayers classes!

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