Because Hebrew is the language of the Bible, people who travel to Israel sometimes think that in order to mingle with the crowd they have to act all solemn and wise. Modern Hebrew, however, is anything but solemn. On the contrary, it is a vibrant, ever-changing, fast-paced language full of colourful expressions that make just the right point.
While not all of them translate very well to English, learning about Hebrew idioms and where they come from is a great way to soak in Hebrew culture from a playful, relaxed perspective. Who knows? After reading the article you may even want to give Hebrew or one of its dialects a try!
English is full of multifunction words that you can use in different contexts. Take the word ”play”, for example. You can play a game, play a musical instrument, play a song, or play a part in a movie.
Stam is a bit like that. Often translates as “simply”, or “just”, this versatile Hebrew idiom is said as a response to all kinds of situations.
“Why is he putting jam on his burger?”
“He stam likes it.”
No reason, that’s just what he does.
“Are you really not coming to my birthday?”
I was just kidding with you.
Lidħof et ha-af (לדחוף את האף)
If you thought all Hebrew idioms had long, intricate origin stories and were used in scholarly conversations, you are up for a surprise. In fact, most Hebrew idioms refer to the same stuff that English speakers go through every day.
Lidhof et ha-af, which literally means “putting/shoving your nose”, is a phrase used to call out meddlers. So, next time someone asks you when you’re finally going to get your degree (or get married, or ask for that raise, or tell your best friend how you really feel) you can use this phrase to ask them to mind their own business.
Chaval al hazman (חבל על הזמן)
Have you ever been to a party so, so great that you kept wishing it would never end? If you have, then you know exactly what this Hebrew idiom is about. Literally meaning “shame on the time”, this is an exclamation that people use to talk about an incredible event, an indelible memory, or a very special moment in their lives.
“Shame on the time” means that you were so caught up in a truly incredible moment, that it was a shame it had to end. So, next time someone asks you about your date, we hope you can say “It was just… chaval al hazman”. In fact, you can shorten it into a single word and just say chavlaz.
La’asot sipur (לעשות סיפור)
We all have a friend who just loves drama. No matter how small and insignificant a problem is, they will always find a way to blow it out of proportion. La’asot sipur, literally meaning “to make a story”, is used in a similar way to the English phrases “to make a fuss” or “to make a big deal”.
So, if your friend comes to you in a nervous breakdown because she didn’t get tickets to the Meet & Greet with One Direction, just tell her:
אל תעשה מזה סיפור
(al ta’ase mize sipur)
“Don’t make a scene out of this.”
(Seriously, aren’t Hebrew idioms much sassier than you expected?)
Chai b’seret (חי בסרט)
One afternoon, when we were children, my sister and I decided that we were going to have a band. Though neither of us could really sing or play any instruments, we started to crunch numbers (calculator in hand!), while talking about how we could make millions of dollars out of our live performances and record sales.
If a Hebrew-speaking person had been listening to our raving, he could have used this phrase to wake us up from our fever dream.
Chai b’serete, which word to word means “living in a movie”, is the perfect Hebrew idiom to talk about unrealistic expectations or, you know… people who are completely out of touch with reality.
Liftoaħ pe la-satan (לפתוח פה לשטן)
Did you want a biblical-sounding Hebrew idiom? Your wish is my command. Literally meaning “to open your mouth to the devil", this expression dates back to ancient times when Jews were forbidden to make negative predictions about themselves or other people.
Nowadays, however, its meaning shifted to resemble the English phrase “Don’t tempt fate”. Like its English counterpart, Liftoah pe la-satan works as a warning: don’t say something good is bound to happen, because you might tempt fate to prove you wrong…
אני חושבת שאני אעבור את המבחן, אני חושב שקיבלתי את העבודה.
(any hvshb shqyblty at h'ebvdh, aval ani lo rotza liftoaħ pe la-satan)
“I have the feeling I got the job, but I don’t want to jinx my luck”
Is there anything nicer than receiving a gift or buying a new item?
(Please don’t say buying presents for someone you love is nicer than getting them, I won’t have any of that!)
In Israel, when you buy a new jacket, a hat, or even a home appliance, you will most likely hear the phrase Titchadesh from whoever helped you with your purchase. Though this term translates to “being new”, it’s actually a way to exclaim a wish that you will enjoy your new item.
So, next time you buy a Noodle Kugel or an Apricot Hamantaschen and you hear the shop assistant say titchadesh!, just say todah (thank you) in return, and put on a nice smile to show ̶y̶o̶u̶’̶r̶e̶ ̶k̶n̶o̶w̶l̶e̶d̶g̶e̶a̶b̶l̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶H̶e̶b̶r̶e̶w̶ ̶i̶d̶i̶o̶m̶s̶ how friendly you are.
Now that you know how fun and relatable Hebrew idioms can be, will you give Hebrew a chance?
Learning Hebrew allows you not only to connect with the people and culture of Israel but also to break the language barrier with hundreds of communities around the world. If, like us, you are amazed by the power of languages to connect people across time and space, contact us now and we’ll match you with a native speaker of Hebrew for a free trial lesson. We are sure you’re going to learn much more than just Hebrew idioms.