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Hebrew Phrases and Words to Make you Sound Local

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The Hebrew phrases I learned as my everyday bread and butter.

Hebrew slang phrases and words to sound local. This is a book depository in Jerusalem.
A free library at a converted tram stop in Jerusalem, along the rail line street Rechov Rakevet.

It’s so hard to sound like a “local” anywhere. Every time I open my mouth, I’m worried the way I say something super basic is going to come out wrong.

Like in English, the difference between “excuse me” and “pardon me” is extremely subtle. They both appear to say the same thing. But “excuse me” sounds every day and casual, while “pardon me” could be something you’d hear the Queen of England say.

Same in any language — Arabic, Chinese or for today’s post, Hebrew.

Hebrew Phrases in Natural Conversation — Overview

While I spent a month in Israel working with people speaking (yelling) Hebrew every day, I got to learn a few things about how Hebrew is really spoken on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Hearing the phrases, and then saying them and then seeing people be surprised when I didn’t actually know THAT much Hebrew (I’m far from fluent; I can get by) was proof that these phrases actually work!

These are the equivalents in English of phrases like “I dunno, really” or “Are you kidding??”. I don’t have those exact Hebrew phrases. But when you hear people say phrases like that, it implies they speak better English.

So here they are — a few phrases that will make you sound like a true, bona fide Israeli.

Want to see how far I got in Hebrew in a month, learning it just for an hour a day, studying ten sentences at a time? Watch the video and read the full report here.

Note: the pronunciation below is the standard Israeli transliteration. They prefer to use “ch” for the kh sound, often described as being the ch in Scottish “loch”. I’m keeping it just in romanisation, because some of this is borrowed vocabulary or shortened expressions anyway.

slicha (סליחה)

This is the number one word you need to learn in Hebrew, partly because it has so many uses, and partly because those are things you say all the time.

This is the way you say so many things in Israel.

  • “Excuse me” when you’re trying to push past someone
  • “Sorry” when you bump into someone
  • “Excuse me, but…” when you’re trying to get someone’s attention and want to ask them a question.

Spend about ten minutes listening to any conversation in Hebrew and you’ll hear people saying slicha.

efshar…? (אפשר)

The second most useful of Hebrew phrases is efshar. It’s the word you use to ask for basically anything.

It means “possible” and you can use it with a verb after it, or a noun. When you use it with a verb, it means “is it possible to…?” and when you use it with a noun, it means “can I please have…?”. It’s amazing!

For example

  • “efshar kafe afuch bevakasha?”: May I please have a cappuccino?
  • “efshar lehikanes?”: May I go in (from here)?
  • “efshar?”: May I? You can just ask this if it’s obvious what you’re trying to do.

bevakasha (בבקשה)

This is a general “invitation” word. It also means “you’re welcome”, but it’s used in many more ways.

It’s similar in usage to prego in Italian, or je vous ‘en prie in French, or itfaDDal in Arabic. These words don’t really exist in English.

Interestingly, you might hear people of other backgrounds hand you things saying “Please” because they’re trying to use a word to fill this space in their minds. It’s so ingrained into so many cultures, it’s impossible to not say anything.

You use the word bevakasha it to say

  • “Here you go.” For example, when handing over change, or any item to someone.
  • “Please, sit here.” When indicating to a seat, for example on a bus.
  • “Go ahead.” When someone is asking if they can do something and you would like to invite them to do so.
  • “Take a candy/sweet.” When offering something to someone and insisting they take it.

yalla kadima! (יאללה קדימה)

A nice mix of Arabic (yalla) and Hebrew (kadima). It means “Let’s go!”

A lot of people say Israelis just use “yalla” these days, but they also use “kadima”. Throwing both Arabic and Hebrew phrases together is a nice inclusive blend, a bit of each language.

You say it in all the normal places you’d say that in English: when you are urging people to get going.

chalas! (חלאס)

Another one from Arabic. It means “it’s over”, or “it’s finished” (depending on how you pronounce the l in Arabic).

But in Hebrew, it also means “stop” or “that’s enough”. You’d say it for example when there’s nothing of something left, when your day is done, or when you want someone to stop doing something.

ze-o!

This means “that’s all”. It’s short for ze hakol (זה הכל).

You use it when typically buying things or ordering things. The shopkeeper/seller will ask if you want more (“od mashehu?”) and you can just use this word. No thanks. ze-o!

stam

Kind of means “just kidding” or “whatever”. It’s used as a filler word, in the beginning of a sentence. It can mean:

  • Whatever
  • Just kidding…
  • No reason in particular

It’s usually used in little jokes, like “not” jokes in the US. E.g. “Wow our business is doing great today.” “Really?” “Stam we haven’t had a single customer.”

It’s a bit hard to get the feel of (without a dozen examples taking up this page). This guy has a few that are good.

ma kara! (מה קרה)

Literally “what happened” but generally used to say

  • What the hell’s going on?
  • What happened to you?
  • What’s the meaning of this/that?

Sit around any Hebrew conversation and it’ll definitely come up, every time there’s a strange noise, someone yelling outside, or anything vaguely unusual.

hakol sababa (הכל סבבה)

Means “everything’s cool”. Typically young people say this. It’s a more slangy way of saying hakol beseder, which is pure Hebrew.

The word “sababa” is of Arabic origin (originally MSA but later appropriated into regional slang), but I never hear people saying this in Arabic anywhere (not even by Palestinian Arabs).

It used to be used, but Arabic-speakers stopped using it so much after it was appropriated into Israeli culture, according to this Redditor. (They still say yalla though. That ain’t goin’ nowhere.)

nu?

From Yiddish. Kind of means: “And so?”, asking the speaker for more explanation. Someone tells you a long story explaining a situation. You just say “Nu?” (and they’ll probably say “stam…”).

dai!

An exclamation that ranges in usage. It can mean “enough”, or “stop” or even “c’mon, you’re kidding!”. (This is a little different to the Italian dai, which you’ll hear even more frequently, but which is used to cheer people on.)

For example, you’d use it

  • “Enough” as in “Enough already!”, “Come off it”
  • Disbelief. “You’re quitting your job? Dai!”
  • Or just “enough” when someone is pouring you a drink or serving you something
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GBM
GBM
4 months ago

When you wrote the word bevakasha, you wrote it wrong in Hebrew- בוכשא
It’s בבקשה
Also, it’s not “kol sababa” or “kol beseder”
It’s “hakol sababa” or “hakcol beseder”
Great article though! מאמר טוב!