Every world language has unique elements that make it special. There may be nowhere this is more easily visible than with a language’s idioms. Every language has special phrases that use imagery, metaphor, and often humor to communicate something other than their literal meanings. Hebrew is no different, and learning idioms in this language is a fantastic way to greatly develop your understanding.
Read on to learn more about the Hebrew language and to get an insider’s look at the idioms that make it unique.
A Few Helpful Hebrew Idioms
סוף העולם שמאלה .1
Literal translation: The end of the world, to the left
This Hebrew idiom is used to describe an overly out-of-the-way location. In English, we might use the phrase, “in the middle of nowhere” or sometimes, “the boonies” to describe a similar idea. The literal translation actually does a fairly good job of converting the meaning of this idiom — how does one get to the end of the world anyway?
2. לפתוח פה לשטן
Literal translation: Open your mouth to the devil
There’s an element of superstition with this idiom, and it’s rooted in a precept of Judaism. It’s traditionally forbidden to speak ill of yourself or others in the Jewish faith, and that’s what this phrase is alluding to. This could be confusing, however, because the expression is actually used to guard against saying hopeful good things that may jinx the speaker.
An example of its usage would be someone predicting good weather for a wedding and then trying to exercise caution by saying the phrase. “Knock on wood” has a similar usage in English.
חבל על הזמן .3
Literal translation: Shame on the time
Good luck trying to guess the meaning of this phrase from its literal translation. A similar English saying with an equally cryptic literal meaning is, “the bee’s knees.” This idiom is used to describe something that is really great or awesome. You might use it to talk about a song you love or a party that was “out of this world.”
סוף הדרך .4
Literal translation: End of the road
Be careful not to confuse the literal translation of this Hebrew saying with the very similar English idiom. In English, of course, the “end of the road” can mean the end of all options. You might picture a police officer telling a cornered criminal, “it’s the end of the road, pal.”
The saying in Hebrew has an entirely different meaning, and it’s actually quite close to number three on this list. If something is “end of the road” in Hebrew, it’s amazing. This phrase is used to give praise or rave reviews of something.
לדחוף את האף .5
Literal translation: Pushing the nose
Rather than pushing someone else’s nose, this idiom has to do with pushing one’s own nose into the business of others. Interestingly, in English we also associate noses with this idea; describing someone as “nosey,” for example, means they like to involve themselves in the business of others.
נִכמַר הלֵב .6
Literal translation: Heart cracks
This rather sweet idiom conveys a sentimental notion. It’s common to talk about the heart breaking in English when experiencing something emotionally turbulent, but this phrase isn’t restricted to negative experiences. You could use this saying when speaking about anything that touches your emotions in a profound way, be it beautiful or sorrowful.
נִכמַר הלֵבכאש בשדה קוצים .7
Literal translation: Like fire in a field of thorns
Used in context, you’d probably understand the meaning of this idiom, even if was the first time you’d heard it. It’s similar to the English, “like wildfire.” It is used to describe something that spreads very quickly. You might use it to talk about gossip or a new trend that has spread surprisingly quickly.
להוסיף חטא על פשע .8
Literal translation: Add sin to crime
You can see the religious associations that the Hebrew language carries in this idiom. One would say this phrase when talking about something that has become worse than it already was for someone. In English, the phrases, “kick him when he’s down” and “add insult to injury” carry a similar meaning.
קצרו המילים .9
Literal translation: Words are too short
Sometimes, words just don’t seem like they’re capable of describing something. That’s the feeling that this idiom wants to communicate. Instead of saying words are too short, we might simply say that “words can’t describe” something in English to convey the same meaning. You could use this phrase after experiencing something so impactful that simply describing it with words would be insufficient.
קצרו המיליםישורת אחרונה .10
Literal translation: The last straightaway
Interestingly, this Hebrew phrase may have come directly from a rough translation of the English phrase, “home stretch.” It’s used to express the final part of a journey, usually as a form of encouragement. The English version of the phrase comes from horse racing, but this Hebrew idiom can be used in a wide variety of contexts.
רעש וצילצולים .10
Literal translation: Noise and ringing
The literal translation of this idiom is pretty close to its meaning when used in conversation. It’s used to talk about someone or something that is overly noisy or causing a lot of commotion. An example of some English words used to express the same idea could be “brouhaha” or “hullabaloo.”
על הפנים .11
Literal translation: On the face
It may help to imagine something unpleasant on your face, like food or a spider, to really understand the feeling behind this common Hebrew idiom. The phrase is used to describe something, usually in a negative way. For example, you might use this idiom to talk about a party you really didn’t enjoy or a poor performance in a sporting event.
קטן עליי .12
Literal translation: Small on me
This idiom can be said with something of a cocky attitude, as it’s used to express that something is too easy or not impressive. A professional weightlifter could use this phrase in response to someone bragging about how much weight they can lift, for example.
There’s also a subtler meaning this phrase can take on; it can imply that something isn’t challenging enough for someone. If you think your friend should have a better job than they do, you could tell them that it is “small on them.”
Literal translation: In a small way
Sometimes it’s good to know how to communicate that something is no trouble, and this is something that’s often done well with specific sayings. In English, for example, one can say, “no big deal,” “no sweat,” “no worries,” and many more short, easy phrases.
This idiom shows one way this can be accomplished in Hebrew. It’s more popular among the younger population, but it’s effective at letting someone know that something is only a minor event and nothing to really worry about.
חצי כוח .14
Literal translation: Half power
This isn’t something you want to hear in relation to your own performance in any field. It’s used to describe something disappointing or underwhelming. You might use it to talk about a film you ended up enjoying less than you’d imagined or a sub-par meal at an overrated restaurant. Saying that something is “so so” could be a reasonable approximation of the English version of this idiom.
מה יש לך .15
Literal translation: What do you have
Another idiom you probably don’t want directed toward you, this one is used to ask, “what’s wrong with you?” To make a connection between the literal translation and the intended meaning, you could think of how English speakers will refer to having a disease instead of actually having a tangible object.
לא העיפרון הכי חד בקלמר .16
Literal translation: Not the sharpest pencil in the pencil case
Some of the most imaginative idioms are metaphors, as is the case with this example. There’s a very similar construction in some English idioms that may jump out at you right away: “not the sharpest tool in the shed” or the even more similar “not the brightest crayon in the box” are just two examples.
This isn’t the most pleasant way to describe someone, but having an awareness of the types of idioms used in Hebrew is a major part of understanding the language and culture.
מה אני, עז? .17
Literal translation: What am I, a goat?
This animal-related idiom is often used with a slightly defensive tone. It’s not nice to be compared to a goat, after all. There might not be a perfect English equivalent of this saying, but it’s something you would say if you think someone is implying you’re less intelligent than you really are. If you catch someone trying to fool you, for example, you might respond with this phrase to show you’re smarter than that.
נפל לי האסימון .18
Literal translation: My token dropped
Just from the literal translation, you might think this idiom is alluding to something bad that has happened, but you’d be wrong. Instead, this is something you can say when you’ve finally figured something out. An example of this could be, “It was when he said, ‘I love you’ that my token dropped — I finally understood why he’d been acting that way.”
Two English versions of this idiom could be, “it clicked” or “it all came together.”
שטויות במיץ עגבניות .19
Literal translation: Nonsense in tomato juice
This idiom is fun because it sounds like total nonsense — and that’s exactly what it is. For some reason, the inclusion of tomato juice in the phrase just adds to sense of nonsense, which is entirely the point.
One could use this idiom to describe something that just doesn’t make any sense. If you’re listening to someone tell a story that sounds untrue, is something you disagree with, or is simply unintelligible, you could claim that what they are saying is nonsense in tomato juice. In English you could simply say that something like this is “rubbish.”