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Hebrew Language: Root Words

Level: Intermediate

Most Hebrew words are derived from three-letter root words

The vast majority of words in the Hebrew language can be boiled down to a three-consonant root word that contains the essence of the word's meaning. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you will find that you can get some insight into the meaning of the Bible by identifying the roots of words. If you see the same English word in two different places, but different Hebrew roots are used, this may indicate that there is a different shade of meaning. If the same Hebrew root is used in two different places, the words and their meanings are probably related.

Beit-Nun-HeiA substantial amount of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is derived from the relation between root words. For example, the rabbis concluded that G-d created women with greater intuition and understanding than men, because man was "formed" (yitzer, Gen. 2:7) while woman was "built" (yiben, Gen. 2:22). The root of "built," Beit-Nun-Hei, is very similar to the word "binah" (Beit-Yod-Nun-Hei), meaning understanding, insight or intuition.

banayeekh (your children); bonayeekh (your builders)Similarly, a familiar Talmudic teaching notes the similarity of the words banayikh (your children) and bonayikh (your builders), and suggests that Isaiah 54:13 (and all your children/builders will be students of G-d, and great shall be the peace of your children/builders) indicates that those who study Torah are the builders of peace.

Formation of Hebrew Words from Roots 

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Hebrew words are formed from roots by changing vowels and by adding a wealth of prefixes and suffixes to that root. Prefixes can be prepositions (in, on, of, to, etc.), articles (the), or other things. Suffixes can be pronouns (he, you, our, etc.), possessives ('s), or can indicate gender and number (female singular; male plural, etc.). Because of the way these prefixes and suffixes are added to the root, a single word in Hebrew might be translated into English as several words.

Reish-Alef-ShinFor example, the first word of the Torah, "bereishit," is usually translated as "in the beginning." The root is Reish-Alef-Shin, which means "head" or "first." (See Hebrew Alphabet to learn the letters). It is the same root as the "Rosh" in "Rosh Hashanah" (first of the year, i.e., Jewish New Year). We add the prefix Beit, a preposition meaning "in," "on," and a number of other things. The word "the" is implied.

Shehecheyanu; Cheit-Yod-HeiA more complicated example is the Hebrew word "shehecheyanu," the name of a popular prayer recited on holidays and at other times. The single word "shehecheyanu" means "who has kept us alive." The root of this word is Cheit-Yod-Hei, a verb meaning "to live." It's the same root as the Hebrew word "chai" (life or living) which you commonly see on Jewish jewelry, and the Jewish toast "l'chayim!" (to life!) The Shin prefix turns the verb into a noun indicating a person who does the thing ("who"). The next letter is Hei, which normally turns a verb into a causative form ("has kept"). The Nun-Vav suffix is a first person plural pronoun ("us"). Thus, shehecheyanu means "who has kept us alive." Whew!

Qof-Dalet-ShinThere are surprisingly few root words in biblical Hebrew, but we get a lot of mileage out of the ones we have. For example, from the root word Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning "holy," "sacred" or "sanctified," we get kedushah (holiness), kiddush (a prayer over wine sanctifying Shabbat or a holiday), Kaddish (an important prayer commonly thought of as a mourning prayer), aron kodesh (holy cabinet - the place in synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept), and kiddushin (betrothal).

Samekh-Dalet-ReishLess obviously, from the root Samekh-Dalet-Reish, meaning "order," we get siddur (the daily prayer book, which sets for the order of prayers), seder (the Passover family ritual, which must be performed in a specified order) and sidrah (the weekly Torah reading, also called a parshah).

Prefixes and Suffixes 

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Here are some common prefixes and suffixes you will find on Hebrew words:

Prefix Meaning Comments and Examples
Vav And, but Vav used as a prefix can make the "v" sound or the "u" sound. When used with other prefixes, this is always the first prefix. V'ahavta (and you shall love); U'vayom (and on the day).
Beit In, on, with, by, etc. Beit as a prefix sometimes makes the soft sound (v). Bereishit (in the beginning); u'vayom (and on the day).
Hei The When Hei used with other prefixes, this is always the last prefix before the root. It is often absorbed into the Beit or Lamed prefix. Haolam (the universe); u'vayom (and on the day; note that the v' (on) combines with the ha (the) to become va (on the)).
Kaf Like, as Mi kamokha (who is like you?).
Lamed To, for L'chayim (to life).
Mem From; also turns a verb into a noun Mimitzrayim (from Egypt); mitzvah (commandment, a noun derived from the root verb tzavah meaning command)
Shin Turns a verb into the person who does it Shehecheyanu (who has kept us alive); sheasah (who performed)

Suffix Meaning Comments and Examples
Yod-Mem Masculine plural Yamim (days).
Vav-Tav Feminine plural Mitzvot (commandments).
Final Khaf You, your B'khol l'vavikha uv'khol naf'shikha uv'khol m'odekha (with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your means).
Nun-Vav We, us, our Avinu malkeynu (our Father, our King); asher kidishanu (who has sanctified us); ashamnu (we have been guilty).

Suggested Reading 

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If you are interested in Hebrew root words, an interesting book to look at, is Edith Samuel's Your Jewish Lexicon, which looks at a lot of important Jewish concepts and idioms through their root words. Be aware that this book is written from a Reform perspective.

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