The short answer is that you fairly quickly develop an intuitive sense, from hearing (or reading) how other people use that verb. But if you’re looking for a broad rule of thumb to get you going, here it is:
- If it’s a simple, straightforward verb that doesn’t operate ‘on’ anything and just minds its own business, it’s probably pa’al — e.g.:
- halakh (walked/went)
- akhal (ate)
- ra’ah (saw).
- It has certain passivity to it, it may be niph’al —the passive corollary to pa’al. Examples:
- nimtza (he/it is present); nir’eh (seen);
- nistar (he/it is hidden);
- norah (he/it was shot).
- If it involves a certain amount of manipulation, it’s probably pi’el — e.g.:
- ibed et haadamah (worked the land);
- ḥileq et hazman (divided the time).
It is also almost invariably the binyan (construction) of choice for Hebraized verbs of foreign origin — e.g.:
- tilphen (phoned);
- simess (SMSed);
- fibreq (fabricated).
- If it involves actually operating something that would otherwise be inanimate or work some other way, it’s hiph’il — e.g.:
- hiph’il et ham’khonah (to operate the machine);
- hitnia et ha’oto (to start the car).
- If it relates to the object at the receiving end of hiph’il: if it is clearly a passive thing that is operated on or manipulated by something else, it’s probably huph’al — e.g.:
- hamekhonah huph’alah (the machine was operated);
- hatziur hutxag bagaleriah (the painting was exhibited at the gallery).
- If it involves a certain repetition, reflection, or continuous action, it’s hitpa’el — e.g.:
- histovev bareḥov (wandered around the street);
- hakadur hitgalgel (the ball rolled);
- hitpaél mehamar’ot (marvelled at the sights);
- hitmalé bemaim (filled up with water).
- Last but least: pu’al, which is the passive corollary to pi’el — e.g.:
- dubar (it was spoken/discussed);
- supar (it was told).
It is the rarest of all the binyanim, and somewhat literary or refined.
Here’s a summary table that you can cut out and keep:
|simple, active||okhel אוכל (eat)|
ro’eh רואה (see)
|passive corollary of pa’al||ne’ekhal נֶאֶכָל (eaten)|
nir’eh נִראֶה (seen)
|involving manipulation of something||me’abed מְעָבֵּד (processing)|
meḥaleq מְחָלֵק (dividing)
|passive corollary of pi’el||dubbar דוּבָּר (spoken)|
turgam תוּרְגָם (translated)
|involving operation of other things, people||lehaph’il להַפְעִיל (to operate [machinery])|
lehadliq להַדְלִיק (to turn on)
|passive corollary of hiph’il||hutzat הוּצָת (lit., sparked)||hiph’il|
|involving repetition, reflection, or continuous action||mitgalgel מתגלגל (rolling)|
mitmalé מתמלא (filling up)
*Binyan in this context means “construction.”