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. ani holekh, aokhel, ro’eh (walk/go, eat, see).
- It has certain passivity to it, it may be niph’al — e.g. nimtza (is present); nir’eh (seen); nistar (he/it is hidden); norah (he/it was shot). The passive corollary to pa’al.
- If it involves a certain amount of manipulation, it’s probably pi’el — e.g. le’abed et haadamah (work the land); leḥaleq et hazman (divide the time). Also almost invariably the binyan of choice for Hebraized verbs of foreign origin — e.g., letalphen (to phone); lesamess (to SMS); lefabreq (to fabricate).
- If it involves actually operating something that would otherwise be inanimate or work some other way, it’s hiph’il — e.g. lehaph’il et ham’khonah (operate the machine); lehatnia 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 mutxag bagaleriah (the painting is exhibited at the gallery).
- If it involves a certain repetition, reflection, or continuous action, it’s hitpa’el — e.g., lehistovev bareḥov (wander around the street); hakadur mitgalgel (the ball rolls); lehitpaél mehamar’ot (to express wonder at the sights); hadli mitmalé bemaim (the bucket is filling 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:
|pa’al פָּעָל||simple, active||okhel אוכל (eat)
ro’eh רואה (see)
|niph’al נפְעָל||passive corollary of pa’al||ne’ekhal נֶאֶכָל (eaten)
nir’eh נִראֶה (seen)
|pi’el פִּעֵל||involving manipulation of something||me’abed מְעָבֵּד (processing)
meḥaleq מְחָלֵק (dividing)
|pu’al פּוּעָל||passive corollary of pi’el||dubbar דוּבָּר (spoken)
turgam תוּרְגָם (translated)
|hiph’il הִפְעִיל||involving operation of other things, people||lehaph’il להַפְעִיל (to operate [machinery])
lehadliq הִדְלִיק (to turn on)
|huph’al הִוּפְעָל||passive corollary of hiph’il||hutzat הוּצָת (lit, sparked)
|hitpa’el הִתְפָּעֵל||involving repetition, reflection, or continuous action||mitgalgel מתגלגל (rolling)
mitmalé מתמלא (filling up)
*Binyan in this context means “construction.”