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)
- The opposite 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 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). Rarest of all the binyanim, and somewhat literary or refined.
(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).
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Jonathan Orr-StavHebrew-English translator, author of “Aleph Through the Looking Glass”Answered just now