Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

What are some interesting Hebrew idioms or proverbs that reflect unique cultural phenomena?



Anything to do with military service. My favourite:

קפה באימונים- נס בקרב (Café ba’imunim—ness baqrav)

which literally means: “Coffee in training — Instant coffee in battle”, being a humourous take on the original expression:

קשה באימונים- קל בקרב (Qashé ba’imunim—qal baqrav)

meaning “Difficult in training—easy in battle”

However, most Hebrew idioms or proverbs that are unique to Israel are biblical sayings—too numerous to list here, but here’s a selection of very common ones just from the first two books of the Hebrew Bible:

  • ברחל בתך הקטנה (beRaḥel bitkha haqtanah) lit. “for Rachel your younger daughter.” Today it’s used in the sense of “get straight to the point / about the crux of the matter” (Gen. 28:14)
  • הקול קול יעקב, הידיים ידי עשו (haqol qol Yaacov, hayadaim yedei Esav): “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22) – i.e. “Appearances can deceive”
  • קטֹנתי (qatonti): “I am not worthy” (Gen. 32:11), i.e. “Far be it for me to say, [but]”
  • חלילה… מעשות כדבר הזה (ḥalilah me’asot kadavar hazeh): “God forbid that […] should do according to this thing” (Gen. 44:7)
  • וימררו את חייהם (vayemareru et ḥayeihem): “And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage” (Exod. 1:14). Used to describe any instance of making someone’s life miserable.
  • של נעליך מעל רגליך | Sh’al naaleikha me’al ragleikha: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet” [for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground] – (Exod. 3:5)– i.e., “Have some respect!”
  • כתמול שלשום | kitmol shilshom, lit. “like yesterday [and] the day before”— i.e. as in the past (Exod. 5:7)

I could make a book of these—in fact, perhaps I will—any takers? (Answers in comments.)


Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

2 thoughts on “What are some interesting Hebrew idioms or proverbs that reflect unique cultural phenomena?

  1. These are fascinating. It shows how deeply rooted bible verses are rooted in a predominantly secular society, so much so that they become part of daily parlance. I’d buy your book for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

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