Q: Is there a rule for determining the vowels in Hebrew conjugation (present, past, future and passive)?

Yes, there is: it’s determined by the binyan (construction) of the verb.
There are seven binyanim, each with its characteristic pattern of vowels. Their names reflect the vowel pattern in the past tense (3rd person singular, masculine)—thus:

1181105_binyanim_table4

The appropriate binyan of a verb is determined by whether it is a simple verb, or one that refers to an action to or on something else; or a manipulation of an object or a person; or a continuous or repeating operation—or the passive corollary of any the above. (For more information on that, see my post on How do I know if a verb in hebrew is pa’al type, pi’el type, or other?)

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Q: How do I know if a verb in Hebrew is Pa’al type, Piel type or other?

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:

Binyan* Verb type Examples Corollary
pa’al פָּעָל simple, active okhel אוכל (eat)
ro’eh רואה (see)
niph’al נפְעָל
niph’al נפְעָל passive corollary of pa’al ne’ekhal נֶאֶכָל (eaten)
nir’eh נִראֶה (seen)
pa’al פָּעָל
pi’el פִּעֵל involving manipulation of something me’abed מְעָבֵּד (processing)
meḥaleq מְחָלֵק (dividing)
pu’al פּוּעָל
pu’al פּוּעָל passive corollary of pi’el dubbar דוּבָּר (spoken)
turgam תוּרְגָם (translated)
pi’el פִּעֵל
hiph’il הִפְעִיל involving operation of other things, people lehaph’il להַפְעִיל (to operate [machinery])
lehadliq הִדְלִיק (to turn on)
huph’al הִוּפְעָל
huph’al הִוּפְעָל passive corollary of hiph’il hutzat הוּצָת (lit, sparked)
turgam
hiph’il הִפְעִיל
hitpa’el הִתְפָּעֵל involving repetition, reflection, or continuous action mitgalgel מתגלגל (rolling)
mitmalé מתמלא (filling up)
 – 

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*Binyan in this context means “construction.”

How do I determine the gender of a Hebrew word?

There are many rules and exceptions on this point, which are founded on the notion that language rules can be formulated, like mathematics, on simple If X, then Yprinciples that always apply—such as, “If it ends with ah, then it must be feminine.”

But language is not like mathematics: the real determiner of any aspect of it (in any language) is what sounds right to native speakers and to anyone with an “ear” for the language. For example, the Hebrew word lailah (“night”) is masculine because lailah tov (“good night”) sounds OK, whereas lailah tovah sounds odd—and the reason for that is probably because all day-related terms, such as boqer (morning), yom (day), erev (evening) and even shavua (week) are masculine. So there is logic, but it is more subtle than a simplistic “If X, then Y.”

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