For anyone who is interested in engaging seriously with the Jewish heritage, knowledge of the Hebrew language is a must. Many of the core texts of our tradition are in Hebrew. The commentaries and the subsequent interpretations are in Hebrew, The Hebrew language is one of the things that brings Jews together from around the world.
Unfortunately, many of us struggle with Hebrew. It is never easy to learn a language, especially if you are not living in the country where it is spoken. Most diaspora Jews don’t have opportunities to practice Hebrew or to use it often enough to learn it properly.
One of the key elements of a language is vocabulary. Every language is made of thousands of words. Knowledge of a basic vocabulary is a crucial element of learning a language. Studies show that a person needs to know the majority of the words in a text in order to understand the meaning. A person who understands 85% of the words in a text will have a rough idea of what the text is talking about. A person who understands 90% of the words in a text will be able to understand more of the things being said. A person who understands 95% of the words in a text will usually have a good enough understanding to be able to guess the meaning of the words that he doesn’t already know from the context. The key to reading in a foreign language is to increase your vocabulary as much as possible to raise the number of works you recognise in a given text.
With tens and hundreds of thousands of words in a language, how is it possible to cover 80% or 90% of them? Fortunately, not all words are created equal. In every language there are words that are frequent and others that are hardly used at all. Some of the frequent words are very frequent indeed. In English, words like ‘the’ and ‘a’ are so frequent that a person with a 10 word vocabulary can understand almost 25% of the words in an average text! Hebrew is the same. In fact, it is possible with a relatively small vocabulary to understand many of the words in everyday use in a language. You can get by with only a few hundred word vocabulary and manage most of your everyday affairs with as few as a 1000 words! The trick is choosing the right words to learn and making sure that they are the most common words in the language.
This blog is about the most frequent words in the Hebrew language. The aim is to give readers a basic 30 word vocabulary to help them on their journey to greater Jewish literacy. In choosing the words I have followed the word frequency tables that have been compiled by Professor Shlomo Haramati of Hebrew University. These words should help you both in the synagogue and in everyday life. Although there are differences in vocabularies – and the words spoken on the streets in Israel are different than the Hebrew of the siddur – most of these differences came later on in less frequent words. For the first 50 or 100 words there is very little difference between different kinds of Hebrew.
So you are interested in learning a basic Hebrew vocabulary you have come to the right place. To receive my postings on a regular basis just click on the FOLLOW link in the side panel.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner