Hebrew Verbs – The Meaning of the Seven Forms

Hebrew has a unique system of classifying verbs, quite unlike English. There are seven “binyanim”, which translates to “buildings” or “constructs”. Most all verbs in Hebrew have a three letter root (called SHORESH in Hebrew), but a few have four letters.

Very few verbs can actually be forced into the seven “binyanim”. The verb “see” is an good illustration of how a verb crosses six of these patterns. In Hebrew the root is “RAAH” (RESH – ALPEH – HEI) and here are some variation of meanings: see/understand, appear/become-visible, be seen, show (cause to experience), made to see (get shown), look at one another.

Six of the binyanim can be paired, where one is active and one is passive. For example, QAL (meaning “simple”) is active, and NIFAL is passive. An example is BACHAR (he chose) and NIVCHAR (he was chosen). Both have the same three letter stem or root: BET CHAF RESH (but notice that BET can change to VET – thus the “B” verses the “V” sound).

The next set of paired verbs are the intensive ones, PIEL and PUAL. Although some verbs occur primarily in the PIEL, some verbs in the PIEL show an intensive form of meaning from those in the QAL. For example: in the QAL, “QADASH” is a stative verb meaning “he was holy”. But in the PIEL, the form “QIDESH” means “he sanctified”, thus the verb changes from a state to an action. An example of intensification is “SHAAL” (“he asked” in the QAL) and “NISHEL” (“he begged” in the PIEL).

The next verb form learned by students is the HIPFIL/HOPFAL pair. The often have the concept of causation. For example, the verb PAQAD (in QAL) means “he inspected” or he “mustered”. In the HIFHIL, “HIFQID” (Hiphil) means “He appointed” and “HAFQAD” (Hophal) means “he was appointed”.

The seven binyanim are sometimes likened to the seven branches of a menorah. Each of the sides can be paired with one on the opposite side (an active with a passive), leaving the final binyan “HITPAEL” in the middle (with no pair). An interesting example of this binyan is “HITPALEL” – normally translated as “he prayed”, but the word “PALAL” means “judge”, so it’s kind of like saying “He judged himself”.

Not recognizing the proper binyan can result in some erroneous and hilarious mistranslations. I remember when we were studying Hebrew with the Weingreen text, a sentence at first looked like “she took him in the house and ate his donkey”, when in fact is was “she took him in the house and fed his donkey”. The verb “ate” would be QAL in Hebrew, and the word “fed” was HIPHIL, thus “caused to eat”, which in English we say “fed” (or in old English “gave fodder”).

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