20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know

20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know

Traveling or moving to a foreign country is scary in and of itself, but add in a language barrier and simple tasks like going to the grocery store, ordering food in a restaurant, or hailing a cab become a lot more stressful. After living in Israel for six months, I have picked up some common expressions that are used daily, and that allow me to get by in the city. I know how to ask for the price of apples, tell the waiter I want my sandwich without tomatoes, or give a cab driver directions. Knowing some conversational Hebrew makes day-to-day tasks a little less daunting.

However, I realized that I lacked a major component of everyday speech. I can ask an Israeli on the street where the bus to Rabin Square is or what time it is, but I don’t understand Hebrew slang. I know a few words that almost everyone who has been on Birthright knows, but I don’t know common expressions. The cool thing about Hebrew slang is that some expressions commonly used today date back to the revitalization of the language and are a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and English. Understanding slang has now become crucial to speaking any language.

20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know
Molly in Israel

Here are 20 essential Hebrew slang expressions you’ll need to get by in Israel:

The Hebrew slang you learned on Birthright:

1. Sababa

One of my personal favorites. It means great, cool, alright, or any other variation. It can be used to show enthusiasm or happiness about a situation.

Ex. “We are leaving for the concert at 9:00 pm.”

Sababa!”

2. Balagan

Simply a mess, when there is no order and seemingly endless chaos. It can refer to a traffic jam on the highway, a long line at the supermarket, or a busy classroom.

Ex. Israeli classrooms are a balagan when the students are running around and not listening.

3. Yalla

“Let’s go” or “come on!” Derives from Arabic. It is used in daily language to express one’s desire to get people moving.

Ex. Yalla! Get dressed or we’ll be late for the movie.

4. Arsim

If there was an Israeli version of the Jersey Shore, then the Snookis and Vinnys on that show would be called arsim. Well, technically the Snookis would be frechot (the female version). Many people believe this term is discriminatory. No example so as not to offend anyone.

5. Achi

My bro, my dude, my brother. The female equivalent is achoti, which means my girl or my sister.

Ex. I’m going to the mall with achi.

6. Yesh!

Yes! Woohoo! Pretty self explanatory.

Ex. Yesh! I just won a million shekels!

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7. Ma nishma?

Literally means “what will we hear?” but when used as slang it means, “what’s up?” Anytime you here ma nishma in Israel it means, “what’s up?” I’ve never heard it used as its literal meaning.

Ex. “Ma nishma?”

“Everything’s good.”

8. Achla / Magniv

Both mean cool. Achla is more common and, in my opinion, cooler than saying magniv, no pun intended. I’ve been told magniv is kind of out of date.

Ex. “Look at this leather motorcycle coat I bought.”

Magniv,”

or

“I reserved us a table at the club for Thursday.”

Achla!”

The double-meaning Hebrew slang:

9. Al ha-panim

Literal: On the face

Slang: Really bad

Ex. That soup was way too salty, it was al ha-panim.

10. Eize seret

Literal: Which movie

Slang: When you want to express something crazy that happened to you; you won’t believe this story or you won’t believe what happened to me today.

11. Haval al hazman

Literal: Waste of time

Slang: Means something good, or the best thing ever. Usually adds emphasis to a sentence.

Ex. “We raised so much money for our charity, haval al hazman!”

12. Pizootz

Literal: Explosion

Slang: Awesome, cool

13. Esh

Literal: Fire

Slang: Awesome

14. Sof haderech

Literal: End of the road

Slang: Really good, super

15. Tzfoni

Literal: North or northern

Slang: A snobby, rich person

16. Chetzi co-ach

Literal: Half strength, half power

Slang: Not that good

Ex. “That movie was chetzi co-ach.”

17. Shechuna

Literal: Neighborhood

Slang: Unorganized

18. Mi is-mah?

Literal: Who will hear?

Slang: Not a big deal

Slightly Different than American Slang Expressions

19. Lo ha-eparon ha-chi chad be-kalmar

This expression literally means “not the sharpest pencil in the pencil case.” When used as slang it means that someone is not the smartest or has done something stupid. It can obviously be compared to the common English phrase, “Not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

20. Ma ani, ez?

Means “What am I, a goat?” Usually used to express frustration or anger in certain social settings in order to protest unfair treatment, such as being ignored or treated like a loser. It can be compared to the expression used by many American Jews, “What am I, chopped liver?”

Using these expressions on the streets in Israel helps me feel less like a tourist and more like a member of the community. It’s fun to walk down the street, hear these words, and understand them. Trust me, knowing some of these slang words will definitely make you feel achla.

20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know
Streets of Israel


20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know

About Molly Winik

Molly WinikA recent college graduate who chose to live and teach English abroad in Israel for a year instead of getting a 9-5 job. Born in New York, but raised in New Jersey. I have a large blended family that left me one of six kids. And I have an unhealthy obsession with my English bulldog Bubba. I love to write and can't wait to share my experiences and challenges abroad with other women travelers! Follow my travels here.

17 thoughts on “20 Hebrew Slang Expressions You Need to Know

  1. Ryan
    March 23, 2015
    Reply

    Hey HR, I’m not an etymologist, but Hebrew most likely has been borrowing from Arabic since before medieval times. Hebrew and Arabic also share a common ancestor (Aramaic), which I believe resembles the High Arabic much more than established modern Hebrew, so the lines can get fuzzy, but it’s totally possible for balagan to be from Arabic even if you grandparents know it in Yiddish.

  2. HR
    March 15, 2015
    Reply

    #11: Has to learn the contraction: “chavlaz”

    No, balagan is not from Arabic. My Polish-Russian parents used balagan in Yiddish.

  3. Ryan
    March 15, 2015
    Reply

    oops, meant salamtak is en vogue “achshav,” seems like this page won’t recognize Hebrew characters.

  4. Ryan
    March 15, 2015
    Reply

    Salamtak – is a “more street” way of saying sababa, and can be used in pretty much the same context. Ma nishma? Salamtak. If you want to make a young Israeli laugh, use this phrase. It comes from Arabic (like a lot of the words on this list), but in Arabic it means something like “health to you,” and you would only say this to a person who is sick.

    Balagan, yala, sababa, and many others are all also from Arabic although I’m not sure most Jews in Israel are actually cognizant of this.

    A warning usage… when I lived in Israel I discovered that some of the phrases they teach you on birthright are laughably outdated (as in people haven’t used them in decades sometime), and will immediately identify you as a Taglit participant. However, salamtak is en vogue ?????

  5. adan
    March 10, 2015
    Reply

    number 5 also literally means “my brother” (or sister depending on gender).
    So the example is kind of confusing

  6. asaf
    March 10, 2015
    Reply

    lol “ma ani ez ” is for sure the best one 😛

  7. dud
    March 10, 2015
    Reply

    ‘Achi’ is not ‘dude’
    ‘dude’ is ‘ish’ or ‘ben-adam’
    ‘Ma nish-ma ish/ben-adam’=
    What’s up dude/man

    And ‘going to the mall with Achi’ will be sibling, not bro
    It should be
    ‘Going to the mall with ach shealow’ speaking about your self in a 3rd party

  8. Raphael
    March 10, 2015
    Reply

    Yesh! Thanks a lot for this article. Moving to Tel Aviv area in a few months, this will be very helpful 🙂

  9. shaham
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    What about “ben zona”
    When used to talk discribe an object or an event it means that it is somthing realy good

    Literally it means “son of a slot”

  10. Dominika
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    I’m bit surprised with such explanation of origin of “balagan”. I would rather say that it’s a direct borrowing from Polish. In Polish “ba?agan” literally means “mess”.

  11. avner
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    shalom…were do you take the picture of the graffiti?…
    and also
    -“Beseder”…it works for everything :ok, cool, good, fine…

    • Molly
      Molly
      March 9, 2015
      Reply

      I took the photo in Neve Tzedek near the old train station!

  12. me
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    ‘Balagan’ can also mean ‘Party’, I think I only heard it in a lets party meaning or ‘Yalla Balagan’.

    • Amir
      March 9, 2015
      Reply

      “Yalla balagan!” Would translate to something on the line of “Let’s make a mess”, like a call to go wild and make a big mess, but yes it is mostly said in the context of “Let’s party!”.

  13. Gadi Ben-Avi
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    Balagan comes from Persian and means Balcony. Apparently, balconies were always messy (used for storage) in Persia. I’ve seen some pretty messy ones here two.
    http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%91%D7%9C%D7%92%D7%9F

  14. Michael
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    Sababa!

  15. Yoshiahu Tal-Or
    March 9, 2015
    Reply

    A couple of fixes on the terms:

    “Ma nishma?” actually translates as “what’s heard?”. It’s in the “nif’al” form of the word, which would be spelled the same as the first-person plural “we will hear”.
    Translated half-colloquially and half-literally, could be akin to “heard anything new?”.

    “Eize seret” – you can attach “eize” (literally: “which” or “what a…”) to almost any noun. Used colloquially in exclamation as in: “what a day!” or “what a party!”.

    “Mi is-mah?” – should be transliterated as “Mi yishma?”.
    —–

    A couple more phrases you could attach are:

    “Chai b’seret” – literally “lives in a movie”, the subject of this term is ostensibly delusional or dreaming.

    “Ah-lahn” – Arabic for “what’s up?”.

    “Mi’toraf” – literally “crazy”, used as such. Can be used positively or negatively (more often positively): “that party was CRAZY!” or “that plan is nuts!”.

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