The Book of Threes

Hebrew Language: Root Words

Formation of Hebrew Words from Roots

roshHebrew words are formed from roots by changing vowels and by adding a wealth of prefixes and suffixes to that root. Prefixes can be prepositions (in, on, of, to, etc.), articles (the), or other things. Suffixes can be pronouns (he, you, our, etc.), possessives (‘s), or can indicate gender and number (female singular; male plural, etc.). Because of the way these prefixes and suffixes are added to the root, a single word in Hebrew might be translated into English as several words.

For example, the first word of the Torah, “bereishit,” is usually translated as “in the beginning.” The root is Reish-Alef-Shin, which means “head” or “first.” (See Hebrew Alphabet to learn the letters). It is the same root as the “Rosh” in “Rosh Hashanah” (first of the year, i.e., Jewish New Year). We add the prefix Beit, a preposition meaning “in,” “on,” and a number of other things. The word “the” is implied.

A more complicated example is the Hebrew word “shehecheyanu,” the name of a popular prayer recited on holidays and at other times. The single word “shehecheyanu” means “who has kept us alive.” The root of this word is Cheit-Yod-Hei, a verb meaning “to live.” It’s the same root as the Hebrew word “chai” (life or living) which you commonly see on Jewish jewelry, and the Jewish toast “l’chayim!” (to life!) The Shin prefix turns the verb into a noun indicating a person who does the thing (“who”). The next letter is Hei, which normally turns a verb into a causative form (“has kept”). The Nun-Vav suffix is a first person plural pronoun (“us”). Thus, shehecheyanu means “who has kept us alive.” Whew!

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Three is the Magic Number

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