Hebrew Verbs

Ancient vs. Modern – A New Look at Active and Passive Hebrew Verbs

By Ditsa Keren, content writer for LingoLearn.com

One of the most exciting things about learning Hebrew is the Root system, according to which Hebrew verbs are constructed in a variety of different combinations, as I previously discussed in the article “Mysteries and philosophy of the Hebrew language“.

Roots of Hebrew Verbs

In Hebrew, roots, which are normally comprised of 3 core letters, can be used to build verbs in 7 patterns – ‘Binyanim’, each one resulting in a slightly different meaning, thus creating sub-verbs or verb families. The differences between verbs of the same family indicate whether they are active or passive, and reveal the philosophic origins behind the revived Hebrew language.

hebrew verbs

Most roots can be conjugated in 2-4 Binyanim, which create similar but not identical verbs. We can take the root A-H-V as an example:

AHAV- he loved
HIT’AHEV- he fell in love

Active and Passive Hebrew Verbs

Although both verbs share the same root, their meaning is slightly different. Recognizing such differences when speaking and writing in Hebrew will help you better understand the language on a practical level, as well as on the cultural aspect; The philosophic trends common to that point in history when the Hebrew language was revived. For clarification, let us turn our attention to the meaning of each of these verbs.

Like in English, so in Hebrew, falling in love is spoken of as something that happens to you. It is not in your hands to decide whether you want it or not, it just drops on you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This indicates a romantic, somewhat naive system of values, very typical to the 19th century during which the language was revived, and still part of the contemporary culture of today, in which people are swept away by their emotions rather than making conscious choices of who they want to love.

AHAV, on the other hand, is an active verb, which refers to loving as an action. It is therefore not just an emotion one feels within, but a role which is accompanied by many responsibilities, as the typical Jewish mother would testify. It is a more ancient view of love, which also appears in many biblical stories, where a man has to work hard for seven years before he can even think of marrying a woman. And indeed, we have come to discover that AHAV is a biblical verb, while HIT’AHEV is a modern one. This generally applies to most passive Binyanim, which are a modern invention originating from the work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

One way to explain it is that the dramatic ancient Hebrew of the Torah leaves no room for passiveness. In biblical stories, so as in ancient mythologies from other cultures, determination, courage and vision were necessary for individual survival, in accordance with the rough nature of the times. But as civilization became less ‘primitive’ and more ‘intellectual’, such characteristics have cleared the way for doubt, laziness and indecisiveness and allowed them to penetrate the human society, especially in European countries, where showing insecurity is actually considered to be polite. It is therefore easy to understand the background from which the idea of passive verbs was originated.

As I mentioned previously, modern Hebrew is a secular expression of spirituality, independent of faith or tradition. Contemporary spiritual movements discuss the idea of letting go and surrendering to whatever comes, rather than creating your own destiny, which is that same passive pattern taken up one step further, into the 21st century. In present times, passive verbs are not only becoming more and more common, but many innovations of The Academy of the Hebrew Language are not even Hebrew, and are derived from English or Latin words. Talk about being passive…

Our conclusion is that as much as we like to be modern and sophisticated, some things are better left as they were. Being active is much more authentic than being passive, and to be a true Hebrew man means to be a lion in Zion! All that and more coming soon… 

LingoLearn is an online Hebrew school which offers beginner level Hebrew courses as well as intermediate and advanced level courses. Learn Hebrew with our experienced teachers and excellent learning materials, in a state of the art virtual classroom!

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