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Weird, wacky, wonderful (Hebrew) words: Time (זְמַן) after Time (פַּעַם) and more…


I figured it was time for a new post!  I know, I haven't posted anything in so long, and now this is like 3 in a 2-week period.  Blogging is like that sometimes.

And speaking of TIME... this post is all about time.  Specifically, the words we use to talk about it in Hebrew.

We use words for time a lot, which makes them extremely useful.
We say things to each other like:

  • "What time is the party?"
  • "How much time do you have?"
  • "How many times have you eaten blue cheese?"
  • "I sometimes think I'll try it someday."

In English, all four of those are the same word: time.
Not so in Hebrew.

  • What time is the party? / be’eyzo sha’ah hamesiba / באיזו שעה המסיבה
  • How much time do you have? / kama zman yesh lach / כמה זמן יש לך
  • How many times have you eaten blue cheese? / kama pe’amim achalt gevina kechula / כמה פעמים אכלת גבינה כחולה
  • I sometimes think I’ll try it someday. / leefameem ani choshevet she-anaseh yom echad / לפעמים אני חושבת שאנסה יום אחד

What are the time words I’ve used here?

  • Sha’ah / שעה – usually, hour
  • Pa’am / פעם – usually, time as in “how many times” (think of it as “occurrence”)
  • Zman / זמן – usually, time as in the abstract noun, like “we don’t have much time.”

For the fourth sentence, with sometimes, you're going to need a different word altogether:  leefameem / לפעמים.  But actually, if you look closely, you'll see that the root is actually פעם, which appears above.  I love this word because it actually means to pulse or beat, as in your heartbeat, which is sometimes called pe'eemat halev פעימות הלב.  The word for bell also comes from the same word: pa'amon, פעמון.

There are a few more ways to talk about the passage of time.  Like these fun constructions we use to talk about things we do at particular intervals:

  • Often: le-eeteem krovot / לעתים קרובות – literally, something like “at close-together intervals”
  • Less often: le-eeteem rechokot / לעתים רחוקות – literally, something like “at distant intervals”
  • Rarely: le’eeteem nadirot / לעתים נדירות – literally, something like “at rare intervals”

All these formulations make use of a very respectable Biblical word for time, which comes up, oh, about a bazillion times in the book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes):  עת / et.  As in, "To everything, there is a season (Turn, turn, turn)."  A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.  More on that later.

You know that rule in English that you should never ever use a double negative?
Well, sometimes in Hebrew when you talk about time, you must.  At least when you want to say you NEVER do something.

The word for never, like the word for nobody, is always followed by not.  So you're saying, in effect, "I would never not eat blue cheese." 

  • I never eat blue cheese / ani af pa’am lo ochel gevina kechula / אני אף פעם לא אוכלת גבינה כחולה

Notice that the word pa’am is used here, because it is an occurrence (albeit one which doesn’t take place!). :-)

If you want to say you have never done something, it’s a little different still:

  • I’ve never eaten blue cheese / me-olam lo achalti gevina kechula / מעולם לא אכלתי גבינה כחולה

The time word here, by the way, is me-olam, meaning literally “from the world,” because olam / world also refers to lengths of time, a good Biblical construction we’re familiar with from expressions like “Hashem yimloch le-olam va-ed” (Hashem will reign forever and ever.”  Le-olam / לעולם – forever.  Me-olam / מעולם – never.

(Not that you asked, but the double-negative rule is also true for nobody, by the way.  You have to add not, so you're actually saying, "There's nobody not home" or "Nobody doesn't want to eat blue cheese.")

The weirdest part is... with all these words for "time" in Hebrew, there's no way to talk about what KIND of time you had or are having.  "We're having a great time!" you might shout at somebody at a party.  "We had a miserable time," you might say after a rainy day at the zoo.

At least in English, because in Hebrew, you can't.  For the party, or a perfect day at the zoo, you can say haya lanu mamash keif / היה לנו ממש כיף – “We had really fun.”  Is there a way of saying “We had a miserable time”?  Not that I know of.  You can say, “I had a bad day,” היה לי יום רע / haya li yom ra, but the word time doesn’t come into it at all.

But I sense I’ve taken too much of your precious time already.

Speaking of Ecclesiastes, here's an updated, upbeat take on that by Yaakov Shwekey that we're enjoying these days.  It's called Et Rekod / עת רקוד, meaning "A time to dance."  My daughter said last week it reminds her of our older daughter's wedding, probably because they played it twice during the dancing.  It really does, which makes it a happy song forever for me.

Enjoy!  Even if you can't have a “good time” while you’re listening.  At least, not in Hebrew.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I may have missed it, but did you include עידן? Time meaning era.

  2. This post has been included in my latest blog roundup. Thanks for blogging.


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