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Weird, wacky, wonderful (Hebrew) words: אֶפְשָׁר / Possible (efshar)


You've been reading these posts for a while.  How about I reward you with a gift?

It's a single word that works as a magic key, opening doors here like no other word can do -- including "please" (בבקשה), which really doesn't go a long way at all in Israel.

Actually, I’ve come to believe that saying please is actually a cue for whoever is supposed to be helping you--in restaurants, government offices, or wherever--to ignore you for a certain period of time.  Like counting to 10 when you're angry.  At least, they kind of stare at me cluelessly when I do it.  I’m not kidding.  It will only slow you down here.  Try it!

So what's the word?
Well, it's a little word that makes everything POSSIBLE...

Because it means "possible"!
And the word is... אפשר / efshar.

(And okay, since I’m not the grammar maven that you might be—technically it means something a lot more like “possibly,” but for the rest of this post, you and I are going to agree to overlook  grammar and technicalities almost entirely… if you want a more linguistically inclined site, check out Balashon – currently on hiatus but nonetheless packed with great info!  Also a terrific pun: balash means detective, lashon means language.)

Now, in English, the word “possible” isn’t used nearly as often in Hebrew. Here, you can use this little word instead of “please” in a huge variety of situations.

For example, in a restaurant:

  • Efshar ketchup? / Literally, “possibly ketchup?” but it means something more like “Can I/we have ketchup?”

And ditto for…

  • Efshar mayim? / Can I/we have water?
  • Efshar cheshbon? / Can I/we have the bill?
  • Efshar falafel? / Can I/we have a falafel?
  • Efshar et ha melach? / Can I/we have the salt?

You’ll notice that in all these examples, I wrote “I/we”… with efshar, you don’t have to make things personal and you don’t have to specify exactly who needs the ketchup, water, bill, falafel, or salt.  This doesn’t really cause problems because most of us don’t bother making requests like these on behalf of anyone other than ourselves, and Hebrew in general avoids personalizing things as much as English.

If you didn’t know the little word efshar, you might be stuck juggling a convoluted sentence like you might say in English:

  • ברצוני לקבל את החשבון עכשיו, תודה / I’d like the bill now, please
  • האם נוכל לקבל קנקן מים, בבקשה? / Can we get a pitcher of water, please?
  • בבקשה, תביאי לנו עוד לחם כדי שנמשיך ליהנות ממנו – הוא מאוד טעים! / Please bring us more bread so we can continue to enjoy it – it’s delicious!
  • נא להביא לנו את החשבון בהזדמנות הראשונה שלך, תודה / Please bring us the bill at your first opportunity, thanks.

Okay, I purposely made these a little formal and convoluted, because this is actually how lots of us speak in English. 

Many of us aren’t aware that we’re doing this, but In English, we add words for politeness so it doesn’t seem like we’re being rude or abrupt, which is a huge taboo in most English-speaking places. 

Most of us are trained from early childhood not just to walk up to the counter and say, “Gimme napkins.”  We go to great lengths to avoid impoliteness in a way that is seen as highly inauthentic in Israeli society. 

It certainly might be true that just want a bunch of napkins.  But as an English speaker, I naturally won’t want you (the waiter) to THINK I’m just using you for your napkins, so to speak.  So to compensate for the superficiality of the request, I’m going to smile, make eye contact, make the request as personal and friendly as possible so you’ll love me enough to bring me napkins even though it’s your job and technically you’re being paid to do it.

These are habits you must get over in Israel.  Remember what I said above: using words like please and thank you is only going to cause delays.  It makes people stop and wonder what kind of person you are and why you are talking in that false, overly-polite way.

If the person you’re talking to is just trying to do their job, Israelis see it as common courtesy on your part to tell them what you want as quickly and efficiently as possible.  “Round trip ticket” “Give me napkins” “I want ketchup.”  All these are not only fine, they’re optimal from an Israeli customer-service standpoint.

And efshar is a huge part of that.

By the way, if you really must be polite, you’re allowed to add “please” to your “efshar”.  When I asked my 10-year-old son just now to give me an example of a sentence with the word efshar, he immediately said:

אפשר בבקשה לא להגיד את המילה “אפשר”? / Is it possible, please, to not say the word possible?

So there you go.

The opposite of efshar, by the way, is a pretty useful “word” in its own right:  אי אפשר / ee efshar.  It means, of course, impossible.  Usually in the sense of “I can’t.”  If you want to use impossible as a noun, like when you’re telling someone you achieved the impossible (which I do every day by living in Israel!), you have to say בלתי אפשרי / biltee efsharee / “without possibility,” which also translates to “impossible.”

Hopefully you won’t be using or hearing those words all too often.  Sure, you used to hear them a lot when confronting Israeli bureaucracy, but that’s happening less and less often (see this post about my fabulous Israeli passport experience!).  Still, it’s useful to know what it means in case someone says it to you.

I hope knowing both these words will help make a lot of “impossible” situations simpler for you in Israel.  Who knows?  …Anything’s possible!

I wanted to include a relevant video, because—well, why not—and came across a bunch of songs around an old saying based on a traditional Yiddish folktale: 

כל זמן שהנר דולק, אפשר לתקן / "Kol zman she-haner dolek, efshar letakein" - "As long as the candle is burning, (whatever is wrong) can be fixed.”

Here’s one of many versions:

This is Shlomo Artzi, a well known and beloved Israeli singing this song, based on a Yiddish folktale, in Yiddish, as his father and grandfather used to.

May the candles of possibility be burning for many years to come here in Israel!

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I never thought of it as a strange word, but it is more polite than ten/tni li.

    1. Exactly! Because at least you're pretending to ask. I love the delicacy of it, actually!


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