Jewish Glossary

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4 Questions
A set of questions about Passover, designed to encourage participation in the seder. Also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions.

10 Commandments

Judaism teaches that HaShem gave the Jews 613 commandments, not merely ten. The biblical passage known to most people as the “Ten Commandments” is known to Jews as the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Declarations, and is considered to be ten categories of commandments rather than ten individual commandments.

13 Principles of Faith

The most widely accepted list of Jewish beliefs, compiled by Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – Maimonides).

613 Commandments (Mitzvot)
Judaism teaches that HaShem gave the Jews 613 commandments. See them all listed here.


A

Aaron
Aaron was the older brother of Moses. Founder of the priesthood, and the first Kohein Gadol (High Priest). He helped Moses lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.

Abraham (Avram)
Abraham was the first Jew, the founder of Judaism and one of the three Patriarchs of Judaism.

Adar
Adar is the twelfth month of the Jewish year, occurring in February/March. On certain years we have 2 months of Adar, Adar I and Adar II.

Afikomen
From Greek meaning “dessert.” A half piece of matzah set aside during the Passover Seder, which is later hidden by children and then ransomed by parents, or hidden by parents and found by children. It is eaten as the last part of the meal. See Pesach (Passover)

Al Cheit (AHL KHAYT)
Al Chiet means “for the sin”. A confession of community sins recited repeatedly on Yom Kippur.

Alefbet (AH-lef-bet)
The Hebrew alphabet. The name Aleph Bet comes from the first two letters of the Hebrew language.

Aleinu (ah-LAY-noo)
Aleinu is a  prayer recited at or near the end of every prayer service.

Aliyah (ah-lee-AH)
Means “ascension” or “going up“. 1) Reading from the Torah or reciting a blessing over the reading during services, which is considered an honor. 2) Immigrating to Israel.

Aninut
The period of mourning between the time of death and the time of burial.

Antiochus (an-TAHY-u-kuss)
The villain of the story of Hanukkah, a Greek ruler in control of Judea who prohibited practice of Judaism.

Ark
The English translation of aron kodesh, or holy chest. The cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept.

Av
Av is the fifth month of the Jewish year, occurring in July/August.

Avelut
The year of mourning after the burial of a parent.


B

B.C.E.
Before the Common (or Christian) Era. Another way of saying B.C.

Bar Kokhba (BAHR KOHKH-buh)
Aramaic: Son of a Star. Simeon ben Kosiba, the leader of the last and most successful Jewish rebellion against Rome in 132-135 C.E. He died in battle when the rebellion was defeated.

Bat Mitzvah (BAHT MITS-vuh)
Means  “daughter of the commandment“. A girl who has achieved the age of 12 and is consequently obligated to observe the commandments.

Bar Mitzvah (BAR MITS-vuh)
Means  “son of the commandment“. A boy who has achieved the age of 13 and is consequently obligated to observe the commandments.

Beit Din (BAYT DIN)
Means “house of judgment”. A rabbinical court made up of three rabbis who resolve business disputes under Jewish law and determine whether a prospective convert is ready for conversion.

Beit Knesset (BAYT K’NESS-et)
Means “house of assembly“. A Hebrew term for a synagogue.

Bible
Also referred to as the TaNaCh.

Birkat Ha-Mazon (BEER-kaht hah mah-ZOHN)
Means “blessing of the food“. Grace after meals. The recitation of birkat ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching (Yiddish).

Brit Milah (BRIT MEE-lah)
Means “covenant of circumcision“. The ritual circumcision of a male Jewish child on the 8th day of his life or of a male convert to Judaism. Sometimes referred to as a “Bris“.


C

C.E.
Common (or Christian) Era. Used instead of A.D.

Calendar
Judaism uses a lunar/solar calendar consisting of months that begin at the new moon. Each year has 12 or 13 months, to keep it in sync with the solar year.

Chai (KHAHY)
Means “living” or “life“. The word is often used as a design on jewelry and other ornaments. Donations to charity are often made in multiples of 18, the numerical value of the word.

Chanukkah
See Hanukkah

Counting of the Omer
The counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot. An omer is a measure of grain used during the first and second temple.


D

Daf Yomi (DAHF yoh-MEE)
Means “page of the day“. Refers to the practice of studying a page of Talmud every day.

Dagesh (dah-GEHSH)
A dot found in the center of some Hebrew letters in pointed text, used as an aid to pronunciation.

Dan
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Daniel
A book of the Torah, or the writer of that book. The book is included in the Writings, not the Prophets, because by definition prophecies are meant to be proclaimed, and his visions were meant to be written, not proclaimed.

Daven (DAH-ven)
Yiddish  for “Pray“. Observant Jews daven three times a day, in addition to reciting blessings over many common activities.

Days of Awe
Ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, a time for introspection and considering the sins of the previous year.

Diaspora
Any place outside of the land of Israel where Jews live. The Hebrew/Yiddish term for this is “galut“.

Dreidel
A yiddish word for a top-like toy used to play a traditional Hanukkah game.


E

Elul
The sixth month of the Jewish year, a time of repentance in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Ephraim
1) Son of Joseph. Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Erev
Means “evening”. The evening part of a day, which precedes the morning part of the same day because a “day” on the Jewish calendar starts at sunset. For example, if your calendar says that Yom Kippur is on September 25, then Erev Yom Kippur is the evening of September 24, which is also part of Yom Kippur.

Esau
Son of Isaac; older twin brother of Jacob (Israel). He had little respect for the traditions of his ancestors, and sold his birthright for a bowl of food.

Esther
One of the heroes of the story of Purim.

Etrog (ET-rohg)
A citrus fruit grown in Israel and other parts of the Mediterranean, used to fulfill the commandment to “rejoice before the L-rd” during Sukkot.


F

Fast Days
Several Jewish holidays are fasts, upon which we may neither eat nor drink.

Firstborn
If a woman’s first child is a male child born by natural childbirth, then the child must be redeemed from a kohein (priest) by a procedure called Pidyon Ha-Ben. In addition, firstborn males must observe a special fast the day before Pesach (Passover), commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the first born.

Fleishik (FLAHYSH-ik)
Yiddish for  “meat“. Used to describe kosher foods that contain meat and therefore cannot be eaten with dairy.


G

Gabbai (GAH-bahy)
A lay person who volunteers to perform various duties in connection with Torah readings at religious services.

Gad
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Galut (gah-LOOT)
Means “exile” or “captivity“. Any place outside of the land of Israel where Jews live. Refers to the fact that Jews were exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans after the last Jewish War.

Gan Eden
Hebrew for the Garden of Eden. A place of spiritual reward for the righteous dead. This is not the same place where Adam and Eve lived.

Gefilte Fish (g’-FIL-tuh Fish)
Yiddish: “stuffed fish“. A traditional Jewish dish consisting of a ball or cake of chopped up kosher fish.

Gemara (g’-MAHR-uh)
Commentaries on the Mishnah. The Mishnah and Gemara together are the Talmud.

Get
A writ of divorce. Also called a sefer k’ritut.

Grace After Meals
Referred to in Hebrew as “Birkat Ha-Mazon“. It is one of the most important prayers in Judaism, one of the very few that the Bible commands us to recite.


H

Haftarah (hahf-TOH-ruh)
Means  “conclusion“.  A reading from the Prophets, read along with the weekly Torah portion.

Haggadah (huh-GAH-duh)
The book read during the Passover Seder, telling the story of the holiday.

Haman (HAY-men)
The villain of the story of Purim.

Hamentaschen (HAH-men-TAH-shen)
Means “Haman’s pockets”. Triangular, fruit-filled cookies traditionally served or given as gifts during Purim.

Hanukkah
Means “dedication”. Hanukkah is an eight day holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by the Seleucid Greeks. Also known as the Festival of Lights.

HaShem (hah-SHEM)
Means “The Name“. The Name of G-d, which is not pronounced. HaShem is often used as a substitute for G-d’s Name.

Heshvan
Heshvan is the eighth month of the Jewish year, occurring in October/November. Sometimes called Marheshvan (bitter Heshvan) because it is the only month with no holidays.

High Holidays
The holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur are commonly referred to as the High Holidays or the High Holy Days.


I

Isaac
Son and spiritual heir of Abraham. Father of Jacob (Israel). One of the three Patriarchs of Judaism.

Ishmael
Firstborn son of Abraham by Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. According to both Muslim and Jewish tradition, he is the ancestor of the Arabs.

Israel
1) The land that G-d promised to Abraham and his descendants. 2) The northern kingdom that was home to the “ten lost tribes.” 3) Alternate name for Jacob. 4) A country in the Middle East located in the ancient homeland that has a predominantly Jewish population and government.

Issachar
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Iyar
Iyar is the second month of the Jewish year, occurring in April/May.


J

Jacob (Israel)
Son of Isaac. Father of twelve sons, who represent the tribes of Judaism. One of the three Patriarchs of Judaism.

Jerusalem
The holiest city in Judaism, King David’s capital and the site of King Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple. Since ancient times, Jews have faced Jerusalem during prayer, and have prayed daily for a return to Israel and Jerusalem. See The Land of Israel.

Jew
A person whose mother was a Jew or who has converted to Judaism. According to the Reform movement, a person whose father is a Jew is also a Jew.

Jewish Star
The six-pointed star emblem commonly associated with Judaism, also known as the Magen David, the Shield of David or the Star of David.

Joseph
Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of two of the tribes of Israel. He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but became powerful in Egypt and paved the way for his family’s settlement there.

Judah
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name; 3) The Southern Kingdom after the death of Solomon when Israel was split into two kingdoms; the Kingdom of Judah included the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and part of the tribe of Levi.


K

Kaddish (KAH-dish)
Aramaic: “holy“. A prayer in Aramaic praising G-d, commonly associated with mourning practices.

Kashrut (KAHSH-rut)
From a root meaning “fit,” “proper” or “correct.” Jewish dietary laws.

Kavanah (kuh-VAH-nuh)
Concentration, intent. The frame of mind required for prayer or performance of a mitzvah (commandment).

Kiddush (KID-ish)
Means “sanctification“. A prayer recited over wine sanctifying Shabbat or a holiday.

Kippah (KEE-puh)
The skullcap head covering worn by Jews during services, and by some Jews at all times, more commonly known as a yarmulke.

Kislev
Kislev is the ninth month of the Jewish year, occurring in November/December.

Kol Nidre (KOHL NID-ray)
Means “all vows“. The evening service of Yom Kippur, or the prayer that begins that service.

Kosher (KOH-sher)
Means “fit“, “proper” or “correct“. Describes food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws. Can also describe any other ritual object that is fit for use according to Jewish law.


L

Lag b’Omer (LAHG BOH-mayr)
The 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. A minor holiday on which the mourning restrictions of the Omer period are lifted.

Lashon Ha-Ra (LAH-shohn HAH-rah)
Means the “evil tongue“. Sins against other people committed by speech, such as defamation, gossip, swearing falsely, and scoffing.

Latkes (LAHT-kuhs)
Potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

L’Chayim (l’-KHAHY-eem)
Means “to life“. A common Jewish toast.

Leah
Wife of Jacob. Mother of six of his sons. Sister of Rachel. Leah is one of the Matriarchs of Judaism.

Lox (LAHKS)
Smoked salmon. Commonly served on a bagel.

L-rd
A way of avoiding writing a name of G-d, to avoid the risk of the sin of erasing or defacing the Name.

Lulav (LOO-lahv)
Means “palm branch“. A collection of palm, myrtle and willow branches, used to fulfill the commandment to “rejoice before the L-rd” during Sukkot.


M

Ma’ariv (MAH-reev)
Evening prayer services.

Maccabees
A name for the family of heroes of the story of Hanukkah, derived from the nickname of one of the sons, Judah the Maccabee.

Machzor (MAHKH-zawr)
A special prayer book for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Maftir (MAHF-teer)
The person who reads or blesses the reading of the last part of the Torah reading and the entire haftarah reading.

Magen David (mah-GAYN dah-VEED)
Means “shield of David”. The six-pointed star emblem commonly associated with Judaism.

Maimonides (mahy-MAH-ni-dees)
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, one of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars. Commonly referred to by the acronym ‘Rambam’.

Matzah (plural: Matzot) (MAHTZ-uh; matz-OHT)
Unleavened bread traditionally served during Passover.

Mazel Tov (MAHZ-z’l TAWV)
Means  “good luck“.  A way of expressing congratulations.

Megillah (m’-GILL-uh)
Means “scroll“. One of five books of the Bible (Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes). The remaining books are referred to as sefers (books). Usually refers to the book of Esther.

Menorah (m’-NAW-ruh)
A candelabrum. Usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum used to hold the Hanukkah candles. Can also refer to the seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple.

Mezuzah (m’-ZOO-zuh)
Means “doorpost“. A case attached to the doorposts of houses, containing a scroll with passages of scripture written on it.

Mikvah (MIK-vuh)
Means “gathering“. A ritual bath used for spiritual purification.

Minhag (MIN-hahg)
Means “custom“. A custom that evolved for worthy religious reasons and has continued long enough to become a binding religious practice. The word is also used more loosely to describe any customary religious practice.

Minyan (MIN-yahn)
The quorum necessary to recite certain prayers, consisting of ten adult Jewish men (orthodox) or ten people (Conservative and Reform).

Miriam
Older sister of Moses and Aaron, and a prophetess in her own right. She helped Moses and Aaron lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.

Mitzvah (MITS-vuh); plural: Mitzvot (mits-VOHT)
Means “commandment“. Any of the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to observe. It can also refer to any Jewish religious obligation, or more generally to any good deed.

Moses
The greatest of all of the prophets, who saw all that all of the other prophets combined saw, and more.


N

Ner Tamid (NAYR tah-MEED)
Means “continual lamp“. Usually translated “eternal flame.” A candelabrum or lamp near the ark in the synagogue that symbolizes the commandment to keep a light burning in the Tabernacle outside of the curtain surrounding the Ark of the Covenant.

Nisan
Nisan is the first month of the Jewish year, occurring in March/April.


O

Oral Torah (Oral TOH-ruh)
Jewish teachings explaining and elaborating on the Written Torah, handed down orally until the 2d century C.E., when they began to be written down in what became the Talmud.


P

Pareve (PAHR-ev)
Yiddish: “neutral“. Used to describe kosher foods that contain neither meat nor dairy and therefore can be eaten with either.

Parokhet
The curtain inside the Ark (cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept).

Parshah (PAHR-shah)
A weekly Torah portion read in synagogue.

Passover
Holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. The holiday also marks the beginning of the harvest season.

Patriarchs
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The forefathers of Judaism.


Q


R

Rabbi (RA-bahy)
A religious teacher and person authorized to make decisions on issues of Jewish law.

Rachel
Wife of Jacob. Mother of Joseph and Benjamin. One of the Matriarchs of Judaism.

Rebbetzin (REB-i-tsin)
The wife of a rabbi.

Rebecca
Wife of Isaac. Mother of Jacob and Esau. One of the Matriarchs of Judaism.

Reuben
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Rosh Hashanah (ROHSH hah SHAH-nuh)
Means “first of the year“. The new year for the purpose of counting years


S

Sabbath
A day of rest and spiritual enrichment. Friday night to Saturday night.

Sarah
Wife of Abraham. Mother of Isaac. One of the Matriarchs of Judaism.

Seder (SAY-d’r)
Means “order“. 1) The family home ritual conducted as part of the Passover observance. 2) A division of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Shabbat (shah-BAHT)
Means “end“, “cease“, or “rest“. The Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest and spiritual enrichment.

Shacharit (SHAHKH-reet)
Morning prayer services.

Shammus (SHAH-mis)
Means “servant“. 1) The candle that is used to light other Hanukkah candles; 2) the janitor or caretaker of a synagogue.

Shofar (sho-FAHR)
A ram’s horn, blown like a trumpet as a call to repentance.

Shul (SHOOL)
The Yiddish term for a “Jewish house of worship“. The term is used primarily by Orthodox Jews.

Siddur (SID-or)
Means “order“. Prayer book.

Sidrah (SID-ruh)
A weekly Torah portion read in synagogue.

Simeon
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Sukkah (SUK-uh)
Means “booth“. The temporary dwellings we live in during the holiday of Sukkot. See also Blessing for Dwelling in the Sukkah.

Sukkot (soo-KOHT)
Means “booths“. One of the Shalosh R’galim (three pilgrimage festivals). A festival commemorating the wandering in the desert and the final harvest.

Synagogue (SIN-uh-gahg)
From a Greek root meaning “assembly.” The most widely accepted term for a Jewish house of worship.


T

Tallit (TAH-lit)
A shawl-like garment worn during morning services, with tzitzit (long fringes) attached to the corners as a reminder of the commandments. Sometimes called a prayer shawl.

Tallit Katan (TAH-lit kuh-TAHN)
Means “small tallit“. A four-cornered, poncho-like garment worn under a shirt so that we may have the opportunity to fulfill the commandment to put tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of our garments.

Talmud (TAHL-mud)
The most significant collection of the Jewish oral tradition interpreting the Torah.

Tammuz
Tammuz is the fourth month of the Jewish year, occurring in June/July.

Taryag Mitzvot
613 Commandments. “Taryag” is a way of pronouncing the numeral 613, which is made up of the letters Tav (numerical value 400), Reish (200), Yod (10) and Gimmel (3).

Tefillin (t’-FIL-lin)
Phylacteries“. Leather boxes containing scrolls with passages of scripture, used to fulfill the commandment to bind the commandments to our hands and between our eyes.

Tevet
Tevet is the tenth month of the Jewish year, occurring in December/January.

Tisha B’Av (TISH-uh BAHV)
Lit. The Ninth of Av. A fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as other tragedies.

Tishrei
Tishrei he seventh month of the Jewish year, during which many important holidays occur.

Torah (TOH-ruh)
Torah the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses.

Transliteration
The process of writing Hebrew using the Roman (English) alphabet.

Tu B’Shevat (TOO bish-VAHT)
15th of Shevat. The new year for the purpose of counting the age of trees for purposes of tithing.

Tzaddik (TSAH-deek)
Means “righteous person“.

Tzedakah (tsi-DUH-kuh)
Means “righteousness“. Generally refers to charity.

Tzitzit (TZIT-sit)
Fringes attached to the corners of garments as a reminder of the commandments.


U

Ufruf (UF-ruf)
The groom’s aliyah on the Shabbat before his wedding.

Unveiling
It is a custom in many Jewish communities to keep a deceased’s tombstone covered for the first twelve months after death, and to ceremonially unveil the tombstone on the first anniversary of the death.


W

Western Wall
The western retaining wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which is as close to the site of the original Sanctuary as Jews can go today. Commonly known as the Wailing Wall.


X


Y

Yad (YAHD)
Means “hand“. Hand-shaped pointer used while reading from Torah scrolls.

Yahrzeit (YAHR-tsahyt)
Yiddish: “anniversary“. The anniversary of the death of a close relative.

Yarmulke (YAH-mi-kuh)
The skullcap head covering worn by Jews during services, and by some Jews at all times.


Z

Zebulun
1) Son of Jacob (Israel). Ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel; 2) The tribe that bears his name.

Zionism (ZAHY-uhn-ism)
A political movement to create and maintain a Jewish state. The word is derived from Zion, another name for Jerusalem.