GLOSSARY OF JEWISH TERMS
glossary is a work in progress. New terms will be added to it from
time to time. If there is a particular term that you would like to
Aliyah (Hebrew, going up, plural aliyot) – (1) Being called to “go up” (to the bimah) to the reading of the Torah. In ancient times, the people called up read a section from the Torah. Today, most people say the blessings and a designated person reads from the Torah. (2) Moving to Israel.
Ashkenazim (from the Hebrew ashkenaz, a Biblical word of unknown reference, used in Medieval Hebrew to refer to Germany) - A Jew whose family came from Central or Eastern Europe. Most American Jews are Ashkenazim.
Bimah (Hebrew, stage) - A raised platform in the synagogue. Historically, the bimah was in the center of the synagogue, and it was used specifically for the Torah reading. In most synagogues today, the bimah is in the front of the synagogue, and the rabbi and other people speak from it.
B’rit (Hebrew, covenant) – An agreement or covenant, most commonly the religious circumcision of a Jewish baby boy on the eighth day of his life. The Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation “bris” is very commonly heard.
Calendar - The Jewish calendar is basically lunar; each Jewish month begins on the new moon. However, twelve lunar months make up 354.36 days, and the Biblical identification of Pesah as the Festival of Spring requires anchoring the calendar in the solar year. Therefore, the Jewish calendar includes a 19 year cycle, in which the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years have an extra month. Five months of each year have 29 days, and five have thirty days. In order to prevent problematic interactions of certain holidays with Shabbat, two months sometimes have 29 and sometimes have 30 days. In a leap year, the extra month has 30 days. Therefore, a Jewish year may have 353, 354, 355, 383, 384, or 385 days. In ancient times, the Sanhedrin would receive testimony of the appearance of the new moon and would declare that a new month had begun. It has traditionally been held that the Jewish calendar has been based on mathematical calculations since the 5th century CE, but some scholars believe that the transition from direct observation to calculation occurred earlier, and some believe that it occurred later. The months of the Jewish calendar are Tishre, Heshvan (sometimes Marheshvan), Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Adar sheni (in leap years. Actually, an extra month of 30 days is inserted before Adar, and the regular, 29 day, Adar then takes the name of Adar sheni, second Adar), Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Elul. Years, according to the Jewish calendar, are numbered from the traditional date of the creation of the world. The current year, which began with Rosh Hashanah last fall, is 5769.
Cantor (Latin, singer) – Someone trained in music, liturgy, and other Jewish subjects, who specializes in the chanting of Jewish prayers. The accepted Hebrew term is Hazzan. In America, cantors are considered clergy.
Chanukah (See Hanukkah)
Conservative Judaism – The centrist stream of American Judaism. Conservative Judaism began in Germany in the 1840s and in America in the 1880s, as some rabbis who had been initially sympathetic to Reform came to believe that the Reform movement had changed too much in Judaism too fast. These rabbis argued for a more conservative approach, hence the name of the movement. Outside of North America, this movement is called Masorti (Traditional). Conservative Judaism stresses the continuity of Jewish life and the gradual evolution of Judaism.
Fleishig (from the Yiddish and German, containing meat) - A food which contains meat or poultry products, which may not, according to the Jewish dietary laws, be eaten together with dairy foods, or a dish or utensil used for the preparation or serving of meat foods
Haftarah (Hebrew, conclusion) – A section from one of the books of the prophets read on Shabbat or a Festival after the Torah reading (hence the term “conclusion”). The Ashkenazic pronunciation “Haftorah” leads some people to believe that it is half the Torah, but, in fact, “Haftarah” comes from a completely different Hebrew root.
Hanukkah, also Chanukah (Hebrew, dedication) – Holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE, during the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Although one of the most popular Jewish holidays in America, Hanukkah is technically a minor holiday. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasts for eight days, through the 2nd or 3rd of the month of Tevet. Hanukkah is mostly in December, but sometimes it begins in late November, and sometimes it ends in early January.
Hazzan (Hebrew, originally: a synagogue official) A cantor.
Huppah (Hebrew, canopy or covering) – The canopy, representing their new household, under which Jewish brides and grooms stand at their weddings.
Kaddish (Aramaic, holy) – A prayer in praise of God, said at various points in services. Although kaddish is often associated with mourning, the so-called Mourners’ Kaddish is only one of several forms of kaddish, it was the last one to develop, and, in any case, the words of kaddish have nothing to do with death. The recitation of kaddish requires a minyan, and assuring the presence of a minyan when someone wants to say kaddish is a major occupation of synagogues.
Ketubah (Hebrew, from k-t-v, write) – A Jewish wedding contract. The traditional language of the ketubah specifies the amount of money that a woman is entitled to receive in case of the death of her husband or their divorce. Today, the ketubah functions symbolically to represent the obligations of husband and wife toward each other.
Kipah (Hebrew, dome) A skullcap worn by Jewish men (and now, sometimes, by Jewish women) as a sign of humility before God. Some people cover their heads all the time, since we are always in the presence of God, but the more usual practice is to cover one’s head while in the synagogue or when engaged in some religious activity. There is no religious significance to a kipah per se; any head covering will do.
Kohen (Hebrew, priest) – A Jewish man presumed to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the first Israelite priest. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the kohanim were the religious leaders of the people, but, today, the status is largely symbolic and honorary. Men whose family name is Cohen are often (but not always) kohanim. There are other characteristic kohanic family names as well, but none of them are absolutely sure indicators of the status.
Kosher (Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew ka-SHER) - The Hebrew word itself means fit, appropriate, suitable, and it has broad application. The term “kosher” came to be used specifically to refer to food which is permitted according to the Jewish dietary laws. However, it is again sometimes used in a broader sense, as in “This deal is not kosher”
Levi (Hebrew, the name of one of the sons of Jacob, and of the tribe made up of that person’s descendants) – A Jewish man presumed to be a descendant of the ancient trible of Levi. In the Temple in Jerusalem, leviim had auxiliary functions, but, today, the status is largely symbolic and honorary. Men whose family name is Levy or Levey are often leviim, but, as is the case with kohanim, there is not set of names which are necessary and sufficient indicators of the status.
Milchig (from the Yiddish and German, containing dairy products) - A food which contains dairy products, which may not, according to the Jewish dietary laws, be eaten together with meat, or a dish or utensil used for the preparation or serving of dairy foods
Minyan (Hebrew, count) – A quorum of ten Jewish adults required in order to hold a complete prayer service, including kaddish and some other parts of the liturgy. Historically, and in Orthodox practice today, a minyan is defined as ten Jewish men (over the age of 13).
Mohel (Hebrew) – One who performs Jewish religious circumcision.
Orthodox Judaism – The most traditional of the main streams of American Judaism. The term was first used in Germany to refer to Jews who were not Reform. The organizations of Orthodox Judaism in America were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Orthodox Judaism stresses the authority of the Written and Oral Torahs and the received tradition.
Pareve (Yiddish, of unknown etymology) – Containing or intended for neither meat nor dairy products. A pareve food may be eaten with either meat or dairy foods. A pareve utensil may be used for neither meat nor dairy foods.
Passover (see Pesah)
Pesah (Hebrew, usually understood as “pass over,” but more probably means “have compassion”) – Passover, the Festival which commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Pesah occurs on the 15th through the 22nd of the month of Nisan. Pesah is generally in April, but sometimes it begins in late March.
Pidyon haben (Hebrew, redemption of the son) – The “redemption” of the firstborn son of a Jewish couple when the son has passed the age of 30 days. The ceremony, mentioned at Numbers 18:15-16 and elsewhere, requires the father of the baby to give a kohen 5 shekels of silver for the redemption of his son. The practice recalls the killing of the Egyptian firstborn at the time of the Exodus and also, probably, a very ancient arrangement in which the firstborn son of a family had priestly functions. Current American practice is to use five silver dollars for pidyon haben.
Purim (Hebrew, lots, as in “drawing lots”) – Holiday commemorating the escape of the Jews of ancient Persia from the destruction plotted against them by Haman, the evil advisor of King Ahashuerus (perhaps Xerxes I), as related in the Biblical Book of Esther. Purim occurs on the 14th of the month of Adar (the 14th of Adar Sheni in a Jewish leap year). It is usually in March, but occasionally in later February.
Rabbi (Hebrew rabi- ra-BEE - my teacher) – A qualified teacher of Judaism. In modern times, rabbis have taken on the various functions of clergy, but the original meaning of the term is definitely “teacher”. The official inauguration of a rabbi into his or her office is called ordination (in Hebrew, s’mikha), but it is not a sacrament, but more like the granting of a diploma or certification.
Reform Judaism - The most liberal of the main streams of American Judaism. Reform Judaism as a distinct movement began in Germany around 1810 and appeared in America several decades later. Reform Judaism stresses individual autonomy and a liberal attitude to traditional Jewish rituals.
Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, head of the year) – The Jewish New Year, observed since Talmudic times at least as the Day of Judgment and the first of the Ten Days of Repentance. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of the month of Tishre. It is in September or early October.
Rosh Hodesh (Hebrew, head of the month) – The beginning of a new month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding to the new moon.
Sephardim – (from the Hebrew sefarad, a Biblical word of unknown reference, used in Medieval Hebrew to refer to Spain) – A Jew whose family came from the Mediterranean area. The term is sometimes used loosely to refer to all Jews who are not Ashkenazim.
Shabbat (Hebrew, the Sabbath) – The Jewish Sabbath, observed from before sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday. Sometimes one hears the Ashkenazic/Yiddish “Shabbos”
Shavuot (Hebrew, weeks) – The Festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In the Torah, Shavuot is defined as occurring after a period of 49 days (a week of weeks), counting from the second day of Pesah. It occurs on the 6th and 7th of the month of Sivan. Shavuot is in late May or early June.
Shemini Atzeret (Hebrew, eighth day assembly) – Festival which comes after the seven days of Sukkot. In the days of the ancient Temple, Shemini Atzeret marked the conclusion of the fall pilgrimage. Shemini Atzeret is usually in October but sometimes in late September.
Shul (from the Yiddish shul, which comes, in turn from German Schule, ultimately from the Greek skolé, leisure, use of leisure time for learning, and later, school) – a synagogue. This term is most often used informally by traditional Jews of Ashkenazic origin.
Simhat Torah (Hebrew, joy of the Torah) – Technically the second day of Shemini Atzeret observed in the Diaspora, Simhat Torah has taken on its own character as the Festival of the Torah. The annual cycle of Torah reading is completed, and then immediately begun again, on Simhat Torah. Simhat Torah is usually in October but sometimes in late September.
Sukkot (Hebrew, huts or booths) - The Festival which commemorates the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. It is also a harvest festival. Sukkot occurs on the 15th through the 21st of the month of Tishre. Sometimes, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, which immediately follow Sukkot, are called “the last days of Sukkot,” although, strictly speaking, they are a separate Festival. Sukkot is in late September or early October.
Synagogue (from the Greek synagogé, place of assembly) - A Jewish house of worship
Tallit (Hebrew, cloak) – A rectangular garment, with ritual fringes on each corner worn mostly at morning prayers in fulfillment of the injunction of Numbers 15:37-41. One sometimes encounters the Ashkenazic/Yiddish variant tallis.
Talmud (Hebrew, study) – The classical collection of the Oral Torah. There are actually two Talmuds: the “Palestinian” Talmud (or “Talmud of the Land of Israel” or Talmud Yerusahlmi), compiled in the northern part of the Land of Israel around 400 CE, and the Babylonian Talmud (or Talmud Bavli), compiled in Babylonia around 500 CE. When the word “Talmud” is used without qualification, the Babylonian.
Tefillin (late Hebrew, prayer) – Black leather boxes which contain four short sections from the Torah written on parchment, attached to one’s forehead and upper arm by black leather straps. Although, technically, tefillin represent a distinct religious observance, they are generally worn during weekday morning prayers. In the New Testament and elsewhere, tefillin are called phylacteries. However, that latter term is not used in Jewish parlance.
Temple - (1) The ancient Temple in Jerusalem. (2) A synagogue. The second usage is characteristic of Reform Judaism.
Tishah B’av (Hebrew, ninth of Av) – Fast day commemorating the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, and other disasters of Jewish history which occurred at the same time of year. Tishah B’av occurs on the 9th of the month of Av, in July or August.
Torah (Hebrew, teaching) – (1) In the narrowest sense, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and, sometimes, a parchment scroll on which the Five Books are written. (2) In a broader, but theologically sounder, sense, the normative religious teaching of Judaism, which includes the Written Torah (the Five Books) and the Oral Torah (the traditional of rabbinic interpretation, which received a classical formulation in the Talmud, but which still goes on today)
Treyf (from the Hebrew treyfah, violently torn apart) - Popularly, not kosher. The original meaning of the term treyfah was an animal of a permitted species (like a sheep or a cow) which had been killed by a wild animal and which therefore was not kosher. The technical meaning of the word treyfah in developed Jewish law is an animal of a permitted species which has one or more of 18 specific injuries which make it not kosher.
Yahrzeit (from German Jahrzeit, a year’s time) – The anniversary of someone’s death. Jews observe their relatives’ yahrzeits by lighting a 24 hour memorial candle and by saying kaddish. Traditionally, yahrzeits are observed according to the Jewish calendar.
Yarmulke (Yiddish, from Polish jarmulke, cap) A kipah.
Yisrael (Hebrew, Israel, the name given to Jacob. The word has traditionally been understood to mean “one who has struggled with God”, but it may mean “one who is upright before God”) – Yisrael is the name most often used in traditional Jewish sources for the Jewish people. It also indicates the status of a Jew who is neither a kohen nor a levi.
Yizkor (Hebrew, May [God] remember) – a memorial prayer for the dead, beginning with the words, “Yizkor Elohim”. This prayer is the center of a short service inserted in the morning service on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, and the last days of Pesah and Shavuot.
Yom Ha-atzmaut (Hebrew, independence day) – Holiday commemorating the independence of the State of Israel, declared May 14, 1948. Yom Ha-atzmaut occurs on the 5th of the month of Iyar, in late April or early May.
Yom Kippur (Hebrew, day of atonement) – The Day of Atonement, a fast day and the most solemn Jewish Festival, concluding the Ten Days of Repentance. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th of Tishre. It is in late September or early October.
Yom Tov (Hebrew, literally, good day) – A Jewish holiday, especially a major festival which involves abstention from work: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first two and last two days of Pesah, Shavuot, the first two days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah.