Brother of Moses, chosen as Moses’ interlocutor. His Hebrew name is Aharon.
One of David’s wives and a prophetess, known for her cleverness and beauty. She has the longest continous monologue of any woman in Hebrew scripture. Her Hebrew name is Avigail.
Abraham is the first patriarch and the father of the Jewish people. He is the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac and Ishmael. God’s covenant – that we will be a great people and inherit the land of Israel – begins with Abraham and is marked by his circumcision, the first in Jewish history. His Hebrew name is Avraham.
Adam is the first human being created by God. Symbolizes: Creation, humankind.
The broken half of the middle matzah, hidden by the leader of the seder and ransomed back by the children. The seder meal cannot be completed without the return and eating of the afikomen as the desert.
Traditionally, only a Jewish man can initiate divorce proceedings. Hence an agunah is a woman whose husband has refused her a divorce. She is unable to remarry, though he is permitted to, and any future children she has would be considered mamzerim (a legal category of persons who may not marry except among themselves).
‘For the sin …” – the litany of sins for which Jews ask forgiveness during Yom Kippur services.
Prayer proclaiming God’s kingship, said near the conclusion of the prayer service.
Being called up to recite the blessing before and after a Torah reading. Also, a term used upon moving to Israel (i.e., making aliyah)
One of the central prayers of the Jewish prayer service, recited silently while standing.
Lit. holy ark
The ark or cabinet in which the scrolls of the Torah are kept. Often, an aron kodesh is richly decorated.
The Fast of Tevet falls on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tevet. This public fast marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Some also mark this as a memorial day for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Jew of Eastern European descent. The term also refers to the practices and customs associated with this community, often in contrast to Sephardic (Southern European) traditions.
Coming of age, one responsible for the commandments. At the age of thirteen for a boy and twelve for a girl, s/he obtains the age of Jewish majority and is obligated to all the commandments. Usually celebrated with an aliyah to the Torah and other festivities. In many communities both bar and bat mitzvah are celebrated at age 13. The plural of bar mitzvah is b’nei mitzvah. The plural of bat mitzvah is b’not mitzvah.
‘Blessed is the Name [of God].” Often abbreviated as B”H. Examples of usage: ”My child is well, B”H;” even as a stand-alone response to, ”How are you?” B”H!
Lit. Covering (Yiddish)
The act of veiling the bride by the groom.
Rabbinic court consisting of three rabbis or learned members of the Jewish community.
The Holy Temple which stood in ancient times in Jerusalem.
Lit. To bless.
From the Yiddish ”bentshn.”
Used in havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat as a reminder of the sweetness of Shabbat.
In the Bible, the Israelites brought the first fruits (bikkurim) of their harvest to the Temple in baskets for the holiday of Shavuot.
The stage or platform on which the person leading prayers stands.
Grace after meal: traditional versions include four blessings for the food, the land, Jerusalem and God’s goodness. There also are many abbreviated or alternative versions.
Judaism is defined by the covenant – the contract between the Jewish people and God. God promises to make us abundant and to give us the land of Israel; we promise to obey God’s commandments. This covenant begins with Abraham and is reiterated throughout the Torah. A brit milah, literally a covenant of circumcision, is often simply called a brit or bris.
Lit. Covenant of circumcision.
As a sign of the covenant, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his descendants. An infant boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, often at home or in synagogue. A festive meal follows.
Priest. Descendants of Aaron who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, in the absence of a Temple, Jews continue to keep track of who is a Cohen. A Cohen is accorded certain privileges in synagogue and is forbidden from entering a graveyard or marrying a divorcee. Priesthood is patrilineal – if one’s father was a Cohen, then one is a Cohen.
A sermon or talk explicating a Jewish text. Plural: Divrei Torah
Lit. Pray (Yiddish)
Particularly, praying in a traditional manner, mouthing the words of the prayer softly while swaying.
Dina is Jacob’s only daughter and the sister of the twelve tribes.
A four-sided top bearing the letters “nun,” “gimel,” “hay,” and “shin” for “nes gadol haya sham” – a great miracle happened there. In Israel, dreidels have a “peh” for “po” (here) — a great miracle happened here. Played with on Chanukah in a gambling game, traditionally using chocolate gelt as the wager.
Lit. “God, full of compassion”
A prayer of remembrance recited at funerals and when visiting the grave of a loved one. It is sometimes recited after receiving an aliyah to the Torah marking the yahrtzeit of a loved one. This prayer was originally recited for the Martyrs of the Crusades and the Chmielnicki massacres.
Elijah is a biblical prophet who is said never to have died. There are therefore many legends associated with Elijah. In the Talmud, unresolved arguments will be resolved when Elijah comes. He will herald the coming of the messiah. In Jewish ritual, Elijah is a liminal figure, arriving at moments of danger and transition – at a brit milah, a chair is put out for him, a cup is poured for Elijah at the Passover seder, and he is invoked at havdalah. His Hebrew name is Eliyahu.
Jewish holidays begin in the evening. Hence, Erev Shabbat is the eve of the Sabbath.
Once a separate ceremony, but now a segment of the contemporary wedding ceremony.
Heroine of the Purim story and Megillat (the scroll of) Esther. She is married to the king by her cousin Mordecai and ultimately saves her people from execution.
A lemon-like fruit (citron) used at Sukkot as one of the four species. Women desiring to get pregnant were given the pitom (stem) to eat after Sukkot.
Eve, according to the book of Genesis, is Adam’s wife, the first woman to be created.
Lit. “woman of valor”
This 22 verse poem from Proverbs 31 is arranged as an acrostic and is often recited in Jewish households on Friday night. The poem describes the characteristics of a “good wife” and is also thought of as an allegory referencing the Shekhinah, Torah or Shabbat.
Yiddish word meaning devout or pious; usually refers colloquially to one who is observant of traditional Jewish laws.
Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have been in a state of galut, exiled from their land. This has been understood as a spiritual as well as physical state. Traditionally, Jews have longed for the coming of the messiah to end the long exile. Others feel that it has ended with the advent of the State of Israel, while still others see the State of Israel as a step on the way to redemption.
Often used synonymously with Talmud, although the Talmud actually contains both the Gemara and the Mishna. The Gemara is the compendium of rabbinic thought collected and redacted in Babylon between 200 and 500 CE.
The equation of Hebrew letters to numbers and the derivation of meaning from these equations. For instance, Jacob, in Genesis 28, dreams of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend from heaven to earth. A ladder, in Hebrew sulam, has the numerical value of 130 – samech 60, lamed 30, mem 40 – which is equivalent to Sinai – samech 60, yud 10, nun 50, yud 10. This means, according to gematria, that the ladder in Jacob’s dream was in fact Sinai or that this revelation was a precursor to God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai.
Lit. acts of loving kindness. Often mentioned in reference to the famous Jewish saying, “On three things the world stands: on Torah, on Avodah, and on Gemilut Chasadim.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
Lit. Righteous Convert
A person who converts to Judaism.
Lit. Rain (Hebrew)
A writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian.
A person who is convert to Judaism. Giyor is the term for a man and Giyoret for a woman.
Birkat Hagomel is the blessing said by someone who survives a potentially life-threatening situation. Traditionally said after childbirth, serious illness, travel, or other types of danger.
The noise makers sounded on Purim during the reading of the Megilla every time the evil Haman’s name is mentioned, thus fulfilling the commandment to wipe out his memory.
Lit. Ushering in the bride
A tradition in some Jewish communities (usually Orthodox) to donate money to provide a dowry for a poor bride.
Lit. Welcoming guests.
The mitzvah of showing hospitality.
The portion of the books of the prophets read on Shabbat after the Torah reading. The two usually have parallel themes.
Abraham’s concubine and the mother of Ishmael, the patriarch of Islam. In the book of Genesis, when Sarah cannot conceive, she suggests that Abraham takeher servant Hagar as a concubine in order to conceive a child, which she promptly does. Feeling threatened by Hagar and her child, Sarah convinces Abraham to banish them from their home. God saves Hagar and Ishmael from dying in the desert.
The haggadah is the book used at the seder table on Passover to tell the story of the Exodus, the central commandment of the holiday. It is rich in song, prayer, and legend. There are many different version of the Haggadah produced throughout Jewish history.
Plural of “hakafah.” The hakafah is the procession made with the Torah before the Torah service. The term “hakafot” is the plural and also generally refers to the seven circuits made with the Torah on Simchat Torah.
The layered tradition of Jewish law. It includes the “written law” from the Torah and the oral law developed in the Talmud and is officially codified in the Shulchan Aruch (“Code of Jewish Law”).
Anything related to the Jewish law tradition known as halacha.
Braided egg bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Reminiscent of bread eaten by Priests in the Temple, of manna in the desert, and sustenance in general. Plural: Hallot
The Hallel prayers are additional prayers taken from Psalms 113-118 and are traditionally recited on the Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Chodesh, and Hanukah.
Lit. (Yiddish) Haman’s hat, ears, or pocket.
Triangular cakes with fillings which are traditionally eaten on Purim to symbolize Haman’s hat (sometimes his pocket or ears).
Any food made of grain and water which has fermented and risen and is thus prohibited to be eaten during Passover.’
Hannah is the mother of the prophet Samuel, who, through her prayers, is rewarded a child. She herself is also considered a prophet. Hannah’s intense devotional style of prayer becomes the model, in rabbinic Judaism, for prayer in general.
The holiday which celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its conquest by the Syrians in 165 BCE. The holiday is celebrated by lighting candles in a hanukiyah oon each of eight nights. Other customs include the eating of fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts), playing dreidl (a gambling game with a spinning top), and, in present day America, gift giving.
The modern Hebrew term for the Hanukah menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum (eight primary candles plus the shamash/server candle) lit on Hanukah to symbolize the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.
The fruit and nut paste included in the Passover seder to represent the mortar the Israelite slaves used in Egypt. In Ashkenazic tradition, nuts are ground with apples and wine to make haroset for the Passover seder plate. Sephardic and other Middle-Eastern haroset typically uses dates as the base, often seasoned with ground ginger or cinnamon.
Lit. The Name, referring to the ineffable name of God; used as a substitute for any of the more sacred names of God when not speaking in prayer. Particularly used in conversation.
Annulment of vows, associated with the High Holidays, especially the Yom Kippur liturgy, which includes a passage releasing Jews from vows made in the previous year.
A ceremony performed on Saturday night to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week, using wine, a braided candle, and sweet-smelling spices.
Lit. Group of friends
Commonly has come to mean an alternative prayer community. In the 1970’s, havurot (plural) developed as an alternative to large syngagogues. Some havurot pray together; others study, socialize, or engage in some alternative activity.
The one who leads the chanting of prayers.
It is said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that the world stands on three things: Torah (learning), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Hasidim (acts of kindness).
The intermediate days of a festival. Both Passover and Sukkot have such days. These days which are not as sacred as the days that fall at at the beginning or the end, but they are also not quite regular weekdays, either. The Hallel prayers are recited during hol mo’ed, some kinds of work are forbidden, and religious families often take these days off from work and school.
The genocide of millions of European Jews–as well as other ethnic, religious and minority groups–by the Nazis during World War II. The tragic events of the Holocaust are now commemorated each year on Yom HaShoah; established in 1952 by the Israeli government. Shoah (calamity) has become the term used to describe the systemic mass slaughter that occurred during World War II.
A prophetess mentioned in 2 Kings. The king asks his advisers to consult her when he realizes that he and the people have not been following God’s word. She is noted for her compassion.
The book that contains the text of the Torah. A section of the humash is read and/or studied every week in synagogue.
Marriage canopy symbolizing the couple’s new home.
Lit. Mother (Hebrew)
The foremothers, or matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
Abraham and Sarah’s much-longed-for son and the second Jewish patriarch. Isaac is nearly sacrificed by his father at God’s command (Genesis 22). He is married to Rebecca and is the father of Esau and Jacob. His Hebrew name is Yitzchak.
Lit. ”the one who struggles with God.”
Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob’s children, the Jewish people, become B’nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State of Israel.
Jacob is the third patriarch, son of Isaac and Rebecca, and father to the twelve tribes of Israel. More than any of the other patriarchs, Jacob wrestles with God and evolves from a deceitful, deal-making young man to a mature, faithful partner to God. His Hebrew name is Yaakov.
Lit. City of peace
From the time of David to the Roman destruction, Jerusalem was the capital of Israel and the spiritual and governmental center of the Jewish people. During the long exile, Jews longed to return to Jerusalem and wrote poems, prayers, and songs about the beloved city. In 1967, with the capture of the Old City, Jerusalem was reunited, becoming “the eternal capital of Israel.” Still, the longing for peace is unfulfilled.
Jacob’s eldest son by his beloved wife, Rachel. Joseph, the dreamer, was his father’s favorite and nearly murdered by his brothers. Sold into slavery, he became viceroy of Egypt where he ultimately saves the Egyptians and also his own family from starvation. His Hebrew name is Yosef/
Judith saved her people by seducing Holofernes, the enemy general, and then decapitating him. The story of Judith, found in the apocrypha, is associated with Chanukah (relating to the tradition of eating cheese dishes because she seduced the general and fed him dairy). Her Hebrew name is Yehudit.
An article of clothing is customarily torn by mourners prior to the funeral and worn throughout the week of shiva. Sometimes a black ribbon is used instead of an article of clothing.
The tradition of Jewish mystical interpretation of sacred texts. The foundational kabbalistic text is the Zohar.
Lit. Receiving Shabbat
The Friday-night service instituted by the mystics in S’fat in the 16th century. It includes selections from Psalms and the song Lecha Dodi.
The Aramaic memorial prayer for the dead. Mourners recite this prayer at every service, every day, in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum) over the course of a year (for a parent) or thirty days (for a sibling or offspring). The prayer actually makes no mention of the dead, but rather prays for the sanctification and magnification of God’s name.
An atonement ritual done prior to Yom Kippur. Among certain hassidim, a live chicken (who metaphorically has had transferred to it the family’s sins) is swung around the head of its owner before being slaughtered . Today, some Jews swing a bag of money in a alternative kapparot ritual and give the money to charity as a sign of atonement.
Jewish dietary laws. There are many specific regulations, but they cluster around three primary ideas: certain food are forbidden (shellfish, pork, etc.); mixing meat and milk is prohibited; animals must be slaughtered in a specific way which minimizes pain to the animal and all blood must be drained from the animal before it can be cooked and eaten.
Refers both to one’s intention when performing a mitzvah or when focusing for prayer. Kavanah also refers to specific readings to help focus one’s attention prior to performing an act.
Honor, as in kavod av v’em, honoring one’s parents, kavod ha’met, respect for the dead, kavod hatorah, the honor of the Torah.
The Jewish wedding contract. Traditionally, the ketubah protected the wife in marriage by spelling out the husband’s obligations to her and guaranteeing her a financial settlement in case of divorce. Throughout the ages, ketubot (plural) have been illuminated and calligraphed, becoming significant as Jewish art. Today, all manner of egalitarian ketubot are written. Some dispense with the financial and legal aspects, focusing more on the emotional and spiritual sides of the relationship. Others maintain the rabbis’ concern with the practical, but define mutual obligations for each spouse.
The prayer recited over wine on Shabbat, holidays, and other joyous occasions.
The Jewish concept or commandment to sanctify (make holy) God’s name.
The first part of the traditional wedding service in which the groom acquires the bride by giving her a small token, usually a ring, and declaring that she is betrothed to him according to Mosaic law. Today, most non-Orthodox couples have made this ceremony egalitarian, exchanging rings and empowering the bride to speak too. Some, disliking the property aspects of the ceremony, have dispensed with it altogether, substituting a brit shutafut – a partnership covenant.
In a traditional wedding, the bride is “acquired” by the groom. The kinyan is effected by the giving of a small object, usually a ring. Under traditional Jewish law, a bride cannot acquire a groom — therefore, this act cannot be made mutual. Liberal Jews have found various ways to work around this dilemma although the Orthodox community, for the most part, does not accept these solutions.
A small cap, traditionally worn by men, symbolizing humility before God. Although women traditionally covered their heads with a scarf or hat as a sign of modesty, today, some women wear kippot as well.
A white robe in which one is buried. Also worn at Passover, on Yom Kippur, and at one’s wedding as a symbol of rebirth.
A prayer recited Yom Kippur evening, widely known for its mournful, haunting melody.
Fit to use or consume under Jewish ritual law. “Kosher” often refers to the food which it is permissible to eat according to Jewish dietary law, but can also mean the suitableness of a Torah scross or mezuzah for proper ritual use. For more on dietary laws, see kashrut.
The Western Wall, which was a retaining wall of the Second Temple, is all that visibly remains of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It has long been a holy site for Jews. Since 1967, when the Israeli army recaptured the Old City, including the Western Wall, a large plaza has been created where Jews can congregate and pray. The Wall has also been the subject of controversy, including for women from liberal Judaism, who have been successfully barred from reading from the Torah or donning a tallit at the wall.
A spring festival. According to tradition, the plague which killed many of Rabbi Akiba’s students lifted on the 33rd day of the Omer. Thus, while the Omer is observed as a period of mourning, mourning is lifted on Lag B’Omer. It is a popular day to get married (the only one during the Omer, according to Ashkenazic practice: from that day forward, according to Sephardic and modern liberal practice). The holiday is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, and three-year-old boys receive their first haircut. Today, some three-year-old girls will also have their hair cut amidst celebration on Lag B’Omer.
The third of the Jewish matriarchs, Lead is the eldest of Lavan’s daughters and one of the wives of Jacob. She is the daughter whom Lavan tricks Jacob into marrying instead of his younger daughter Rachel, whom Jacob has requested to marry. Leah is mother to six of the the twelve tribes and to one daughter, Dinah.
In the midrash (rabbinic story about the Torah story), Lilith is imagined as Adam’s first wife. Because she wanted equality, she wss ultimately banished, and God provided Adam with a more obedient wife. Lilith, according to tradition, lives on as a kind of demon, causing men to have wet dreams and stealing infant boys from their cribs. Today, Lilith has been reclaimed by Jewish feminists as a symbol of women’s equality.
On Sukkot, three of the four species (the palm, the myrtle, and the willow) are bound and waved together with the etrog. The lulav is said to symbolize the spine, while the myrtle’s leaves symbolize eyes, the willow’s leaves are lips, and the etrog is the heart.
Lit. Good deeds.
The traditional prayer for a newborn infant at his or her brit milah or baby naming concludes, “May s/he grow to Torah, to Chuppah, and to ma’asim tovim.”
The evening prayer service.
Lit. The telling
The section of the Passover seder for telling the story of the exodus from Egypt
The siddur (prayerbook) used for the High Holidays. Other major holidays also have their own makhzor.
According to Jewish law, a mamzer is child born of a mother who is married yet conceives by someone else. A child born out of wedlock is not a mamzer. The issue of a mamzer is a complicating factor in the question of Orthodox divorce. If a woman who is refused a get – a writ of divorce by her husband – or who never receives a get – remarries and gives birth to children, those children are considered mamzerim (plural).
Bitter herbs eaten at the Passover seder to recall slavery in Egypt
The unleavened bread eaten on Passover that recalls the Israelite’s hasty escape from Egypt when there was no time for the dough to rise. Matzah is also considered the “bread of our affliction,” eaten while we were slaves.
Good fortune, luck, and the Hebrew sign of the Zodiac.
Usually refers specifically the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther) read on Purim, telling the story of how Esther saved the Jewish people. Megillat Ruth is read on Shavuot.
Lit. Partition, Division
The partition used on Orthodox synagogues to separate the men’s and women’s seating sections during prayer services.
The seeven-branched menorah stood in the Temple, and many present-day synagogues feature the menorah. Titus’ arch depicts the Romans’ sacking of the Temple and theft of the menorah. A nine-branched menorah called a Hanukkiyah is lit on Hanukkah to symbolize the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.
Lit. A man (Yiddish)
Usually connotes a good person who behaves in an ethical way.
The mezuzah is a small box containing parchment on which are written the words of the Shema (Judaism’s most central prayer). It is affixed to the doorpost of a Jewish home in order to fulfill the commandment to “inscribe [the words of God] upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
A rabbinic method of interpreting text, often through the telling of stories.
The ritual bath. The waters of the mikveh symbolically purify – they are seen as waters of rebirth. A convert immerses in the mikveh as part of conversion. Many Orthodox married women go to the mikveh following their period and before resuming sexual relations. Couples go to the mikveh before being married. Many, including some men, immerse before Yom Kippur; some go every Friday before Shabbat.
The afternoon prayer service.
The group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan.
Miriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. As Moses’ and Aaron’s sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses’ role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh’s daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites’ trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance.
The first layer of Jewish oral law, written down in Palestine around 200 CE. The Mishna consists of six books or sedarim (orders), each of which contains seven to twelve tractates or masechtot (singular masechet). The books are Zeraim (Seeds), Moed (Festival), Nashim (Women), Nezikin (Damages), Kodashim (Holy Things), and Tehorot (Purities).
Because the Hebrew word for narrow is tzar, Mitzrayim is also understood as “narrowness,” as in, the narrow and confining places in life from which one emerges physically and spiritually.
It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed.”
Jews pray facing east, toward Jerusalem. Some homes and synagogues have a piece of artwork called a “mizrach” with the word mizrach on it, which they hang on the eastern wall to denote the direction of prayer.
The adjective describing the origin of Jews of North African or Middle Eastern descent.
Ritual circumciser. The person who performs the brit milah for a baby boy.
The quintessential Jewish leader who spoke face to face with God, unlike any other prophet, and who freed the people from Egypt, led them through the desert for forty years, and received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His Hebrew name is Moshe.
Blessing over bread. When a meal is served with bread the blessing for bread serves as a blessing for the entire meal. One reason for this is because in the Ancient Near East, a real meal, as opposed to a snack, was generally served with bread.
The additional prayer service recited on holidays and on Rosh Chodesh, symbolizing the Temple sacrifice offered on those occasions.
The final service on Yom Kippur. According to tradition, the Gates of Repentance are closed at this time.
Vow, or a solemn undertaking. Plural: nedarim.
The laws of ritual purity. Orthodox married women refrain from sexual contact with their husbands while they are menstruating and for seven days thereafter, after which they visit the mikvah for ritual cleansing. The laws and customs surrounding this practice constitute the laws of nidah.
A wordless melody.
The second part of the wedding ceremony during which the seven blessings are read.
From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, Jews count seven weeks – seven times seven days – to commemorate the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. When the Temple stood, a certain measure (omer) of barley was offered on the altar each day; today, we merely count out the days.
Lit. The delight of Shabbat.
Connotes both activities done to enhance the pleasure of Shabbat – food, wine, and sex – as well as the cookies and cakes commonly served Friday night or Saturday morning following prayer services.
The plain or simple meaning of a text; the face value of a text, as opposed to the drash (interpretation) of it.
Lit. Verses of song.
The psalms recited in the early part of shacharit (the morning prayer service).
LIt. Portion or chapter.
The weekly parashah (parashat ha’shavua) is that portion of the Torah read weekly in synagogue. The entire Torah is divided into the number of weeks that occur over the course of a year. It is not not precisely 52 weeks because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, so some weeks have holidays with special readings, and some years are leap years.
The curtain covering the ark (aron kodesh).
Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God “passed over” the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc).
The ceremony a month after birth, through which a firstborn son is “redeemed” from Temple service. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the eldest son of the family was expected to serve in it. If his family did not want to give him for service, he was redeemed monetarily. Today, when there is no Temple, a symbolic gift of coins is given to a Cohen in order to symbolize the child’s “redemption.” Some families now perform this ceremony for firstborn daughters as well.
Lit. Saving a life.
This is one of the most important of the mitzvot. All laws of Judaism (except the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and idolatry) must be suspended in order to save a life.
Lit. Ethics of the Fathers
A tractate of the Mishna filled with pithy sayings of rabbinic sages.
A Jewish liturgical or sacred poem.
An arbiter of Jewish law.
Puah, like Shifra, is one of the Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who defies Pharaoh’s orders to kill the boy babies. This first act of defiance was instrumental in leading to the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Puah is often identified in the midrash with Miriam, Moses’ older sister.
A carnival holiday celebrated on the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar, commemorating the Jewish victory over the Persians as told in the Book of Esther. Purim is celebrated by reading the megilla (Book of Esther), exchanging gifts, giving money to the poor, and holding a festive meal. At the megilla reading, merrymakers are dressed in costumes, people drink, and noisemakers (graggers) are sounded whenever the villain Haman’s name is mentioned.
Charity (tzedakah) box [Yiddish].
Rritual handwashing that is part of the order of the Passover seder. One says a blessing after this washing, as opposed to the handwashing earlier in the seder, when one does not.
Lavan’s younger daughter and Jacob’s beloved wife second wife (after he is initially tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah). Rachel grieves throughout her life that she is barren while Leah is so fertile. Ultimately, Rachel gives birth to Joseph and dies in childbirth with Benjamin. Rachel is remembered as compassionate (she is said to still weep for her children), and infertile women often invoke Rachel as a kind of intercessor and visit her tomb on the road to Bethlehem.
Lit. Wife of a rabbi (Yiddish)
In many communities the rebbetzin has had a special and honored role, if strictly prescribed by gender. She often has with many expectations and duties attendant to her husband and the shul.
The second Jewish matriarch, Isaac’s wife, and mother to Jacob and Esau. Rebecca is an active parent, talking to God when she is pregnant and learning the fate of her children, then ultimately manipulating Isaac and the children to ensure Jacob’s ascendancy. Her Hebrew name is Rivka.
As in, the public domain (reshut harabim) or the private domain (reshut hayachid).
Lit. Master of the Universe
A term sometimes used in the Jewish liturgy to refer to God.
The new moon, which marks the beginning of the Jewish month. According to tradition, because women did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, they were given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh. It is customary for women not to work on Rosh Chodesh.
The Jewish New Year, also considered the Day of Judgment. The period of the High Holidays is a time of introspection and atonement. The holiday is celebrated with the sounding of the shofar, lengthy prayers in synagogue, the eating of apples and honey, and round challah for a sweet and whole year. Tashlikh, casting bread on the water to symbolize the washing away of sins, also takes place on Rosh Hashana.
Some new versions of blessings call God “Spirit of the World” (Ruakh Ha’olam), rather than “King of the World” (Melekh Ha’olam).
An important female biblical character with her own book. The Book of Ruth, read on Shavuot, tells the story of Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and their return to Israel. Ruth’s story is often read as the first story of conversion. Ruth is the grandmother of King David.
The person given the honor of holding the child through the brit milah (ritual circumcision). This is the highest honor at a brit and is usually given to a grandfather or uncle or someone very close to the family.
The first matriarch, wife of Abraham, and mother of Isaac, whom she birthed at the age of 90. Sarah, in Rabbinic tradition, is considered holy, beautiful, and hospitable. Many prayers, particularly the Amidah (the central silent prayer), refer to God as Magen Avraham – protector of Abraham. Many Jews now add: pokehd or ezrat Sarah – guardian or helper of Sarah.
The festive meal conducted on Passover night, in a specific order with specific rituals to symbolize aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. It is conducted following the haggadah, a book for this purpose. The mystics of Sefat also created a seder for Tu B’shvat, the new year of the trees.
(pl of sefirah) In Kabbalah, the 10 “attributes” – channels of Divine energy – via which God interacts with creation.
Services held early in the morning throughout the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, during which Jews begin the process of asking forgiveness for our sins.
Jews of Spanish descent; sometimes used to describe Jews of North-African and Middle-Eastern descent. The term also describes the customs and practices of these Jews, often in comparison to those of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews.
Seudah Shlishit is the third meal on Shabbat. A seudat mitzvah is a meal associated with a mitzvah, like a wedding feast or a party at a brit milah. On Purim, a special seudah is held in the afternoon.
A Jewish legal contract, such as a get or ketubah.
Shabbat is the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest, and is observed from Friday night through Saturday night. Is set aside from the rest of the week both in honor of the fact that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. On Shabbat, many Jews observe prohibitions from various activities designated as work. Shabbat is traditionally observed with festive meals, wine, challah, prayers, the reading and studying of Torah, conjugal relations, family time, and time with friends.
The morning prayer service. Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day — morning (shacharit), afternoon (mincha), and evening (ma’ariv).
Literally refers to the fallen leaves of deciduous trees; metaphorically refers to sloughing off of sins during the High Holiday period of atonement.
Shavuot is the holiday fifty days after Passover and commemorates when the Israelite liberation from Egypt culminates with the giving of the Torah. Traditionally, Jews study in an all-night study session, eat dairy products (one interpretation is that the Torah is like milk to us), and read both the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth.
The feminine name of God, expounded upon in the rabbinic era and then by the Kabbalists in extensive literature on the feminine attributes of the divine.
The first thirty days after someone dies. This is an intermediate stage of mourning — less intense than then initial week of shiva, but more intense than the remainder of the first year. It is customary not to shave or cut one’s hair and not to attend social gatherings, parties, concerts etc during this time.
The most central prayer in Jewish liturgy, the Shema states: “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” These words are written inside mezuzot and t’fillin. It is traditionally said during all major services and when waking and going to sleep.
The holiday at the end of Sukkot, during which are recited prayers for rain. Rain figures prominently as God’s blessing in the arid land of Israel.
A name for the Amidah, the standing, silent prayer which consists of eighteen blessings.
Seven blessings with which the bride and groom are blessed at their wedding. Also refers to the seven days of celebration following the wedding, during which the seven blessings are recited at every meal at which there is a minyan of ten Jews and there is at least one guest who was not present at the wedding.
A lesson, usually about Talmud.
Shifra is one of the two Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who refuses Pharaoh’s orders to kill the boy children, instead enabling them to live. She, along with her partner Puah, is instrumental in beginning the process leading to the Exodus. Shifra is often identified as Jochebed, Moses’ mother.
Seven-day mourning period following the funeral of a first-degree relative, during which time family members remain at home and receive visits of comfort. Other customs include abstinence from bathing and sex, covering mirrors, sitting lower than other visitors, and the lighting of a special memorial candle which burns for seven days.
The Fast of Tammuz, which falls on the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz. It was on this date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, which is believed to be a defining moment in the struggle which eventually led to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
A ram’s horn that is blown on the High Holidays to “wake us up” and call Jews to repentance. It is also said that its blast will herald the coming of the messiah.
Lit. Order of prayers.
The prayer book.
Lit. “Joy of a daughter”
A contemporary naming ceremony for a new baby girl. Also called Brit Bat, Zeved Habat.
Lit. “Joy of Wisdom”
A new ceremony, usually celebrated on the occasion of a significant birthday –fifty, sixty or 65. Aspects of the ceremony can include the taking of a new name, songs, words of Torah and prayer.
The holiday at the end of Sukkot during which Jews dance with the Torah late into the night. The yearly reading cycle of the Torah is completed and a new cycle is begun. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah mark the end of the holiday season. In some congregations, the Torah scroll is unrolled in its entirety, and selected verses are read or sections noted.
A happy occasion. Usually describes a celebration for a life cycle event (birth, wedding, etc.).
According to the Torah, God, in the presence of the Jewish people, gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai (Har Sinai).
A celebration at the conclusion of a unit of study, such as completing a tractate of Mishna or Talmud.
Lit. hut or booth
A temporary hut constructed outdoors for use during Sukkot, the autumn harvest festival. Many Jews observe the mitzvah of living in the Sukkah for the week of Sukkot, including taking their meals and sleeping in the Sukkah.
Lit. Booths or huts
Sukkot is the autumn harvest Festival of Booths, is celebrated starting the 15th of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Jews build booths (sukkot), symbolic of the temporary shelters used by the ancient Israelites when they wandered in the desert. Traditionally, Jews eat and sleep in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday (seven days in Israel and eight outside of Israel). The lulav (palm frond), willow, myrtle, and etrog fruit are also waved together.
Two black leather boxes containing the words of the Shema, Judaism’s most central prayer, which are bound to one’s head and arms with leather straps. This fulfills the mitzvah in the Torah commandment to bind God’s words “as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
The process of repentance through which one “returns” to oneself and to God. The season of t’shuva begins at the start of the month of Elul and culuminates forty days later on Yom Kippur.
The act of immersion in the ritual bath (mikveh).
Ta’anit Bekhorim, or the Fast of the Firstborn, falls in the spring on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. This private fast day is traditionally observed only by firstborn males and commemorates that they were saved from the tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn. In many Sephardic communities, firstborn women have also participated in this fast day.
Ta’anit Esther, or the Fast of Esther, falls in the spring on the thirteenth day of the Jewish month of Adar. This public fast commemorates Esther’s bravery and communal leadership in approaching King Ahashveros. This heroic act saved the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews of Shushan. If Ta’anit Esther falls on a Friday or Saturday, the fast is moved to the preceding Thursday.
The portable sanctuary which the Jews carried with them for forty years as they wandered in the desert on the way to the Promised Land; the predecessor of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Judaism has various laws and traditions related to purity. Some married women bathe in the mikveh following menstruation to return to a state of purity. A corpse is also purified with water before burial in a process called tahara.
A four-cornered garment to which ritual fringes (tzitzit/tzitzi’ot) are affixed. The knots in the fringes represent the name of God and remind us of God’s commandments. The tallit is worn during prayer and can also be drawn about oneself or around the bride and groom to symbolize divine protection.
The rabbinic compendium of lore and legend composed between 200 and 500 CE. Study of the Talmud is the focus of rabbinic scholarship. The Talmud has two versions, the main Babylonian version (Bavli) and the smaller Jerusalem version (Yerushalmi). It is written in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic.
Casting bread upon the water. On Rosh Hashana, Jews traditionally walk to a natural body of water into which they throw breadcrumbs, symbolic of their sins from the previous year.
Prayer ((Yiddish), particularly the prayers written by women in Yiddish throughout the ages.
An all-night study session held on Shavuot to recall the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Lit. Repair of the world
According to Jewish mysticism, the world is in a broken state. Humanity’s job is to join God, as God’s partners, in its repair.
Lit. Table (Yiddish)
A festive meal that combines teaching Torah and telling jokes. At a traditional wedding, a groom’s tisch is held, during which the groom attempts to teach words of Torah while his friends interrupt with songs and jokes. Today, some brides hold a tisch as well, and some couples hold one together.
The holiday on which the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem is commemorated through fasting and prayers.
The Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes “Torah” is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general.
That which is not kosher. (Yiddish)
Tsom Gedaliah, or the Fast of Gedaliah, falls on the third day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. This public fast commemorates the killing of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, the Jewish governor of Judah. This event is remembered as the beginning of the end of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, which would eventually fall to the Babylonians.
Tu B’Av is a little-known summer holiday similar to modern May Day. Young, unmarried Jewish women are said to have gone out into the fields dressed in white, where they selected young men as partners. Contemporary Jews, especially in Israel, have begun to recreate this holiday.
The new year of the trees, celebrated with a mystical seder (first created by the Kabbalists) at which four cups of wine are drunk and different kinds of fruit are eaten. In the State of Israel, Tu B’Shvat is Arbor Day, marked with the planting of trees. Tu B’Shvat also has become a modern holiday of the environment, with new seders and haggadot written to reflect this interest.
Charity. In Hebrew, the word tzedakah derives from the word for justice. Tzedakah is not seen as emanating from the kindness of one’s heart but, rather, as a communal obligation.
A set of fringes tied and knotted on each of the four corners of a tallit, symbolizing and reminding the user of God’s commandments. Some Jews wear tzizit under their clothes at all times, with the fringes visible.
The festival for a boy’s first haircut. Among many Jews, a boy’s hair is often not cut until his third birthday. The haircut is then performed amidst festivities, called an upsherin, usually on Lag B’Omer. Boys are usually given their first tzitzit on their third birthday, as well. Today, some families hold an upsherin for girls, and some families give their daughters tzitzit.
Lit. Guests (Aramaic)
Biblical “guests” invited into the sukkah on each of the seven nights of the holiday. While the traditional ushpizin were all male, a new custom has been created, inviting female guests (ushpizot) as well. The seven ushpizin are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. The seven female ushpizot are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.
In the Purim story, she is King Ahashveros’s first wife. In the first chapter of the Book of Esther, Quieen Vashti refuses to dance for the King and is banished. Long villainized, Vashti has been recently embraced by Jewish women as a contemporay feminist heroine for her defiance of the king.
A litany of one’s sins that is traditionally recited on Yom Kippur, prior to one’s wedding, and on one’s deathbed.
(Yiddish) The belt tied around the Torah. In many German or Ashkenazi communities, a wimpel is made from the blanket which held a baby for his circumcision.
The pointer used when reading the Torah, usually shaped like a tiny hand at its point.
A female character in the Book of Judges who is instrumental in the Israelites’ obtaining the victory that Deborah had prophesied. When she encountered the enemy king Sisera, Yael invites him into her tent. She feeds him milk to make him drowsy and, when he fell asleep, she murders him by driving a tent peg through his temple.
A name for God, as in “halleluyah” – praise God. Some people prefer this name for God as a non-gendered option.
(Yiddish) The anniversary of a death, usually marked by the lighting of a 24-hour yahrzeit candle and the recitation of Kaddish, the memorial prayer. For U.S. Jews, the unveiling of the headstone usually takes place on or around the first yahrzeit.
Yiddish for kippah (Hebrew), the small cap traditionally worn by Jewish men and now also by some women. It is worn to show respect to God. Some cover their heads all the time; some only do so during prayer and Torah study.
Lit. “May it be Your Will …”
The opening of many petitionary prayers.
School of traditional Jewish study. Although historically only for men, today there are some yeshivot (plural) that are for women, and there are progressive yeshivot which are coed.
Lit. The evil inclination
This aspect of every human being which leads to sin. It is not entirely one sided, however. In the Talmud, the rabbis ask why God created the yetzer hara and conclude that it is necessary so that people propagate and build, as it motivates ambition and sexual desire.
Lit. The inclination for good.
That part of human beings which leads us to do good and act righteously in the world.
Israel Independence Day, celebrated with parties and parades on the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar; preceeded by Israel Memorial Day.
Holocaust Memorial Day, also known as Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day, commemorated on the 27th of the Jewish month of Nissan.
The holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne’ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one’s sukkah as soon as the day ends.
A festival or holiday. Most of the restrictions that apply on Shabbat also apply on a yom tov, with the exception of the prohibitions against cooking and carrying.
Lit. Jerusalem Day
This Israeli national holiday commemorates the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967. It is celebrated on the 28th of the Jewish month of Iyar.
Lit. Gift of a daughter (Aramaic)
A traditional Sephardic ceremony for welcoming a baby girl. Modern girl baby-namings are also sometimes called a Zeved Habat.
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