A glossary of over 80 Jewish terms
This glossary of Jewish words and their definitions mirrors—in microcosm—a sweep of Jewish life. It contains over 80 terms and definitions.
Readers will note some dual terms: bas mitzvah/bat mitzvah; b’ris/b’rit; Shabbos/Shabbat; tallis/tallit. The former is based on Eastern European/Yiddish pronunciation, the latter upon modern Hebrew.
afikoman—the middle matzah on a Seder plate. At some point during the Passover evening meal (Seder), it is hidden and the children in attendance go on a “treasure hunt” to find it. Once it has been “ransomed” back to the adults, it is eaten as part of dessert.
aliyah (plural, aliyot)—the act of being called to the Torah to say the blessing over the Torah before and after it is read.
am Yisrael chai—the Jewish people will live.
aron hakodesh—holy ark containing the Torah scrolls.
Ashkenazic—Jews descended from medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland in Germany and later Eastern Europe.
Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King)—Hebrew prayer of confession and supplication sung during the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.
Ba’al Shem Tov—mystic Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (Master of the Good Name) was an 18th century rabbi credited with the founding of Chassidic Judaism, whose philosophy embraces not only the study of Torah, but a joyous engagement with the spirit of God that is in all things.
bar/bat mitzvah—literally, son/daughter of the commandments. This coming-of-age ceremony is held when a Jewish boy or girl reaches thirteen years of age. Orthodox girls celebrate at twelve.
Bar’chu—prayer extolling God as the Supreme creator.
bimah—platform in the front or center of the synagogue from which services are conducted.
b’ris /b’rit—literally, covenant. This word has come to mean the ritual circumcision performed when an infant boy is eight days old, thus entering him into the covenant between God and Abraham.
bubbe—Yiddish for grandmother.
Chabad—a denomination of Judaism that grew out of the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov. A major focus of Chabad is to bring Jews back into the fold of Torah observant Judaism.
chametz—literally, vinegar. Those foods that are not kosher for Passover.
charoset—mixture of wine, apples, nuts and cinnamon eaten at Passover. Its texture is symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves in their building for Pharaoh. Sephardic Jews make a charoset of figs, dates, wine and nuts.
chavurah—based on the Hebrew root ch-v-r which means friend, a chavurah is a group of individuals who come together for Jewish study, worship and socializing.
erev—literally, evening. Jewish holidays begin at sunset, so “erev Rosh HaShanah” is the night preceding the first day of the holiday. Erev has also come to mean the day before.
ezrat nashim—women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue.
get—Jewish divorce document.
frum—observant; (a follower) of the mitzvot.
g’milut chasadim—acts of loving kindness.
Haggadah (plural, Haggadot)—book relating the Passover story.
hakafah—the process of walking the Torah scroll(s) through the sanctuary.
Kaddish—mourner’s prayer written in Aramaic, said in memory of the deceased.
kasher—to make kosher.
ketubah (plural, ketubot)—Jewish wedding contract.
Kiddush—ceremonial blessing recited over wine. The term is also used to refer to refreshments served following services.
kippah (plural, kippot)—skullcap. Traditionally worn only by males, some females now also follow the practice of wearing a kippah during religious occasions. Some males also wear a kippah at all times as a sign of respect for God.
kishkes—Yiddish for intestines, innards. Kohen (plural, kohanim)—of the priestly tribe.
kosher—Although the initial meaning of this word signified the state of being fit or proper and concerned itself with ritual objects or witnesses, kosher food is food that meets certain dietary laws. Animals whose consumption is permitted (certain fowl, beef, lamb) must be ritually slaughtered. Forbidden animals include pigs, crustaceans, carrion-eaters.
Kol Nidrei—service held on Yom Kippur eve. Kotel–Also called the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, this structure in Old Jerusalem is all that remains of a wall that surrounded the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 CE.
kreplach—stuffed noodle dumplings. Think Jewish ravioli; they are stuffed with chicken, meat or cheese.
Kutz—the Reform movement’s national leadership camp in Warwick, NY.
machataynister (plural, Machatunim)—no real equivalent for this Yiddish word exists in English. It refers to the mother-in-law of one’s child. The plural form refers to one’s child’s in-laws.
machzor—High Holiday prayer book.
Magen David—Star of David.
matzah—unleavened bread eaten during the holiday of Passover.
mechitzah—refers to the curtain or partial wall in the sanctuary of an Orthodox synagogue whose purpose it is to separate men and women during worship services.
Megillah—Scroll of Esther. mezuzah—a piece of parchment on which are written verses from the Bible. It is rolled up and inserted into a case and attached to the door posts of Jewish homes.
minyan—Traditionally, it was necessary to have present 10 males above the age of 13 to recite certain prayers. If no minyan is present, those in attendance pray but omit the prayers requiring 10. Orthodox synagogues still require 10 males, as do some but not all Conservative synagogues. Reform temples do not require a minyan.
Mi Shebeirach—prayer for healing.
mitzvah (plural, mitzvot)—commandment; often translated as a good deed.
Passover—week-long holiday commemorating/celebrating the Israelites’ Exodus from Egpyt. Hebrew: Pesach.
Seder—literally, order. The Seder is the Passover meal during which the story of the Exodus is told.
Sephardic—from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sephardic Jews are those whose origins can be traced to Spain and Portugal.
Shabbat Matot—Each Shabbat carries the name of the Torah portion that is read that morning. Therefore, on Shabbat Matot, the Torah portion Matot is read.
Shacharit—morning service. Shavuot—holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah upon Mount Sinai.
Sh’ma—claiming the oneness of God, this is Judaism’s most defining prayer.
shivah—the seven-day mourning period.
shnorrer—Yiddish, one who collects for charity; also has the more negative connotation of a moocher.
shofar—ram’s horn blown during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services.
Shomer Shabbat—those Jews who observe the Shabbat laws, which prohibit, among other things, work.
shtetl—Yiddish, a term that referred to small towns of Eastern Europe with a large communities of pious Jews. With the rise of Naziism and the Shoah (Holocaust), these communities were essentially destroyed.
shul—synagogue. siddur—prayer book. simcha— this Hebrew word for happiness is also used to refer to a joyous celebration such as a wedding or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
Simchat Torah—holiday that celebrates conclusion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah.
sukkah—literally, booth. This is a temporary shelter constructed during the harvest festival of Sukkot.
tallis (plural, tallitot)—prayer shawl.
Tanach—acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Holy Writings), all of which constitute the three parts of the Bible.
tefillin—a set of small black leather boxes containing parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. Observant Jews strap the teffilin to their head and one arm during weekday morning prayers.
tikkun olam—repair of the world.
ulpan—intensive study of the Hebrew language.
Workman’s Circle (Arbeter Ring)—Founded in 1900, this secular organization fosters Jewish identity and participation in Jewish life, particularly through Yiddish culture and education and the pursuit of social and economic justice.
Yahrzeit—anniversary of a loved one’s death. Observing yahrzeit includes attending services, reciting the Kaddish in the loved one’s memory, lighting a yahrzeit candle, which burns for 24 hours. It is also custom for those observing yahrzeit to donate to a charity, lead a study session, or perform other acts of loving kindness in a loved one’s memory.
yarmulke—Yiddish for skullcap. See also: kippah. yeshiva (plural, yeshivot)—usually refers to Jewish schools whose curriculum is devoted to the study of Talmud. Traditionally Orthodox institutions, their students are males who have attained bar mitzvah age and beyond.
Yizkor—“to remember” The Yizkor prayer is recited in memory of a loved one during services on Yom Kippur and the holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
yontiff—Yiddish for holiday.
zayde—Yiddish for grandfather.
This glossary of Jewish words and definitions comes directly from the back of my book, This Jewish Life. These are common Jewish terms that appear in the book’s stories. This Jewish Life is woven together by 54 personal stories and accounts of birth, holidays, life cycle events and more. My book is one calendar year of Jewish life as told by a diversity of voices.
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