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published: 3/17/04
updated: 6/28/13

Glossary of Judaism



The terminology of the Jewish religion

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Adonai
(Hebrew, "Lord"). One of the most common Jewish names for God, used especially during prayer.
aggadah
(Hebrew, "discourse" or "telling"). Non-legal material in the Talmud and Midrash, including stories, legends, theology, and sermons.
Alef-Bet
(Hebrew, "A-B"). The Hebrew alphabet.
Aleinu
Closing prayer of every synagogue service, proclaiming God's sovereignty.
aliyah
(Hebrew, "going up"). To "make an aliyah" is to be called up to recite the blessing before the Torah reading.
amudah
Small desk in a synagogue from which the Torah is read.
Aramaic
Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Was once the common language of the Jewish world - the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds were both written in Aramaic - but it is no longer spoken.




ark
(Acronym for Hebrew aron hakodesh, "holy chest"). Cabinet in a synagogue that holds the Torah scrolls, usually located at the front of the sanctuary.
Ashkenazi
Jews from eastern and northern Europe and their descendents, to be distinguished from Sephardic Jews.
bar mitzvah
(Hebrew, "son of the commandment"). A boy who has reached the age of 13 and is thereafter expected to obey the commandments. Term also used for the ceremony marking this occasion. See Jewish Life Cycle: Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
bat mitzvah
(Hebrew, "daughter of the commandment"). A girl who has reached the age of 12 and is thereafter expected to obey the commandments. Term also used for the ceremony marking this occasion. See Jewish Life Cycle: Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
beit knesset
(Hebrew, "house of assembly"). The synagogue.
beit tefilah
(Hebrew, "house of prayer"). The synagogue.
beit midrash
(Hebrew, "house of study"). A place designated for the study of sacred texts, usually a part of the synogogue.
ben
(Hebrew, "son of"; Aramaic "bar" or "ibn"). Son of. Used in traditional Hebrew names; e.g., Rabbi Moses ben Maimon is Moses, the son of Maimon.
bet din
(Hebrew, "house of judgment"). A rabbinal court convened to resolve business disputes, grant divorces, determine whether a prospective convert is ready for conversion, etc.
bris
(Hebrew brit, "covenant"). Colloquial name for the ritual of circumcision, from the Ashkenazi pronunciation of brit.
brit
(Hebrew, "covenant"). The special covenant between God and the Jewish people.
brit milah
(Hebrew, "covenant of circumcision"). The ritual of circumcision performed on the eighth day of a boy's life. More commonly known as brit. See Jewish Life Events: Circumcision.
CE
"Common Era" or "Christian Era." Designation of years used by Jews and others who wish to avoid the affirmation of faith embedded in AD (Latin anno domini, "in the year of our Lord").
chanukkiah
Nine-branch candlestick used on Hanukkah. More commonly, though not accurately, called a menorah. See Jewish Holidays: Hanukkah.
chutzpah
Arrogance, guts, presumption. Generally meant positively.
circumcision
See brit milah.
chukkim
Commandments that have no known reason behind them.
chuppah
(Hebrew, "canopy"). Also spelled huppah. Canopy under which the Jewish marriage ceremony takes place, representing the marriage chamber or the couple's new home. The term is also used colloquially for the marriage ceremony as a whole. See Jewish Life Cycle: Marriage.
Counting of the Omer
(Hebrew Sefirat ha-Omer). The counting of days between Passover and Shavuot.
Daf Yomi
(Hebrew, "the daily page"). Program of studying one page of Talmud per day. See Texts: Talmud.
Diaspora
Jews living outside of Israel.
Documentary Hypothesis
The modern scholarly hypothesis that the Torah was written by four distinct authors, identified as J (for "Jehovah"), E (for "Elohim"), P (for "Priestly"), and D (for "Deuternomist"). A fifth, believed to be the editor of the other authors' works, is known as the "Redactor."
Gaon
(Hebrew, "eminence, excellence"). Title given to the head of the Babylonian academy and later to distinguished Talmud scholars in the 6th to 12th centuries.
Gemara
(Hebrew, "completion"). Commentary on the Mishnah. The Gemara and the Mishnah constitute the Talmud. See Jewish Texts: Talmud.
get
Divorce decree granted by a bet din. See Jewish Life Events: Divorce.
gezeirah
Rabbinic law designed to prevent accidental violation of a mitzvah. See Jewish Practices: Rabbinic Law.
gilgul
(Hebrew, "transmigration"). The Jewish doctrine of the transmigration (reincarnation) of souls, taught by the founder of Karaism and found also in kabbalistic writings.
goy
(Hebrew, "nation"; Yiddish, "Gentile"). Non-Jew. Sometimes used pejoratively, but the word itself is not negative.
haftarah
Portion of the Prophets read in synagogue services.
halakhah
(Hebrew, "the walk"). Jewish Law. Consists of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah plus rabbinic law and custom. See Jewish Practices.
Hallel
Psalms 113-118, recited at the end of morning service on festival days.
Hanukkah
(Hebrew, "Dedication"). Also spelled Chanukah. An eight-day holiday beginning on 25 Kislev (mid-December) that commemorates the revolt of the Maccabees in 164 BCE and the miraculous oil that burned for eight days. See Jewish Holidays: Hanukkah.
Hashem
(Hebrew, "The Name"). God. Used especially by Orthodox Jews to avoid saying a name of God.
Hashkiveinu
Evening prayer for God's protection while sleeping.
hechsher
(Hebrew) The "seal of approval" on kosher foods.



Kaddish
Prayer proclaiming the greatness of God. Used as the mourners' prayer but also at other points in the liturgy.
kasher
(Hebrew, "fit"). Fit for ritual use. Also a verb meaning "to make a food or object fit for ritual use."
kashrut
(Hebrew, "fitness"). Jewish dietary laws. See Jewish Practices: Dietary Laws.
kedusha
(Hebrew, "holiness"). Holiness.
kippah
(Hebrew; Yiddish yarmulke) Disc-like head covering.
Kol Nidre
(Hebrew, "All Vows). Famous hymn sung during Yom Kippur releasing Jews of all religious vows made in the previous year. See Jewish Holidays: Yom Kippur.
kosher
Anglicized form of kasher.
lashon kodesh
(Hebrew, "the holy tongue"). Hebrew.
l'chaim
(Hebrew, "To life"). A Jewish toast.
lulav
Interwoven branches of palm, willow, and myrtle used in the Sukkot celebration. See Jewish Holidays: Sukkot.
mashgiach
(Hebrew) Rabbi trained to certify foods as kosher.
matzah
(Hebrew, "unleavened bread"). Also spelled matzo or mazzah. Unleaved (non-yeast) bread used during Passover based on Exodus 12:39, in which the Israelites fled Egypt with only unleavened bread because they could not wait for the dough to rise. Called the "bread of affliction" based on Deuteronomy 16:3. See Jewish Holidays: Passover.
mazel tov
(Hebrew, "good planetary influences "). "Good luck." Usually said at the end of a wedding or upon hearing good news.
menorah
(Hebrew, "candelabrum"). A seven-branch candlestick. Part of the furnishings of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. In 1948 it became the official symbol of the State of Israel. Often used to refer to the chanukkiah.
mezuzah
(Hebrew, "doorpost"). Small parchment of Torah verses placed on the doorpost of Jewish homes in obedience to Deut. 6:9.
Midrash
(from Hebrew derash, "sermon"). Stories, sermons, parables, and other material explaining the Talmud. See Jewish Texts: Midrash.
mikva
body of natural water used for ritual cleansing
minyan
Quota of ten adult Jews required for certain prayers and observances.
Mishnah
(Hebrew, "a teaching that is repeated"). Rabbinic commentary on the Torah and part of the Talmud. Codified c. 200 CE by Judah Ha-Nasi. See Texts: Mishnah.
Mishneh Torah
(Hebrew, "repetition of Torah"). The book of Deuteronomy or, more commonly, the code of Maimonides.
mitzvot
(Hebrew "commandments"). Commandments; religious actions (singular mitzvah). Sometimes used more generally to refer to any good deed. See Practices: Mitzvot.
mohel
(MOY-el) The person who performs the ritual of circumcision. Must be an observant Jew trained in the applicable Jewish law and surgical technique.
Nevi'im
("neh-vee-EEM") (Hebrew, "Prophets"). Second section of the Tanakh, containing the writings of the prophets and history covering roughly 700 years after Moses.
Olam Ha-Ba
The "World to Come" - the Jewish afterlife. See Beliefs: Afterlife.
Oral Torah
The Mishnah. According to traditional Jews, part of the Torah received by Moses at Sinai but not written down until c. 200 CE as the Mishnah.
pareve
(Yiddish, "neutral"). Kosher foods that contain no meat or dairy and therefore may be eaten with either.
Purim
(Hebrew, "lots"). Festive holiday in the early Spring celebrating the story of Esther and Mordecai with costume parties and plays. See Jewish Holidays: Purim.
rabbi
(Hebrew, "teacher"). Jewish spiritual leader.
Rambam
(acrostic for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) Maimonides.
sandek
The "Jewish godfather" - the man who holds the baby boy during the rite of circumcision. See Life Cycle: Circumcision.
Second Temple
The Temple in Jerusalem that was rebuilt in 516 BCE after the Babylonian Exile and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Separdic
Jews from the Middle East and Spain and their descendents.
se'udat mitzvot
A festive meal following the fulfillment of a mitvot, such as circumcision.
shalom
Hello, goodbye, or peace.
shekhinah
The presence of God; the Holy Spirit. In Kabbalistic thought, the feminine aspect of God.
Shemot
(Hebrew "names"). The Hebrew name for Exodus, the second book of the Torah.
Sheol
Grave; world of the dead.
shochet
Kosher butcher.
siddur
(Hebrew, "order"). Prayer book used in Jewish liturgy. See Jewish Practices: Worship and Bookstore: Prayerbooks.
simcha
(Hebrew, "rejoicing"). Any Jewish celebration.
Sukkot
(Hebrew, "Booths"). Eight-day autumn festival commemorating the Exodus and celebrating the harvest. See Jewish Holidays: Sukkot.
Talmud
(Hebrew "teaching") The Oral Torah, made up of the Mishnah and the Gemara. See Jewish Texts: Talmud.
Tanakh
(Hebrew TNK, acronym for "Torah," "Nevi'im" and "Ketuvim"). The Jewish Bible. See Jewish Texts: Tanakh.
taryag mitzvot
(Hebrew, "613 commandments"). The 613 commandments given in the Torah and enumerated by Maimonides. See Jewish Practices: Mitzvot.
terayfa
(Hebrew, "torn"). Food that is not kosher and may not be eaten. Also spelled treyf or treif.
teshuvah
(Hebrew, "turning"). Repentance; self-evaluation.
Tikkun olan
The healing of the world; world peace; social justice.
Torah
(Hebrew, "Law"). The first five books of the Jewish Bible. Also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch. See Jewish Texts: Torah.
treyf
(Hebrew, "torn"). Food that is not kosher; prohibited. Also spelled "terayfa" or "treif." See Jewish Practices: Dietary Laws.
yad
(Hebrew, "hand"). Pointer used to read the Torah, usually in the shape of a hand with a pointed finger.
yahrzeit
(Yiddish, "annniversary"). Anniversary of a loved one's death.
yarmulke
(Yiddish; Hebrew kippah). Male head covering. See Jewish Symbols
yetzer hara
The human inclination towards evil.
yetzer hatov
The human inclination towards good.
YHWH
(Hebrew, "I am" or "I will be"). Sacred name of God as revealed to Moses. Also known as the Tetragrammaton. It is considered too holy to be pronounced, and is usually replaced by Adonai in Torah readings.
Yiddish
The language of East European Jews and their descendents; a combination of Middle High German, Hebrew and Polish.
Zealots
Members of a historical Jewish movement characterized by armed rebellion against Roman rulers.
Zionism
A modern political movement with the aim of creating a Jewish state.
Zohar
The major text of the Kabbalah movement. See Texts: Zohar.

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References:
  1. Essential Judaism by George Robinson.
  2. Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
  3. Encyclopędia Britannica Premium Service.
  4. Judaism 101 by Tracey R. Rich.