Jewish Glossary

אוצר מילים / Glossary
(The Ken of Kolbo)
by Eran Hornick and Joanna Lubkin


Aramaic (ארמי)

Aramaic was the language spoken in ancient Babylonia. It is similar to biblical Hebrew, but the two are not entirely mutually intelligible. The Gemara portion of the Talmud, having been composed during the Jewish People’s exile in Babylonia, is written in Aramaic. The kaddish, or mourner’s prayer, is also composed in Aramaic. Finally, the traditional text of the ketubah is in Aramaic as well.


Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah (בר מצווה, בת מצווה)

Translation: Child of the Commandments

A bar mitzvah (for boys), bat mitzvah or bas mitzvah (for girls), or b’nai mitzvah (for multiple people) is the Jewish coming-of-age celebration. Usually celebrated when someone turns thirteen (though some girls celebrate at twelve), this rite of passage is often marked with the honoree leading elements of a service. Many families will hold festive parties or meals for extended family and friends to mark this turning point in the young adult’s life.

Alternate spellings: bar mitzva, bat mitzva, bar mitzveh, bas mitzveh


Breaking Glass

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition that the groom smashes a wine glass while under the chuppah. This can be a wine glass taken from the cupboard, or specially colored and untempered glass designed to be broken on the celebratory day. The glass is wrapped in a cloth of a napkin or a specially-provided pouch, and the pulverizing of it into shards has come to mean several things. The shattering can evoke the sadness of the destruction of the Holy Temples, tempering our moment of happiness with the knowledge that the Jews as a people are still in diaspora, and that suffering and evil continue in the world. Another interpretation is that just as the world is a fragmented place, it is a reminder that the couple is committing to making the world more whole with their love.


Brit Milah or Bris (ברית מילה)

Translation: Covenant of circumcision

A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision that Jewish baby boys undergo when they are eight days old. Many families follow the custom of not announcing their son’s name until the bris. This is a moment of rejoicing as a new child is welcomed into the covenant, and many families invite friends and loved ones to a celebratory meal after the ceremony. 


Challah (חלה)

Exact translation uncertain; possibly related to the word ‘cake’ or ‘round’. See Numbers 15:18-20

Challah is the braided bread eaten on shabbat and other holiday meals. The blessing over bread (hamotzi) is traditionally made over two challot, symbolic of the double-portion of manna the Israelites received on shabbat. A challah plate or board is used, often paired with a serrated knife, is used for the ease and the ceremony of sharing the bread. During the shabbat blessings that precede the blessing over the bread, the challah remains covered with a specially decorated cloth, traditionally said to keep the challah from becoming embarrassed at having to wait through the rest of the ceremony until it too can be blessed. Click here to read more about challah.

Alternate spellings: chalah, hallah, khale


Chuppah (חופה)

Translation: Canopy

A chuppah is a wedding canopy under which a new couple takes their vows, symbolic of the home they will create together. The chuppah can be a tallit either already owned or intended to be used by the couple, or it can be an ornamentally decorated cloth for use just at the wedding. The chuppah is suspended over the married couple by four poles, either set into stands or held in place by honored relatives or friends.

Alternate spelling: Huppah


Eshet Chayil (אשת חיל)

Translation: A woman of valor

Eshet chayil, meaning “a woman of valor,” are the first words of Proverbs 31:10-31. This poem extolling the virtues of a kind, thoughtful, and persevering woman is often sung to the matriarch of a family before shabbat dinner. The words have inspired and been incorporated into art, poetry, and music to honor strong and praiseworthy women.

Alternate spellings: Eshes chayil, eyshes chayil


Haftarah (הפטרה)

Translation: Conclusion

In addition to the weekly portion chanted from the Torah, each portion is paired with a short excerpt from the Prophets, to augment and elucidate the topics covered in that part of the Torah’s story. This excerpt from the books of Prophets is referred to as the weekly haftarah. Even though it looks like it, the word Haftarah is not half-Torah — it just looks like it, but is etymologically unrelated. The Haftarah is chanted with its own set of cantillation notes, or trope, and is notably in a minor key, in stark contrast to the Torah reading’s celebratory major key. Many b’nai mitzvah ceremonies include the child’s reading of the Haftarah.

Alternate spellings: Haftorah, haftara


Haggadah (הגדה)

Translation: Telling

The haggadah is the text that guides us through the order of the Passover story. It includes prayers, the story of the exodus from Egypt, explanation of ritual foods, songs, and reminds us that as long as any are still in bondage, none of us are free. There are dozens of haggadot available, reflecting a wide spectrum of religious observance and cultures. 


Hanukkah (חנוכה)

Translation: Festival of Dedication

Hanukkah is the holiday that usually falls in December which commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Greek intruders who strove to rule with religious oppression and cruelty. Hanukkah celebrates both the Jewish victory over the Greeks in 165 BCE and their subsequent religious freedom, as well as the miracle of the oil. The Greeks had defiled the Temple, and when the Macabees went to rededicate it, they found only one vial of usable oil for the Eternal Lamp -- just enough for one day. They lit it and witnessed it last for eight whole days; long enough for new oil to be made. Thus, for two thousand years, Jews have celebrated with this eight-day festival of light. (See “menorah” to learn more.)

Alternate spellings: Chanukah, Hanukah


Havdalah (הבדלה)

Translation: Separation

Havdalah is the service that marks the end of shabbat or other holidays, dividing sacred time from ordinary time. All of the senses are used as one blesses the wine or grape juice, the fragrant spices, and the light of the flame. A special braided, mutli-wicked candle is used to honor the moment. Many people use a havdalah set to beautify the ritual: a matching tray, wine cup, candle holder, and spice box.

Alternate spellings: havdala,havdallah


Hebrew (עברית)

Hebrew is the language of the Bible, the language in which the prophets spoke, the language of traditional Jewish prayer, and the spoken language of modern day Israel.


Ketubah (כתובה)

Translation: Literally, “a written thing”

A ketubah is a Jewish wedding contract. Orthodox and Conservative Ketubot follow the earliest intentions of the document, which is essentially a promise on the part of the groom to take care of and support his bride. Modern ketubah texts, however, such as Reform, Interfaith, and Humanist, revise the meaning to reflect the commitments of love and mutual support that the couple will make on their wedding day. Click here to learn more about ketubot.


Kiddush (קידוש)

Translation: Sanctification

Kiddush is the blessing said over wine on Shabbat and holidays. A kiddush cup, or ‘becher’ in Yiddish, is a wine glass or cup specifically designated for use for these blessings. Some families follow the custom to fill their glasses to the brim as a reminder of the abundance of blessings in our lives, as in “my cup overflows” from Psalm 23 — thus, a saucer is often paired with a kiddush cup to protect the tablecloth.

Alternate spellings: kidush, kiddish


Kippah (כיפה) or Yarmulke (יאַרמולקע‎)

Translation: Literally, “a dome”

A kippah is a small cap that is worn on the crown of the head to remind us of the benevolent and ever-present G-d above us, a custom described in the Talmud in Shabbat 156b. The headcovering is called a yarmulke in Yiddish, which comes from the phrase “yira malkuyav,” meaning “in awe of one’s G-d.” In English, it is sometimes referred to as a skullcap. At a bris, one will sometimes see the baby boy with a baby-sized kippah, replete with chinstraps tied around his head, to inaugurate him into the traditions.

Alternate spellings: kipah, kipa, keepa


Menorah (מנורה) or Chanukiyah (חנוכיה)

Translation: Lamp

A chanukiyah is an eight-branched (plus one extra) candelabra that is used to celebrate Hanukkah. On the first night, one candle is lit, and one more candle is added for each day of the holiday. The eight candles represent the eight days the oil burned in the Temple during the Hanukkah miracle. (See “Hanukkah” to learn more.) A chanukiyah also has a ninth candleholder set apart from the other eight called a shamash, which is used as a helper candle with which to light the others. While many of us use “menorah” and “chanukiyah” interchangeably, a menorah can be any type of candelabra or lamp. Thus, a chanukiyah is a specific kind of menorah for the holiday. Click here to learn more about the history of the menorah.

Alternate spellings: Hanukiyah, shammes


Mezuzah (מזוזה)

Translation: Literally, “doorpost”

A mezuzah is an encased scroll that is hung on the doorframes of Jewish homes. The scroll is a piece of parchment with excerpts from the Shema prayer, serving to remind us that the safety of our homes is in G-d’s hands, and to ask G-d’s protection in our homes and in the well-being of our families. The parchment is also called a klaf, or claf, and is written by hand by a trained sofer, or scribe. The cases take a variety of decorative forms, but most include a letter shin (ש) to represent one of the names of G-d. Click here to learn more about the mezuzah.


Minyan (מנין)

Translation: Count or number

A minyanis a quorum, or minimum quota of Jews necessary to gather to recite certain prayers or carry out certain rites. In Orthodoxy, only men over the age of thirteen are counted; in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Judaism, everyone over the age of thirteen is counted. If someone says they are trying to “make a minyan,” they mean that they are hoping to get a quorum to say certain prayers — very often, the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer said by those grieving the loss of a loved one.


Parsha or Torah Portion (פרשה)

Translation: Portion

The Torah is divided into 54 weekly portions, or parshiyot, which are chanted aloud one parsha at a time (though sometimes doubled-up) every shabbat morning in synagogue. Thus, every year, the 54 parshiyot are cycled through, completed, and begun again. Some congregations split their readings into three subsections, and therefore complete the entire text once every three years. This schedule of reading is called a triennial cycle.Each parsha has a name, often adapted from the first few words of the portion. Grammatically, when followed by the name of the portion, the word changes to "parshat." (For example, if you were referencing the Torah portion 'Noach,' you would say 'parshat Noach.')

Alternate spellings: Parasha, parashah, parshiyos


Passover or Pesach (פסח)

Translation: “He passed over” (in reference to the 10th plague; see Exodus 12:27)

The eight-day springtime festival of Passover is one of the most significant holidays of the Jewish year. It is a holiday which tells the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. A ritual meal, called a seder, is held on the first two nights of the festival. Families gather to read and discuss the meaning of the Passover story with the aid of a special text called a haggadah. Symbolic foods (such as matzah, bitter herbs, charoset, and wine) are displayed on a seder plate and then eaten, and a great festive meal is served.

Alternate spellings: Pesah, Pesakh


Purim (פורים)

Translation: Festival of Lots

Purim is the late-winter holiday that commemorates the story of Queen Esther and her help in saving the Jewish people from the foolishness and wrath of Haman under the rule of Ahashverosh, or Xerxes of Persia. We read the Scroll of Esther, dress up in costume, and celebrate the joyous survival of the Jewish People. Purim is a time of gift-giving (called mishloach manot) and giving to the poor (called matanot l’evyonim). Click here to learn more about Purim.


Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה)

Translation: Head of the Year

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, marking the anniversary of the creation of the world and the importance of new beginnings. It comes every year in in the autumn, and it’s a holiday redolent with symbolism. People eat round challah to remind us of the circularity of time, or to remind us of the crown of heaven; apples and honey are served to represent our wishes for a sweet new year; bread crumbs are tossed into flowing water to symbolically cast off our misdeeds from the previous year. It’s an introspective but joyous time, and marks the beginning of the High Holidays, sometimes just referred to as “the chagim.”


Synagogue, Temple, or Shul (בית כנסת)

Translation: House of gathering

Known by many names (when in doubt, ‘synagogue’ is usually a safe word choice), a synagogue is a consecrated space for communal Jewish worship. Synagogues usually have a sanctuary that is oriented facing toward Jerusalem. The most sacred space is the ark, the special cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept, and it may be protected by doors and/or curtains. When taken out for reading, the Torah will be placed on a bimah, a raised platform, which may be at the front or the center of the sanctuary.


Shabbat (שבת)

Translation: Day of rest; the sabbath

Shabbat, or the sabbath, is the seventh day of the week and is proscribed in the Torah as a day of rest and delight. Two candles (or more) are lit just before sundown on Friday night to mark the beginning of the holy day, and the havdallah ceremony an hour after sunset on Saturday brings us back into the rest of the week. On shabbat, Jews traditionally gather together for festive meals, blessings, and a communal day of spiritual relaxation and rejuvenation.

Alternate spellings: shabbos, shabes


Shiva (שבעה‎)

Translation: Seven

When a Jewish person loses a relative, they may observe a prescribed mourning period referred to as sitting shiva. For seven days after the dead is buried, those sitting shiva will gather in a home to receive visitors. Beginning when the dead is buried, and continuing for eleven months, the kaddish prayer is recited. Kaddish is the memorial prayer said by mourners remembering their loved ones. Every year on the anniversary of the departed, the surviving relative says kaddish in recognition of what their relative contributed to the world and the legacy they left.


Shofar (שופר)

Translation: Horn or trumpet

The shofar is a trumpet made from a hollowed animal horn, used from biblical times through the present day. The shofar was the instrument used to gather the Children of Israel as they journeyed from Egypt to Canaan, both in times of peace and in times of war. The shofar was also the holy, piercing sound that tradition says came from heaven when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. The sound of the shofar links us to history as it calls us to self-reflection, repentance, and forgiveness on the High Holidays.


Siddur (סדור‎)

Translation: Literally, “order”

A siddur is a Jewish prayerbook. It includes prayers and blessings for weekdays, holidays, and other special occasions.


Simchat Bat (שמחת בת)

Translation: Rejoicing over a daughter

A simchat bat, sometimes called a brit bat (welcoming a daughter into the covenant) or a baby naming, is the celebration a family may hold upon the birth of a daughter. Family and friends gather to welcome the new girl to the world with ritual and sweet wishes. This is a moment of rejoicing as a new child is welcomed into the covenant, and many families invites friends and loved ones to a celebratory meal after the ceremony.

Alternate spelling: Simchas bas


Sukkot (סוכות)

Translation: Festival of Booths or Festival of Tabernacles

Sukkot is an eight-day festival that falls a few days after Yom Kippur. Meals are eaten outside in a sukkah, a temporary structure canopied with leaves and often festively decorated. Sukkot commemorates a number of traditions: the Israelites’ time wandering through the desert and their reliance on transient structures; the fall harvest and the outdoor booths in which farmers would dwell between shifts of reaping; and the everlasting, ever-changing relationship between humanity and the natural world at large.

Alternate spellings: Succot, sukkos


Tallit or Tallis (טלית)

Exact translation uncertain; possibly “little covering”

The tallit or tallis (gadol) is the prayer shawl ritually worn during morning prayers. Traditional tallitot often include blue or black stripes, but modern designs have come to include the Jerusalem skyline, trees of life, and all manner of symbolic art. Hanging from the four corners of the tallit are tassels, or tzitzit/tzitzis, which serve to remind us of the Torah’s commandments. Many first don a tallit at their bar or bat mitzvah, while some wait to wear a tallit gadol until marriage. (A tallit katan is a smaller garment, usually worn under one’s clothing, and has four corners and four sets of tzitzit.)

Alternate spellings: Talit, talis, talaysim


Talmud (תלמוד)

Translation: Instruction, teaching

The Talmud is the core text of rabbinic Judaism and is 5400 pages divided into 63 Tractates. Written in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, the Talmud consists of two parts: The mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is a written record of the schools of thought and their discussions and discourse from the period between the first and second Temples, from about 536 BCE until 70 CE. The Gemara is a written record of further discussions, dated to the fourth to sixth centuries, CE, which center around the topics raised earlier in the Mishnah. The Talmud includes discussions about observance of Jewish ritual, stories, disagreements, and ethical teachings.


Tanakh (תנ"ך)

Tanakh, or Hebrew Scriptures, refers to the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. The word Tanach comes from the Hebrew acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim — the five books of the Torah, the eight books of the Prophets, and the eleven books of the Writings.

Alternate spellings: Tanach


Tefillin (תפילין)

Translation uncertain; possibly related to the verb “to pray”

Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are black leather boxes and leather straps which one wraps about one’s arm and rests on one’s forehead during weekday morning prayers. The leather boxes on the forehead and left arm contain verses from the Shema, as signs to remind us of how G-d redeemed us from Egypt. (See Exodus 13:9, 13:16) Many have the custom to glorify G-d by beautifying the mitzvah with having beautiful tefillin and protective tefillin bag.

Alternate spellings: Tefilin, tfilin, tfillin, teffilin


Torah (תורה)

Translation: Instruction or teaching

A Torah scroll is the holiest and most treasured ritual item in the Jewish religion. The Torah is a long scroll of parchment (usually cow- or deer-hide) wound around two dowels and inscribed with the first five books of the bible. A ritual scribe, or sofer, pens the entire parchment with intense concentration and devotion.


Tzedakah (צדקה‎)

Translation: Justice, fairness, or righteousness

Tzedakah is, most simply, the Jewish practice of giving charity. The concept of ‘tzedek,’ justice or fairness, is interwoven into nearly all aspects of Jewish life. A tzedakah box is a physical money collection box, to be put on a counter at home or in synagogue, to instil the act of giving into one’s everyday life.

Alternate spellings: Tzedaka, tsedakah


Yiddish (יידיש)

Translation: Literally, “Jewish”

Yiddish is a language that developed in Eastern Europe over the course of the ninth to twelfth centuries, and is most similar to German, with large influence from Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian, and other Eastern European languages. Yiddish was the lingua franca of nearly all European Jews, in large cities as well as in shtetls (small Jewish villages), from about 1000 CE until 1939. Before WWII, there were more than 10 million Yiddish-speakers; 85% of the Jews who died during the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. The language is still spoken today in certain Hassidic communities.


Yom Kippur (יום כיפור, יום הכיפורים)

Translation: Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. It falls on the Tenth of Tishrei, seven days after the end of Rosh Hashanah, completing the High Holy Days. It is a day of fasting, intense introspection, repentance, reflection, and prayer. According to tradition, it is the day on which G-d decides the fate of each individual for the year to come. Thus, during these Days of Awe, many offer the salutation, “G’mar chatimah tovah,” “May you be written and sealed in the book of life.”

Alternate spelling: Yom Kipper


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