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Jewish Faith Glossary Rabbi Samuel Altschul, Miriam Bell, John Kooperberg, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein


A glossary of the key terms, definitions, individuals and places of the Jewish Faith, described and compiled here for the JoM by the Rabbi Samuel Altschul, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, Miriam Bell and John Kooperberg. Download a PDF of JoM's Jewish Faith Glossary (at the bottom of the Faith Glossary page), or use as a reference while you visit the museum.


“Lord”. One of the commonly used names for G-d in prayer and Torah reading, considered too holy to pronounce outside of these contexts.

Aleph Bet

Modern Hebrew alphabet. “Aleph” and “Bet” are the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Aleph-Bet is also the alphabet of ancient Hebrew (Lashon Hakodesh*) as well as Yiddish*.

Aliyah (lit. “Asscension”).

(1) Term used when one is called to say a blessing before and after the Torah Scroll is read during prayer services. (The platform on which the Torah scroll is read is usually raised. Hence, going up to the Torah is called an “Asscension”. Having an “Aliya” is also seen as a spiritual “Asscension”).

(2) Permanent emigration to Israel. (From a traditional perspective Israel is seen as the top of the globe. Hence, immigrating to Israel is considered an “Asscension”).

Aron Hakodesh (lit. “Holy closet”)

Holy Ark, located in front of the Shul (Synagogue) containing one or more Torah Scrolls. (See Sefer Torah*)

Ashkenazi (lit. “Germanic”)

Term now used for Jews who derive from Northern Europe [principally Germany] and who generally follow the Jewish customs and culture set forth by the great sages of medieval Germany. This term distinguishes them from Sephardi Jews, whose roots are traced back to Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean. (See Sephardi*)

Asseret Hadibrot (lit. “The Ten Utterances”)

Term commonly referred to as “The Ten Commandments”. This refers to G-d’s initial revelation of “The Law” to the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai approximately 3,330 year ago. These laws are considered to be the foundation for the rest of the Torah revelation received through Moses during the 40 years in the desert that followed. (613 commandments in total).


“Abraham”. The first of the three Patriarchs of Israel [the Jewish people]. His story is told in chapters 11–25 of the Book of Breishit [Genesis]. He is also referred to in Judaism as Avraham Avinu “Abraham our father”. Abraham dedicated his life to spreading his newly discovered belief and faith in the one and only G-d. He is believed to have lived in Babylonia and Canaan approximately 4,000 years ago.

Ba'al Tefillah (lit. “The prayer master”)

Jewish Prayer leader, also known as a Chazzan (lit. Cantor).

Bar Mitzvah (lit. “Son of the commandment”)

A boy who has reached the age of thirteen and is consequently obligated to observe all the commandments. The term is also used for the ceremony marking the fact that a boy has reached this milestone.

(See also Bat Mitzvah*).


Also referred to as the Tanakh, and corresponding—more or less—to what Christians call the “Old Testament”. These are the 24 sacred books beginning with B’reishit (Genesis) and ending with “Trei Asar” (The Twelve minor prophets).

B'nei Noach /  (lit. “The children of Noach / Noah”). 

A term that refers to gentiles, especially those who have consciously accepted the responsibility of the seven universal Laws of Noach. These laws are traditionally believed to have been given to Noah and his family as they disembarked from the Ark after the flood.

B’rakhah / B’rachah

A blessing. A prayer beginning with the phrase “Barukh atah Ado-nai ...” (“Blessed art Thou, Lord …”).

Chabad / Chabad-Lubavitch

The name of the largest Hassidic movement in Judaism today. Its roots date back to the Ba’al Shem tov* (1698 – 1760) founder of Chassidism* and to the Ba’al Hatanya* (1745 - 1812) the second generation successor of the Ba’al Shem tov. “Chabad” refers to the movement’s unique philosophy that stresses the need for intellectual grounding to one’s Judaism, [this is encoded in the name “CHaBaD”, an acronym for Chochmah/Wisdom, Binah/Understanding and Da’at/Knowledge]. Chabad Hassidim believe strongly in being proactive in Tikkun olam* and in the inherent value of each and every individual, regardless of background, affiliation, gender and beliefs. As with most streams in Judaism today, Chabad encompasses a diverse spectrum of unofficial ‘sub-streams’ with noticeable variations in attitudes and style.

Chanukkah / Hanukah (lit. “Dedication”)

An eight-day holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the associated “miracle of the oil”.  These events occurred around 164 BCE after the temple was reconquered by the traditional Jews, from the hands of the Hellenistic Jews and the Seleucid Greeks who had defiled the Temple and transgressed its sacred traditions.

Chanukkiah / Hanukiah

The Nine-branched candlestick used on Hanukah. It is also referred to as the Hanukah Menorah. Its eight branches commemorate the miracles of Chanukah (see Chanukkah ) especially that of the ritual oil used in the candelabra in the Holy Temple, that burned for eight days and nights, when the temple was rededicated and no other kosher oil was available.

Chasidism / Chassidut

From the word Chassid or piety. A stream of Orthodox Judaism founded in the eighteenth century, by the Ba’al Shem tov* (1698 – 1760) its uniqueness lies in its special emphasis on dedication to prayer, the study of the Torah in general and Jewish mysticism in particular, the imperative to love every single Jew regardless of his/her state of knowledge or social status, and always being joyful as a primary way of serving G-d.

Conservative Movement

Modern movement of Jewish thinkers and scholars who were initially part of the Reform movement. This group, splintered off to create a more traditional form of modern Judaism that rededicated itself, in principle, to the concept of a Halachic framework (though in a unique, new, non-traditional manner).


Lay person in charge of organising synagogue services, especially during Torah reading.

Gemarah [g’-MAH-ruh]

The Commentaries on the Mishnah*, by the great Jewish sages of Babylon and Jerusalem. They were completed in the mid-4th Century CE. The Mishnah* and Gemarah together form the Talmud*. It is considered the most authoritative, essential and fundamental part of Jewish philosophical, legal, religious and historical literature outside of the Written Torah. (See Mishnah* Talmud*)

Haggadah (huh-GAH-duh)

The liturgical manual used at the Passover* Seder* that includes the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, a guide for the traditional rituals that commemorate that event and the blessings and prayers of thanksgiving to G-d for that redemption.

Halakhah [huh-LUH-khuh]

Term used to refer to any single Jewish law – or the entire body of Jewish law. This includes the laws of the Jewish Bible (Torah*), the laws of the oral tradition* and rabbinic law. Traditionally, Halakhic law is seen as sacred and divinely guided and binding.

Hashem (lit. “The Name”)

“G-d”. Used by Jews to respectfully refer to “G-d” without actually uttering one of G-d’s sacred names (which can only be used within the context of prayer, blessing and Torah reading).

Hechsher (lit. “Validation”)

A "seal of approval" found on kosher foods, indicating the approval of a Kosher certifying body.

High Holidays / High Holy Days

Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur are commonly referred to as the High Holidays or the High Holy Days.


The religion of the Jewish people. Traditionally it’s origin is traced to the biblical account of the revelation of G-d to the entire nation at the foot of Mount Sinai about 3330 year ago.


The holiest city in Judaism. King David's capital and the site of the holy Temple (first and second). Jews around the world face Jerusalem during prayer.

Jewish calendar

Judaism uses a lunar/solar calendar consisting of months that begin at the new moon. Each year has 12 or 13 months, to keep it in sync with the solar year. This is the reason why dates of Christian events based on Jewish festivals—Easter, for example—change each year.

Jewish Star

The six-pointed star emblem commonly associated with Judaism, also known as the Magen David, “the Shield of David” or the Star of David. (You can see it in the logo for the Jewish Online Museum.)


Prayer proclaiming the greatness of G-d. Used as the mourner's prayer. This prayer is also recited by the prayer leader (Ba’al Tefilah*) during normal services.

Kashrut (lit. ”Kosherness” )

See Kosher*.


The traditional Jewish head covering typically worn by religious men, especially during religious services. It is also known as “Yarmelkeh” and “Kapeleh”. Traditionally it is understood to serve as a reminder for men of the One above, i.e.- G-d.

Kol Nidre

Famous hymn sung at the opening of the eve of Yom Kippur services. It is a ritual prayer that annuls any wrong/bad vows made in the previous year.

Kosher (KOH-sher)

Describes what is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws (Laws of Kashrut), both in terms of food and how it is prepared or served. Food, products and practices that are not kosher are described as Treyf.

Lashon Hakodesh (Lashon Kodesh)

The Holy Tongue. The language in which the Torah* is written. The linguistic form of Jewish religious practice.

Lashon Hakodesh is distinct from “Hebrew”, which is a very modern language development (late 19th - early 20th century). Modern Hebrew is based on Lashon Hakodesh but now includes a large percentage of modern, secular vocabulary sourced from the ongoing linguistic development in a pluralistic and diverse multicultural society (the overwhelming majority of the words in modern hebrew today are new and are not found in Lashon Hakodesh*). Modern Hebrew is considered to be the primary national language of the State of Israel (along with Modern Standard Arabic). Lashon Hakodesh remains the main language of Jewish religious liturgy and traditional scholarship.


Also spelled as matzo or matzah. Unleavened (and yeast free) “bread” used during the Jewish holiday of Passover*, large thin crackers, simply made of flour and water. The Torah in Exodus 12:39, of the Israelites fleeing 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. Although matzah may be eaten all year round, it is the only bread that is permitted to be consumed during the days of Pesach / Passover.


Jewish candelabrum with special religious significance; a nine-branched menorah is used annually at Hanukkah, while the seven- branched was used in the holy Temple. The seven-branched menorah continues to hold symbolic significance but has not been a physical practice since the destruction of the second temple, 70 C.E.


Stories, sermons, parables, and other material providing interpretation and explanation of the teachings of the Talmud. The Midrash was composed by the great talmudic sages around the same period as the Talmud.


Body of natural water used for ritual cleansing / purification. There are thousands of Mikvahs in use today in Jewish communities around the world. According to Jewish tradition, the Mikvah is seen as an essential facility of the Jewish community and life, so much so, that it has priority even over a Synagogue (if the community can only afford one and not the other).


The first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the “Oral Torah”. It is also the first major work of rabbinic literature. This work is the authoritative legal tradition of the early sages and is the basis of the legal discussions of the Talmud*. The Mishnah was redacted circa 200-220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions and classical biblical interpretations would be forgotten.

Orthodox Judaism

Judaism as practiced by the traditionalists who believe in the traditional Jewish principles of faith and practice (famously summarized by maimonides as the “13 Foundations”). These include the belief in the divine origin of the Torah and the oral tradition, and the belief in the coming of the Jewish Moshiach/Messiah, among 11 other key beliefs. Central to orthodoxy is the belief in the integrity of and sacredness of traditional Jewish law, and that where secular values conflict with Jewish law, it is the secular values that are overridden by the established Jewish law and not the reverse. There are many sub-streams within orthodoxy today with significant external difference in appearance as well as in ideology and attitude, though, the common denominator among all orthodox streams is their common belief in the principles of Jewish faith and their dedication to maintaining the integrity of the Jewish law (Halakhah).

Passover / Pesach

The major Jewish holiday also known as Chag hamatzot (festival of unleavened bread) commemorating the Exodus or Deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt. This festival lasts seven/eight days during which Jewish law requires Jews to refrain from eating all leavened foods. Traditional unleavened bread, (Matzah*) is a key feature of this festival as is the special ritual meal or Seder. See Haggadah*.

Rabbi (lit. “Teacher”)

Jewish spiritual leader, ordained by a certified Rabbi in an unbroken chain of ordained Rabbis through the generations dating back to the talmudic sages and earlier.

Reform Movement / Liberal Movement

One of the new, modern religious movements whose distinction from other movements lies in their non acceptance of the binding nature of Halachah*, especially when the law seems to conflict with post enlightenment social values. The “liberal” movement in the United Kingdom is somewhat more traditional than the American liberal movement commonly known as the “Reform” Movement.

Rosh Hashanah [ROHSH hah SHAH-nuh]

The Jewish New Year. In accordance with the Jewish Calendar*. Rosh Hashanah traditionally falls in the Fall / Autumn (northern hemisphere), in the month of Tishri.


Jews from the Middle East and Spain/Portugal, (Iberian Peninsula), and their descendants. “Sephardic” is generally used as a contradistinction to Ashkenazi, though other groups also exist. Sephardic pronunciation differs from the traditional Ashkenazic, and is becoming the more frequently used form in an international context. The term is also associated with specific cultural and religious practices.


Rritual (kosher) slaughter of mammals and birds for food according to Jewish Dietary laws. The person who carries out such kosher slaughter is referred to as a “shokhet / shochet / shoychet”.

Siddur (lit. "Order").

Prayer book used in Jewish liturgy, for observances other than special holidays.

Simcha (lit. "Rejoicing").

Any Jewish celebration (typically referring to a joyful life cycle celebration).


Eight-day autumn (northern hemisphere) festival commemorating the temporary dwellings made of vegetation during the 40 years of the Exodus wandering in the desert, (also a reference to one of the stopping places, “camps” during this period). Sukkot also celebrates the harvest, “The Festival of Ingathering”. - 15th to the 22nd of Tishri

Synagogue (SIN-uh-gahg) (From Greek –“gathering”).

A Jewish house of worship—the equivalent of a church, mosque or temple.

Talmud (lit. "Teaching")

The Oral Torah, made up of the Mishnah* and the Gemara*. In general usage “Talmud” refers to the “Babylonian”, rather than the less frequently cited “Jerusalem” teachings. (See Mishnah*  & Gemarah*)


TaNaKh is an acronym for "Torah” [Pentateuch], "Nevi'im" [Prophets], and "Ketuvim" [Scripture]). The Jewish Bible. (See Bible* & Torah*)

Tikkun olam

Jewish concept of “Repairing the world” (or “Healing the world”) which suggests our shared responsibility to heal, repair, transform and elevate the world.

Torah (lit. "Teaching" / “Instruction”)

The first five books of the Jewish Bible. Also known as the Five Books of Moses or the  entateuch. The term also refers to the full body of Sacred Jewish literature, beginning with the Tanakh*, The Talmud*, it’s traditional commentaries and subsequent authoritative Jewish scholarly works throughout the ages.


A righteous person. A refined, holy individual (free of sin).

Yad (lit. "Hand")

Pointer used to read the Torah, usually ending in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger.

Yeshiva (lit. “A sitting”) / Beit Medrash (lit. “House of Study”)

The term used for a traditional Jewish School for male students. Most Yeshivot (pl. for Yeshivah) today still maintain an exclusively religious curriculum.


The historic vernacular of most Ashkenazi* Jews, who used this language as a uniquely Jewish one to communicate with each other outside of religious and scholarly contexts (for which Lashon Hakodesh* was reserved). It is a combination of several languages, including old German, Lashon Hakodesh and Polish. There are several dialects of Yiddish, principally Polish and Lithuanian.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement. An annual day of fasting, abstinence from pleasures, introspection and repentance for the sins of the preceding year. The most solemn and important occasion of the religious year. This day is on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar.




Judaism 101:

Jewish Learning:


Jewish Virtual Library:

Jewish Federations (US):


Image header (above): Internal window above the Bimah at the Dunedin Synagogue in Dunedin North, designed by John Goldwater, the Jewish New Zealand architect. Photography © JoM. 


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