A Progressive Jewish Congregation in Portland, Oregon
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Jewish Glossary

Synagogue Terms

Aliyah(from the Hebrew “to go up”): Plural aliyot. To have an aliyah is to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. One is “honored with an aliyah”; one is “given” an aliyah, one “has” an aliyah.

B’rit (Hebrew): Covenant.

Barukh tihiyeh (to a male) or B’rukha tihiyee (to a female) : Hebrew for “may you be blessed”. Response to “Yashar Koakh.”

Beit Midrash (Hebrew “house of study”): A place where Jews congregate for the study of Torah.

Bentkhing (Yiddish):  “Reciting a blessing”, usually used in the following ways: 1. “bentch likht”, lighting the Shabbat candles and reciting the blessing 2. “are you ready to bentch?” referring to the Birkat HaMazon.

Berakhah (Hebrew “blessing”): Plural: Berakhot. The term applies only when Barukh atah Adonai “Blessed are you, O Lord” is the opening or closing formula.

Bimah (from the Hebrew “high place”): The platform at the front of the synagogue at which the rabbi and others stand during the services.

Birkat haMazon (Hebrew for “Blessing for Sustenance”): The blessing after the meal.

Humash (Hebrew; “five”): Refers to the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah.  Also known as the Pentateuch.

Daven (Yiddish): To engage in prayer.

Erev (Hebrew): The evening before the day.  Jewish days begin at sunset.

Eytz Hayim (plural Atzey Hayim; Hebrew for “tree of life”): The wooden rollers upon which the Torah scroll is rolled.

Gehlilah (Hebrew for “rolling”):  Used to designate the act of dressing the Sefer Torah.

Haftarah (Hebrew): A reading from the prophetic books of the Bible which follows the reading from the Torah in the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals.  Each Torah portion has its own haftarah portion.

Hahg-bah (Hebrew for “the lifting up”): The act of holding up the Sefer Torah.

Hakafa (plural Hakafot):  Walking in a circular fashion with the Sefer Torah around the congregation.

Ma’ariv: The evening service.

Minyan (Hebrew “count”): Ten persons usually required to begin a Jewish service.

Mishkan (Hebrew): The portable sanctuary that the children of Israel constructed while wandering in the desert and until the Temple was built in Jerusalem.

Ner Tamid (Hebrew): Eternal Light.  The light which is in on top of the arc and is always kept burning.

NiggunA wordless, prayerlike melody.

Oneg Shabbat (Hebrew “joy of the Sabbath”): Celebration after Shabbat services which includes refreshments and sometimes singing and/or Israeli dancing.

Sefer Torah (Hebrew): The Torah scroll, containing the Five Books of Moses and read each week at services.  It is kept in the aron or ark at the front of the synagogue.  It is adorned with a mantle and crowns and a breastplate.

ShehekhiyanuA prayer of thanksgiving for new blessings.

Shukeling (Yiddish): The back and forth movement some Jews make while standing, lost in prayer.

Shul (Yiddish): Another word for synagogue.

Siddur (from the Hebrew “order”): The prayer books which is used during services.

Talit (Hebrew; sometimes pronounced “talis” by Ashkenazic Jews): Prayer shawl with ritual fringes worn during Shabbat or morning services.  In Orthodox and Conservative synagogues all men and boys above bar mitzvah age wear a tallit.  In Reform Judaism, the wearing of a tallit is an option.  In recent years, women have also begun to wear the tallit.

Torah Sheb’al Peh (Hebrew): The laws that were not written in the Torah, but were transmitted orally and are traditionally believed to be of Sinaitic origin.

Tzitzit (Hebrew; “fringes”): The knotted fringes on the four corners of the tallit, traditionally with a cord of blue (tekhelet) woven into them.

Yashar koakh!: (Hebrew) “Way to go!” or “well done!” Said after someone has done something well, such as lead prayers or chant Toray or Haftarah Variations: 1. said to a male: Yashar kokh-KHAH 2. said to a female: Yashar kokh-KHEYKH. Can be used to express appreciation of someone’s other, non-ritual efforts as well.

Holiday Terms
Shabbat (Friday Sundown through Saturday Sundown)

Halah: A braided loaf of white bread.  The Shabbat bread.  On Rosh HaShanah it is frequently baked in a circular shape, often with raisins.

Hamotsi (from the Hebrew “bring forth”): The blessing over bread or any meal in which bread is eaten.

Havdalah (from the Hebrew “to divide”): A Saturday evening ritual which marks the end of Shabbat.

Kiddush (from the Hebrew “sanctify”): The prayer at the beginning of the Sabbath and Jewish holy days, which is recited or chanted over a cup of wine.

Musaf: An additional service for Shabbat and holidays which comes after the Torah reading.

Pesach (Passover)

Afikoman: Piece of matzah which is hidden, at the beginning of the seder, to be found by the children.  Once it is found, it is distributed to all to signal the conclusion of the seder.

Hametz: Food which is not permissible on Passover because it contains leavening or certain leavened grains.

Haggadah (from the Hebrew “to tell”): The book containing the narrative of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and the deliverance from bondage to freedom.  It is read aloud at the Passover seder.

Maggid (Hebrew “telling”): The telling of the story of Passover at the Seder.

MatzahUnleavened bread.  Comes in flat, thin, perforated sheets.  It is a reminder of the bread which the Israelites ate when they hurriedly left Egypt.

Pesakh (Hebrew): Passover; the spring festival commemorating the exodus from Egypt; one of the three pilgrimage festivals; the spring festival commemorating the exodus from Egypt; one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

Seder (Hebrew “order”): The festive meal which ushers in the festival of Passover during which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is dramatically retold; special symbols are displayed and special songs sung.

Special Foods of the Seder: Placed on a plate in the center of the table.

Betsah: Roasted egg. A symbol of life.

Bowls of salt water: In which to dip the karpas and hard boiled eggs.  A reminder of the tears shed by our enslaved ancestors.

Haroset (sometimes pronounced “charoses”): Ground nuts and apples mixed with honey, wine and cinnamon; symbolizes the mortar between the bricks made by the Israelites in slavery.

Karpas Greens, usually parsley; symbolizes spring.

Maror (Hebrew “bitter”): Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery.

Matzah: See above

Zeroa: Roasted lamb shankbone symbolizing the Pesach sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem


Shavuot: The late spring harvest festival of first fruits, which also commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai; one of the three pilgrimage festivals

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (The High Holy Days)

Kol Nidre (Aramaic “all vows”): The prayer which ushers in Yom Kippur.  It is traditionally sung by the cantor.  During this solemn prayer, the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and held before the congregation.

Leshanah Tovah Tikatemu (Hebrew): “May you be sealed (in the book of Life) for a good year”  Traditionally said after Rosh HaShanah and until Yom Kippur

Leshanah Tovah Tikatevu (Hebrew): “May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.”  Sometimes shortened to “Shanah Tovah” or, in Yiddish, “A Gut Yohr.”  A New Year greeting to family and friends.  Traditionally used only until Rosh HaShanah.

Machzor: The special prayer book used for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year, literally “head of the year”.

Selichot (Hebrew “sorry”): Special prayers said at night, communally, on the Saturday night preceding Rosh HaShanah

Shanah Tovah (Hebrew for “a good year!”): A greeting used only on Rosh HaShanah.

Shofar: The ram’s horn blown on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah (from the Hebrew “turn”): The Hebrew word for “repentance.”  Repentance represents the return to God and the right path.The days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are called the ten days of teshuvah.

Yamim Noraim (Hebrew “days of awe”): The High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement, a day for fasting, prayer, and reflection.

Sukkot (Harvest Festival)

Etrog (a citron): Fragrant lemon-like fruit.  The lulav and etrog are the major symbols of Sukkot.

Lulav: Palm branch with a holder containing myrtle and willow sprigs over which a blessing is recited and which is shaken during Sukkot.

Simkhat Torah (Hebrew “rejoicing over the Torah”): The holiday at the end of Sukkot which marks the beginning and end of the annual Torah reading cycle.

Sukkah (Hebrew “booth”): A temporary structure built for Sukkot to remind us of the flimsy structures in which the Israelites lived as they wandered for forty years in the desert.

Sukkot: The fall harvest festival; one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

Hannukah (To Dedicate)

Hannukah Gelt: Small gifts of money sometimes given to children on Chanukah.

Dreidel (Yiddish): (Hebrew: sivivion) A small, four-sided top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hei and shin on each side.  Used for a special Chanukah game.

Hannukah, Chanukah (from the Hebrew “to dedicate”): The festival of dedication, occurring on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev and lasting for eight days.  It is a nonbiblical holiday which commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians in 167 B.C.E. and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Hannukiah, Menorah: A candelabrum with one branch for each night – eight lights – of Chanukah plus one extra light, the shamash, from which the other lights are lit.

Latke: A potato pancake, traditionally eaten on Chanukah.

Shamash (Hebrew “helper”): The ninth candle on a hannukiah used to light the others.


Gragger: Noisemaker used to drown out the name of Haman each time it is read in the Megillah.

Hamantashen (“Haman’s Pockets”): Triangular pockets of dough filled with poppy seeds, stewed dried fruits, or jam.  Traditionally made and eaten on Purim.

Megillah (Hebrew “scroll”): Usually refers to the Book of Esther which is read in the synagogue on Purim.  There are five megillot: Esther, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

Other Holidays

Tisha B’av: The ninth of Av.  This is the central Jewish day of mourning, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples.  The mourning is expressed through fasting, avoidance of physical pleasures, and the reading of Eikhah (Lamentations) and various kinot (dirges).

Tu B’Shvat: The 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat.  A festival celebrating the New Year for Trees.

Yom HaAtzmaut: Israeli Independence Day, celebrated on the anniversary of the proclamation of Israeli statehood on 5 Iyar 5708 (14 May 1948).

Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Some Jewish Food Terms

Blintz: Similar to a crepe, a thin pancake which is filled, usually with a cottage cheese mixture or fruit, and rolled; often served with sour cream.

Borsht: 1. Beet soup often served cold with sour cream and/or boiled potato 2. Cabbage and beef soup served hot.

Hallah: A braided loaf of white bread.  The Sabbath bread.  On Rosh HaShanah it is frequently baked in a circular shape, often with raisins.

Hametz: Food which is not permissible on Passover because it contains leavening or certain leavened grains.

Fleishig: (Yiddish) Foods prepared with meat products which, according to the dietary laws, may not be eaten with milk or foods prepared with milk

Gefilte fish: Chopped fish, eggs, and onions mixed, shaped into balls (or sometimes into a loaf), poached in simmering stock, and served cold with horseradish.  Frequently the first course of a Shabbat or holiday meal.

Halvah: Candy made of honey, ground sesame seeds, and sometimes pistachio nuts and/or chocolate.  Sweet!

Hamantashen (“Haman’s Pockets”): Triangular pockets of dough filled with poppy seeds, stewed dried fruits, or jam.  Traditionally made and eaten on Purim.

Kneidel (Yiddish; pl. kneidlach): A matzah meal dumpling, usually added to chicken broth.

Kosher (from the Hebrew “fit,” “proper”; noun form is kashrut): Refers to something which is fit to eat, according to the Jewish dietary laws.  Food which is not kosher is called “treif”.

Kreplakh: Triangular dumplings, similar to ravioli, filled, usually with meat, and usually served in soup.

Kugel: A pudding of noodles or potatoes.  There are sweet kugels, “salty” kugels, potato kugels, fried kugels, and dairy kugels!

Latke: A potato pancake, traditionally eaten on Chanukah; Delicious with applesauce of sour cream.

Milkhig (Yiddish): Dairy foods (containing mild or milk products) which according to the dietary laws may not be eaten with, or immediately after, meat.

Pareve (Yiddish): Neither fleishig nor milchig, but neutral according to dietary laws.  For example: fish, fruit and vegetables are pareve.

Some Life-Cycle Terms
Birth & Education

Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Public ceremony, usually at age 13, recognizing a Jewish child’s attainment of an age at which meaningful Jewish observance is possible.

Brit Hakhayim: The ceremony, which occurs on the eighth day after birth, celebrating the birth of a baby girl.

Brit Milah (often “bris”): The circumcision ceremony occurring on the eighth day after the birth of a Jewish boy.

Bubbe (Yiddish; savta is the Hebrew): Grandma.

Kvater and Kvaterin: Godparents.

Mohel (from the Hebrew “circumcise”): The person who often performs the ritual circumcision, the brit milah, eight days after the birth of a male baby.  In some cases a surgeon may co-officiate with a rabbi.

Sandak: The man who holds the baby during the circumcision.  This is an honor which generally is accorded a relative or close friend.

Zeyde (Yiddish; sava is the Hebrew): Grandfather.

Marriage & the Home

Haseneh (Yiddish): Wedding.

Hatan (Hebrew; sometimes pronounced “chasen”): Bridegroom

Huppah: A wedding canopy under which the wedding ceremony takes place.

Get (Hebrew): A religious divorce which terminates a Jewish marriage.

Kalah: Bride

Ketubah (from the Hebrew “to write”): The Jewish marriage contract, often read during the wedding ceremony.  Although there are standard, printed ketubot, you are free to design your own or have one made especially for you.

Kiddushin (from the Hebrew “holy”): The Jewish wedding ceremony, the marriage vows.

Mezuzah (Hebrew “doorpost”): A small container which is affixed, at a slant, to the right side of the front door of a Jewish home.  Inside the mezuzah is a tiny rolled parchment or paper on which is printed verses from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21.

Pushke (Yiddish): A small can or special container kept in the house in which money is collected for charity.  Many organizations provide their own pushkes.  A wonderful custom to perpetuate is to drop some coins into the pushke before lighting Shabbat candles.

Sheva Brachot: The seven marriage blessings.

Death & Mourning

Alav Hashalom (masculine) and Aleha Hashalom (feminine): Literally, “On him/her peace”; roughly equivalent to the English, “May he/she rest in peace.”

Aninut: The period between death and burial when mourners refrain from all activity except preparing for the funeral.

Avelut (Hebrew “mourning”): The year-long observances for the death of a parent.

Hevra Kadisha (Hebrew “holy fellowship”): The group responsible for the ritual preparation of a body for burial.  In synagogues today, they may help arrange meals, a minyan, and other details for mourners.

Hamakom y’nakhem et’khem betokh she’ar aveley tziyon virushalayim: The traditional farewell greeting to mourners, said on leaving the shivah house.  “May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Hesped (Hebrew): Eulogy

K’riah (Hebrew “rending”): The mourning custom of tearing a garment as a sign of grief.

Mourner’s Kaddish: An ancient prayer, in Aramaic, said at the end of all synagogue services, sanctifying God’s name, recited by those who mourn.This prayer is recited at the graveside at the end of a funeral as well as on the anniversary of a death (yarzeit).

Sheloshim: The thirty day period of mourning that begins with Shivah.

Shivah (Hebrew “seven”): A period of seven days of mourning following the funeral during which the immediate family receives mourners at home.  Shivah is not observed on Shabbat or certain other festivals.

Yarzeit (Yiddish; “a year’s time”): The anniversary of the death of a member of the family, observed on the Hebrew date of the death.  There are special yarzeit candles which may be available in your market or in a store specializing in Jewish religious articles.  A yarzeit candle is a special candle in a glass container which burns for twenty-four hours.  It is lit at sundown of the day previous to the anniversary.  Frequently, the name of the person is also mentioned in the synagogue on the Shabbat of the yahrzeit.

Yizkor (from the Hebrew “remember”): Synagogue memorial service which occurs on Yom Kippur, Sukot, Pesach, and Shavuot.

Terms Relating to Jewish Texts

Akedah (Hebrew “binding”): The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

Bible: Also referred to as the TaNaCH.  Consists of the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim).

D’rash: Religious insight, often on a text from the Torah.

D’var Torah (Hebrew “words of Torah”): An explication of a portion of the Torah.

Gemara (from the Hebrew “finish”): Compilation of commentary on the Mishnah by scholars in Babylonia about the end of the fifth century.

Midrash: Imaginative exposition of stories based on the Bible.

Mishnah: The collection and codification of the “Oral Law” which was compiled around 160-200 C.E.  Composed of six “orders” of laws concerning everything from agriculture to marriage.

Parasha: The weekly Torah portion.

Talmud: The Mishnah and Gemara together.

Torah: The Five Books of Moses.  Also, the scroll, kept in the ark, from which Jews read each week.

Some General Jewish Terms

Am Yisrael (Hebrew): The Jewish nation or people.

Ashkenazic: Refers to the Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe.  Many immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century and are the ancestors of the majority of North American Jews.

Atbash mishugash adoshem (Hebrew): What to say when someone has something new.

B’lee Ayin harah (Hebrew for “without the evil eye”):  Meaning that you are trying to neutralize the positive thing you just said.

B’lee Neder  (Hebrew for “without a vow”):  The uneasiness about promising in Jewish culture is ancient, and based on the fact that one can promise, and then something can come up to invalidate one’s word. To get around that, one says “I will get that to you by Tuesday, b’li neder”, meaning “I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee it, I’m not taking a vow here”.

B’Sha’ah Tovah! (Hebrew for “in a good hour”): A response to someone telling you she’s pregnant, or other good news which is not yet fully realized. The b’sha’ah tovah response is a wish that all should go well in the hour of the realization, i.e. in the case of pregnancy, the birth.

Bet Din (Hebrew “house of judgement”): A court of three rabbis that is convened to witness and give communal sanction to Jewish events.

Chutzpah: Nerve, courage, effrontery, arrogance.

Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew): The Land of Israel.

Eshet Hayil (Hebrew; “woman of valor”): The phrase refers to Chapter 31 of Proverbs (Mishlei) which describes the noble characteristics of the ideal Jewish woman.  It is traditionally recited on Erev Shabbat.

Galut (Hebrew; referred to as “Diaspora”): Exile – the dispersion of the Jews in lands beyond Israel.

Gemilut Hassadim (Hebrew): Acts of loving kindness.

Ger (Hebrew; “stranger”), pl. gerim: In the Torah, a “ger” is a non-Jew living in Eretz Yisrael;  today, “ger” refers to converts to Judaism

Hag Sameakh: Holiday greeting traditionally used on the three festival holidays: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It is also frequently used for other holidays.

Halakhah (from the Hebrew word “to walk”): Orthodox Jewish law.

Kaballah (from Hebrew for “receive” or “tradition”): The Jewish mystical tradition.

Has v’khahlilah (Hebrew, equivalent of “God forbid”): variant: Khas v’shalom: First used by Abraham: while arguing with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham said, “God forbid that God should not do justice.”

Hukkim (Hebrew; laws, decrees, or statutes): According to the Rabbis, those mitzvot whose reasons are hidden, such as the rules regarding the mixing of wool and linen, and the red heifer.  Used as opposed to mishpatim, whose reasons are readily apparent.

Kippah (Hebrew): A skullcap worn by some Jews.  It became customary for men to cover their heads as a sign of respect and reverence for God.  Many traditional men cover their heads all the time.  Others do so only while engaged in prayer, Jewish study, in home ritual, or at meals.

For many modern Jews, including Reform Jews, covering the head is seen as an option rather than as a requirement.  Many women also choose to do so.

Lekhayim (Hebrew “to life”): A toast offered before drinking wine or liquor.

Mazal Tov (Hebrew “good sign” Good luck; meaning “congratulations”): In the case of unfinished business such as pregnancy or an unfinished deal or project, b’sha’ah tovah is said. Saying mazal tov would almost be seen as inviting bad luck in some circles.

Mentsch (Yiddish): A person who is honest, sensitive, decent, admirable.

Mikvah: Ritual bath

Minhag: Custom

Mishpakhah (Hebrew): Family

Mishpatim (Hebrew; laws or statutes): Those mitzvot whose meanings are readily apparent (such as prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery).  Often contrasted with khukkim, whose meanings are hidden.

Mitzvah (from the Hebrew “command”), pl. mitzvot: (Divine) commandment; a good act or an ethical deed. The Torah contains 613 mitzvot (248 positive commandments (mitzvot aseh) and 365 negative commandments (mitzvot lo ta’aseh).

Motzi: Blessing over bread recited before meals.

Nachas: Special joy from the achievements of one’s children.

Pushke (Hebrew): A coin box reserved for Tzedakah.

Rakhmones (Yiddish; from the Hebrew “mercy”): Compassion, mercy.

Responsa: A genre of literature composed of the legal answers (responses) to situational questions of Jewish law, and like legal opinion in all traditions, has the weight of law.

Rosh Hodesh (Hebrew “head of the month”): The first day of every lunar month.

Sefirot (Hebrew “numbers”): Manifestations or emanations of God’s creative process; frequently portrayed as ten spheres.  The Sefirot are the closest we can come to comprehending the inner workings of God.

Sephardic: Spanish and Portuguese Jews and their descendants as well as Jews from the Near East and North Africa.

Shabbat Shalom (Hebrew): Shabbat greeting: “(May you have) a good (and blessed) Shabbat.” Also, Gut Shabbos (Yiddish)

Shatniz (Yiddish): Acronym for different categories not allowed to mix.

Shlemiel: A simpleton, a fall guy, a clumsy oaf.

Shlep: To carry or drag around.

Shoah (Hebrew): The Holocaust

Shtetl: A small Eastern European town inhabited by Ashkenazic Jews before the Holocaust.

Simkhah: A happy occasion.

Sofer (Hebrew “scribe”): A person who is trained in the writing of Torah scrolls and other religious documents.

Tefillin (Hebrew): Phylacteries.  These are two small black leather boxes worn on the arm and the head, bound by black leather straps.  Each box contains the four passages from the Torah that include the injunction to wear tefillin.  Tefillin are worn during the weekday morning service, but not on Shabbat or festivals.

Tikkun Olam (Hebrew “repairing the world”): Taking responsibility for correcting the damage done by people to each other and to the planet.

Tzaddik (Hebrew): An extraordinarily righteous person.

Tzedakah (from the Hebrew “righteous”): This term is most frequently translated as “charity,” but there is actually no Hebrew word for “charity.”  Tzedakah really connotes establishing justice in the world through righteous and compassionate behavior.

Yetzer haRa (Hebrew): Evil impulse or urge.  The yetzer haRa is believed to dwell within each person and be in constant tension with the yetzer haTov (the impulse or urge to do good).

Yetzer haTov (Hebrew): Good inclination or urge.

Yichus: Family status; pride in family members’ achievements.

Yom Tov (Hebrew “a good day,” meaning “holiday”; sometimes “yuntif”): A holiday greeting.  One general holiday greeting, derived from the Yiddish, is “Good (or ‘Gut’) Yuntif” – Happy Holiday!

Zohar (Hebrew “radiance”): Book of Splendor; The major work of Jewish mysticism, probably written by Rabbi Moses De Leon in the 13th century.  A mystical commentary on the Torah.


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