Jewish Museum & Archives of British Columbia
Glossary of Hebrew Words and Jewish Terms
Anti-Semitism: opposition to and discrimination against Jewish people.
Anti-Zionism: the opposition to the state of Israel.
Aron kodesh: an ark; a cabinet set in or against the wall of the synagogue facing east or toward Jerusalem that holds the Torah scrolls and that is a focus of prayer.
Avel: mourners. People who have lost their father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister (including half-brother and half-sister), husband or wife. They must be 13 and older if they are male or 12 and a half and older if they are female.
B’nai B’rith Lodge: an international organization, originally a network of lodges, which helped those in need in their own communities and lobbied governments on behalf of the Jewish people. It began in the USA and today it can be found all over the world.
B.C.E.: an abbreviation for “Before the Common Era.” When Jewish people refer to a Gregorian calendar year, instead of using “B.C.” (Before Christ), they use “B.C.E.”
Bar/bat mitzvah: the ceremonial coming of age of a boy (bar) at age thirteen or girl (bat) at age twelve.
Beth din: a rabbinical court.
Beth Tikvah: translation from Hebrew means ‘House of Hope.’
Bimah: the raised platform on which the desk for reading the Torah stands.
Brit milah: the covenant of circumcision; a procedure and ceremony that brings a male infant into the Jewish community.
C.E.: an abbreviation for “Common Era.” When Jewish people refer to a Gregorian calendar year, instead of using “A.D.” (Anno Domini), they use “C.E.”
Cantor: a synagogue official who chants the religious services. Alternative terms: Chazan, Hazzan, or Chazzan.
Chabad Lubavitch: a Chassidic, Orthodox Jewish movement.
Challah: an egg bread.
Cheder: (alt. hader) a religious school for the study of Jewish history, customs, prayers, and the Hebrew language.
Chevrah Kaddisha: Hebrew for “holy society”; the burial society responsible for the cleansing and preparation of the dead according to Jewish law.
Chol Ha-Mo'ed: a Hebrew phrase which means "weekdays [of] the festival", refers to the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot.
Chuppah: a canopy under which the bride and groom stand during their wedding ceremony.
Daven: (pl. Davening) Jewish services, to recite prayers. Davening from Yiddish: davnen ‘to pray.’
Dreidel: a top that is played with during the holiday of Hanukkah.
Gabbai: the person who organizes prayer services.
Gragger: a noisemaker sounded on the holiday of Purim.
Haftorah: a Biblical story that is related to the Torah portion of the day.
Hanukkah: a Jewish holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews over their Greco-Syrian overlords in 165 B.C.E. and the establishment of religious freedom in ancient Israel.
Havdalah: Hebrew for “separation”; the ceremony held Saturday evening to mark the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week.
Holocaust: a Greek word that means “sacrifice by fire.” It is the term used to describe the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jewish people by the Nazi regime and their collaborators.
Hora: a type of circle dance originating in the Balkans but also found in other countries, and became a national dance in Israel. Also commonly danced during Jewish celebrations.
Humanist: belief that human beings, through their use of reason and sense of compassion, are responsible for their future.
Judaica: materials referring to Jews or Judaism.
Kashruth: kosher guidelines; food permitted, prepared, and/or served according to Jewish law.
Kavod Hamet: means to honour the deceased. It is one of two principles guiding mourning.
Ketubah: a Jewish marriage contract.
Kiddush: the prayer of sanctification over wine recited on Sabbaths and festivals.
Kippah: a skullcap, also referred to a “yarmulke” in Yiddish.
Kol Nidre: a song sung in the synagogue as part of the prayer service on the eve of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Kosher: food permitted, prepared, and/or served according to Jewish law.
Kristallnacht: literally means the night of crystal but has come to be known as the night of broken glass. This term is used to describe the events that took place across Germany the evening of November 9-10 in 1938.
Lag B’Omer: a holiday commemorating the end of a plague against students of the Torah approximately two thousand years ago.
Latkes: Potato pancakes.
Levayah: the funeral. It means “accompanying” as it is the act of accompanying the dead to the burial site.
L’vris b’lvris: alternative: l’vrit b’lvrit
Translation: In Hebrew, the commitment that Jewish studies are taught in Hebrew only.
Maftir: properly refers to the last person called to the Torah on Shabbat and holiday mornings. This person also reads the haftorah portion from a related section of the Nevi'im (prophetic books).
Informally the portion of the Torah read by or to the maftir is called the "maftir portion", or the "maftir" for short: in printed Hebrew Bibles the word "maftir" is printed in the margin at the beginning of that portion. (Accordingly, in those communities where the bar mitzvah acts as maftir, his readings are informally referred to as "maf and haf".)
Magen David: The Star of David, alt. Mogein Dovid or Mogen Dovid in Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish. The generally recognized symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism.
Mashgiach: the Rabbinic inspector who oversees the commercial preparation and handling of food and authorizes that it is kosher.
Matzoh: the unleavened bread eaten during Passover holiday.
Megillah: a scroll, e.g. Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther written on a scroll.
Menorah: a lamp with seven branches once found in the Holy Temple; a similar lamp found in Synagogues; also a lamp with nine lights used during the Hanukkah festival.
Mezuzah: a tube-like casing that contains prayers and text and that is affixed to a right-hand doorpost as commanded by G-d.
Mikvah: a bath for physical and spiritual purification.
Minyan: the ten Jewish men that are the minimum number needed for congregational prayers and services; in liberal congregations, the ten people needed for prayers and services.
Mitzvah (Mitzvot, plural): a religious obligation.
Mohel: the person who performs circumcisions on infant Jewish males.
Ner tamid: an eternal light.
Nihum avelim: means consoling the mourners. This is one of two principles guiding mourning.
Nuremberg Laws: two anti-Semitic laws were issued in September of 1935 at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.
Onen: mourners are known as this during the period between death and burial when the sole duty is to arrange the funeral and burial of the deceased.
Orthodox: Orthodox Judaism is a formulation of Judaism that adheres to a relatively strict interpretation and application of the laws and ethics canonized in the Talmudic texts ("Oral Torah") and subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim. The word "orthodox" is derived from the Greek orthos (straight/correct) and doxa meaning (opinion or belief).
Parchment: the skin of sheep or goat, which has been prepared to be written upon.
Pesach: Passover, a Jewish Holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
Pidyon ha-ben: the ceremonial redemption of the first-born male child from priestly service.
Pogroms: periods of organized killing of Jews and pillaging of Jewish villages in Eastern Europe and Russia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Purim: a Jewish holiday of carnivals and merry-making that celebrates Queen Esther’s clever plan to save the Jews from annihilation by the evil Haman in ancient Persia.
Rabbi: Hebrew for “teacher”; the spiritual leader and counselor of a congregation.
Rebbetzin: the wife of a Rabbi.
Rimmonin: Hebrew for “pomegranates”; an adornment for the staves of a Torah scroll.
Rosh Hashanah: Hebrew for “Head of the Year”; the holiday of the Jewish New Year.
Sabbath: a day of rest and prayer; the Jewish Sabbath begins at sunset Friday evening and lasts until Saturday evening.
Schara Tzedeck: Hebrew for “Gates of Righteousness.”
Scroll: a roll of paper or parchment.
Seder: Hebrew for “order”; the liturgical home service for the first two nights of Passover at which the history of the exodus from Egypt is recounted and symbolic foods are eaten.
Secular: concerned with this world, not the supernatural. It is the state of being separate from religion.
Shammes: a servant light; the candle that lights the other candles on a menorah.
Shavuot: a holiday commemorating Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.
Shema: the Jewish prayer that proclaims the unity and sovereignty of G-d.
Shivah: a period of mourning.
Shochet: the slaughterer of animals for kosher meat.
Shofar: a ram’s horn sounded during services on the High Holidays as a call to repentance.
Shomer Shabbat: A shomer Shabbat or shomer Shabbos (plural shomrei Shabbat or shomrei Shabbos) is a person who observes the Sabbath.
Shul: Yiddish for “a house of worship.”
Simchat Torah: the festive Jewish holiday on which the reading of the last part of the Torah is immediately followed by the reading of the beginning of the Torah, so that the cycle of Torah reading remains unbroken.
Spice box: a container of aromatic spices used during a Halvdalah service.
Sukkot: a Jewish holiday of thanksgiving for the fall harvest and the remembrance of the wandering of the Jews in the desert after they escaped slavery in Egypt.
Synagogue: a house of worship, study, and social gathering for a Jewish congregation.
Tahara – the preparation of the deceased’s body.
Takhrikhim: the plain white shroud that the deceased is dressed in which demonstrates equality of all.
Tallit: a prayer shawl composed of four corners. Has special knotted fringes and is usually decorated with blue thread.
Talmud: a sacred collection of teachings about the laws, ethics, and folklore of Judaism.
Talmud Torah: In 20th century North America, they are usually primary schools whose curricula incorporate Jewish and secular material in order to prepare students for Jewish education in the high school or yeshiva environments.
Tefillin: phylacteries; two small, square boxes (made of parchment and containing passages from the Bible) that are bound above the forehead and to the left arm with long leather straps during weekday morning prayers.
Tisha B’av: a day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the destruction of the First and Second Holy Temples of Jerusalem and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 C.E.
Tsitsit: the knotted fringes at the ends of a tallit.
Torah: a parchment scroll upon which the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) that contain the precepts and prohibitions governing the life of a Jew.
Torah mantle: a cover of silk or other precious fabric that encases the Torah scroll and that is removed when the Torah is read.
Torah pointer: a small rod of wood or precious metal used by the reader of a Torah to follow the text. Also referred to as a “yad.”
Torah Shield (breastplate): an ornamental metal plaque hung from the staves of a Torah.
Tu Bi’Shevat: a holiday celebrating the importance of trees to the conservation of the desert. Also referred to as “Jewish Arbor Day.”
Tzedakah: righteous (correct) behavior, often through charitable giving.
Yiddish: a language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe (and brought by them to their new homes in other parts of the world); a mixture of Hebrew, Middle German, Polish, French, and English.
Yontif: Yiddish term for Jewish holiday or festival. ex/ Gut Yontif - Happy Holiday.
Yom HaAztmaut: a day celebrating Israeli independence.
Yom HaShoah: a day of remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust.
Yom Kippur: (alt. Kippuris, Kippurs) Hebrew for “Day of Atonement”; a day of fasting, prayers, and repentance.
Zionism: the movement for the Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Zog: Yiddish for “to say,” ex/ Zog Maftir.