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Note: The following definitions are based on both Bluethread's general knowledge and on material in many reference works.

Aliyah Hebrew Word = A-L-Y-H "Going up" or "ascent." (plural: aliyot) 1. Going up to Jerusalem, either locally, by ascending the hill on which the city is located, from the plains below or from the lowlands of Egypt, or by extension, by going on a (pilgrimage) to the Holy Land from abroad. 2. In the synagogue, the privilege (honor) of being called up to the dais ("bima") for the weekly reading of the Torah. 3. Less commonly, in post-Biblical writings, ascent to Heaven.

Amalek (plural: Amalekites) The name of the leader of an ancient nomadic people and, by extension, the name of the people themselves. Amalek is mentioned three times in Torah (Gen. 36:12, Exod. 17:16 and Deut. 25:17-19) and several other times in the rest of Tanakh. Rabbinic literature has focused on Amalek as the archetypal enemy of the Israelites. See also Shabbat Zakhor.

Amateur From the Latin "amator:" lover, devoted friend, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.

B.C.E., C.E. "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era". Conventional usage among Jewish authors when referring to dates, to avoid the terms B.C.and A.D. and their Christian connotations.

Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah "Son / daughter of (i.e., offspring belonging to) commandment." A youth who has reached the age of thirteen (for girls, sometimes twelve), the age of religious majority at which one is responsible for one's actions and keeping the precepts of the Torah. By extension, the synagogue ceremony in which the youth first reads from the Torah. (Although in Orthodox congregations women may not read from the Torah, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony is sometimes observed by a weekday recitation of appropriate scriptural passages and prayers.) (Note: "son" in Hebrew is "ben", but "bar" is Aramaic, the everyday language of the area around the Holy Land from the first century C.E. onwards.)

Bowdlerize To expurgate a book. After Thomas Bowdler, an English physician (1754-1825) who published editions of Shakespeare and others in which he removed "those words and expressions ... which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family".

C.E. see B.C.E.

Chanukah "dedication" The minor winter festival celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus in the 2nd cent. BCE as recounted in the apocryphal books, I and II Macc. Observance includes cumulatively lighting candles or oil wicks in a eight-branched candelabra, known as a Chanukkiah, on eight consecutive nights; a ninth candle or wick, the "Shamash" (servant), is used to light the others.

Chanukiah (pl.: chanukiyyot): The eight-branched candelabrum (or "menorah") used at Chanukkah.

Chumash "Five (books)" (i.e., Pentateuch). A one-volume edition of the Torah together with the Haftarah, convenient for synagogue services. Sometimes includes English translation and explanatory notes.

Chuqqim Biblical Hebrew root: "to survey." Sifra: "the duties that are followed." According to Maimonides, unlike Mishpatim, commandments which have a reasonable explanation, Chuqqim are the commandments which seem to be unconnected to ordinary reason, and therefore need to be followed just for the sake of obedience. (GUIDE FOR THE PURPLEXED, 3: 26)

Conservative Judaism The stream of Jewish life and thought that occupies the middle ground between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism. Began in America in the late 19th century, partially as a response to the excesses of some American Reform Judaism practices of the time.

Dead Sea Scrolls Parchment and papyrus texts of parts of the Tanakh and other documents of an Essene community, active 150 B.C.E.-70 C.E., which was located on the coast of the Dead Sea. Also referred to as Qumran, the short name of the site (Khirbet Qumran).

Diaspora Jews dwelling of outside of the land of Israel who felt themselves to be in exile. (Heb. "galut").

Drash or Drosh see Midrash

Enlightenment The movement, beginning in 18th- century Germany, to broaden the intellectual and social horizons of the Jews to enable them to take their place in Western society. Commonly referred to by the Hebrew term "Haskalah" (related to "intellect"), with its attitude of attraction to general knowledge, secular learning and Western culture.

Ephod A kind of apron worn by the High Priest, to which was fastened the "choshen", the breastplate of judgment containing the oracular Urim and Thummin (cf. Ex. 28:6ff, 39:2-5).

Etz Ha-Da'at "Tree of Knowledge" and Etz Chaim "Tree of Life" Two trees mentioned as having been planted by God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9) Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life (Gen: 3:22-23)

Fleishik "Fleshy" Any food which contains meat or meat by-products or derivatives.

Galut see Diaspora

Haftarah "Conclusion." (pl.: haftarot) The scriptural readings from the prophets that follow the weekly Torah readings.

Halakhah Hebrew Word = H-L-CH "Going" or "walking". The legal side of Judaism, concerned with the rules and regulations by which the Jew 'walks' through life. The line of transmission is from God to Moses (in the Torah), through the prophets, through the men of the Great Assembly, the Talmudic Rabbis and the Talmudic literature, down to several medieval codes. Halakhah is contrasted to Aggadah, which deals with non-legal ideas such as history, ethics, popular proverbs and folklore.

I Ching Ancient Chinese book describing all nature and human endeavor in terms of the interaction of yin and yang; the book may be consulted as an oracle.

Kanaph Hebrew Word = CH-N-F Corner or extremity, perhaps of a garment. Also means wing.

Kethuvim "Writings". The third of the Tanakh that includes the non-prophetic and non-Torah books.

Knesset The legislative body of the modern state of Israel

Masorah "Transmission". The Masoretic text is the traditionally correct text of the Hebrew Bible established by the group of scholars known as the Masoretes. Their activity extended from c500-930 C.E. During this period they:

  • examined many biblical manuscripts and decided which of the texts were the most accurate;
  • created a system of vowel annotations or pointing and applied it to the text, which previously used only consonants; and
  • standardized the system of trope symbols and applied it to the text to indicate word and phrase stresses and cantillation.

Megillah "Scroll." (pl.: megillot) Written text on papyrus or parchment sheets stitched end-to-end and rolled onto a stave, used prior to development of codexes (separate leaves or pages bound together as are today's books). "Megillot" commonly refers to the five short books, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, each of which may be read in one sitting at specified times in the liturgical year. "The Megillah" usually refers to the Book of Esther, read at Purim, and often kept as a separate scroll in a case with elegant ornamentation. (Note that the Torah, although technically a scroll rolled onto staves at each end, is not thought of as a "megillah".)

Mezuzah "Door-post". (plural: mezuzot) The parchment scrip containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and (as prescribed by those verses) fastened to the door-posts of the house, in a decorated case.

Mi She-Berach "He who blessed". Opening words of the synagogal prayer in which God's blessing is requested for any individual(s), especially for the sick.

Midrash "Inquire" or "investigate". ("Drash" or "Drosh" are shorter ways of saying the same thing.) Commentaries on the Torah and all subsequent related writings and interpretations. A tradition from the earliest times to the present. (The phrase, "The Midrash", refers to commentary in the Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentaries on the five books of the Torah and the five books ("scrolls" or megillot) of the Kethuvim (Writings) annually read in the synagogue (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther).

Milchik "Milky" Any food which is or contains milk or any product derived from a milk substance.

Mishpatim "Judgments" or "Laws" While mishpatim in general can mean any laws, Maimonides uses it to refer to those commandments whose purpose is generally evident, as distinguished from chuqqim, those commandments who purpose is unknown. (GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, 3: 26)

Mitzvah "Commandment". (plural: mitzvot) Precept found in (or based on) the Torah. When used in Yiddish, "mitzvah" means any good deed.

Mishnah "Teaching". A digest of rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, compiled ca. 200 C.E.

More'et Ayin (or, Mashim More'et Ayin) Rabinnic maxim that one should avoid doing things that appear wrong.

Ner Tamid "Eternal Lamp" (Exo. 27: 20-21 and Lev. 24:2) A continually burning lamp that was to be placed in the Tent of Meeting and later in the Temple.

Nevi'im "Prophets". The third of the Tanakh that comprehends the prophetic books.

Oral Law All the teachings of the sages and teachers of Israel that complement the written Torah. Also known as "Oral Torah". Two major repositories of Oral Law are the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Orthodox Judaism The stream of Jewish life and thought which accepts without reservation that the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, and that the practices of Judaism in Halakhah and Talmud are to be strictly observed.

Parashah "Division", "section", "portion" (writing). (pl. Parashiyyot ) The weekly reading from the 54 parashiyyot into which the Torah was divided in Babylonia, for purposes of an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah. The name of each is taken from the first significant word(s) of the portion. (The 54-parashiyyot cycle replaced an earlier Palestinian triennial cycle that divided the text into 150 sedarim (sing.: sidra, "order" or "section" of the Torah). However, according to J.H. Hertz, Authorized Daily Prayer Book, rev. ed., London, 1946, N.Y., 1961, p. 471): "the virile and enthusiastic Jewry of Babylon concluded the Torah in the course of one year. Eventually this became the established rule...")

Passover. See Pesach.

Pesach "Paschal lamb sacrifice" Usually means the springtime Passover festival decreed in Ex. 12:1-8 and elsewhere to mark the Exodus from Egypt.

Pilgrimage festivals. The three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) at which all males were to make a pilgrimage to the Temple

Pilpul "Search, Debate" The process of dialectical reasoning applied in the study of Jewish law.

Pirke Avot "Sayings / Chapters / Ethics of the Fathers". Moral sayings by early rabbis (ca. 300 B.C. E. - 200 C.E.), typically on observance of the commandments. Pirke Avot is the most widely known of the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah (and by extension, the Talmud). Widely available as a separate publication under a great variety of names (e.g, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages).

Purim "lots," after the lots cast by Haman in the Book of Esther, to determine the date he would destroy the Jews. A minor festival commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from the plot of Haman. Traditional observance includes reading the Megillah (i.e., the Book of Esther), together with raucous merrymaking.

Reform Judaism The stream of Jewish life and thought that aims at reinterpreting (or "reforming") Judaism in the light of Western thought, values and culture, where such a reinterpretation does not come into conflict with Judaism's basic principles. Reform Judaim arose in early nineteenth-century Germany, spread to Western Europe and England, and then to America.

Ruach Hebrew Word = R-U-CH "Breath, wind, spirit "("spirit" either in the sense of soul or of energy).

Septuagint "Seventy" The earliest Greek translation of the Torah (c.250 B.C.E.). Later included the remainder of the Tanakh and the Apocrypha.

Shabbat "Sabbath," "rest" The weekly day of rest prescribed in the fourth commandment, observed from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday. Also, certain other defined periods during which specified work may not be performed.

Shabbat Zakhor "Sabbath of Rememberence" One of four special sabbaths between the end of the month of Shevat and the month of Nissan.  Shabbat Zakhor, the sabbath before Purim, fulfulls the admonition stated in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 to "remember what Amalek did to you."

Sha'atnez Hebrew Word = Sh-A-T-M-Z "Mixture of two kinds of material", forbidden for garments (Lev.19:19, Deut. 22:11).

Shavuot "weeks". The Festival of Weeks named in Ex. 34:22 and Deut. 16:16, celebrated seven weeks and a day (i.e., fifty days) after Pesach. Christian texts use "Pentecost" (fifty) for this festival. Rabbinnic tradition observes Shavuot as the time of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Shechinah "indwelling" Divine presence, holy inspiration. In mystical literature, the feminine aspect of God.

Shehechiyanu "Who has kept us alive" (to reach this season), a blessing appropriate for any festive gathering, and traditionally recited on the first day of Chanukah and at the reading of the Esther scroll at Purim.

She'ma "Hear!", the first word of the Jewish declaration of faith, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (or, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone).' (Deut. 6:4). Includes the paragraph containing that verse, the verses which begin "it shall come to pass" (Deut.11:13-21), and the verses regarding tzitzit (Nu. 15:37-41). In the liturgy, the She'ma is preceded and followed by prescribed blessings.

Siddur Prayerbook. Lit., "Arrangement (of service)".

Sifra One of the earliest commentaries on Leviticus, written in the early 3rd century C.E.

Sukkot "booths" The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles

Ta'amey ha-mitzvot "Reasons for the commandments." A body of literature exploring explanations for why a commandment or set of commandments were given.

Tallit "Cover, sheet, cloak". (plural: tallitot) Generally, the prayer shawl with tzitzit on its corners. Another garment with tzitzit on its corners, worn under outer garments, is a kind of vest called the tallit katan ('small tallit') or arba kanfot ('four corners').

Talmud "Study", "teaching". An extensive running commentary on the Mishnah. The Palestinian Talmud ("Yerushalmi"), ca. 400 C.E., reflects discussions among scholars who remained there; the Babylonian Talmud ("Bavli"), ca. 500 C.E., those of scholars there. The Talmud is sometimes known as the Gemara, a term also used to refer to the Yerushalmi or Bavli commentaries themselves as distinguished from the Mishnah, the compilation on which the commentaries are made.

Tanakh An acronym (T-N-K) for the Hebrew Bible, from the names of its three major divisions: Torah (The Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings).

Tefillin The cube-shaped black leather boxes, containing four scriptural passages, attached to the head and arm and worn during the morning prayers. Possible etymology may be "attachments" (to the body) or "distinguishing" (Jew from Gentile).

Temple The great building in Jerusalem, in which sacrifices were offered to God. The First Temple was built by King Solomon (cf. I Kings). It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. and the Israelites exiled to Babylonia. When they returned, they began construction of the Second Temple in 515 B.C.E. In 20 B.C.E., Herod remodeled and greatly enlarged the Second Temple. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

Tent of meeting The portable sanctuary or tabernacle, used by the Hebrews in the Wilderness. Its design is recounted in Exodus 25-27 and 35-38.

Tisha b'Av "Ninth of (the month of) Av". The fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and other calamities in Jewish history.

Torah "Teaching". The first five books of the Hebrew Scripture (Bible), also referred to as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. (The word "Torah" can mean "law" when referring to required practices.)

Tzedakah "Righteousness" More commonly in recent times it is defined as "Charity."

Tzitzit Hebrew word = Tzitzit"Tassel" or "lock of hair". The fringes the Israelites were commanded to put in the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38).

Vulgate "Popular, Common." The earliest (c.400-550 C.E.) complete Latin bible recognized by the Catholic Church. It includes the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible and Apocrypha.

Western Wall ("Ha-Kotel" (the Wall)). Remaining part of the retaining wall built late in the 1st cent. BCE around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (i.e., not part of the Temple itself, but relating to the ground upon which the Temple was constructed). Early references may have been to the actual Western Wall of the Temple itself, the end where the holy of holies was situated. (Jacobs, Louis, THE JEWISH RELIGION, p. 585.)

Written Law The written Torah, as contrasted to the Oral Law (Oral Torah).

Zionism The movement that arose at the end of the 19th century with the aim of establishing a homeland for Jews in (then) Palestine.





A note on translations



© Rosemarie E. Falanga, Cy H. Silver