Judaism Glossary Terms


Abraham is the patriarch, acknowledged as the father of the lineage of faith by the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. He is presumed to have lived sometime in the period 2000-1700 BCE. He is the father of Isaac by Sarah (Genesis 12.25), and the “Friend of God” and Father of Ishmael by Hagar (Qur’an 37.83-113), and the exemplar of faith. (Galatians 3-4).


Adam is Hebrew for “human, man.” It is the name given to the first person created by God and as such has an important symbolic role in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.


Angels are a class of supernatural or spiritual beings, imaginatively understood to perform various functions on God’s behalf. Angels are especially described as divine messengers. Angels are common to Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Anti-Defamation League

The Anti-Defamation League is a Jewish organization founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry. Its mission is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.”


Anti-Semitism means literally “opposed to Semites” although it has always referred specifically to Jews. Modern anti-Semitism arose in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, coalescing social, racial, and religious theories that denigrated the Jews. The Nazi campaign to eliminate the Jews from society resulted in the murder of some six million Jews in Nazi death camps; this constituted two-thirds of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe.


Aramaic is the language of the Talmud, and core parts of the liturgy used by Jews to this day. A famous teaching expressing the uniqueness of Aramaic says that even the angels do not understand Aramaic, and so when Jews pray in Aramaic, the prayer goes directly to God.


The ark, or Aron ha-Kodesh (the Holy Ark) in Hebrew, is the holy chest or cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept in a synagogue on the wall facing Jerusalem.


Ashkenazi is an adjective used to refer to the Jewish culture which developed in Germany and Eastern Europe (called Ashkenaz) in contradistinction to Sephardic Judaism, which has its distinctive roots in Spain and the Mediterranean. By extension, it now refers to Jews of Northern and Eastern European background (including Russia) with their distinctive practices and social customs.

bar mitzvah

Bar mitzvah means, literally, “son of the commandment”: a Jewish boy who has achieved the age of 13 and is consequently obligated to observe the commandments. It is also the ceremony in which the boy marks this important rite of passage by reading from the Torah in the synagogue for the first time. The practice was first instituted in the 20th century.

bat mitzvah

Bat mitzvah means, literally, daughter of the commandment: a Jewish girl who has achieved the age of 12 and is consequently obligated to observe the commandments. In non-Orthodox communities it is also the ceremony in which the girl marks this important rite of passage by reading from the Torah in the synagogue for the first time. The practice was first instituted in the 20th century.

beit Midrash

A beit midrash is a Jewish house of study and discussion; in ancient times it was a school of higher learning.


The bimah is the raised area at the front of an Ashkenazi synagogue where the desk for reading the Torah is located.

b’rit milah

B’rit milah is the covenant of circumcision, a ritual in which an eight-day old male baby or a male convert to Judaism is circumcised. It is frequently referred to as a bris.


In Judaism, a cantor or hazzan/chazzan is one who recites, chants, or sings prayers or liturgical passages in the synagogue.

civil religion

Civil religion is a term used to describe the world view, mythic narratives, ethical commitments, ritual enactments, ceremonies, and festivals that shape and give purpose to a civil society and function as a “religion.” The sociologist Robert Bellah writes that the United States has developed a civil religion that serves to unite and inspire the political community.


Clergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism is an American Jewish movement, reacting to early Jewish Reform movements by attempting to retain clearer links to Jewish law and tradition, while at the same time adapting to modern situations. Its scholarly center in the US is the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.


A convent is a religious association and residential home of a religious order, particularly an order of women or nuns; the term is commonly used in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions.


A covenant (or brit) is a mutual promise or compact between two parties. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covenant is of deep significance in describing the mutual relationship of God and the people of faith. The major covenants in Jewish scriptures are God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) and the Sinai/Moses covenant (Exodus 19-24) between God and Israel. For Jews, the covenant is an eternal bond between God and the people of Israel grounded in God’s gracious and steadfast concern, and calling for obedience to the divine commandments (mitzvot) and instruction (torah). Christians often describe the Christ event as constituting a “new covenant” of God made with the followers of Jesus. Since the time of the early church until the present, this theological claim sometimes has been used to justify violence and discrimination against the Jewish people.


Daven is a Yiddish word meaning “to pray”. Davening commonly refers to the traditional Jewish prayer mode involving highly personal rote recital of prayers in a soft voice, often swaying back and forth.

Deuteronomy, Book of

The fifth book of the Humash or Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy (or Dvarim in Hebrew, meaning ‘Words’) is composed of the final speech of Moses’ life, followed by the narration of his death. Deuteronomy contains many retellings of events and laws that appear earlier in the Torah, most notably the Ten Commandments.


A Greek word first used in the Hellenistic period, Diaspora refers to the “dispersion” of Jewish communities living in countries other than Israel. Today, the term "diaspora" (all lowercase) is also used to describe other religious communities, living apart from their land of origin.


Elijah was a 9th century BCE Hebrew prophet and visionary. According to tradition, he did not die but was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2). Elijah’s periodic return to eart. has become part of the rabbinical and mystical Jewish tradition. In the b’rit milah (circumcision) a special chair is designated for Elijah, and at the Passover seder a cup of wine is poured and the door left ajar for him.


Emancipation refers to the new legal equality, granted to Jewish communities by the modern nation-state following the French Revolution.

Exodus, Book of

Exodus (or Shmot, meaning “Names”) is the second book of the Five Books of Moses, or the Humash, which relates the narrative of Moses who led the people of Israel in their “exodus” or escape from slavery in Egypt. Israel’s exodus from Egypt has become a pivotal event of redemption that has shaped the identity and memory of the Jewish people, and has been a powerful narrative of liberation for Christians as well.


The Gemara refers to the second major layer of Jewish commentary on the Torah (Mihsna being the first). The Gemara is the written account of the legal deliberations of the generations known as the Amoraim, who lived approximately from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Stylistically, the Gemara is a commentary that dissects the Mishna line-by-line, elaborating on the terse prose of the Mishna to draw out contemporary concerns touching on almost any aspect of life imaginable.

Genesis, Book of

The first book of the Humash or Five Books of Moses, Genesis (or Bereishit, meaning ‘In the Beginning’) details the Jewish understanding of the creation of the universe, from the seven days of creation, through the Garden of Eden, ending with the events of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt (the fathers of the Twelve Tribes).


A ghetto is a part of a city or town where Jews lived, segregated from others. The name comes from the foundry area in Venice where Jews were forced to live in 1526 and came to be used for all such areas of segregation, often forcible segregation.


Haftarah is the selection of reading from the Prophets, following the reading from the Torah in the liturgy of the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays.


The Haggadah is the book containing the Passover seder service, retelling the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.
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