Glossary Of Jewish Terms
bar mitzvah : a special ceremony for young boys that marks their transition from child to man in the eyes of Jewish law. It usually takes place during the boy's 13th year. The child will read passages from the Torah during a service at the synagogue, and during a party afterwards will receive presents to celebrate his maturity.
bat mitzvah : a special ceremony for girls that is the equivalent of a bar mitzvah. It usually takes place during the 12th year, and is usually only found in Reform and Liberal/Progressive communities, although some more Orthodox groups are beginning to adopt it too.
brit milah : the formal name for the circumcision ceremony that takes place eight days after birth for boys. It marks the initiation of the newborn into the Covenant between G-d and His people, the Jews. It is not a medical procedure but a religious one, and is carried out by a mohel at the family's home. If the child is sickly when born, or premature, then this ceremony may be delayed until a doctor gives the all-clear.
chevra kaddisha : the Jewish burial society. Each Jewish community will have a group of volunteers that prepare a body for burial. They do so because bodies are seen as unclean because of their non-living status. The volunteers are usually very devout and well respected, and treat the body with great care. They will collect a body from the hospital as soon as possible after death in order to give it a speedy burial.
circumcision : the removal of the foreskin from the penis as a mark of the Covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. It is usually carried out eight days after the birth of a baby boy by a highly trained mohel.
Covenant : the agreement between G-d and the Jewish people that was laid down in the time of the Patriarchs, especially Abraham. The essence of it is that G-d will always look after His people as long as they obey His laws, and the sign of this will be the circumcision of all men.
G-d : it is forbidden for a Jew to write the name of God in such a way that destruction of the paper (or other medium) will also destroy the word. For this reason, G-d is usually used as an alternative. As the status of this ruling with regard to web pages is not yet established, this site uses G-d wherever possible so as not to cause offence.
goses : a person who is poised between life and death. At this point, nothing may be done – no matter how insignificant – to hasten or delay their death.
halakha/halakhah : the legal system of Judaism that interprets the laws laid down in the Torah into everyday law. It is based on extensive debate among rabbinical scholars, who draw on the Torah, Talmud and other sources as well as real-life examples to try and guide the Jewish people through normal, ever-changing life and society while still adhering to the will of G-d.
halakhic : relating to Jewish law or halakha. If something is a halakhic requirement, then it is a part of Jewish law. Halakha is derived from the Torah and other sources, but debate by rabbis among themselves can alter halakha in the face of new circumstances.
hecksher : the label that can be found on certifiably kosher foods, similar to the vegetarian mark. There are several different heckshers, but they all denote kosher status.
Jew, Jews : people who practise any aspect of the Jewish way of life, or those who are not observant Jews but are descended from Jewish families.
Jewish : relating to someone or something that is part of the Jewish tradition and nation, including behaviour, language and food.
Judaism : everything that is Jewish.
kadish/kaddish : this translates literally as 'to make holy' and is a spoken or sung prayer used for sanctification. It is used during services on the Sabbath at the synagogue, and is also used during the funeral service.
kappah/kippah : an alternative name for the skullcap worn by some observant Jews when they go outside their house or into the synagogue. It shows proper modesty, and reminds them that G-d is above them.
kashrut : the rules relating to diet for Jews. The kashrut includes rules on what food is kosher and what is not, as well as many other rules about utensils, animal welfare and slaughter, and even dishwasher use.
kosher : food that is permissible to eat according to kashrut, such as fruit, and meat from cloven-hoofed cud-chewing animals.
Liberal : another name for Jews who hold to the Progressive ideas, allowing alterations to the practice of Judaism but adhering to the spirit of the Torah. This is the latest movement to arise out of the Reform movement of the early nineteenth century. Liberal Jews believe that faith and sincerity of heart are of more importance that empty ritual, and so have begun to adapt and revise traditional ceremonies and services to reflect this.
mikveh : the ritual bath found in synagogues where purification ceremonies take place. A woman visits the mikveh to cleanse herself after birth or menstruation, allowing her to become 'clean' again.
minyan : in order for a service to be held at the synagogue or anywhere else, a minimum of ten men are needed to make a congregation for proper prayer. Reform and other Progressive communities may include women among the number; Orthodox communities will only count men. The minimum group of ten is called a minyan.
mitzvah (mitzvot plural) : the name for each of the commandments found in the Torah. There are 613 mitzvot covering everything from rules for behaviour on the Sabbath, to diet, relations with other people and dress.
mohel : the specially trained Jewish person who carries out circumcision on newborn baby boys.
niddah : the state of uncleanliness of a person. It can be caused by various things; women are niddah for the duration of their period and until their immersion in the mikveh seven days later. A woman giving birth is also niddah, and Orthodox husbands might not feel able to touch her because of this status. Anyone who has touched a dead body is niddah until they have washed and blessed themselves. The state of niddah has more to do with spiritual rather than physical uncleanliness, and more to do with external contamination of the self by outside environments and influences than internal corruption or sinning.
Observant : those Jews who actively practice Judaism, leading a life according to the mitzvoh. This includes preparing kosher meals in a kosher kitchen, observance of purification rituals such as after menstruation and circumcision and teaching of children.
Orthodox : this branch of Jews emphasise the unchanging, eternal and all-encompassing nature of the Torah, and so abide by a strict and literal reading of the laws it contains.
parve : the name given to foodstuffs that are not specifically mentioned as being kosher or non-kosher, but have a neutral status – such as plants. Food that is parve can be eaten with milk or meat, or on its own with no restrictions.
Progressive : this is an umbrella term used to collectively describe those Jewish factions across the world that hold to the idea of adapting the letter of the Torah to modern times while retaining the spirit of their faith. The Progressive label can be applied to both Liberal and Reform Jews. The Reform movement began in the early nineteenth century as an attempt to bring Judaism in line with modern social and legal values. The Liberal movement grew out of the Reform movement in the USA and Germany. Liberal Jews believe that rituals and practice are not as necessary as a true heart and solid belief, and went on to adapt and reform many of the traditional services in the synagogue to reflect this.
rabbi : a scholar in the Jewish community who often leads ceremonies for his community, acts as a source of advice and interprets the halakha for those in need. He teaches the Torah and other books to the young, and is part of a long tradition of keeping the law and practice of Judaism alive. Most rabbis are male, but female rabbis are becoming more common in Liberal and Progressive communities.
Reform : a relatively recent branch of Judaism that accepts the Torah as the word of G-d, but unlike the Orthodox Jewish community, feels that it is not faultless or eternal. The Torah was written down by humans living a long time ago and therefore is an interpretation of G-d's word through flawed vessels. They attempt to follow the spirit of the Torah while accepting that the letter of the law may change according to changes in society.
shabbat : the Jewish name for the Sabbath. This begins at sunset on Friday and ends after sunset on Saturday. It celebrates the seventh day when G-d rested after making the world, and is a day of rest for Jews too. There are many restrictions on work that can or cannot be done during the sabbath, and rituals such as the lighting of candles, sharing of meals and prayer in the synagogue help to make this a day for celebrating family and community ties.
shiva : after a death in the family and once the funeral is over, the mourners 'sit shiva' for seven days at home. During this period, they sit on the floor and do not cook meals or carry out any of their community or work responsibilities. It is a period of intense mourning when other family members and close friends visit with gifts of food to help the family remember and mourn the dead.
synagogue : often the heart of a Jewish community, this is a centre not just for worship, but also a place where people come to meet each other, sit quietly and pray, and where children come to learn the Torah and other important lessons.
tahara : the ritual washing and preparation of a body after death, ready for a Jewish burial. It is usually carried out by the chevra kaddisha, the Jewish burial society.
tallit : the prayer shawl worn by men when they pray in the synagogue. It is traditionally white with blue edges.
Talmud : the second most important book in the Jewish community. It contains several sources for Jewish law.
tefillin : small black leather boxes that are bound to the forehead and arm by men during morning prayer. They contain passages from the Bible, and act to remind the wearer to think of G-d and to act by G-d's laws.
Torah : the pre-eminent source of Jewish laws and the source of all 613 mitzvoh. It is essentially the first five books of the Bible and can literally be translated as 'teacher'. It was given to Moses directly by G-d and so is considered to be the Word of G-d.
trefa : non-kosher foods such as shellfish, pork, and mixed meat and dairy products.
tzizit : the fringes on the corners of the tallit. They are made with 613 knots, reminding the wearer of the 613 mitzvoh that he has to uphold. Some Orthodox men may wear the fringes separately under their clothes as an extra reminder to be pious at all times.
ultra-Orthodox : while the Orthodox community regard themselves as being the closest living representatives of Judaism ass practised by the first children of Israel, Ultra-orthodox (may also be known as Hasidic or Haredim) Jews go further by tending to reject most modern additions not just to Jewish law, but also to their life. Ultra orthodox Jews dress in a very distinctive way, with the men wearing long side curls, a kappah and hat, and long black coats, while the women do not go outside without wearing a headscarf. Many Hasidic or Haredim communities can be traced back to medieval Eastern Europe, where an appreciation of the mystical Jewish texts and teachings collectively called the Kabbalah became a feature of the group.
vidui : the ritual of confession before death. A rabbi will attend the dying person, and together they will recite prayers and discuss any sins the individual wishes to confess. Often other members of the family may be present as witnesses.
yamulkah : another name for the skullcap worn by men when they step inside the synagogue or read the Torah. It is often worn by Orthodox Jews at all times to remind them of the presence of G-d.
Yom Kippur : this is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar, and the culmination of the festivals of New Year. It is one of the Yamin Noraim (Days of Awe), held each year around the beginning of October. Yom Kippur translates roughly as 'Day of Atonement' and is the day when all sins are recalled, repented of and forgiveness sought from G-d and each other. No work can be done and a 25 hour fast is observed. The day is a 'super-Sabbath' with similar restrictions to a Sabbath, and special rituals, prayers and devotions to be made.
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