This page is for the folks who may not be Jewish, but would sure like to know what all those Hebrew phrases (and some English jargon) mean without having to go search the Web for them. So, here’s what I’ve used so far and what they mean. More will be added as necessary. If I’m missing one, let me know and I’ll add.
Aliyah: This has two meanings. The first is being asked to say a prayer in synagogue services. The second is the right of all Jews to go to Israel.
Ark: The ornamental cabinet which holds the Torah scrolls in a temple or synagogue.
Ashkenazi: Jews who originally settled in Eastern Europe after the original Diaspora from the Holy Land.
Baal teshuva: A person who was born a secular Jew and has since taken up Judaism as a religious practice.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Literally, a son or daughter of the commandments. A Jewish person is bar/bat mitzvah on their 13th birthday. The celebration that is often called a “bar mitzvah” or a “bat mitzvah” is a misnomer; it refers to the person, not the celebration. Plural: b’nei mitzvah. This is the initial age of religious adulthood in Judaism.
Bimah: The stage where the rabbi, cantor, and any other speakers stand to conduct services in a synagogue.
Bracha (plural: brachot): Blessings, typically over meals. See also: Hagafen, Ha-adamah, Ha-eitz, Hamotzi, and Shehakol.
Challah: A braided bread used on Shabbat and at other holidays and festivals.
Chametz or hametz: Leavened bread products made of any one or a combination of the five grains of wheat, oats, spelt, barley and rye. Homes should be chametz-free during Pesach. See also: matzah.
Cantor: The person who leads the congregation in singing prayers during services.
Daven: to pray. Specifically, praying using the rocking motion that is used to express deep emotion during prayer.
Diaspora: The spreading of Jews around the world after the various persecutions and pogroms, and those Jews who still live outside of Israel today.
Drash: Short for “midrash,” it means commentary on some part of the Hebrew scriptures. See also d’var Torah.
D’var Torah: Literally, “word of Torah.” Usually refers to explication of something in the Torah in more detail than it’s expressed in the Torah itself. See also drash.
Gabbai: The person who organizes the temple for services.
Gemilut chasadim: Acts of loving-kindness.
Ger: Stranger. Used to refer to converts before they have finished conversion. Plural: gerim.
Goy: Non-Jew. The plural, goyim, means “Nations.” It is not intended as a slur towards non-Jews.
Ha-adamah: Prayer over vegetables and “fruit of the ground” during mealtimes. This includes potatoes, berries, and watermelon.
Ha-eitz: Prayer over most fruit – as long as it grew from a tree and has a stem.
Haftarah: The part of the Tanakh that is not the Torah.
Hagafen: Prayer over wine.
Hagah: Meditation or contemplation. I am using this word for some of my entries that are aimed at sorting out what I believe about Judaism.
Haggadah: The order of prayers used at a Passover seder.
Halacha/Halakha: Jewish law.
Hamotzi: Prayer over bread made from the five grains during Shabbat and other ceremonial mealtimes.
Haredi: The ultra-Orthodox who currently control religious practices in Israel.
HaShem: “The Name.” One of the terms used to refer to G-d.
Kaddish: Prayer said for the dead.
Kashrut: Hebrew for “kosher,” meaning adherence to the Jewish dietary laws.
Kavanah: Spontaneity, the feeling of being spirit-filled. The opposite of keva.
Keva: The expected routine of knowing and saying the set prayers in the siddur and other works. The opposite of kavanah.
Kiddush: Prayer said over wine, at Shabbat and other ceremonial meals. Normally there is a special cup reserved for saying Kiddush, called (naturally) a Kiddush cup.
Kippah (plural: kippot): The Hebrew term for the small, round cap that many Jewish men (and some women) wear. The Yiddish term for it is yarmulke.
Kodesh: Holy or sanctified.
Kol Yisrael: The Jewish people.
L’chayim!: “To life!” A toast to good fortune.
Ladino: A creole of Spanish and Hebrew spoken by Diaspora Sephardim.
Lashon hara: Literally, “The bad/evil tongue.” Gossip, or saying things about someone when it would be better not to, even if they’re true.
Nu?: Yiddish for “Right?” or sometimes “Why?”
Matzah (plural: matzo): The unleavened bread eaten during the eight days of Pesach.
Mazel tov!: Literally, “Good luck,” but usually used to mean “Congratulations.”
Mezuzah: A small case containing a few verses of the Torah, which is placed on the doorposts of many Jewish homes.
Mikveh: The ceremonial pool used for conversion ceremonies and for women who follow Orthodox practices regarding menstruation.
Minhag: A long-standing custom or tradition. Compare to mitzvah.
Minyan: Ten adult Jews (in Orthodox Judaism, ten male Jews); required for saying certain prayers at Shabbat services.
Mishegaas: Yiddish for “nonsense.”
Mitzvah (plural: mitzvot): Alternately understood as either “commandment” or “good deed.” The Torah lists 613 of these, many of which can no longer be achieved because the Jerusalem Temple is destroyed and they relate directly to Temple practice. Compare to minhag.
Mogen David: Also known as the “star of David.”
Neshama: Spirit or soul.
Oneg: After-Shabbat get-together/social hour involving a bit of food and drink.
Parshah: Portion. A reference to the Torah reading of the liturgical week. Torah parshot are named, and usually consist of two to four chapters of the Torah.
Pesach: Passover, which celebrates the release of Jews from slavery in Egypt. Very important holiday.
Pikuach nefesh: The doctrine that says that all laws and mitzvot (except three) may be put in abeyance to preserve life and health. (The three that can’t are murder, rape, or idolatry – which includes denying the existence of G-d.)
Rabbi: Literally, “teacher.” Usually the head of a synagogue.
Rosh Chodesh: “The head of the month.” A greeting used by Jews to greet a new month/new moon, such as “Rosh Chodesh Sivan!”
Seder: Any celebratory meal, but most commonly used for the ceremonial meal that is held during Pesach.
Sephardic/Sephardim: Jews that lived in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, who were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Some of these ended up in Ireland and Scotland; others ended up in South America.
Shabbat: Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, local time. A day of rest. On Shabbat, Jews are not supposed to do work. What “work” means varies depending on the Jewish movement interpretation of halacha.
Shalom: Peace. A common greeting in Hebrew.
Shavuot: Jewish celebration of the receipt of the Torah from G-d at Sinai, celebrated on the 6th of Sivan every year.
Shehakol: Prayer over any food that isn’t included in the other four brachot.
Shehecheyanu: A prayer typically said for “firsts,” both the first-ever and the first thing each year. For example, I said the shehecheyanu when I put on my Mogen David and my kippah for the first time. Also said for other important firsts and occasions such as the birth or bris of a child, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.
Shomer Shabbat: A reference to the Orthodox method of observing Shabbat.
Siddur: Prayer book. Some siddurim have English translations and Hebrew transliterations, and some are entirely in Hebrew.
Simcha: Celebration, normally with food and drink, held after life-cycle events.
Siyachot: Conversations. I’m using this section of my blog to answer questions or discuss conversations that I’m having with people in venues other than my blog (for example, on message boards or in social media like Facebook).
Synagogue (also shul and temple): The building where Jews meet for prayer. The use of the term tends to depend on which movement you are part of: Orthodox Jews tend to say shul, while Conservative Jews say synagogue and Reform Jews say temple.
Tefillin: Either “prayers,” or the leather boxes and straps that Jews wear to say morning prayers.
Tallit (plural: tallitot). The prayer shawl that many Jews wear during prayer services and private prayer.
Tallit katan: A simple shirt that has the tzitzit on it, normally worn under an overshirt so that the tzitzit show below the hem of the overshirt.
Talmud: When used without a descriptor, it refers to the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of sections of rabbinic writings (called tractates) about the Torah and Tanakh that compose most of Jewish law. The other Talmud is the Jerusalem Talmud.
Tanakh: The Hebrew Bible. Tanakh is a transliteration of the first Hebrew letter of the three groups of books: Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).
Teshuva: To return.
Tikkun leil Shavuot: The practice of staying up all night on the first night of Shavuot to have a Torah study session.
Tikkun olam: The Jewish doctrine of “heal/repair the world,” normally achieved by carrying out mitzvot.
Torah: The first five books of what non-Jews call the “Old Testament.”
Tzitzit: “Fringes,” which are tied in a specific way on the corners of tallitot.
Yasher koach: “Good for you.”
Yarzheit: The anniversary of a loved one’s death, normally observed by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and lighting a memorial candle.
Yiddish: A creole of Hebrew and German that is often used by Ashkenazi Jews.
Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement. One of the most solemn days of the Hebrew calendar, and the last of the ten Days of Awe in the fall.
As far as months, they do not correspond exactly to the Gregorian calendar, because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, so I’m not going to translate those, okay? I’m just going to use them.
Finally, here’s a bit of commentary on the slightly-misleading names of the different movements of Judaism:
Reconstructionist Jews are on the very left side of liberalism.
Reform Jews might be termed progressive or liberal.
Conservative Jews are actually more like moderate liberals.
Modern Orthodox Jews are conservative, and slow to change.
Orthodox/Haredi/Chasidic Jews are generally extremely resistant to any change at all, and are sometimes referred to as “ultra-Orthodox.”