Glossary of Terms

Aliyah - [literally, “ascent”] ceremony of being called upon to recite a blessing over the reading of a portion of the Torah during services. Getting an aliyah is a great honour; men often pay money in order to be called up to the Torah. This money usually goes to charity or to synagogue funds. Also, aliyah can refer to moving to Israel, i.e. “to make aliyah”.

Alter Heim - Yiddish for ‘old country’, a term used by immigrants to refer to their communities in Eastern Europe

Aron Kodesh - [literally, “holy cabinet”] ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept

Ashkenaz - refers to the traditions of Jews originating from countries in Eastern Europe, as opposed to Sefarad.

Aufruf / Ofruf - ceremony in which a husband-to-be is called up to the Torah readings (see Aliyah) on the Sabbath before his wedding

Bais-Oilom - Jewish cemetery

Bar-Mitzvah (pl. Bnei-Mitzvah) - A ceremony for boys who reach the age of 13 in which they read from the Torah on the Sabbath falling closest to their Hebrew birthday. (Judaism follows a lunar calendar.) At this age, boys are considered accountable for their own actions and have higher responsibilities to God. Girls reach this level of responsibility at the age of 12, in what is called a Bat-Mitzvah. However, according to Orthodox tradition, girls do not read from the Torah.

Bimah - raised platform that faces the ark where the prayers and Torah reading are led.

Bris, Bris Milah (pl. Bris Milot) - [literally, “contract or agreement of birth”] circumcision ceremony that takes place 8 days after the birth of a Jewish boy.

Chai - [literally, “alive”] In Hebrew, the word is made up of two letters, one of which has a value of 10, the other a value of 8, together making 18. For this reason, 18 is a number of significance in Jewish traditions.

Chanukah - This holiday is celebrated in December and commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was defiled by the Selucid Greeks. Families light menoras or chanukias each night and recite the traditional blessing. Another tradition is to eat ladkes and doughnuts, play dreidel games and open up presents each night of the holiday.

Cheder - [literally, “room”] one-room Hebrew school.

Chevra Kaddisha - [literally, “holy society”] The burial society, or Chevra Kaddisha, is responsible for taking care of a dead body until it is buried. Responsibilities include washing and guarding the body, dressing it in shrouds, assisting in the rituals involved in the burial, arranging a mourning service, etc. The Chevra is usually composed of volunteers from the community. Being part of the Chevra Kaddisha is considered one of the holiest deeds, as there is no expectation of reward or thanks.

Davening - Yiddish for ‘praying’; can be used as a noun to mean ‘services’.

Gabbai - treasurer of the synagogue. The Gabbai was entrusted with the responsibility of collecting funds for charity from congregants.

Halakhah / Halacha - [literally, “path of walking”] the laws of the oral Torah.

Hallel - [literally, “praise”] prayer composed of different Psalms that is recited on the first day of new months and on certain holidays.

Haymishe - A Yiddish term meaning a warm, homey, friendly type of place.

Hesed / Chesed - goodness, well-meaning.

High Holidays - The holidays of Rosh Hashannah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when Jews must humble themselves before God and ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings.

Huppa - a canopy that is created when a cloth is suspended over the couple during a wedding ceremony.

Kashrut - Jewish dietary laws, the act of keeping Kosher.

Keter Torah - [literally, “Torah crown”] ornamentation (usually silver) that is placed on the top of the Torah scroll while it is not being read.

Kiddush ­- [from the Hebrew root meaning “holy”] the blessing over the wine. Often after morning services conclude on the Sabbath, the congregation will say Kiddush together and enjoy deserts or snacks.

Landsmenshaft- connection felt between people originating from the same town or region after immigrating to a new country. Landsmen - people originating from the same town or region.

Magen David - [literally, “shield of David”] refers to the six-pointed star of David.

Mikvah - ritual bath.

Minyan - In an Orthodox congregation, at least 10 men over the age of Bar Mitzvah (13) are required in order to form a congregation to begin services. This group is called a minyan.

Moess Chittin - [literally, “wheat money”] extra charity given before Passover to ensure that poorer Jews can afford to celebrate the holiday according to Jewish law.

Mitzvah (pl. Mitzvot) - action commanded by God, therefore, also commonly known as a “good deed”.

M’laveh Malkah - festivities that occur after the Sabbath ends as a way of saying farewell to the Sabbath - usually includes a meal, speeches, and songs.

Nusach - edition, according to the tradition of… (Ashkenaz or Sefarad) - usually in reference to siddurim.

Orthodox Judaism - a stream of Jewish observance that strictly obeys the traditional rabbinical interpretations of the written and oral law as outlined in the Talmud. Other streams have appeared during the late-eighteenth and twentieth century such as Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist. Each of these streams has a different interpretation of the role of the written and oral law in terms of what a Jew is obligated to observe.

Parochet - embroidered cloth, or curtain, hung on the front of the aron kodesh to conceal and protect the Torah scrolls.

Pincus -  honour book compiled by a synagogue.

Purim - A holiday that is held in March that celebrates the rescue of the Jews from extermination at the hands of the chief minister of the King of Persia. During this celebration, the Megillah or scroll is read, which tells the story of Esther. During the recitation, the children use their noise-makers or gragers when the name Haman is mentioned, in order to blot out the name of the villain in this tale. The children also dress up in costumes of the biblical figures from this story: Esther, Mordecai and Ahasuerus.

Rosh Chodesh - A minor festival that is held the first day of the month on which the first sliver of the new moon appears.

Sefarad / Sephard - [literally, “Spain”, “of Spain”] refers to the traditions of Jews who have lived under Muslim rule (as opposed to Ashkenaz).

Sefer Torah (pl. sifrei torah) - scroll that contains the text of the Five Books of Moses.

Shabbat - the period between Friday at sundown and Saturday one hour after sundown in which Jews are required to refrain from all forms of work.

Shabbaton - an overnight gathering of Jews, sometimes held in another city, to celebrate Shabbat together. These outings usually include activities and religious learning.

Shacharit - Morning prayer services.

Shaliah Tsibor - [literally, “sent by the congregation”] the title given to the cantor who leads services and acts as the congregation’s representative to God. 

Shames - The individual responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the synagogue.

Shiva - [literally, “seven”] mourning process where the immediate family members of the deceased gather and remain in a house together for seven days after the death. This intensive grieving period forces the bereaved to confront their feelings of loss, to remember the deceased and share memories. The customs observed during these seven days create an environment that is free of distraction so that the grievers can deal with their pain directly. Customs include refraining from forms of vanity (mirrors are covered; haircuts and shaving are forbidden) and pleasure (sexual relations as well as Torah study are prohibited). Mourners sit on low chairs and do not wear leather shoes to display their grief and humility. All distractions are removed: doors are kept unlocked so that the mourners do not need to host others; cooking, cleaning, serving, and other duties, including work and school, are not permitted. In fact, visitors are not allowed to initiate conversation with the mourners, but rather simply respond so that the mourners feel no obligation to engage in conversation. After the seven days, the mourners extinguish a candle that had been burning since the first day, and then take a walk outside together as a first step in transitioning back to regular daily life.

Shochet - Kosher slaughter of meats.

Shtetl - small, close-knit village of Jews, usually in Eastern Europe.

Shtibel or Shteiblach - very small synagogue that often occupied storefronts. This kind of synagogue was prevalent in poorer Jewish immigrant communities such as The Ward in the early twentieth century.

Shul - The Yiddish term for Jewish house of worship that is primarily used by Orthodox Jews.

Siddur (pl. Sidurrim) - prayer book.

Simchat Torah - The holiday, held in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah, celebrating the end and beginning of the cycle of weekly Torah readings. The night before this holiday, the congregation reads the last portion of the Torah. The day of Simchat Torah, they begin the first paragraph of Genesis.

Soifer - a scribe for holy books. The task of copying the text of the Torah to a new scroll is very difficult, requiring the utmost attention to detail. Not one mistake is permissible. It often takes months or years to complete the entire Five Books of Moses.

Sukkot - Jewish holiday that celebrates the autumn harvest and God’s protection over the Jewish people while in the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt.

Sukkah - a temporary hut that Jews erect to celebrate Sukkot.

Talmud - [from the Hebrew root meaning “to learn”] refers to the oral law and rabbinical discussions compiled in efforts to interpret the oral law.

Tallis (pl. Tallisot) - prayer shawl worn by men.

Tsedaka - charity.

Yiddish - [literally, “Jewish”] language spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe. Yiddish is a blend of Hebrew and German, but is written using Hebrew characters.

Yahrzeit - The anniversary of the death of a close relative. Each year at this time, the family members observe this occasion by reciting the Kaddish or mourners prayer and take on an aliyah at synagogue if possible. The mourners also light a candle in honour of the deceased, which burns for 24 hours.

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