A growing alphabetical exploration of the Jewish world, rituals, traditions and food, as well as historical and cultural figures of the Jewish people. We will continue to add to and update this glossary to capture the rich tapestry of experiences and practices across the diverse Jewish cultural landscape. Do you have any suggestions? Click here.

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The Afikomen (אֲפִיקוֹמָן‎) is the broken piece of matzah that is hidden during the Passover Seder and then sought out by the youngest members of the seder table. The word Afikomen comes from the Greeek epikomion [ἐπικώμιον], meaning…(more)



By Joey Soloway

Amtlai is the little known, entirely ignored, actually written-out-of-the-bible actual Mother of Abraham. There is so little known (or asked) about Amtlai that a cursory Google search will confirm her invisibility…(more)



By Jason Turbow

Bagels are sufficiently ubiquitous to make physical description unnecessary, but let’s do it anyway: They are round rolls, made of flour, yeast salt and water. They can be topped with salt, poppy or sesame seeds, or infused with things like onions or (heaven help us) blueberries…(more)


Bar Mitzvah

By Christopher Farber

Historically, a boy reaching the age of 13 or a girl reaching the age of 12, becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, respectively. The words mean “subject to the commandments,” the spirit of which implies that the person is no longer a child in the eyes of Jewish law, but rather an adult…(more)



By Becky Adelberg

The word bema refers to the raised part of a podium or an elevated platform typically in a synagogue.  It is also used as the altar part or sanctuary in Orthodox churches, as well as the platform where public speakers addressed the citizens and courts of law in ancient Athens…(more)

Beta Israel

By Kendell Pinkney

(Amharic for “The House of Israel”) is the historic name for the Ethiopian Jewish community. According to oral tradition, Beta Israel traces its founding to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba…(more)

“Black Sabbath” is the first compilation ever to showcase legendary Black artists covering Jewish songs. Featuring Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and many others, it uses popular music to shed light on the historical…(more)



By Jeremiah Lockwood

The cantor (or hazzan in Hebrew) is a ritual prayer leader in the synagogue. Cantors are responsible for maintaining knowledge of music for the intricate Jewish liturgical cycle…(more)



By David Sax

Challah has a glossy sheen, and a soft, almost cakey texture, thanks to a significant amount of oil and eggs in the dough, which makes it particularly easy to shape and bake.  Aside from serving as a sacramental bread on the sabbath and other holidays, challah is the ideal foil for toppings and sandwiches…(more)



By Eddy Portnoy

Chutzpah (n., חוצפּה, from Yiddish, Khutspe/Khitspe, derived from Mishnaic Hebrew, Hutspah, for insolence): nerve, cheek, gall, unmitigated audacity. In short, a brazen attempt to get something you don’t deserve…(more)



By Christopher Noxon

The process of converting to Judaism is, like so much else in the tradition, a high-low mix of deep spiritual work and rote, legalistic box-checking. Converting can feel like preparing for a DMV exam, or like a bad day at the dentist, or like the best grad school seminar ever, or like a transcendent…(more)



By David Sax

Short form of the German word delicatessen, which basically means “delicious things to eat”.  In Ashkenazi-Yiddish culture, it was a store and a category of cuisine where cured, preserved, and smoked meats were prepared and sold. Often these were kosher versions of local, non-kosher specialties, made with beef, lamb, goose, or…(more)


By Jeremiah Lockwood

The word diaspora has its etymology in Greek words meaning “to disperse across.” The term references Deuteronomy 28:25, referred to as the chapter of curses…(more)


By Jeremiah Lockwood

A dybbuk (pl. dybbukim) is a form of ghost possession that appears in Jewish folklore and rabbinic literature. A dybbuk is a spirit of a dead person that cleaves to the body of one who is living.


Elijah (אֵלִיָּהוּ‎) was a prophet and miracle worker born around 900 BCE and died in Jericho in 849 BCE. His name is most associated with being invited in to Passover seder’s the world over with the fifth, ceremonial cup of wine…(more)


Four Questions

By Kendell Pinkney

The Four Questions are a series of questions that form one of the central hallmarks of the Passover Haggadah (i.e. the ritual liturgy that accompanies the Passover Seder and meal). It is a custom that the youngest person in attendance at the Seder will recite the questions (and their answers) for the rest of the attendees…(more)


Gefilte Fish

By Francine Hermelin

What is Gefilte fish? In Yiddish it means “filled” or “stuffed.” But in the 50’s when food began to be mechanized this Eastern European delicacy transformed into the ball that families are more familiar with today.  It is typically prepared either sweet or savory and made of deboned and ground carp, white fish, mullet and pike mixed together with egg and bread crumbs. Native to Ashkenazi Jews…(more)



By Lisa Grissom

Hanukkah, Chanukah,  (חֲנֻכָּה‎ or חֲנוּכָּה‎) or Hanukka in Yiddish, is an eight-day Jewish festival that celebrates the recovery of the Second Temple by the Jews of Judea, also known as the Maccabees. Led by Judah, this group of scrappy Jewish rebels rose up against the oppressive King Antiochus IV…(more)

The Hoshen is a bejeweled rectangular “breast plate” (with twelve multi-colored squares in the center) and worn by the “High Priest of the Israelites.”  It dates back to biblical times and is described in detail in the book of Exodus, each square having a different mineral/jewel for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  



By Jeremiah Lockwood

Ibbur (pl. ibburim) is also a form of ghost possession that appears primarily in rabbinic mystical writings. An ibbur is a form of possession intentionally cultivated by the living host. 

The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is an all-volunteer non-profit organization, made up of a small but dedicated team from the music industry and academia. . The Society takes its’ name from Abraham Zevi Idelsohn,


The Jazz Singer is a 1980’s film starring Neil Diamond as a talented vocalist torn between tradition and family and his dreams of becoming a successful pop singer. Starring Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier ‘The Jazz Singer’ tells the story of a fifth generation cantor Yussel Rabinovitch (played by Diamond)…(more)

Legends of Jews using magic beams of power has a long and august history. Stories that involve laser beams shooting out of eyes play a role in narratives concerning two of the most important 2nd century CE rabbis whose teachings are anthologized in the Talmud. 


The Kaddish (קדיש‎) is a daily prayer recited during Jewish services. It requires a minyan (ten people) to be said. Though recited at each prayer service, the Kaddish is perhaps better known as the Mourner’s Kaddish as it is a central part of the Jewish grieving…(more)

Kitniyot (קִטְנִיּוֹת) refers to grains that are typically not permitted for consumption during Passover according to Ashkenazi, and some Sephardic customs…(more)


Lionel Ziprin was a born-again Hasidic Jew whose past was anchored in the artistic movements of the ’50s and ’60s. As a child he was plagued by epilepsy and rheumatic fever after which he had visions, seeing the bible come to life in his grandfather’s house. Lionel’s grandfather Rabbi Abulafia…(more)



By Becky Adelberg

Traditionally eaten over the Passover holiday, Matzah (מַצָּה‎) or Matzo is an unleavened bread filled with symbolism. In biblical times of the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites did not have enough time for their bread to rise. Matzo is considered lechem oni, “poor man’s bread”…(more)


By Eddy Portnoy

Maven: (n. מבין, from Yiddish via Hebrew, a person who understands). A self-proclaimed expert on any topic or issue; or, an actual expert on any topic or issue. Differentiating between a self-proclaimed maven and an actual maven requires the ability to determine whether the hubris of the former leads to any genuine knowledge or…(more)

Mi Sheberach is the traditional prayer for healing in Jewish communities. A version of the Mi Shebeirach was popularized by the Jewish folk musician Debbie Friedman, which is embedded below. The prayer’s name is taken from the first two words that are recited. Traditionally in Orthodox communities the Mi Shebeirach was recited in the name of the mother of the ill…(more)

Mimouna is a Sephardic festival traditionally celebrated by Maghrebi Jewish communities (Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia) on the day after Passover…(more)

Literally the word minyan ( מִנְיָן) means count or number in Hebrew. A minyan has historically been deemed the necessary number of Jewish men over the age of 13 required to have a religious service. That number being ten…(more)


Naches is Yiddish for pride or joy in the accomplishment of one’s children. Family for many is at the root of the Jewish experience and naches is for some the ultimate expression of raising the next generation with meaning…(more)


Old Testament

By David Katznelson

The Old Testament is the name given to the Torah by Melito of Cardis in the 2nd century CE. It is comprised of the 24 books of the Hebrew bible or Tanakh. It is a collection of Hebrew writings, and the New Testament is written in…(more)



By Kendell Pinkney

Passover (Hebrew: פֶּסַח; Transliterated: PAY-sach) is a major, seven-day holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s harrowing Exodus (lit. from the Greek “way/road out”) from Egyptian slavery to freedom. As straightforward as this time of commemoration may seem to us today, the history of Passover is quite complex…(more)


Queen Esther has been celebrated throughout time in both art and literature as well annually with the festival of Purim. In the 5th Century BC the Persian King Ahasuerus, dissatisfied with his wife…(more)


Rosh Hashanah

By Nicola Behrman

Rosh Hashanah, aka the Jewish New Year, is the big one when it comes to the Jewish calendar. It literally translates from Hebrew to mean “Head of The Year,” commemorates the birth of the Universe (no biggie) and the birth of Adam and Eve, and…(more)


Seder Plate

By Becky Adelberg

During Passover, the seder plate is used to help retell the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. Historically it is said that the seder plate differed from the seder plates we use today of ceramic, china or silver. The original seder plate was said to have been made from wicker in which Passover’s symbolic foods were placed…(more)



By Tiffany Shlain

More than three thousand years ago, the concept of Shabbat transformed the world. Before then, time had no pauses: it was day after day after day. Shabbat made it so each week ended with a day off, for everyone, of every social class. The run-on sentence of time got a period, and humankind got a chance to catch its breath and focus. All these years later, taking a full day off lets us be present with one another…(more)



By Kendell Pinkney

Shavuot (שָׁבוּעוֹת‎ : Hebrew for “weeks”), a.k.a. The Feast of Weeks, a.k.a. The Feast of the First Fruits, a.k.a. The Feast of the Harvest, is an ancient Jewish agricultural holiday where people would journey to the Temple to offer the best produce of their harvest…(more)


By Eddy Portnoy

Shlemiel/Shlimazl (n. שלומיאל שלימזל, from Yiddish). While both of these words can be used independently, they are often defined in tandem. A shlemiel is a clumsy, incompetent person, someone who seizes failure with both hands. A Shlimazl is a hapless type, a person permanently behind the eight ball, who attracts bad luck like a magnet…(more)


Simchat Torah

By Kendell Pinkney

Simchat Torah (Hebrew: שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה; Transliteration: sim-CHAT to-RAH), lit. “the rejoicing of the Torah” is a fall celebration that marks the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle. In many Jewish communities the festivities are marked by removing all of the Torah scrolls from the ark, at which point various members of the community will make seven circuits (hakafot) around the synagogue…(more)



By Nathan Shedroff

Tashlich or Tashlikh, (תשליך‎) is a ceremony every Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of the new year when we “cast off” the old year and, with it, the things we chose not to carry forward. It is one of the most symbolic of Jewish ceremonies…(more)



The Ten Commandments

By AJ Jacobs

Also called the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments are the most famous and influential Top Ten list in history. The Ten Commandments can be found in the Bible in two sections – Deuteronomy and Exodus – using slightly different wording…(more)


Tu Bishvat

By Zach Rogue

The holiday Tu Bishvat (ט״ו בשבט) is an arboreal celebration also known as Rosh HaShana La’llanot, literally “New Year of the Trees.” In contemporary Israel, the day is recognized as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration…(more)


Unleavened refers to a kind of bread that is made without the benefit of leavening agents also known as raising agents. The most popular of these agents being yeast, but other agents include ginger beer, kefir and the staple of the COVID 19 baker, sourdough starter. 


Verklempt is Yiddish for ‘overcome with emotion’. It is along with some of the saltier Yiddish words perhaps the most popular, having truly come into the American mainstream with the SNL sketch…(more)



A fusion language based grammatically in Middle-High German, but with significant admixture from Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic, and other languages, is considered to have become a Jewish vernacular as early as the 9th century. As the Jews spread across Central and Eastern Europe, Yiddish went with them…(more)


Zeyde is the historical Yiddish word for grandfather. See also Bubbe (Grandmother). Though it is a term that is perhaps diminishing in popularity with the 2020 election it came into the vernacular as Bernie Sanders become known as Zeyde or Zayde Bernie. This was perhaps the largest injection of Yiddish into the political and mainstream world since Joe Lieberman…(more)