Welcome to the glossary! Rather than explain each Yiddish/Jewish/Yeshivish term within the sentence (’cause sometimes it just ruins the flow), I put the definitions here. It’s alphabetical, so just scroll down until you see the word you need to know.
- a note on spelling – some of these words are Hebrew-based, transliterated into English, so there are many, many variants on spelling. You may recall seeing the many variants on Chanukah cards, right? Hannukah, Hanuka, Chanuka, Chanukah, etc. So, sometimes there is an “h” at the end of a word, sometimes not (hashgafah, hashgafa – same word). Sometimes an “s” at the end can be a “t” (Shabbos, Shabbat – same thing). When you’re trying to find a word, just find the one that matches the most. I am certainly not consistent in my own spelling, so I apologize for any confusion.
Disclaimer – all of these definitions, and their faults, are entirely mine. Feel free to contact me if you have a better definition, have questions or take issue with any of these.
Adon Olam – literally, Master of the World. It’s a prayer from the morning service, and has been put to many, many tunes.
Afikomen – the “dessert” we eat at the end of the seder. I put it in quotes because it’s a piece of matzah. There’s a custom to hide it, and for kids to look for it, and if/when they find it, they get a prize.
Agudah – congregation, or, more typically here in the states, the black-hatted, yeshivish organization/shul/etc. that serves as a national leadership organization for many of the ultra-orthodox. In Israel, it usually refers to a union of some kind (thanks to Hillary G. for that one!)
a”h– alav(a) ha shalom, the Jewish equivalent of “rest in peace.” Means peace be upon him (or her)
Alte Bubbe/Bubby – Great-Grandmother, old woman.
Amidah – the silent prayer in which we praise G-d, request our needs and express gratitude. It’s the main prayer of each prayer service.
avodah – work, duty. Often used in the context of spiritual work or duty. Praying is an avodah. Working on improving oneself is an avodah.
Avraham Avinu – literally, “Our Father Abraham.” Referring to, yes, that Abraham. The Biblical one.
B”H – see Baruch Hashem (yeah, right below this)
ba’al teshuvah – (male) one who is a master of repentance, commonly used to refer to those who did not grow up observant and became more observant of mitzvos at a later point in life (a later point than birth, that is). female -ba’alas teshuvah, plural – ba’alei teshuvah.
Baruch Hashem – roughly, it means “Thank God”
bar/bas mitzvah – more than just a kickin’ party. When a boy becomes 13, or a girl 12, and they are now obligated to perform mitzvos. It elevates them to a higher spiritual status, gives them a whole bunch more responsibility.
bashert – intended, destined. Often used to refer to one’s spouse, or an event which, in retrospect, seems was meant to happen. “He’s my bashert.” “It was bashert that went to the store yesterday because I ran into so-and-so.”
Beis HaMikdash – yeshivish way of referring to our Temple. Means House of Holiness.
bentchers – a little book which contains the prayers we say after a meal, and sometimes songs and various other ritual stuff. Mainly, though, they are used for the after meal prayer of thanks.
Birchos HaShachar – the morning blessings which are recited every morning (hopefully)
bitachon – trust, usually used in the context of trusting in G-d
bli ayin hara – literally “without the evil eye.” Generally used when you don’t want someone to be so jealous of your good fortune that they give you a spiritual stink eye.
bli neder – literally “without a vow,” ’cause we take our words pretty seriously, and making a promise to do something and then breaking that promise ain’t good.
bracha (brachos) – a blessing, blessings
bris (bris milah) – circumcision
bubby (bubbe) – Grandma (Yiddish)
chag sameach! – happy holiday, literally
challah – the braided bread typically served on Shabbos.
Chanukah – the festival of lights! Our 8-night festival in the wintertime commemorating the miracle of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days (among other things).
Chassidish/Chassidim (a/k/a Hasidic) This is the stereotypical Orthodox Jew you see in Woody Allen films. It’s a branch of Orthodox Judaism which started in the 18th century, and places emphasis on having a dynamic spiritual leader, known as a “Rebbe,” and on the presence of the Divine in everything, among many other things. I think a lot of people might assume that everyone Orthodox Jew is Chasidic, but that is not the case. But I’ve gotten that from people when I’m at the grocery store, for instance.
Chassidus – the study of Torah in a more chassidic manner, more emphasis on the feeling and emotional level than on a purely textual and analytical. Chassidus studiers, please let me know if you have a better definition.
chasunah – wedding
chatzos/chatzot– midday, either noon or midnight.
chavrusa – study partner
chazzan – cantor
chesed – act of kindness
chinuch – education, also used in reference to child-rearing
Chodesh Tov – Good Chodesh! Basically, Happy New Month! This is a greeting extended on the first day of the new month, which is a festive time and minor holiday (but not like a holiday where you can’t turn on the lights or get in the car).
cholent – a stew-like dish served on Shabbos day. Traditionally contains potatoes, barley, onions and meat, though there are many, many variations. What makes it distinctive is that it begins cooking Friday before Shabbos, and cooks all night until the lunch-time meal.
Chol HaMoed – the intermediate days between the first and last two days of Pesach and Sukkos. They are kind of pseudo-holiday days.
chometz (also chametz)– leaven, like, the stuff that makes bread rise (okay, maybe that’s yeast). Basically, it’s all the stuff that we don’t eat on Pesach (Passover). Bread, bagels, crackers, anything wheat that’s risen. Basically, anything flour and water that’s been allowed to ferment. Obviously this does not include matzah.
chosson – fiancé, male.
Chumash – the five books of the Torah (that’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
Chuppah – wedding canopy, usually fabric held by four poles. Sometime people hold the poles, sometimes not. Sometimes the fabric is a tallis.
chutzpah – an incredible amount of nerve. Can be both positively and negatively employed.
daven, davening – pray, praying.
derech eretz – basically, manners or etiquette. A mentsch behaves with derech eretz.
divrei Torah – words of Torah, which is basically things in Jewish magazines, handouts or newspapers that contain thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, or anything on the written or oral tradition. Also applies to discussions at the Shabbos (or weekday) table about Torah concepts. We love divrei Torah over here!
drasha – sermon. A Rabbi of shul gives a drasha on Shabbos morning. A mother gives a drasha to a teenager at one in the morning.
eitzah – piece of advice.
erev – the day immediately preceding a holiday (or Sabbath). Really, it means “night.” Like, think “the night before xmas.” That kind of concept. The crunch time right before the holy time.
Erev Shabbos – literally, the Sabbath Eve. Practically, it means Friday day.
fleishig – meat, as in a meal with meat, meat utensils, etc.
frum – roughly, Orthodox, observant of Jewish law. Used interchangeably. i.e. I am an Orthodox Jew. I am a frum Jew.
frumkeit – the state of being frum
gefilte fish – it’s fish, it’s a loaf, it’s a fish loaf! Used to be that ladies would take fish (like, white fish or something), then grind it up, mix it with flour, sugar, spices, stuff it back into the skin of the fish, and voila. Gefilte! Personally, I just buy a frozen loaf at the supermarket. Still yummy, less work. Gefilte means “filled,” btw.
gemara – the written-down version of the Oral Torah
gemach – an acronym for gemilas chasadim (acts of kindness). A gemach is basically a place where you can get stuff for reduced cost, or free. I got my wedding dress from a gemach, just borrowed it, cleaned it, and there you go. There are gemachs for pacifiers, for monetary loans, for maternity clothes, for books, for probably anything you can think of.
geshicht – put-together, neat, with-it.
geshmack – incredibly, unbelievably satisfying and fulfilling. “that pint of Ben and Jerry’s was geshmack!”
gmar chasima tovah – may you be inscribed for good – said between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
hachnoses kallah – accompanying the bride, can also refer to raising money to help someone afford their wedding
Hagaddah – Maxwell House, represent! This is the book we use to conduct the seder on Passover. It tells the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian enslavement.
haggados – plural of hagaddah.
hakoras hatov – gratitude, literally, recognizing the good.
halacha – Jewish law
Hasidic/Hasidim – see Chassidish/Chassidim
Hashem – literally, Hebrew for “the name,” as in, the name of G-d. This is how frum Jews will refer to G-d.
hashgacha – the way G-d runs the world, or oversees it
hashgafa/hashkafa – philosophy, or outlook. Hashkafically, her outlook was super.
havdala – the ritual performed on Saturday night to separate Shabbos from the rest of the week
hishtadlus – effort, as in, the effort that we need to put forth in order to function according to the laws of this world
Ima – Hebrew for mother. Just hear it like this: “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiima!”
IY”H – abbrevation for “Im Yirtzeh Hashem.” Means “G-d willing.”
Kabbalah – the mystical teachings of the Torah, usually reserved for those who have already studied the rest of the Torah extensively. Has absolutely nothing to do with what Madonna or Ashton Kutcher.
Kabbalistic – of or pertaining to the Kabbalah
kaddish – a part of the prayer service. Generally used to delineate different sections of the service. Most commonly recognized at the text mourners say during the year of mourning, as well as on Yahrzeits (anniversary of a loved one’s death).
kallah – fiancée, female
kapara – atonement. Sometimes used to refer to something bad that happens, which is really an atonement for a misdeed and is preventing something even worse from happening. For instance, losing all one’s data on a laptop is lousy. It’s a loss, but it’s a less painful loss than having a health issue, or losing a job. So we’d say it’s a kapara, may the pain it causes us encourage us to improve and save us from something worse happening.
kasher – to make something kosher. Contrary to popular belief, this is not actually done by having a Rabbi bless something. Sometimes it’s as simple as pouring boiling water into a metal sink, and sometimes it’s as awesome as using a blowtorch.
kashrus – keeping kosher – like don’t make that Chicken Parmesan! No milk and meat together, no shellfish, and, as you all know, no pork. And there’s some other stuff too. Basically, you gotta know what you can put in your mouth, and kashrus lets you know what that is.
kavanna– literally, intention, but often used to describe the concentration one has (or doesn’t have) during a mitzvah, like davening
kever, pl. kevarim – gravesite. It’s common to visit the grave of holy ancestors to pray there because it’s a supercharged space to pray, therefore, hopefully prayers said there will be more effective.
Kiddush – the ritual of sanctifying the Shabbos or holiday, with a bracha and text from the Torah recited over a cup of wine (or grape juice, depending on the audience). The root of the word is related to Kadeish, holiness, or holy. Kiddush is said twice, once before the evening meal (because in Judaism the day starts at night) and again before the lunch meal.
Kiddush Hashem – basically, sanctifying the name of G-d through action. In the middle Ages, this is usually referred to choosing death over conversion. Thankfully, in today’s day and age, it means acting in a way that brings respect to the Torah and, thus, G-d. How do we do this? By being a mentsch, by acting with respect towards other people, by standing strong to our principles even if it’s weird (like returning money to a store).
kinderlach – children
kiruv – outreach
kitnios – beans, legumes, etc. Jews of Ashkenazi descent traditionally do not eat these foods on Pesach.
kittel – the white robe/jacket that men (at least many Ashkenazi men) wear under the chuppah, at the Pesach seder, on Rosh Hashana, and are buried in.
kos shel bracha – the cup that a bracha is made on, for kiddush, or during a wedding ceremony or sheva brachos, etc.
kosher – seriously? I should define this? Kosher food is food which is in line with the Jewish Dietary Laws – all meat must be slaughtered accorded to the proper ritual, no milk and meat together, no shellfish, buggies, and prepared food should be prepared under rabbinic guidance. Kosher can also refer to behavior in general, when in accordance with broader Jewish law.
kotel/kosel – the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall which supported the Temple Mount (yes, on the western side). This is one of the must-go-to spots in Israel. It’s a very powerful place to pray.
kugel – the closest I can figure is that this is the Jewish equivalent of casserole. There are many different types. Potato, Broccoli, Lokshen (that’s noodle, to you), Vegetable, Cholent, Challah. Really, what can’t be made into a kugel?
kumzitz – a musical get-together, camp-style, where we sit around, probably in a circle and sing. There may or may not be a guitar, keyboard, and/or various other instruments. It’s fun.
kvetch – to complain, to whine. Can be used as adjective – as in, “The baby was so kvetchy last night.”
kvell – to feel extremely proud, usually used in context of parents feeling proud of their kids
lashon hara – the kind of speech that can ruin a person. Not just falsehoods, but true things that would cause someone’s esteem to be lowered. This is gossip, slander, defamation, all that stuff. It’s not allowed, so don’t do it.
l’havdil – literally, to make a separation. Used when referring to or comparing something holy and something profanein the same sentence. It’s meant to keep respect on the holy thing.
lo aleinu – not upon us. Used whenever referring to something that you don’t want happening to you or anyone you know. Like, tragic stuff.
machzor – prayer book for the High Holidays.
marror – the bitter herbs (we use Romaine lettuce) we eat on Pesach.
matzah – really? Okay. The non-leavened bread we eat on Pesach. No rising there, baked in 18 minutes.
mazel – roughly translated to mean fortune, like is fortune cookie, not as in money. Hence the expression “mazel tov” when something good happens.
mechitza – the divider between men and women in Orthodox synagogues. It can be a curtain, glass, an upstairs/downstairs thing, woodwork, whatever.
megillah – the books which comprise the “Writings” part of TaNaKh (otherwise known as the Bible, folks). This is Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiates, and Song of Songs.
meshuggah – crazy
middos – character traits, i.e. patience, strength, laziness.
milchig – dairy. As in, a dairy meal. ‘Cause with kosher things the meat and the milk are all separate.
mincha – the afternoon prayer service
minyan – a quorum of ten men that men are supposed to pray with.
minyanim – plural of minyan
mitzvah/mitzvos – the commandments, as given to Moses from G-d. These are the laws which govern the life of observant Jews. We “observe” the mitzvos – meaning, we do ’em.
mochel – forgive. not to be confused with…
mohel – a Rabbi who performs circumcisions
Moshiach – the redeemer. His appearance will usher in the redemption. Waiting for him is a fundamental tenant of Jewish belief.
morah – teacher in Hebrew, but not necessarily of Hebrew
Motzei Shabbos – literally, the Going Out of the Shabbos. Practically, it means Saturday night.
mussaf – a special prayer we say on Shabbos and holidays. It’s like the shemoneh esrei, but has text specific to the day. On the high holidays it’s realllllllly long.
nachas – the special kind of pride a parent gets from their child when things are going well. It makes a mother wanna kvell.
neshama – soul, or spirit. Well, one of the levels of the soul, but I’m going to get into all of that here. This is just the glossary after all!
parnossa – livelihood, income.
parsha – the weekly Torah portion, read every Shabbos, completing one cycle each year.
pasuk – verse. Pasuk vav would mean verse six.
Pesach – Passover, one of the major holidays, celebrated in the spring time. It’s the one where we don’t eat any leavened anything.
Pirkei Avos – the Ethics of Our Fathers – six chapters chock full of wisdom
Ploni – this is the Jewish version of so-and-so
potchke – fooling around or messing with something, something that takes a lot of effort.
Purim – a holiday in the month of Adar. It celebrates the time when our enemies were plotting to annihilate us, but we totally defeated them, suckers.
pushka – a small box used to put charity. Kind of like a piggy bank, but without the pig.
Rashi – one of the greatest Rabbis ever. Wrote one of the main commentaries on the Bible, which is studied by everyone from little kids to great scholars. Wikipedia page
Rav – Rabbi
Rebbetzin – A Rabbi’s wife, often turned to for advice or guidance
Rebbe – Chassidic Rabbi. Did you know that we had so many words for Rabbi?
refuah – healing, curing, recovery from illness. Wishing someone a “refuah shleimah” is wishing them a “complete recovery.”
Rosh Chodesh – the new month, celebrated as a small holiday especially for ladies!
Rosh Hashanah – the New Year. Apples and honey! Oh, and judgment, too.
Seder – you know, that thing we do on Passover, Maxwell House, ring a bell? We read from the Hagaddah and relive our ancestors exodus from Egypt.
Sederim – plural of seder. Because, outside of Israel, we do two of them.
sefira – the period of time between Pesach and Shavuos.
sefer/seforim – book/books, usually used in reference to holy books and books on a Torah topic.
sefer tehillim – book of psalms. It’s a thing to split the whole book up between a number of people and recite the entire thing. Good stuff happens when we do that.
seminary – no, not the place with the priests. This is an educational institution exclusively for women, mostly attended the first year out of high school. Religious and philosophical studies are the main focus, usually. There are also seminaries geared towards women who did not grow up within the cloister of Orthodoxy, and focus more on the fundamentals of Judaism, and are generally populated by a wide age-range of women.
Sephardic/Sephardi – Literally, it means “Spanish,” and it initially referred to Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent, but after they were exiled by Catholic monarchs in the 15th century, the term has come to refer to Jews whose lineage can be traced back to the Iberian peninsula, or, more broadly, Jews from the Middle Eastern/North African areas, who sometimes practice in the Sephardic tradition.
Shabbos – the Sabbath, the day of rest, observed on Saturdays.
Shabbos Kallah – the last Shabbos for a girl/woman before she gets married. It’s customary to have a get-together with the women in the community where everyone shares memories and says nice things about the kallah.
Shabbos Mevorchim – on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh (the new month), there’s a special blessing said during morning services, asking that the new month be full of good stuff like health and wealth and blessing and a bunch of other things. This is called Shabbos Mevorchim, which basically means the Shabbos of blessing.
Shacharis – the morning prayer service
Shadchan (pl. shadchanim) – matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match… a person who specializes in setting up singles, usually a first stop for anyone who is dating. Also may serve as a mediator or go-between in the early stages of dating.
shalom – peace, yo. But you knew that.
Shanah Tovah – Basically, “Happy New Year!”
Shavuous – the holiday where we celebrate the giving of the Torah. It’s about a month-and-a-half after Pesach.
sheitel – a wig used by Ashkenazi ladies to cover their hair after marriage
sheitel macher – literally, I think, one who makes sheitels. It’s used to refer to ladies who wash and style and cut our sheitels.
Shema/Sh’ma – the declaration of faith recited dutifully twice a day. Once in the morning and once at night.
shidduch – a match, an arranged date. Like setting up a friend on a blind date, so to speak. shidduchim is the plural, or referring to matchmaking in general.
shlep, shlepping – to drag, to go somewhere in an inconvenient manner
shmooze – to talk, converse
shofar – it’s a ram’s horn, and we blow it. During Elul and on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
Shomer Shabbos – one who “keeps Shabbos” (meaning, one who observes the laws of the Sabbath), or denoting a store which is not open during Shabbos, or a job which does not entail working on Shabbos.
shomeret – kind of like a bridesmaid. It’s customary to have a shomeret accompany the bride on the day of her wedding, so that she shouldn’t be alone. The male version is called a shomer.
shtetl – the little villages that Jews lived in in Eastern Europe, or today, an expression referring to the closely packed neighborhoods Orthodox Jews usually live in.
shtick – antics, many times used in reference to the antics performed at a wedding to please the bride and groom.
shul – Yiddish (I think) for synagogue
siddur – prayer book
simcha/s – happiness, joy/happy events – bar or bas mitzvas, weddings, etc.
siyatta d’shmaya – Heavenly Assistance. Help from Above. A extra dose of strength that doesn’t normally exist.
sukkah – the temporary booth which we erect and eat/sleep/learn in during the holiday of Sukkos
Sukkos – the Festival of Booths. A week-long holiday celebrating the temporary structure our ancestors dwelled in in the 40 years in the desert. It’s also called “The time of our happiness.”
Talmud – the written collection of Jewish oral tradition.
Talmudic – of or pertaining to the Talmud
tatty (totty) – Dad, Daddy (Yiddish)
Tehillim – Psalms
tichel – a scarf used to cover a married woman’s hair. Also called a shmatta (though tichel is a nicer way of saying it).
Tisha B’Av – the saddest day of the Jewish year. Lots and lots of sad things happened on this day. It’s one of the major fast days, and we observe many of the laws of mourning at this time. When the redemption comes, though, it’s gonna be a day of rejoicing. Can’t wait.
tizku l’mitzvos – may you (plural) merit to do more mitzvos (commandments, good deeds). For singular/female, use “tizki.” Generally a postscript to a mitzvah. Gave some charity? Tizki l’mitzvos! Helped organize a community event/fundraiser? Tizki l’mitzvos. And so on. Linked to the idea that one mitzvah leads to another.
Torah – the guidebook to life, the source of Jewish law, the Five books of Moses, the entirety of Jewish legal and ethical law, the foundation of Jewish tradition, and so on.
treif – not kosher. So, pork, shellfish, chicken parmesan, et al.
tshuva(h) – commonly translated as REPENT!! Literally means return, generally used in context of returning to the proper observance of the mitzvos.
tzitzis – the little fringy things that Orthodox men wear. They are attached to a four-cornered garment, and can be either tucked in to one’s pants/pants pockets, or wore out.
tzedekah – charity
tznius – modesty, usually referring to mode of dress (like the long-sleeves skirt-only uniform frum ladies sport). It also refers to modesty in speech and action, though, which is just as important.
Tzom Gedalia – the fast of Gedalia (a martyr), always on the 3rd of Tishrei (that’s the first month of the year, if you’re counting from Rosh Hashana).
vidui – confession, said on Yom Kippur, the day of marriage, before death, and I think every day by Sephardim (if I’m wrong about that, sorry).
yarmulke – the little round head-covering Orthodox men wear. They come in velvet, suede, knitted, leather, whatever. The pope totally wears one, too. Not sure what that’s about (ETA: actually, that head covering is called a zucchetto, which according to Wikipedia, is almost identical to a yarmulke in appearance. Thank you Carolyn for letting me know the correct terminology!).
Yerushalayim – Jerusalem
yeshivah – a place where men sit and learn lots and lots of Torah, both on the high school and post-high school level
Yeshivish – 1) a specific type person in the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism (yes, there is a spectrum). The men typically wear a black felt hat, black yarmulka. Ladies wear pre-tied tichels, snoods, sheitels. No T.V. in the house, tends towards larger families, in general limits exposure to the non-orthodox world and influences.
2) a language spoken by those in Yeshivah
(when I use it, I usually am referring to the people, not the language).
yetzer hara – usually translated as “the evil inclination.” It’s that little voice in your head which pushes you to make bad choices. Think of it as the “devil on your shoulder.”
yetzer hatov – this is the counterpart to the yetzer hara. It’s the good inclination, or the “angel on your shoulder.”
Yidden – Jews
Yiddishkeit – yiddish for Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewishness
Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Super-holy day full of fasting and prayer, and if you do it right, you get a clean slate for the year. Score.
Yom Tov – Literally, good day. Used to refer to holidays on which we don’t do work. Shavuos, Sukkos, Pesach, Rosh HaShanah, maybe Yom Kippur. I’ve heard it referred to Purim and Chanukah sometimes, but I think it’s mostly used with the “don’t touch that light switch” holidays. I.e. the biblically mandated ones (as opposed to the rabbinic ones).
Yomim Tovim – plural of Yom Tov.
zaidy – grandfather
zt”l – this is shorthand forzichron tzaddik l’brachah – literally, to remember the righteous for a blessing. It’s something we say after someone has passed away.