Basic Terms



Hebrew, the ancient holy language of the Jewish people dates back over 3,000 years. Thought to be a dying language except for its use in prayer, it was revived and modernized as a spoken language in Israel by Jews who immigrated there in the 19th century. In May 1948, the State of Israel made Hebrew one of its official languages.

Jewish prayer is conducted in Hebrew, and Jewish school children typically learn the language as part of their formal Jewish education.


(koh-sher/ kahsh-roo’t)

Kosher dietary laws are a mitzvah, a commandment of G-d. There are many interpretations regarding why Jews are expected to observe kosher laws. Some believe these commandments have no rational explanation and are to be followed for the sole reason that they are a commandment from G-d. Others believe there are many explanations including, amongst other reasons: minimizing pain for animals when slaughtered, instilling self-discipline, avoiding eating animals seen as unhealthy or unhygienic, and the connection of daily life with the divine.

Kosher food is not simply a list of forbidden foods; instead, it permeates all aspects of diet: type, preparation and the eating process itself. The process of making a kitchen kosher is known as Kashering. It involves several steps including, amongst other things: separating dishes used for meat from those used from dairy, not eating meat and dairy together, and refraining from eating certain animals (such as pig and shellfish) – all of which are aspects of Kashrut. Observant Orthodox Jews will eat only in restaurants that are supervised to ensure that kosher standards are observed.



Rabbis are spiritual leaders who teach, sermonize, interpret Jewish tradition, and perform religious ceremonies and rituals.

The majority of synagogues are closely identified with their rabbis. Some rabbis act as family, marriage, and spiritual counsellors. In addition, many rabbis act as representatives of the Jewish community at non-Jewish events. In Reform and Conservative Judaism, rabbis may be male or female. In Orthodox Judaism, rabbis are always male. In each denomination, rabbi attire varies widely.



Tefillin are prayer boxes that contain passages from the Torah which serve to bind the Jews to G-d. They are traditionally worn by males during morning prayers.

In synagogue, many males wear yarmulkes, tallit, and tefillin when appropriate. In some non-Orthodox synagogues, an increasing number of women are also taking on the practice of wearing these religious articles.

Kippa or Yarmulke

(KEY-pah / YAH-mu-kah)

A yarmulke or kippa, skullcap, is worn by Jews to show reverence for G-d during worship, study, and while reciting blessings. Some Jews wear a yarmulke or kippa all the time as a sign of respect. Out of reverence to G-d, it is traditional for all men to cover their heads when entering a Synagogue sanctuary.



Mitzvah literally means “commandment.” Jewish tradition understands exactly 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) derived from the Torah. Whether requiring abstention from certain acts (murder, theft, adultery) or requiring the performance of other acts (feeding the poor, observing the Sabbath), they are much more significant in the Jewish tradition than mere divine suggestions on how to behave. Mitzvot are commandments and not simply “good deeds,” that are traditionally understood to come from G-d and are intended to be observed by the Jewish people.



A tallit is a prayer shawl traditionally worn by adult males, and increasingly by some females, during specific prayer services. It is a four-cornered garment with fringes knotted at each corner that symbolizes one’s commitment to follow G-d’s commandments.



Tzedakah literally means “righteousness.” To do tzedakah is to live justly. It is often interpreted as charity, because Judaism views giving as the ultimate act of righteousness. Whether it is volunteering, advocating for social justice or giving money, tzedakah is an integral part of living a Jewish life and is required of all Jews.

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