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. 

Kosher / Kashrut

(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 solely as a commandment from G-d. Others believe there are many rationales behind kosher laws, including: 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 consumption. The process of making a kitchen kosher is known as Kashering. It involves several steps including separating dishes used for meat from those used for dairy. Kosher laws forbid eating meat and dairy together and eating pig or shellfish. Observant Orthodox Jews will eat only in restaurants that are supervised to ensure kosher standards are observed. 



A rabbi is a spiritual leader who teaches, sermonizes, interprets Jewish tradition, and perform religious ceremonies and rituals. 

Most synagogues are closely identified with their rabbis. Some rabbis act as family, marriage, and spiritual counsellors and some 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 that 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. 

The Torah

Synonymous with Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses are the Written Teachings known as the Torah. According to tradition, the five books were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai. Along with the Written Teachings, G-d gave Moses a detailed explanation of His commandments, known as the Oral Teachings. 

Today, Torah has come to mean not only the Written and Oral Teachings but also the totality of Jewish teaching and thought as well. 

The Torah is divided into 54 portions, one of which is read in synagogue each Sabbath. This cycle of readings concludes each year on Shmini Atzeret and begins again of the following day on Simchat Torah. 

Kippa or Yarmulke

(KEY-pah / YAH-mu-kah)

A yarmulke or kippa, a 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. Not simply “good deeds,” mitzvot are commandments  traditionally understood to come from G-d and are intended to be observed by the Jewish people. .



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



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.