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Jewish Greetings Cheat Sheet

July 12, 2010

Are you afraid to open your mouth in Jewish settings because you don't know what to say? We can help! Happy and sad lifecycle moments, Jewish holidays and other occasions--we can provide you with a traditional Hebrew or Yiddish response and an English alternative--and a virtual pat on the back. You're doing fine!

Happy Occasions

Mazel tov
Though this expression means literally good luck (or "a good sign") it's always used to mean congratulations. It's something to say to brides and grooms, parents of children becoming bar or bat mitzvah and new parents. It's also a nice thing to say to someone who has a birthday, or gets a new job or a new car. If you feel uncomfortable pronouncing it, say, "Congratulations!"

One thing that makes Jewish subculture a little different from the dominant culture is that it's typical to congratulate the mothers, fathers, siblings and friends of people getting married, having a baby or watching their relative become bar or bat mitzvah. If a Jewish person says "Congratulations!" to you when you say you are going to a friend's wedding, say, "thanks," not, "It's not my wedding, you goofball."

You might also hear some wise guy yell "Mazel tov" in a Jewish delicatessen when someone drops dishes. That's because at Jewish weddings, it's traditional to break a glass and sometimes also a plate.

B'sha'ah tovah
Don't say mazel tov when someone says they are pregnant. They don't have the baby yet. Instead say "b'sha'ah tovah," or "in a good hour"--meaning something like, I hope this works out perfectly. If you feel uncomfortable pronouncing that, say, "I'm so happy for you."

Yasher Koach
When someone has an aliyah to the Torah or reads from the Torah, or does some public ritual in the synagogue, one traditional thing to say is "yasher koach," may your strength increase. If you feel uncomfortable pronouncing that, you can say, "Good job"--and shake their hand. If someone says that to you, say, "Baruch tihiyeh"--or just, "thanks!"

Tithadesh or tithadshi
When your friend gets new clothes, a new house or a new car, there is a special way to congratulate them--tithadesh, may it renew you. (To a female friend you say "tithadshi.") There isn't a really a good English equivalent, because there's no specific way of congratulating people on getting new things--but you can always say, "Congratulations, enjoy it!"

Sad Occasions

Next time, at a simchah
When you see someone you love at a sad occasion like a funeral, what do you say? There is a Yiddish expression, "oyf simches" which means, "let's only meet at happy occasions." A good substitute is, "Glad you could make it," or "Hope the next time we meet is at a happier occasion."

Ha-Makom yinachem etchem...
There is a traditional Hebrew phrase to say at funerals and houses of mourning, "Ha-Makom hu yinachem et chem b'toch avlei tsiyon v'yerushalayim." It means, "May the Merciful One comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem." It seems unlikely you will need to say this, but it's good to be in the know. You don't really have to say anything, just be there and listen. Or say, "I'm sorry."

For more about what to say when you vist a house of mourning, see "How to Pay a Shivah Call," and our Guide to Death and Mourning for Interfaith Families.

Holidays

For more on holiday greetings, see our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet.

Shabbat
The most traditional greeting is the easiest: Shabbat Shalom! You might also hear Gut Shabbes, which is Yiddish for good Sabbath.

Rosh Hashanah
Traditional greetings include, "L'Shanah Tovah tikatevu," which means, May you be inscribed for a good year, or just "Shanah Tovah," which means A Good Year. Some say "Happy New Year!" or "A happy and healthy New Year." You might also hear people greet in Yiddish, "Gut yomtev," which means happy holiday.

Yom Kippur
A traditional greeting for Yom Kippur is Gamar hatimah tovah--a good completion to your inscription (in the book of life.) Some say "Gamar tov," a good completion. Some say Shanah tovah or Happy New Year, and some say tzom kal or have an easy fast.

Sukkot and Simchat Torah
Hag Sameah (Happy holiday) with a heavy gutteral h at the beginning of the first word and the end of the second. Or if you are really sophisticated, Moadim l'simcha, which means "festivals for joy." You may also hear "gut yontev," which is Yiddish for happy holiday.

Hanukkah
The big challenge here for many English-speakers is that initial heavy H sound, like the J in Jose or the ch in Loch Ness. (That's why the holiday is sometimes spelled Chanukah.) Say Happy Hanukkah, do your best with the initial guttural h, smile and don't worry.

Purim
The best greeting is Happy Purim! Some say Hag Sameach, which means Happy Holiday or Purim Sameach which means Happy Purim! It's all about the happy.

Passover
Some people say "Hag Sameah v' kasher"--have a happy and kosher holiday. Or try Happy Pesach or Happy Passover.

Shavuot
Hag Sameah (Happy holiday) with a heavy gutteral h at the beginning of the first word and the end of the second. Or if you are really sophisticated, Moadim l'simcha, which means "festivals for joy." You may also hear "gut yontev," which is Yiddish for happy holiday.

Hebrew for "Sabbath [of] peace," a greeting on the Jewish Sabbath. Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "a good year," a typical greeting on Rosh Hashanah. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Yiddish for "good Sabbath," a customary greeting leading into, and during, the Sabbath. Hebrew for "happy holiday." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the action of making something kosher (like cleaning a kitchen). Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Yiddish for "holiday." Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term, synonymous with Jerusalem.
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