Guide to the Synagogue for Interfaith Couples and Families: Glossary

By InterfaithFamily


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 aliyah Hebrew for going up. In synagogue, the honor of blessing the parts of the Torah reading.

amen Hebrew word meaning believed, faithful or affirmed. In Jewish contexts, it’s usually pronounced ah-meyn instead of eh-men. Saying amen has a technical meaning in Judaism–it means that you have fulfilled your obligation to say the blessing through hearing another person’s blessing. (Which is why people usually do not say amen to their own blessing, unless they are trying to give you a cue to do so.)

 amidah A set of prayers the individual recites standing up. (Amidah means standing.) Sometimes these are called the 18 Benedictions or Shemoneh Esrei, even though there are more than 18 blessings. In traditional synagogues these are first recited individually and silently, and then repeated. In some Reform services, some may be recited out loud and seated.

ark or aron kodesh The cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept. It is an honor to be asked to open the doors to the ark.

 bar mitzvah Son of commandments. A boy of 13 is considered to be responsible for his own actions, and in celebration of this takes on the ritual obligations of an adult–he becomes a bar mitzvah. Since the medieval period it has been a Jewish ritual to call a 13-year-old to the Torah for an aliyah, the honor of reciting the blessings over the reading. His parents can then recite a blessing on not being responsible for his sins. Many bar mitzvah ceremonies including a demonstration of Jewish knowledge and competence, including leading all or part of the Shabbat morning service, reading from the Torah scroll, reading from the Prophets or giving an explanatory talk about the Torah portion. Families will often celebrate this event with a lavish party.

bat mitzvah Daughter of commandments. Though the rabbis of the Talmud recognized that girls became responsible adults in a Jewish sense at age 12 and a half, it was not typical for girls to celebrate this occasion in public until the 20th century–at least, we don’t have much of a historical record of such celebrations. As bar mitzvah became a larger ceremony in North America in the 20th century, Jewish families began to seek parity for their daughters and to train them to do the same tasks as boys: to read from the Torah scroll and the books of the Prophets, lead the service and to give an explanatory talk about the Torah portion. Most Jewish communities now celebrate girls on their 13th birthdays. In some Orthodox communities, girls will have a ceremony that shows their learning or piety in a different way from boy.

bimah The pulpit or platform at the front of the sanctuary in a synagogue.

 cantor Sometimes called by the Hebrew hazan, the cantor is a professional service leader. Many congregations hire a cantor to teach children for their bar and bat mitzvah, organize and rehearse a choir and coordinate music in addition to leading services.

 eternal light or ner tamid A lamp that hangs over the ark in the sanctuary of a synagogue, in remembrance of the eternal light in the Tabernacle mentioned in the book of Exodus.

 gabbai The person who checks the Torah reader.

 Havurah Fellowship–plural,havurot. A small, lay-led group that meets for prayer or study. Some synagogues have smaller havurot that are part of their congregation; other havurot are independent, and function as small independent congregations.

 humash (also sometimes transliterated chumash) From the Hebrew word hamesh meaning five, a bound book containing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, usually with translation and commentary. In many synagogues you can find a humash in the pew in front of you, or on a shelf on your way into the sanctuary.

 kiddush The blessing over wine on Shabbat and holidays takes its Hebrew name for the word for sanctification. In synagogue, people speak of “a kiddush” when they mean the wine and snacks sometimes put out for congregants after services on Shabbat and holidays. To “make kiddush” is to recite or sing the blessing over the wine.

 kippah A skullcap or yarmulke, worn as a sign of respect in Jewish contexts. The plural is kippot. In many synagogues there are baskets of kippot in the entryway for guests to wear. In some congregations only men cover their heads this way, but the custom of women using a kippah as a head covering has become more widespread. For many years, Reform Jews didn’t wear kippot, but today they are the norm in many Reform synagogues for both men and women. It is fine for a non-Jew to wear a head covering to show respect in a Jewish context in which Jews cover their heads.

 mazel tov Congratulations. The phrase means a good sign or good fortune.

minyan The minimum number of adult Jews (10 people) required to form a congregation required for Torah reading and some of the prayers. The plural is minyanim. Also, some small congregations that don’t have their own building refer to themselves as independent minyanim.

 rabbi A spiritual leader and teacher.

repetition In traditional morning services, the service leader repeats the silent standing prayer, the Amidah. During the repetition, the congregation stands and joins the leader in reciting the Kedushah or sanctification of God’s name. In most Reform services, there is no repetition of the Amidah.

 Sefer Torah The Torah scroll containing the first five books of the Hebrew bible.

 Shema The most central prayer in Judaism, from Deuteronomy 6:4, often translated: “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”. In the traditional prayerbook, the recitation of the Shema also includes three additional paragraphs from Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41.

siddur Hebrew for prayerbook. The plural is siddurim. In most synagogues, the siddurim are in a wooden holder in the pew in front of you, or on a shelf on your way into the sanctuary.

 tallit or tallis Prayer shawl. (Some say tallit and use the Hebrew plural tallitot, and others say tallis and use the Yiddish plural tallises.) Because it is rectangular, a tallit is subject to the commandment in Numbers 15:37-41, quoted in the Shema, on wearing ritual fringes in the corners of the garments. (If your clothes don’t have corners, they don’t meet the requirement for fringes!) People who wear a tallit to pray do so in part in order to get to look at (and sometimes kiss) the fringes while they read the verse about them in the Shema. In many congregations, there are racks outside the sanctuary where guests may borrow a tallit. A non-Jew is not obligated to wear a tallit but it is OK to try one.

transliteration If you don’t read Hebrew and you want to participate in singing Hebrew prayers and songs, some congregations will provide you with the text spelled out in English letters.

 yarmulke See kippah.

yasher koach! More power to you! This is a way to congratulate someone for doing a good job at a ritual task in services. You can also say “Good job!” The appropriate response is “Baruch tiheyeh”–Be blessed. Or you can just say, “Thanks!”


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InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our new Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship will provide offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have suggestions, please contact