Glossary of Hebrew, German and Yiddish Words and Phrases

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aktsiyes (Yiddish: credit)

A credit cooperative that loaned money with a small fee and functioned like a credit union where members deposited money into savings accounts and were paid interest.

aliyah/ aliyot (Hebrew: going up/ascent)

The honor of being called up to the bimah in order to chant a blessing before or after the Torah reading, or to chant a portion of the Torah reading during services. This term can also be used to indicate emigration to Israel.


An ancient semitic language used in Babylon and Palestine from c. 5 BCE to the end of the Talmudic period.  Some religious prayers and terms use an Aramaic format.

Ashkenazi/ashkenazim (Hebrew/Yiddish: Jews from “Ashkenaz,” Germanic lands)

Jews of German origin, later applied to Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, who followed Ashkenazi ritual style.

AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph)

The boy’s youth wing of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish fraternal Jewish organization. Branches of this organization exist across the US and around the world.


Ba’al Koreh (Hebrew: Reader)

Torah reader at synagogue services.

Ba’al teshuvah/ba’ale teshuvah (Hebrew: penitent/returners)

A Jew who adopts traditional ritual obligations of Judaism having been formerly unobservant.

Bat Mitzvah (Hebrew: daughter of the commandment)

A ritual marking a twelve or thirteen-year-old Jewish girl’s attainment of religious majority. This is often identified as a twentieth century American innovation initiated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Some streams of Judaism observe this at the passage at the age of twelve, and in group observances.

Bar (Aramaic: son of)

Used in the term bar mitzvah (son of the commandment).

Bar Mitzvah (Aramaic/Hebrew mix: son of the commandment)

The passage of a boy into adulthood at the age of thirteen. This is often observed with a public ceremony and a reading from the Torah marking the assumption of religious privileges and obligations.

Ben (Hebrew: Son of)

Used in a traditional Hebrew surname e.g. Daniel ben Avraham (Daniel son of Abraham).

Beit Avot (Hebrew: House of the fathers/ancestors)

A Jewish cemetery. Also Beit Chaim (Hebrew: House of Life); Beit Kevarot (Hebrew: House of graves from kever, Hebrew for grave), Beit Olam (Hebrew: House of Eternity) and Beit Shalom: (Hebrew: House of Peace).

Beth Din (Hebrew: literally house of judges)

A rabbinic court.

Bimah (Hebrew: elevated space)

Raised platform/podium in a synagogue from where the service is led from, often with a lecturn from where the Torah scroll is placed while being read.

Bikur Cholim (Hebrew: visiting the sick)

A volunteer society for visiting the sick.

B’nai B’rith (Hebrew: sons of the covenant)

An American fraternal organization founded in 1843, eventually expanded into an international organization that includes youth wings for boys and girls and women in separate divisions.

B’rit(h) Milah: (Hebrew: covenant of circumcision; Yiddish variant: bris)

Ritual circumcision of the Jewish male infant, bringing him into the covenant of Abraham.

C (and the Hebrew Ḥ – pronounced CH)

Challah/ Ḥallah (Hebrew: loaf)

Twisted loaves of bread used during sabbath and festival observances. Variant spelling:

Chalutz/ Ḥalutz/halutzim (Hebrew: pioneers)

Kibbutz settlers and others who built up the modern Israeli state during the period of the Yishuv.

Chanukah/ Ḥanukkah (Hebrew: dedication)

A Jewish festival celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Hellenists. It is observed by kindling of eight lights on successive nights in a menorah known as a hanukiah. In the United States, because it occurs generally in December around Christmas, it has achieved an elevated status of observance.

Chasid/ Ḥasid (Hebrew: pious)

A member of a school of pietistic Jewish thought founded in the eighteenth century by Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the “Master of the Good Name” (lit: Baal Shem Tov).

Chasidim/ Ḥasidim

This eighteenth century spiritual movement begun among Russian Jews. This movement is infused with mysticism and advocates prayer through joyous singing and dance.

Chavurah/ Ḥavurah/ havurot (Hebrew: fellowship)

Informal prayer, study and social group.

Chazan/ Ḥazzan/ hazzanim (Hebrew: cantor)

Religious functionary whose leads the Hebrew liturgy at the synagogue service, through chants and musical renditions.

Ḥechsher (Hebrew: Prior approval)

Rabbinic endorsement that a product is kosher and that is ritually fit for use or consumption by conforming to rules of halakhah.

Cheder/im, Ḥeder/ hedarim (Hebrew: room)

Jewish religious supplementary school. Variant spelling:

Chevra/ot, Ḥevra/ hevrot (Hebrew: group)

A group, association, or society. Variant spelling:

Chevra/ Ḥevra Kadisha (Hebrew: holy association)

A society of Jewish members who perform the rituals associated with burying the dead. A burial society.


Daven  (Yiddish: praying)

To pray.

Dayan/Dayyanim (Hebrew: judge/ judges)

A judge who serves on a rabbinic court.

Diaspora (Greek: dispersion)

The Jewish world for Jews who live outside of the land of Israel.


Ezrat Nashim (lit: women’s help)

Traditionally, the separated women’s section of the synagogue.  In 1971 this name was used by a women’s group to demand greater egalitarian worship modes within Conservative Judaism. It had a profound influence on women’s education and roles in Conservative Judaism.


Gematria (Hebrew: numerology)

A system that assigns numerical value to each Hebrew letter which gives mystical meaning to words and names.

Gemilut Chasadim (Hebrew: Acts of Loving Kindness)

Also “performance of deeds of kindness.” An organization that grants non-interest loans. This was also the Hebrew name of the organization in Buffalo, now known as the Hebrew Benevolent Loan Association or HBLA.

Get (Hebrew, pl: Gittin)

A Jewish document of divorce written by hand at the request of the husband.

Goyim (Hebrew singular: Goy)

Literally, “nations,” used to refer to non-Jews


Hachnosat Orchim (Hebrew: hospitality to guests)

Name given to the Jewish communal institution serving the Jewish transient/traveller. (Yiddish: Hachnosos Orchim). In Buffalo this was located at the Talmud Torah on the East Side. 


Myrtle. One of the four plants used as part of the religious celebration of Sukkot. This plant was also used in the original seal of the Hadassah (Women’s) Zionist organization. Buffalo had several Hadassah chapters until the 1990s, when they consolidated into one united group.

Haggadah (Hebrew: telling)

Narrative text of the home service on the first two nights of the holiday of Pesach (Passover).

Halakhah (Hebrew: the way, or law)

Jewish law, including rabbinic decisions, made throughout history. Variant spelling: Halacha(h)

Hall of Names

A department of Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem created in 1955 to collect the names of Jews who died in the Holocaust, see:

The Hall of Names is based on millions of “Pages of Testimony.” See:  The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names is accessible at and

HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)

A social service organization that has helped Jewish immigrants relocate in the United States since the late 19th century.

High Holidays

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies)

A confederation of over 70 Jewish genealogical societies throughout the world.  See:

ITS (International Tracing Service)

The ITS is a an archive and a center located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, for documenting National Socialist persecution of peoples under the Nazi regime, as well as the liberated survivors. See: Last Accessed on October 17, 2017.


JGB (Jewish Genealogical Society)

An organization of people located in a given geographic area researching their Jewish ancestry. There are more than 80 JGSs throughout the word. The Jewish Genealogy Society of Buffalo (JGSB) was founded in 1986 by Ferne Mittleman and Muriel Selling, and aids members with Jewish genealogical research. It meets at the Jewish Community Center, local libraries and other venues. For more information, see:


Kaddish (Hebrew: from kadosh, meaning holy)

Aramaic prayer praising God, recited within a quorum or minyan, with a specific form that is recited in memory of a recently deceased person.

Kahal kodesh (Hebrew: holy congregation)

A congregation, often within a synagogue or temple.

Kashrut (Hebrew: fit, proper, correct)

The state of being kosher in maintenance of Jewish dietary laws, which prohibit certain foods and regulates the preparation of permitted foods.

Kehillah/ kehillot (Hebrew: community)

The organized Jewish community that sets rules for its members. A corporate Jewish community. Also used in reference to a congregation.

Ketubah (Hebrew: written thing)

Jewish marriage contract.

Kibbutz/ kibbutzim (Hebrew: gathering, clustering)

Collective agricultural settlement based in Israel founded on socialist principles of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation in production, consumption and education.

Kiddush (Hebrew: sanctification)

The benediction chanted over the wine on Shabbat and festivals.

Kittel (Yiddish: coat/robe)

White robe worn over clothing on religious occasions such at the Yom Kippur service and at a wedding by the bridegroom. Variant spelling: kitl. 

KL/KZ. (German Abbreviation: Konzentrationslager)

Nazi concentration camp.

Kohan/ Kohanim (Hebrew: priest)

A member of the Jewish priestly family. Kohanim are not allowed to come into contact with the deceased.

Kollel (Hebrew: gathering/collection)

An institute where Orthodox men study full-time.

Kol Nidre (Aramaic: All Vows)

Prayer chanted at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service.

Kosher (Yiddish: fit, from the Hebrew, kasher)

Food that is ritually acceptable to consume or use having been prepared in accordance with religious law.


Landsmanshaftn (Yiddish: Jews from the same town)

Societies of immigrants who were created based on European places of origin affiliations. A Jewish social (and sometimes benefit) organization made up of people from the same community in the “Old Country.”

LDS. (Abbrevitation: Latter-day Saints)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Church.


Magen David (Hebrew: Shield of David)

Religious star shaped symbol based on the legend that King David used a hexagram for the shape of his shield. Commonly translated as “Star” of David.

Mamzer/ mamzerim (Hebrew: illegitimate child as defined by halakhah)

A child of an incestuous or adulterous relationship by a married woman. Married men who have adulterous relationships that result in children are not considered mamzerim.

Matzah (Hebrew: Unleavened bread)

Unleavened bread eaten on Passover.

Megillah (Hebrew: scroll/volume)

A grouping of different books associated with specific themes or holidays (the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther).

Mikvah (Hebrew: a collection/pool)

A ritual bath maintained by Jews for purification and immersion purposes. There are separate men and women’s ritual baths.

Minhag (Hebrew: custom)

Religious custom.

Minyan (Hebrew: count/number)

In traditional Judaism a quorum of ten males above the age of thirteen is required for public Jewish worship. This includes recitation of specific prayers e.g. Kaddish. Women are counted in a minyan in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative streams.

Mitzvah/mitzvot (Hebrew: a commandment)

An action that is required under Jewish law having been commanded by God. Sometimes colloquially used to refer to a charitable or beneficial act performed by another person.

Mohel/ mohelim (Aramaic: mohala, circumciser)

One who performs the rite of circumcision. A mohel must be qualified by experience and adherence to religious practice.


NARA (Abbreviation: National Archives and Records Administration)

National Archives of the United States.

Ner Tamid (Hebrew: Eternal Light)

An “everlasting or eternal” flame placed near the Ark of a synagogue that “burns” perpetually/continually.  Contemporary forms are usually powered by electricity.


Oleh/Olah/olim (Hebrew: “one who goes up”)

An immigrant to Israel.


Parnas (Hebrew: warden)

Community leader; in the United States usually a synagogue president.

Pogrom (Russian: destruction)

A pogrom is an organized, sometimes state tolerated or sanctioned attack or violent rampage on a specific group or community, often a religious or ethnic minority. Historically it came to refer to attacks by non-Jews on a local Jewish population, that could involve a range of acts from destruction of property, to theft, rape, physical assault and murder.

Posek/ poskim (Hebrew: decisions/rulings)

A rabbi who is qualified to render a halakhic decision.

Purim (Hebrew: Literally, “lots”)

The minor festival whose history is recorded in the Book of Esther.


Rachamim (Hebrew: Mercy)

The Yiddish form is rachmones.

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: Head of the New Year)

Jewish New Year.

Rosh Ḥodesh (Hebrew: head of/new month)

A minor festival, consisting of one or two days, occurring at the beginning of each Jewish month except Tishri. The advent of this seventh month is marked by Rosh Hashana.


Seder (Hebrew: order)

Usually used in reference to the evening meal and Home Service on the first two nights of Passover.

Sephardi/ Sephardim (Hebrew:  Jews of Spanish or Portuguese origin)

After the Expulsion of 1492, Sephardim settled all over the Mediterranean basin. In the seventeenth century, some made their way up the Atlantic coast to France, the Netherlands, and England. Of Spanish or Portuguese origin or custom.

Shabbat (Hebrew: Sabbath; Yiddish: Shabbes/Shabbos)

The Sabbath.

Shaliach (Hebrew: emissary)

An agent or emissary, often associated with fundraising for Israel, or a representative to aid in emigration to Israel.

Shamash/Shames (Hebrew: Sexton)

Religious functionary. The administrator and caretaker of various functions within the synagogue relating to the service, and sometimes the building.

Shavuot: (Hebrew: weeks)

The Feast of Pentecost or Feast of Weeks. Occurs seven weeks after the second day of Passover.

Shiva (Hebrew: seven)

The seven-day mourning period that begins immediately after burial. One is said to “sit shivah.”

Shoah (Hebrew: catastrophe)

Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

Shochet (Hebrew: ritual slaughter of kosher animals)

A ritual slaughter of kosher animals who must be an observant Jew and certified by a rabbi as proficient in the knowledge of laws pertaining to ritual slaughtering.

Shtetl (Yiddish: village)

A small settlement often a village from a former European hometown.

Shul (Yiddish: Synagogue from German word for school)

Used as word for “synagogue.”

Siddur (Hebrew: Order)

Prayer book.

Sukkot (Hebrew: The Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths)

A seven-day Biblical harvest festival that occurs two weeks after Rosh Hashanah. It is part of the high holy days that is completed with Sh’mini Azeret and Simhat Torah, for a total of nine holy days.


Tallit (Hebrew: Prayer shawl; a shawl with tzitzit -ritually knotted fringes)

A traditional tallit is all wool, white with black or blue stripes near the edges with tzitzit on each of the corners, that was traditionally worn by Jewish men during prayer, but is also used by women in egalitarian streams of Judaism.

Talmud (Hebrew: learning)

A compilation of Jewish civil and canonical law written between 200 and 500 BCE consisting of the Mishnah.

Talmud Torah

An elementary school for Jewish religious education.

Tefillin (Hebrew: to guard, protect)

Ritual parchment enclosed in a box, worn, usually by men, as part of prayer rituals.  Also known as phylacteries.

Torah (Hebrew: Instruction)

The five books of Moses also known as the Pentateuch and more broadly, all Jewish learning and culture, both biblical and rabbinic.

“Torah im derekh eretz.” A teaching philosophy and practice of Orthodox Jewish day schools to immerse students in both sacred studies (Torah) and derekh eretz (secular studies).

Torah U’Mesorah

A network of Orthodox Jewish day schools. In Buffalo, the Chabad founded Jewish Heritage Day School was affiliated with this group.   

Trefa (Hebrew: unclean)

Food that is not fit (i.e. forbidden/excluded under laws of kashrut) or that has not been prepared according to the laws of Kashrut. 

Tzedakah (Hebrew: commandment)

A religious obligation for the Jew, often mistranslated as “charity.”

Tu Bishvat

A minor festival occurring on the fifteenth day of eleventh month of the Jewish year also known as New Year for Trees. 

Tzitzit (Hebrew: fringes)

These are ritually knotted fringes found on the corners of a tallit to remind Jews of their religious obligations. 


USHMM (Abbreviation: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The United States’ official memorial to the Holocaust, this museum is located in Washington, DC. The USHMM documents, studies, and interprets Holocaust history in order to commemorate all victims under the Nazi sphere during the Third Reich.  


Yad Vashem (Holocaust memorial museum and research institute)

Full name: Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, established with the Yad Vashem Law (August 19, 1953).

Yahrzeit (Yiddish: Anniversary date of death)

The anniversary date of the death of a person.

Yarmulke (Yiddish: cap)

head covering usually worn by men. Also see: kippah.

Yehuda/Yehudim (Hebrew)


Yeshiva/yeshivot (Hebrew: sit/sitting)

A traditional institution of talmudic learning.

Yiddish (Language)

Eastern Europe language spoken among Ashkenazi Jews written with Hebrew letters and based mainly on medieval German, with numerous words drawn from Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish and Russian and other Slavic languages.

Yishuv (Hebrew: settlement)

The modern Jewish settlement in Palestine or Israel.

Yom Kippur (Hebrew: Day of Atonement)

A twenty-five hour fast observed ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Also known as a “Day of Judgment” when God seals the fate of each individual Jew for the year that follows. This time between another high holiday Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a period of reflection, repentance and prayer.

Yom ha-Shoah (Hebrew: Holocaust Memorial Day)

Full name: Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah: Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism. Annual day of observance on the 27th day of Nisan to remember the victims of the Holocaust, and the individuals who resisted under Nazism. The commemorative date was chosen by the Israeli Parliament on April 12, 1951 and a law for its commemorative name was enacted on August 19, 1953.

Yom Tov (Hebrew: good day)

A generic term for a Jewish holiday.


ZL (Hebrew Abbreviation: zichrono/zichronah l’vracha)

May his/her memory be a blessing.

Zachor (Hebrew: remember)

Memory, commemoration. Sometimes used as an invocation to remember the events of the Holocaust/Shoah.