Glossary: Jewish Culture and Religion

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Cantor – A synagogue officiant who sings or chants liturgical music and leads the congregation in prayer.

Hannukah – A Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days, usually in December, to mark the victory of the Jews in the first recorded battle for religious freedom. In 168 BCE a small army of Jews led by Judah Maccabee overcame the might of their Syrian rulers in a struggle for the right to worship God in their own way. The festival is observed in Jewish homes by the kindling of lights on a Menorah, on each of the festival's eight nights, one on the first night, two on the second night, and so on. The exact dates of the holiday are determined by the lunar calendar used in Judaism.

Menorah – A nine-branched candelabrum used in celebrating Hannukah. Eight candles represent the eight days of Hannukah; the ninth is a “servant” candle used to light the others.

Mezuzah – A small metal or ceramic tube, containing a small piece of parchment, which is placed on the doorpost of a Jewish home. On the parchment, a quotation from the Bible calls on Jews to make their homes worthy of God’s presence.

Mitzvah – A Hebrew word that refers to the commandments given in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), or any Jewish law at all. The term “mitzvah” has also come to mean any act of human kindness, or a good deed.  

Rabbi – The official leader of a Jewish congregation.

Shabbat – The weekly day of rest in Judaism. It is observed from before sundown on Friday until after nightfall on Saturday.

Shema Yisroel – The first two words, meaning “Hear O Israel,” of a section of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) that is the centerpiece of all morning and evening Jewish prayer services. This declaration of faith is considered the most important prayer in Judaism, reaffirming one’s commitment to one God. The first sentence, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” is traditionally uttered prior to death.

Shoah – A Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe.” It refers to the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

Synagogue – A Jewish place of religious worship where meetings are held and services are conducted.

Talmud – The textual record of discussions by rabbis on Jewish law, Jewish ethics, customs, legends, and stories, which Jewish tradition considers authoritative.

Torah – A Hebrew word meaning “teaching,” “instruction,” or “law.” It is the most important document of Judaism, revered by Jews through the ages. It primarily refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. For many Jews it is the primary guide to the relationship between God and man.

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