Jewish Holidays and Rituals: A Glossary


Ashkenazi Jews: Jews from eastern France, Germany or Eastern Europe, and their descendents.


Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah: Marks a young person's passage into adulthood, after which time he or she is expected to fulfill the commandments and complete all religious duties as an adult. Jewish boys become a Bar Mitzvah, literally, a person of commandment-age, or the age of majority, at thirteen. Girls become Bat Mitzvah at the age of twelve, though often celebrating their ceremony at thirteen, as well.

Brit Milah: Refers to the circumcision of a Jewish boy on the eighth day after birth, or to the circumcision of a male convert to Judaism. Literally translates from Hebrew as "covenant of circumcision."


Cantor: A synagogue official who chants the prayers and leads the congregation during services.

Chanukah: An eight-day holiday commemorating the triumph of the Jewish Maccabees over the Greek army in 165 B.C.E. A miracle followed when a small quantity of oil kept the Temple's menorah (candelabrum) lit for eight days.

Chanukah Lamp: A lamp with nine lights used to commemorate the holiday of Chanukah. Each day of the eight-day holiday is celebrated by lighting an additional light on the lamp. The ninth light, the shamash, is used to kindle the eight other lights.

Chuppah: The wedding canopy under which the bride and groom stand during the marriage ceremony to represent the Jewish home that they will build together.

Confirmation: A ceremony that takes place two years after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, at the age of fifteen. Today it is called Kabbalat Torah, receiving the Torah. It is held on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, and it is a graduation from the Temple's Torah School.

Conservative: One of the four major denominations in Judaism (the others being Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist). Conservative Jews follow the traditional laws and customs of Judaism, but allow for some adaptations to fit modern circumstances. The movement grew out of the tensions between the Orthodox and Reform movements.


Dreidel: A four-sided spinning top used in a children's game during the holiday of Chanukah. Each side of the dreidel is decorated with a Hebrew letter: "nun," "gimmel," "hei," or "shin." The letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "a great miracle happened there," referring to the miracle of lights that occurred in the land of Israel in 165 B.C.E. In Israel, the "shin" is replaced by a "pei" in order to explain that "a great miracle happened here."


Etrog: A citrus fruit used in celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Harvest Festival. The etrog represents one of the four species of fruit identified by rabbinic tradition.


Gragger: A noisemaker used during the reading of the Megillat Esther when the villain Haman is mentioned. The word is derived from the Polish word for "rattle."


Haggadah: The book used at the Passover seder. The haggadah recounts the story of the Jewish liberation from slavery and exodus from Egypt.

Havdalah: A ceremony that takes place after nightfall on Saturday to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week. A braided candle, a cup of wine and spices are used in the ceremony. The term literally means "to separate."

High Holidays: Encompassing the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holidays are the most important holidays in the Jewish year.


Ketubah: Jewish marriage contract.

Kiddush: The prayer made over a cup of wine. Translates from Hebrew as "sanctification."

Kiddush Cup: The cup that holds the wine or grape juice on which the Kiddush (prayer) is made.

Kittel: A loose white linen garment in which the dead are buried. It is worn by some during Yom Kippur services. The kittel symbolizes purity.


Lulav: A palm branch with willow and myrtle attached used in celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Harvest Festival. The lulav represents three of the four species of fruit identified by rabbinic tradition.


Matzah: Unleavened bread eaten during the holiday of Passover to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. The Jews had so little time to gather their belongings when they were finally freed from slavery that they could not wait for their bread to rise.

Megillat Esther: A scroll, known as the Book of Esther, which is read during the holiday of Purim. It recounts the story of Esther, a Jewish woman who became Queen of Persia and helped save the Jews of Persia from being massacred in the fifth century B.C.E.

Menorah: The seven-branched candelabrum kept in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Also refers to the nine-branched candelabrum used on Chanukah (Chanukah Lamp).

Mezuzah: A small case containing selected Torah verses that is affixed to the right side of the doorposts of Jewish homes.

Mitzvah: Translates from Hebrew as commandment. According to rabbinic tradition, there are 613 religious commandments described in the Torah. In general, a mitzvah refers to any act of religious duty or obligation. Colloquially, the word mitzvah is used to describe a good deed.


Ner Tamid: A light which burns continuously in front of and slightly above the Torah Ark in order to symbolize the eternal presence of God. The term literally means "eternal light."


Orthodox: One of the four major denominations in Judaism (the others being Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist). Orthodox Jews adhere to the letter of the law and attempt to maintain traditional Jewish practice.


Passover: A holiday commemorating the Jewish people's redemption from slavery and exodus from Egypt. The Passover story, recorded in the haggadah, is retold during the seder.

Pidyon Haben: When the parents of a first-born son redeem their child on the thirty-first day of his life through a ceremony that is meant to fulfill a Biblical command.

Prayer Book: Contains the text for daily as well as Shabbat and holiday prayers.

Purim: A joyous holiday that commemorates the victory of the Jews over the evil Persian minister Haman, who plotted to kill all of the Jews of Persia in the fifth century B.C.E. Queen Esther is the heroine of the story. The Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) recounts the story of Purim, and is read during the holiday.