Glossary of Terms: Judaism

Berit Covenant. A religious bond between YHVH and the people Israel contracted at Sinai with the giving and acceptance of the Torah. Expresses God's concern for the Jewish people and their reciprocal obligations to God. The physical sign of the covenant is the circumcision (brit) of all Jewish males.

Exile The forcible deportation of the Israelites of Judah from 586-539 BCE. As the Hebrew Bible took shape during this period, the theme of exile and return becomes prominent throughout the Torah.

Exodus The escape of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt, led by Moses, in the 13th century BCE. Also, the book of the Torah which describes this escape. The Exodus is one of the most formative myths of Judaism.

Halakha Any normative Jewish law, custom, or practice, or the entire complex, ratified by authoritative rabbinic jurists and teachers, and established by consensus. Colloquially, if something is considered halakhic, it is proper and normative behavior.

Israel "God-wrestler". In biblical times, this referred to the northern tribes, but also to the entire nation. Jews regard themselves as the true continuation of the ancient Israelite national-religious community. Also refers to the modern state of Israel.

Jerusalem Ancient capital of the Israelite kingdom, established by King David. The site of the ancient Temple, which was destroyed in 587 BCE, rebuilt, and destroyed again by the Romans in 70 CE. Today only the Western Wall remains.

Kadosh "Separate". The Hebrew equivalent of "holy".

Messiah "Anointed one". Based on a biblical belief that a descendant of King David would return to establish an era of peace and justice for the nation of Israel and the world. Expectations of a cosmic messiah developed in rabbinic Judaism and later to include ideas of the fulfillment of linear time, days of judgement, and a new heaven and a new earth.

Mishnah "Reciting". Ancient code of Jewish law collated, edited, and revised around 200 CE. Considered Oral Torah, an authoritative legal tradition of the early sages, and the basis for the legal discussions of the Talmud.

Mitzvot "Commandments". According to rabbinic tradition, there are 613 commandments detailed in the Torah. A mitzvah (singular) is also any act of religious duty or obligation, hence colloquially, "a good deed".

Moses The great Biblical personality who led the nation out of Egyptian bondage (ca. 1250 BCE) and taught them the divine laws at Sinai. Tradition maintains that the whole Torah was dictated to Moses. He is regarded as the first prophet.

Nabi "One who announces" or "One who is called". Prophet. In the Bible, God's instructions are communicated to the people through prophets. Rabbinic tradition holds that the days of prophets are over, and that all communication since antiquity comes through discussion of sources rather than through new revelations.

Oral Torah The tradition that in addition to the written Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, there was an oral tradition given to Moses, written down and compiled much later.

Pesach Passover. Spring festival commemorating the Exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. The festival is the first festival established in the Torah.

Rabbi "Teacher". Authorized teacher of the Jewish tradition. Rabbis replaced the ancient Temple priesthood when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Rabbis serve as legal and spiritual guides for their congregations, as they have mastered traditional Jewish sources. There are different rabbinic schools for each of the modern traditions of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. There is no overarching authority (like a "chief rabbi") who makes binding decisions for the entire community. Each Jewish community is autonomous.

Shabbat "Seventh". The seventh day of the week (sabbath), recalling the completion of creation and the Exodus from Egypt, is consecrated to God. It is a special duty to study the Torah and be joyful.

Shema "Hear". Title of the foundational statement of Jewish monotheism (Deuteronomy 6:4): "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." Recited daily in the liturgy and in private prayers. The Shema is inscribed on the mezuzah, which is on the doorpost of every observant Jewish home.

Synagogue Central institution of Jewish worship and study since antiquity. Contains the Ark with Torah scrolls facing the ancient Temple site in Jerusalem. The synagogue became the center of Jewish worship after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Talmud "Study". Classical rabbinic discussions of the Mishnah. Colloquially, the entire collection (Mishnah plus discussions). There are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Palestinian, compiled around the fifth and fourth centuries respectively.

Torah "Teaching". The first 5 books of the Bible (written Torah), or the whole complex of instructions and practices of Judaism (written plus oral Torah).

YHVH The sacred, unpronounceable name of God. The word "Adonai", "Lord", or "Hashem", "the Name", is usually substituted.