Aron Hakodesh

“Holy Chest” which, in the synagogue, holds the scrolls of the Torah. The Aron haKodesh is generally positioned so that it faces Jerusalem.


From Ashkenaz, which in medieval Hebrew indicated the Germanic lands (the term first appeared in Genesis 10:3), refers to the original Jews of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe and their descendents.

Atarah (also Keter)

Ornamental crown for the Torah scroll.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah

The Bar Mitzvah is the religious coming-of-age ceremony for males, and is celebrated once a boy reaches the age of thirteen; the Bat Mitzvah was only introduced in the 19th century, first in Reform Judaism. It is the religious coming-of-age ceremony for females, and is celebrated after a girl’s twelfth birthday. In both cases the rite marks their entry into adulthood, and therefore, amongst other things, introduces the obligation to respect the mitzvot and, for men, the right to read from the Torah in synagogue.

Beit Knesset

The synagogue (literally “House of assembly”).

Beth Hamidrash

The “House of study”, referring to senior studies (the “lower” school is called Beit sefer); the Beit HaMidrash is an ancient institution. It is generally situated on a  premises adjacent to the synagogue.

Besamim box

A spice-box used during the ceremony of Havdalah, at the end of the Shabbat.

Bimah (also Tevah)

The platform from which the religious service is delivered and the Torah is read.


Traditional bread baked for the Shabbat. The use of challah can be traced back to the biblical passage in Numbers 15, 18-19: “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you enter the land where I bring you, then it shall be, that when you eat of the food of the land, you shall lift up an offering to the LORD’”. In observance of this passage, a piece of the dough is taken out, set aside and left uneaten.


The “inauguration”: this feast commemorates the re-consecration of the sanctuary of Jerusalem, after the city was liberated from the forces of Antiochus IV (2nd century before the Common Era). Chanukah falls during the month of Kislev (in late November or December) and lasts eight days, in memory of the eight days during which the candelabrum in the temple, the menorah, miraculously stayed lit despite the fact that following the pillaging there was no oil left to burn.


A nine-branch candelabrum which is lit for the feast of Chanukah. Eight branches recall the eight days of the feast, while the ninth branch, called a shamash, or “attendant”, is used to light the other candles.


A long binder wrapped around the Torah scroll to keep it closed.


Wedding canopy.


The citron fruit, used in celebrations for the feast of Sukkot (cfr. also entry for Lulav). It is kept in a special decorated case, generally silver, but which can also be made from wood or other materials.

Etz chaim

Wooden rollers around which the Torah scroll is wound.


An extract taken from the Prophets, or from the Hagiographa, read immediately after the weekly parashah and generally linked to the same theme.


“Narrative”, “tale”. The word defines both one of the two main “literary genres” of the Talmud (the other is the halakhah), and, in the more specific term Haggadah shel-Pesach, the telling of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, which represents the crux of the Pesach feast, and is read during the seder, the ritual dinner.


Literally “path, way”. In its wider sense, halakhah indicates the set of religious, moral and ritual rules which regulate and guide every area of Jewish life. Of biblical origin, the halakhah developed extensively in the major post-biblical works of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Moreover, the majority of rabbinic commentaries from throughout history have been dedicated to the halakhah.


Literally “fit”. Defines that which meets the requirements of rituals and of purity, mainly contained in the Torah (Leviticus and Deuteronomy); generally refers, in most cases, to food and drinks. A more restrictive kasherut (dietary law) exists for the feast of Pesach, when eating leavened foods is forbidden.

KetubbahKeter (also Atarah)

Ornamental crown for the Torah scroll.


Marriage contract.


The “Writings”, also known as “Hagiographa”: this is the third section of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, and is made up of the books of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the five Megillot (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther), and the books of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles I and II.


Literally “Sanctification”: indicates a prayer which is recited during various religious feasts and on Friday nights, to welcome the Shabbat.


Cap worn by men for prayer (whether this is taking place in the synagogue or in any other location, such as the cemetery). Some also wear a kippah in everyday life so as not to appear bare-headed before God.


A bunch of four plants which must be held during prayers on the feast of Sukkot: made up of a branch of palm, three of myrtle, two of willow and one citron (etrog). The term actually only indicates the palm branch, but has come to stand for all four plants together.

Magen David

The “shield of David”, the six-pointed star which has become a symbol of the State of Israel and is on the national flag.


Embroidered “tablecloth” used to cover the Torah scroll when it is on the lectern.


Fabric, cloak, generally sumptuously embroidered, wrapped around the Torah scroll.


Architectural structure, usually mobile, which is used in synagogue to separate the men’s area from the women’s area.


“Scroll”. The Hebrew bible comprises five scrolls, namely the five books which were traditionally written on a scroll rather than in a codex format: Ruth, The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther.


Seven branched candelabrum which was found in the Jerusalem sanctuary. Given that it was an extremely important object, and closely related to the ritual of the sanctuary, following the destruction and pillaging of the second Temple by the Emperor Titus (70 C. E.), the menoroth produced subsequently did not perform ritual functions, but remain ornamental and symbolic items.


A case containing a parchment with two passages from Deuteronomy (6, 4-9 and 11, 13-21) which is fixed to the right-hand side of the door frame, following the commandment in Deut. 6, 9: “And thou shall write them upon the doorposts of thy house and on thy gates”.


Circumcision. In Jewish tradition, new-born boys are circumcised on the eighth day of life, with a ceremony called Brit-Milah, “Pact of the Milah”. The circumcision is performed by a specially trained person called a mohel; the child is “virtually” placed on the knees of the prophet Elijah by his father, who places the baby on the Kisse shel-Eliyahu, “Chair of Elijah”.


The quorum of ten adult men that is necessary to read public prayers.


Bath for washing and ritual purification. The water of the “mikvah” must be “living”, in other words rain or spring water.


Literally “repetition”, but the term was used to indicate the oral law developed by the rabbinical authorities at the beginning of the Common Era. More specifically, the word designates the great work completed at the end of the 2nd century, which includes only certain parts of the oral tradition and which became authoritative. Written in Hebrew, and divided into six sedarim (major sections: 1. Zeraim, 2. Moed, 3. Nashim 4. Nezikin 5. Kodashim 6. Tohorot), the Mishnah is the basis of the Talmud.


Commandment, order. In Judaism there are 613 mitzvot, all taken from the Torah: of these, 365 are negative obligations (“do not…”) while 238 are positive orders.

Ner tamid

Ornamental lamp in the synagogue, which must always be kept lit. usually placed above the Aron HaKodesh


Profeti. È il secondo corpus della Bibbia ebraica e si compone al suo interno di due raccolte: i cosiddetti Profeti Anteriori (libri di Giosuè, Giudici, 1 e 2 Samuele e 1 e 2 Re) e i Profeti Posteriori (Isaia, Geremia, Ezechiele e i dodici Profeti Minori).


Prophets. The second book of the Hebrew Bible, it is subdivided into two major sections: the so-called “Former Prophets” (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II and Kings I and II) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve Minor Prophets).


When the Jerusalem Sanctuary still existed, omer indicated both a unit of measurement for grain (around 1.3 kg), and the offering that was made to the temple on the second day of Pesach, and then again seven weeks later at Shavu’ot. Today, this offering is commemorated through the observance of what is known as the “Counting of the Omer”, which is the custom of counting, through a special blessing recited each evening, the forty-nine days which separate the second evening of Pesach from the feast of Shavu’ot.


One of the 54 or 53 weekly portions in which the text of the Torah is divided for reading in synagogue. Following this division, the Orthodox and Conservative communities read the entire Pentateuch over the course of a year, following the custom adopted in Babylon; the Reform communities, on the other hand, have adopted the ancient Palestinian custom, which divided the Torah into shorter sections (known as sedarim), and which completed the reading in three years. Cfr. also Haftarah.


A wide embroidered curtain placed in front of the doors of the Aron


The name for “Jewish Easter” (Passover). It commemorates the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, as narrated in the book of the Exodus. It falls in the month of Nisan (in late March or in April) and lasts eight days in the diaspora, seven in Israel.

Pidyon Haben

The “redemption of the firstborn”: the mitzvah whereby the parents of a firstborn son have to redeem the new baby, before he is one month old, by giving five silver coins to a Kohen (nowadays a Jew who descends from a priestly family).


Plural word meaning “lots”: the name of the festival which commemorates the episode narrated in the Book of Esther, and is celebrated on the 13th day of the month of Adar (February or March). Given the custom of dressing up, Purim is also known as “Jewish Carnival”.


Literally “pomegranates”,  ornamental finials for the Torah scroll.

Rosh Hashanah

Jewish secular New Year, which lasts two days and falls in the month of Tishri (in September or early October; the liturgical year, however, begins in Nisan, in March or April). The end of Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of Yamim Noraim, the days of repentance.


Literally “order”. The word is used to define the ritual dinners (which follow a specific order, hence the name) which take place on the first two nights of Pesach, and the two evenings of the festival of Rosh Hashanah.


From Sefarad, Spain, refers to the original Jews of the Iberian peninsula and their descendents. By extension the term is also often used to indicate other groups of Jews, especially Eastern and North African, which have practised similar rituals despite not being of Spanish origin.

Sefer Torah

Scroll on which the text of the Torah is transcribed, and which is kept in the synagogue inside the Aron haKodesh. Every synagogue keeps several Sefer Torah.


The Sabbath (Saturday), the seventh day of Creation and of the Jewish week, which is considered particularly sacred and dedicated to rest.


An amulet engraved with the word Shaddai, “Omnipotent”, the main attribute of God; generally hung on walls or on cradles to invocate divine protection and blessing.


“Weeks”: a festival which falls on the 6th (and in the diaspora, also the 7th) day of Sivan (June or July), seven weeks after Pesach. Shavu’ot concludes the counting of the 49 days of the Omer. Originally a harvest festival, in ancient times it became associated with the revelation of the Sinai and the giving of the Torah.

Shema’ Israel

“Hear, O Israel”. Also known simply as Shema’, it is an ancient prayer which is generally recited twice a day, morning and evening.


Ram’s horn which symbolises the sacrifice of Isaac, and is sounded during the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Simchat Torah

“The Joy of the Torah”. Festival which falls immediately after Sukkoth (the eighth day in Israel, the ninth in the diaspora): at Simchat Torah, the cycle of readings from the Torah is concluded, with the end of Deuteronomy, and starts again, with the beginning of Genesis.


A hut created during the Sukkoth festival, in memory of the huts in which the Hebrew people lived during their time in the desert.


“Huts”: the festival which recalls the forty years during which the Jews had to wander in the desert before they could enter the land of Israel. It falls in the month of Tishri (in September or October) and lasts eight days in the diaspora, seven in Israel.


A ritual shawl worn by men for prayer. The width and fabric may vary, but it must obligatorily be decorated on all four corners with fringes, called tzitzit in Hebrew (cfr. Num. 15, 37-39, which actually refers to the obligation of tzitzit not just on the tallit but on all garments).


The Talmud is a monumental, complex work, partly legislative and partly narrative, in the wider sense of the word. Composed of the Mishnah (cfr. separate entry) and the Gemarah (a further analysis of the Mishnah, in Aramaic) and the text is of fundamental importance in Hebrew tradition. There are two Talmuds: one, incomplete version, was compiled in Palestine between the 4th and 5th century of the Common Era (this compilation was interrupted in 425 with the suppression of the patriarchate), and is known as the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud. The other was written between the 5th and 7th centuries in the academies of Babylon, and is that which is today held as the authoritative version, known as the Babylonian Talmud.


This word is derived from the acronym of the three collections or bodies of work which make up the Jewish Bible, namely the Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophet) and Ketubim (Writings or Hagiographa).


Ornamental silver shield for scrolls of the Torah. 


Leather boxes worn by men, tied to their left arm and on their forehead during morning prayers (with some exceptions). The boxes contain, written on parchment, the four biblical passages (two from Exodus and two from Deuteronomy) which prescribe the use of the tefillin.

Tevah (also Bimah)

The platform from which the religious service is delivered and the Torah is read.


The Pentateuch, made up of the first five biblical books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). This is the most holy, authoritative part of the Jewish Bible, which is followed by a further two corpora: Prophets, called Nevi’im in Hebrew, and Hagiographa, in Hebrew Ketubim. The five books of the Torah are kept in the synagogue in the Aron HaKodesh, in scroll form (Sifre Torah).


Collection of Rabbinical laws and teachings from the 1st and 2nd century C.E. The Tosefta, literally “Addition”, is similar and complimentary to the Mishnah (it also features the same division into sedarim): it contains explanations of the more difficult parts of the Mishnah, traditions which remained outside it, and goes into great detail about certain matters which are covered more briefly in the Mishnah.

Tu bi-shvat

Minor festival which falls, as its name indicates, on the 15th of the month of Shevat (in January or February) and celebrates the blossoming of nature after the winter months; also known as “New Year for Trees” it was extremely important, due to its symbolic value, in kabbalist circles in Safed.


Pointer ending in a hand (yad means hand), used in synagogue to mark place during readings of the sacred texts.

Yamim noraim

“Days of Awe”: this is the name given to the ten days between the feasts of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, dedicated to repentance and to asking the Lord for forgiveness. During this period, believers have the chance to make amends for their sins, and thus have their names written in the Book of Life when it ends, on the day of Yom Kippur.


School for the study of sacred texts and Jewish law.

Yom Kippur

The “Day of Atonement”. Falls on the 10th of tishri (in September of October) at the end of the Yamim Nora’im [High Holy Days] and, according to tradition, is the day at the end of which God writes men’s names in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. For this reason, the feast is dedicated to asking for forgiveness (to God and to other humans): it is a day of fast, and the whole day is spent in prayer. Of the five fasts that are observed over the course of the year, that of Yom Kippur is the only one ordered in the Pentateuch, and the most widely observed.

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