Category Archives: Judaism

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The practice of ritual washing in a religious rite to cleanse a person of sin or disease, to purify, or to signify humility or service to others. In Christianity, baptism and foot-washing are both forms of ablution. In liturgical churches, ablution can refer to purifying fingers or vessels related to the Eucharist. In Islam, ablution is ritual washing, known as wudu, before prayer. In Judaism, immersion in a mikvah is a form of ablution.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy


Spirit messengers, both good and evil, accepted in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions. They appear in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran. Capitalize angel when it precedes a name, such as the Angel Gabriel.

Filed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture


A prejudice against people of Jewish heritage. It has inspired the Holocaust, physical abuse, slander, economic and social discrimination, vandalism and other crimes. Religious anti-Semitism is based on the idea that all Jews are eternally and collectively responsible for killing Jesus (known as deicide). It has been formally renounced by most major churches, led by the Catholic Church. Although Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, they do not make the anti-Semitic claim against Jews because they do not believe that Jesus was crucified. Economic and political anti-Semitism is rooted in widespread 19th- and 20th-century claims that Jews were engaged in a plot to rule the world.

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apocalypse, apocalyptic

A final, cosmic battle between forces of good and evil that encompasses the Earth; for religious believers, it ushers in the reign of God and results in the righteous being raised to everlasting life. Apocalyptic thought dates to ancient times and is present in Judaism, Christianity and other belief systems. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel, found in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, are the best-known Scriptures involving apocalyptic prophecies, but other examples exist. Apocalyptic beliefs are most closely associated with Christians who read the Bible literally and with fringe religious movements. Other Christians are more likely to read Revelation as an allegory. Lowercase apocalypse when referring to the battle ending the world, but uppercase when using the traditional Catholic name for the New Testament Book of Revelation, which in Greek means “Apocalypse.” The Catholic News Service advises using the New American Bible name Revelation instead of Apocalypse except in direct quotations.

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A special cabinet constructed to house the Torah scrolls containing the Jewish text of the Books of Moses.

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Pronounced “osh-ken-AH-zee.” A Jew of German, Polish, Austrian or Eastern European descent. From the Middle Ages through the mid-20th century, Ashkenazic Jews developed a distinct culture and spoke predominantly Yiddish (a combination of German and Hebrew) or Slavic languages. During the 19th and 20th centuries, as they faced increasing persecution in Eastern Europe, many Ashkenazic Jews migrated to Western Europe and the United States. Since the mid-18th century, Ashkenazic Jews have made up the majority of Jews in the U.S. After the Holocaust, their numbers were drastically reduced in Europe. Many of the surviving Ashkenazic Jews immigrated to France, the U.S. and current-day Israel. They are estimated to make up 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population. Ashkenazic Jews are also referred to as Ashkenazim. See Sephardi.

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B’nai B’rith

One of the oldest continually operating Jewish service organizations in the world. It was founded in New York City by Henry Jones and 11 others in 1843. The organization is engaged in a wide variety of community service and welfare activities, including promoting human rights, assisting hospitals and victims of natural disasters, and opposing racism and anti-Semitism through its Anti-Defamation League.

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bar mitzvah

Means “son of commandment” in Hebrew and Aramaic. A milestone in Judaism in which a person is no longer a child in the eyes of Jewish law and is now responsible for his or her own actions spiritually, ethically and morally. A boy automatically reaches the milestone at age 13, while a girl reaches it at age 12 (bat mitzvah). No ceremony is required to mark the passage, although religious ceremonies and receptions are commonplace.

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The elevated part of the sanctuary in a synagogue or temple where the Torah reader stands and the rabbi leads the service.

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brit milah or bris

The ritual circumcision of a male Jewish child on the eighth day of his life or of a male convert to Judaism — acts that are considered to continue the covenant God established with the Jewish people. Bris is the Yiddish term; brit, the Hebrew word, is also used. Brit milah literally means “covenant of circumcision” in Hebrew. There are no mandated rituals for newborn girls. However, many honor the custom of the Simchat Bat (pronounced “SIM-hot Bot”), a naming ceremony at home.

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In Judaism, a synagogue official who leads the musical part of a service. Capitalize before a name, but lowercase otherwise.

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The official organization of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism, which is based in Crown Heights, N.Y. Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidism, a movement within Orthodox Judaism founded by 18th-century mystics. Chabad emphasizes reaching out to nonpracticing Jews. The term Chabad comes from an acronym of the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. See Lubavitch.

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Conservative Judaism

A branch of Judaism that usually takes a more centrist position on worship and religious behavior than liberal Reform Judaism and the more traditional Orthodox Judaism. It is the second-largest branch of Judaism in the United States, behind Reform Judaism. See Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism.

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David, Star of

The six-pointed star that is a symbol of Judaism. The star appears in the center of the Israeli flag. It is sometimes referred to by its Hebrew name, Magen David.

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Day of Atonement

See Yom Kippur.

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Dead Sea Scrolls

Refers to tens of thousands of fragments of biblical and early Jewish writings that were found in caves in Qumran near the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. Scholars dispute their importance but agree they shed light on the culture and beliefs of Judaism between the third century B.C. and the dawn of Christianity in the first century.

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Another name for the Ten Commandments, which is the preferred term. See Ten Commandments.

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Describes Jews who live outside of the state of Israel. It was first used to describe how Jews were forced to scatter after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C. Do not capitalize unless referring to the Jewish Diaspora.

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A book of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament whose author represents himself as King Solomon. Some of its phrases, such as To every thing there is a season, have become part of Western culture.

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end times

Lowercase. Generally refers to the time of tribulation preceding the Second Coming of Jesus, though it has parallels and roots in all three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Sometimes also called the “End of Days.”

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Pronounced “AE-roov.” A symbolic enclosure in which observant Orthodox Jews are permitted to perform tasks that would otherwise be forbidden, such as carrying items on the Sabbath and other holy days from one “domain” to another. (The area surrounded by the eruv is considered to be a single “domain.”) Dictated by Jewish law, eruvin (the plural form) are unbroken boundaries rabbis erect by attaching strips of plastic or cloth to public utility poles. They occasionally have been the subject of lawsuits by non-Jews.

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The movement, mostly found in conservative Christianity, that purports to change the sexual orientation of people from same-sex attraction to opposite-sex. It is also referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. It is highly controversial. Several major medical associations have rejected such therapy when it views homosexuality as a mental disorder or sickness, or assumes that homosexuals’ sexual orientation is something that must be changed. Ex-gay should never be used without explaining the term and the controversy associated with it. See gay.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Gender and sexuality, Judaism, Mormonism


In Judaism, anyone who is not a Jew. It is usually a reference to Christians.

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Capitalize in reference to all monotheistic religions. Also capitalize such references as God the Father, Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit. However, lowercase personal pronouns, such as him and he. Many Christians consider God to be beyond gender, so be sensitive to the context of the story and avoid gender-defining pronouns when appropriate. Orthodox Jews write G-d to avert the sin of erasing or defacing God’s name. Journalists should respect these Jews’ practice by using G-d in quotes of written material, but otherwise should refer to God.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist/Southern Baptist, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Protestantism, Religion and culture

golden rule

Variations on this precept, which can be succinctly stated as “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” are found in the texts of every major religion, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Filed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “ha-la-KHAH.” Jewish law, or the set of rules and practices that govern every aspect of life. They are defined by Jewish scripture and teachings. Jews believe that the law was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai and that it has been interpreted for each generation by respected and learned rabbis.

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The Jewish Festival of Lights. It usually falls in early or mid-December. The eight-day holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians in the second century B.C. The Maccabees were a first- and second-century B.C. Jewish family that brought about the restoration of Jewish religious and political life. They also made several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow Roman rule in Judea. Hanukkah is the preferred spelling. See Jewish holidays.

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A Hebrew term (Haredim in the plural) that literally means “fear” or “anxiety” and is used in the context of a devout believer who “trembles in awe of God.” The label can be applied to strictly observant Orthodox Jews instead of the term ultra-Orthodox, but Haredi is not widely used outside of Israel and Jewish media outlets.

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Pronounced “hah-SHEM.” The word some Jews use in the place of the word God, which is considered to be too holy to utter. It literally means “The Name.”

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A social and religious movement in Judaism founded in 18th-century Poland. It stresses the importance of devotion in prayer and serving God in ecstasy amid day-to-day life. Hasidic Judaism is usually structured around a “rebbe,” or revered spiritual teacher whose interpretations of Jewish law govern the community. Its followers, called Hasidim, are among the most traditional of U.S. Orthodox Jews. Hasidic is the adjectival form.

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The language in which the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was first written. Its ancient form consists only of consonants, although later scholars added “vowel points” under the letters to aid pronunciation. Jewish children preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs learn Hebrew so they can read portions of the Torah in the synagogue. Biblical Hebrew differs from modern Hebrew, which is the language of the state of Israel. The term Hebrew is also an outdated way to refer to Jews and should not be used.

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High Holy Days

The High Holy Days are the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

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Always capitalize when referring to the murder of 6 million Jews and others during World War II. Lowercase in other uses.

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A somewhat archaic English rendering of the four Hebrew letters, usually transliterated as YHWH, that form the name of God. The preferred term of modern scholars is Yahweh. Jews traditionally never pronounce this name, substituting the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning “my Lord,” and they add vowel markings in Hebrew Bibles that literally render the name unpronounceable.

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Follower of the Jewish faith. Tradition holds that people are Jewish if their mothers are Jewish or if they have gone through a formal process of conversion, but some Jews argue for a more liberal definition. Many Jews consider themselves “secular Jews” whose connection to Judaism is cultural or ethnic rather than spiritual. Jews believe that God called their ancestor, Abraham, to be the father of their nation, which works toward the goal of establishing a divine kingdom on earth. Use Jew for men and women.

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Jewish congregations

Jewish congregations are sometimes called synagogues and sometimes called temples. Many Reform congregations use the latter term, while Orthodox and many Conservative Jews believe the word temple can refer only to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which they hope will one day be rebuilt in the messianic age. Do not call a Jewish congregation a temple unless it uses that word in its name. Jewish congregations are autonomous, with no hierarchies controlling their activities. The only formal titles used are rabbi for the spiritual leader of a congregation and cantor for the person who leads the congregation in song. Capitalize these titles before a person’s full name on first reference. Use only the last name on second reference. See Judaism.

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Jewish holidays

Judaism observes 12 major holidays. Each begins at sunset and extends to nightfall at the end of the holiday. The most commonly celebrated by American Jews are Passover, which takes place in March or April and lasts for eight days; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September or October; the Day of Atonement, also called Yom Kippur, in September or October; Sukkot in September or October; Hanukkah, which lasts for eight nights, in November or December; and Purim in February or March. The High Holy Days are the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. Judaism uses a lunar/solar calendar, so the dates of each holiday move each year. The year of the Jewish calendar (for example, 2006 ushered in the year 5767) represents the number of years since creation.

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Jews for Jesus

This is a proper name of an organization founded by Jews who converted to evangelical Christianity, but see that faith as a fulfillment of the Jewish hope in the Messiah. The organization is part of a broader group of converts who call themselves “Messianic Jews.” Jews for Jesus are known for proselytizing to Jews. They observe Jewish holidays, speak Hebrew in their services, read from the Torah and refer to Jesus by the Hebrew name Yeshua. They also call their houses of worship “synagogues” and their clergy “rabbis.” Mainstream Jewish groups consider Messianic Judaism deceptive and do not want such converts to call themselves Jews of any kind. Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus should never be grouped together with mainstream Jews in stories or listings. When reporting on them, clearly state that they are Christian by faith, though Jewish by culture or ethnicity.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism


The religion of the Jewish people. With its 4,000-year history, it is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths and one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. Its beliefs and history are a major foundation for other Abrahamic religions, including Christianity and Islam. It traces a covenant between the Jewish people and God that began with Abraham and continued through Jacob, Moses, David and others to today’s modern Jews. Jews believe that the Messiah will one day establish a divine kingdom on earth, opening an era of peace and bliss. They believe that God called their ancestor, Abraham, to be the father of their nation, which works toward the goal of establishing this kingdom. Throughout history, Jews have been heavily persecuted. The Holocaust is the most high-profile example. The modern Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948. There are three major branches of Judaism. Reform Jews are the largest branch in the U.S., followed by Conservative and Orthodox Jews. See Reconstructionist Judaism for information on a smaller, fourth branch.

  • Reform Judaism: Reform Jews believe that the spirit of Jewish law can be adapted to time and place, so they tend to emphasize social justice issues more than dietary laws, Sabbath rules and other particulars of traditional Jewish life. They are represented by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, both based in New York City. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, based in Washington, D.C., is the political voice of the movement.
  • Orthodox Judaism: Orthodox Jews practice strict adherence to traditional Jewish laws, including the rules that prohibit work on the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws that prohibit such things as eating pork products or shellfish and eating meat and dairy products together. Some Orthodox Jews might consider themselves “modern Orthodox,” meaning that the men do not keep long beards or wear traditional garb. Most Orthodox congregations are represented nationally by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and most of its rabbis are members of the Rabbinical Council of America.
  • Conservative Judaism: Conservative Jews follow a middle path between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Congregations and individuals vary in terms of how observant they are of dietary laws, and though some do not, many drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. They are represented nationally by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.
Filed in Conservative, Judaism, Orthodox, Reform


Pronounced “KAH-bah.” A large cube-shaped house of worship that Muslims believe was built in Mecca by Abraham and Ishmael. Muslims around the world face the Ka’bah when they pray, and circle it several times as a rite of hajj.

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A doctrine of ancient Jewish mysticism that provides a path for humans to achieve an understanding of the divine mysteries of God and the universe. It teaches that such understanding can only be attained by praying and contemplating the hidden meanings of the Hebrew words and letters of the Torah. It had its greatest following in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. Preferred spelling is Kabbalah. Uppercase in all references.

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In Judaism, refers to ritually pure food prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Lowercase in all references. Kashrut is the term for Jewish dietary laws, while kosher is the adjective.

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Lubavitch, Lubavitcher

One of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, it originated in Russia in the 18th century. It was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. In 1940, the Rebbe, or head of the movement, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, emigrated from Poland to America, where he was determined to make the Lubavitch into an American religious movement. Under his successor and son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch used various forms of American media and institutions, such as schools and camps, to reach out to American Jews the group felt had not been exposed to “authentic” Judaism. Schneerson died in 1994, and a new leader has not been appointed. Lubavitchers still refer to him as “The Rebbe,” while they refer to his father-in-law as “The Previous Rebbe.” Some groups regard Schneerson as the Messiah and await his return, while others believe he could have been the Messiah if God had willed it. Still others believe he never died and is living in a way that ordinary people cannot perceive. The branch is also called Chabad-Lubavitch. Chabad comes from an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, comprehension and knowledge. Lubavitch is the name of the town in Russia where the movement was based for more than a century. See Chabad.

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Magen David

See Star of David.

Filed in Judaism


Typically, a seven-stick candelabra used in synagogues. A seven-branched menorah is believed to have been in the original Jerusalem Temple. During Hanukkah, a nine-candle menorah called a “hanukkiah” is used to represent the eight nights of the holiday, with the ninth candle lighting all the others.

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messiah, Messiah

A Hebrew term meaning “the anointed one.” For Christians, the one and only Messiah is Jesus Christ. Jews await the coming of the Messiah. Capitalize in religious uses and lowercase in secular cases.

Filed in Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Messianic Jews

See Jews for Jesus.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism


A ritual bath Jews use for spiritual purification after a woman’s menstrual cycles, in conversion rituals and for men before important holidays. Jewish couples who observe the “laws of family purity” only engage in intercourse between when the woman goes to the mikvah after her menstrual cycle and the beginning of her next period. Contemporary Jews are incorporating the mikvah into new rituals involving major life cycle events, from graduations to divorces to adoptions.

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The quorum necessary to recite certain prayers, including the standing prayer called Amidah and the Kaddish prayer for the dead, or to read from the Torah during Shabbat services. Traditionally, a minyan consists of 10 Jewish males over age 13, though many congregations allow any Jewish adult over age 13 to be counted for the minyan.

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Modern Orthodox

A movement within Orthodox Judaism that tends to integrate traditional Jewish practices and beliefs with life in the secular world while retaining a distinctive Jewish identity and presence. Modern Orthodox will keep strictly kosher and carefully observe the Sabbath, and they will often wear a yarmulke, or skullcap, for example, but not always. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is a widely known example of a follower of the Modern Orthodox movement. The term “Modern Orthodox” is accepted among Jews, but as with any movement it can encompass a wide spectrum of beliefs and behaviors. So it is advisable to clarify with the subjects of a story where they see themselves within Modern Orthodoxy. See also ultra-Orthodox.

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A religion devoted to the worship of a single god. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

Filed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture


Used among North American Protestants to describe Christian churches, activities or organizations that are not sponsored by a specific denomination. Some non-Christian groups, including some Jews, use the term as well. It should not be used as a synonym for interfaith, interdenominational or ecumenical. Independent would be an acceptable substitute for nondenominational.

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The process of authorizing a person to perform ministry in an official capacity for a specific religious organization, usually Christian or Jewish. Many denominations require formal education and training, and many ordain deacons as well as clergy. Lowercase ordained and ordination in all references.

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Orthodox Judaism

The most conservative of the three major branches of Judaism, it strictly adheres to traditional teachings and acceptance of Jewish principles of faith and law. Capitalize in all references. Hasidism is a movement within Orthodox Judaism. See Jewish congregations, Hasidism and Chabad.

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A major Jewish holiday commemorating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who was directed by God. The account is found in Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. Passover takes its name from God’s instruction to the Israelites to mark the upper part of their homes’ doors with lamb’s blood so the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes as he killed the firstborn male of each family in Egypt during the 10th plague. Passover, also called by its Hebrew name Pesach (pronounced “PAY-sakh”), is celebrated in late March or early April and lasts for seven days in Israel, though most outside of Israel celebrate for eight days. On the first two nights of Passover, it is traditional for a Jewish family to gather for a special dinner called a seder in which the story of the Exodus is retold. See seder and Jewish holidays.

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One of the ancient fathers of Judaism and Christianity — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, a patriarch is the highest-ranking bishop. Capitalize if used before a name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the patriarch is the bishop of Rome and is called pope. Unlike the pope, who has jurisdiction over all Roman Catholic territories, the authority of Eastern and Oriental patriarchs is more limited. They have a great deal of enforceable jurisdiction in their own territories but no authority over each other’s.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Religious titles


The Greek term for the first five books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for the same books is Torah.

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See Passover.

Filed in Judaism


Someone who speaks divine revelation, or a message they received directly from God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have certain figures they formally recognize as prophets. Some traditions, including the Mormons, some charismatic groups and some non-Christian faiths, believe their leaders receive ongoing divine revelation. In much of Christianity, all ordained clergy are considered to have a prophetic role because their job is to proclaim the word of God. Capitalize when used before the name Muhammad to refer to Islam’s final prophet, but otherwise do not capitalize as a title.

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The Jewish holiday also called the Feast of Lots, held in February or March. As recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Book of Esther, also called “the Megillah”), it commemorates the deliverance of the Jews by Queen Esther from a massacre plotted by the Persian vizier Haman. Purim is a joyous festival that is celebrated by publicly reading the Megillah, dressing in colorful costumes and regaling the community with “shpiels” (pronounced “sh-PEE-ls”), or humorous Purim plays and skits. See Jewish holidays.

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Hebrew word for teacher and the title used by Jewish clergy. On first reference, capitalize before a name. On second reference use only the cleric’s last name.

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Reconstructionist Judaism

A 20th-century movement, founded by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, that views Judaism as a social rather than a God-centered phenomenon. Reconstructionists generally do not believe the Hebrew Scriptures are divinely inspired, reject the idea of God as male or female, are less hierarchical and believe that Jewish law as a guiding principle isn’t binding. Reconstructionist rabbis are ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

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Reform Judaism

The dominant branch of Judaism in the United States. Originated in Germany in the 1700s, Reform Judaism is a more liberal form of Judaism than the Orthodox and Conservative branches. It is rooted in the belief that an individual’s personal autonomy overrides traditional Jewish law and custom. The individual decides which Jewish practices, if any, to adopt. It also believes that both traditional rabbinic modes of study and less traditional ones are valid ways to learn about and from the Hebrew Bible. Reform Judaism also is more accommodating to modern lifestyles and ideas.

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revelation, Revelation

In monotheistic religions, revelation is the process through which God reveals or communicates truths about God’s self or will. Uppercase when referring to the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. (Note that Revelation is singular.)

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Rosh Hashanah

Pronounced “rohsh-huh-SHAH-nuh.” The Jewish New Year, celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar sometime between the middle of September and the middle of October. See Jewish holidays.

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The day of the week observed for rest and worship. Most Christian traditions observe the Sabbath on Sunday. Judaism — along with some Christian traditions such as Seventh-day Adventists — observes the Sabbath on Saturday. (Jews’ observance of the Sabbath begins at sundown Friday.) Capitalize in religious references but lowercase when talking about periods of rest. See Shabbat.

Filed in Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy


In the Hebrew Bible, Satan is depicted as an angel used by God to test man. In the New Testament, Satan is a fallen angel who is the ultimate evil and enemy of God and man. In Islam, Satan was the head jinn or genie until he angered God by refusing to accept man’s superiority. Uppercase in all references, but always lowercase devil.

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The ritualized dinner held in Jewish homes on the first night or first two nights of Passover. The word seder means “order” in Hebrew. It commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt as described in the book of Exodus, and it features special foods and the reading of the Haggadah, a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns and rabbinic literature. See Passover.

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Pronounced “suh-FAR-dee.” A Jew of Portuguese, Spanish or North African descent. Originally, Sephardi meant a Jew descended from the Iberian Peninsula, but it has now come to mean Jews who are not Ashkenazim, including Jews from Arab countries and Greece. Sephardic Jews are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s Jewish population. The plural form of Sephardi is Sephardim. See Ashkenazi.

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Hebrew word for Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Shabbat is observed by lighting candles on Friday night (this is usually done by the woman of the house) and sharing a special family meal. Religious services that include a reading from the Torah happen on Saturday morning, after which families gather for a Shabbat lunch. Shabbat ends with the lighting of a three-wicked “havdalah” candle and the passing around of a fragrant spice box, the scent of which is supposed to carry the peace of Shabbat into the work week. Orthodox Jews refrain from driving, turning lights on or off and a number of other activities that are considered “work” on Shabbat.

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Pronounced “shuh-VOO-oat.” The name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments. Shavuot falls 49 days after Passover. These days are counted out ritually by Jews in a practice known as “Counting the Omer.” Shavuot occurs in May or June. See Jewish holidays.

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Pronounced “shu-MAH.” Considered the most important prayer in Judaism, it consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

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The Jewish term for the seven-day period of mourning in which close relatives “sit shiva” after a person’s funeral. During shiva, mourners abstain from work, sex, learning and following other rules. Mourners often sit on low stools or benches to symbolize how they are brought low by grief, and they cover all mirrors in the shiva house to focus on the deceased rather than on their own vanity. The purpose of shiva is to honor the dead and to help the mourner grieve. Others visit a home where someone is sitting shiva.

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Shmini Atseret

Jewish holiday celebrated eight days after the beginning of Sukkot. Shmini means “the eighth.”

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The Hebrew word for holocaust. The memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust is called Yom Hashoah and takes place in March or April.

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A ceremonial ram’s horn sounded on Jewish holidays and special occasions, particularly Rosh Hashanah.

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A Yiddish word for a Jewish house of worship. The term is primarily used by Orthodox Jews.

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Simchat Torah

Pronounced “SIM-hot TO-rah.” A Jewish holiday marking the completion of the yearlong cycle during which the entire Torah is read.

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A small, close-fitting headpiece worn in some religious traditions, particularly by men. Other names for it include yarmulke or kippa (worn by Jews), zucchetto (worn by Roman Catholic prelates) and kufi (worn by Muslims).

Filed in Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Religion and culture

Star of David

A six-pointed star that is a symbol of Judaism and of Israel. The Hebrew term for it is Magen David, which translates as “shield of David.”

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Pronounced “SOO-koht.” Seven-day Jewish festival commemorating the Israelites’ life as they wandered 40 years in the desert after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. Sukkot is the word for the booths the Israelites lived in. Also called the Feast of the Booths or the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is considered one of the most important Jewish holidays and occurs during September or October. See Jewish holidays.

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Jewish place of worship. In Orthodox communities, people live within walking distance of their synagogues.

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In Judaism, the extensive written body of interpretation and commentary by scholarly ancient rabbis of the oral law believed to have been given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah, which is the written version of early Jewish oral law, and the Gemara, which interprets and comments on the Mishnah and other traditional texts. The Talmud constitutes the basis of religious authority in Orthodox Judaism and is distinct from the written law of the Torah.

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The technical name for the entire Hebrew Bible. It includes the Torah, the Prophets and the Sacred Writings, organized into 24 books.

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A building used for worship or religious purposes. Uppercase when part of a formal name or when referring to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The word temple is used differently in different religious traditions. It is the place of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, although Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews believe the only temple is the one destroyed in Jerusalem and so they call their congregational buildings synagogues. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, temples are sacred buildings with restricted access; they differ in purpose from meetinghouses, where weekly worship takes place.

Filed in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Religion and culture

Temple Mount

The area in the old city of Jerusalem that housed ancient Jewish temples. See also Al-Aqsa.

Filed in Judaism

Ten Commandments

The biblical edicts handed to Moses by God atop Mount Sinai. They are the basis of Mosaic law. They are found in Exodus 20:2-17, 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Exodus 20 is the most commonly quoted version. The commandments are numbered differently by Jews and by different Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians. The different numbering and wording (according to the biblical translation chosen) is one factor that has made public posting of the Ten Commandments controversial.

Filed in Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism

Tisha B’Av

Pronounced “TI-shah Bav.” Literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Jews fast and mourn the destruction of the two ancient Temples.

Filed in Judaism


The Jewish sacred writings found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Also called “the Five Books of Moses,” the Torah is copied by specialized scribes onto parchment scrolls and is treated with great care and respect by Jewish congregations. The term Torah is sometimes also used to describe the larger body of Jewish law and Scripture.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “TOO-bi She-VOT.” Literally, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This Jewish holiday is also called the New Year for Trees.

Filed in Judaism


A term sometimes applied to strictly observant Jews such as the Hasidim who are distinguished by their style of dress, physical appearance and attention to religious ritual. Some Jewish communities described as ultra-Orthodox, such as the Lubavitch Hasidim, find the term offensive. Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group that includes other Hasidic and many non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, also objects to the term. Other groups do not. The term is also commonly used to describe right-wing religious parties in Israeli politics. Haredi (or Charedi) is another term sometimes used as an alternative to ultra-Orthodox, though it is not widely known. Haredi is treated under a separate stylebook entry. Be aware that Modern Orthodox is a separate category of Orthodox Judaism, and it is an acceptable term that is also treated under a separate stylebook entry. See also Modern Orthodox.

Filed in Judaism, Orthodox


In Judaism, the anniversary of the death of an immediate family member, marked by the lighting of a yahrzeit candle that burns for 24 hours.

Filed in Judaism


Pronounced “YAH-way.” An English translation of the four Hebrew letters usually transliterated as YHWH that form the name of God. Jews do not attempt to pronounce this name, as they believe that would risk taking the name of God in vain. Wherever it appears in Scripture, they say “the Lord” (“Adonai”) instead, and a vowel marking beneath the four consonants renders the word unpronounceable in Hebrew. Sixteenth-century Protestants attempted to transliterate this word, resulting in “Jehovah.”

Filed in Christianity, Judaism, Protestantism, Religion and culture


Pronounced “YAH-mi-kuh.” Yiddish name for the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men in synagogue, and by some Jews at all times. It is a symbol of humility and submission to God. It is sometimes also referred to by its Hebrew name, kippa, which means “dome.”

Filed in Judaism

Yom Hashoah

The Hebrew words for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and takes place on the 27th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. It falls in spring, though the day shifts on the U.S. calendar. The U.S. Congress asked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which it created in 1980, to lead the nation in civic observances. It is a national memorial day in Israel, and U.S. observances generally take place from the Sunday before to the Sunday after the actual day.

Filed in Judaism

Yom Kippur

Pronounced “yohm ki-POOR.” The Jewish Day of Atonement, which takes place on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri — September or October of the Gregorian calendar. Yom Kippur is marked by spending the day in prayer; forgoing food, drink and work; and repenting for misdeeds of the past year. See Jewish holidays.

Filed in Judaism


A modern movement in Judaism rooted in the establishment of a separate Jewish nation, based on God’s biblical promise that Israel would forever belong to Abraham and his descendants as a nation. Many Zionists do not have religious motives, but believe a Jewish state is necessary because of the long history of persecution of Jews. That goal was realized with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Zionism refers to Mount Zion, the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. A Zionist is a supporter of Zionism.

Filed in Government and politics, Judaism


A supporter of Zionism.

Filed in Judaism

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