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Signs and Symbols

Level: Basic


MezuzahOn the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!), you will find a small case like the one pictured at left. This case is commonly known as a mezuzah (Heb.: doorpost), because it is placed upon the doorposts of the house. The mezuzah is not, as some suppose, a good-luck charm, nor does it have any connection with the lamb's blood placed on the doorposts in Egypt. Rather, it is a constant reminder of G-d's presence and G-d's commandments.

The commandment to place mezuzot on the doorposts of our houses is derived from Deut. 6:4-9, a passage commonly known as the Shema (Hear, from the first word of the passage). In that passage, G-d commands us to keep His words constantly in our minds and in our hearts, by (among other things) writing them on the doorposts of our house. The words of the Shema are written on a tiny scroll of parchment, along with the words of a companion passage, Deut. 11:13-21. On the back of the scroll, a name of G-d is written. The scroll is then rolled up placed in the case, so that the first letter of the Name (the letter Shin) is visible (or, more commonly, the letter Shin is written on the outside of the case).

The scroll must be handwritten in a special style of writing and must be placed in the case to fulfill the commandment. It is commonplace for gift shops to sell cases without scrolls, or with mechanically printed scrolls, because a proper scroll costs more than even an elaborately decorated case ($30-$50 for a valid scroll is quite reasonable). According to traditional authorities, mechanically printed scrolls do not fulfill the mitzvah of the mezuzah, nor does an empty case.

The case and scroll are then nailed or affixed to the right side doorpost on an angle, with a small ceremony called Chanukkat Ha-Bayit (dedication of the house - yes, this is the same word as Chanukkah, the holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt against Greece). A brief blessing is recited. See the text of the blessing at Affixing the Mezuzah.

Why is the mezuzah affixed at an angle? The rabbis could not decide whether it should be placed horizontally or vertically, so they compromised!

Every time you pass through a door with a mezuzah on it, you touch the mezuzah and then kiss the fingers that touched it, expressing love and respect for G-d and his commandments and reminding yourself of the commandments contained within them.

It is proper to remove a mezuzah when you move, and in fact, it is usually recommended. If you leave it in place, the subsequent owner may treat it with disrespect, and this is a grave sin. I have seen many mezuzot in apartment complexes that have been painted over by subsequent owners, and it breaks my heart every time I see that sort of disrespect to an object of religious significance.

For more information about mezuzot or to purchase valid scrolls for a mezuzah online, visit the S.T.A.M. website.


TefillinThe Shema also commands us to bind the words to our hands and between our eyes. We do this by laying tefillin, that is, by binding to our arms and foreheads a leather pouch containing scrolls of Torah passages.

The word "tefillin" is usually translated "phylacteries," although I don't much care for that term, partly because it isn't very enlightening if you don't already know what tefillin are, and partly because it means "amulet," and suggests that tefillin are some kind of protective charm, which they clearly are not. On the contrary, the word "tefillin" is etymologically related to the word "tefilah" (prayer) and the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed (judgment).

Like the mezuzah, tefillin are meant to remind us of G-d's commandments. At weekday morning services, one case is tied to the arm, with the scrolls at the biceps and leather straps extending down the arm to the hand, then another case is tied to the head, with the case on the forehead and the straps hanging down over the shoulders. Appropriate blessings are recited during this process. The tefillin are removed at the conclusion of the morning services.

Like the scrolls in a mezuzah, the scrolls in tefillin must be hand-written in a special style of writing. A good, valid set of tefillin can cost a few hundred dollars, but if properly cared for they can last for a lifetime.

For more information about tefillin or to purchase valid tefillin online, visit the S.T.A.M. website.

Tzitzit and Tallit

Tallis with TzitzitThe Torah also commands us to wear tzitzit (fringes) at the corners of our garments as a reminder of the commandments. Num. 15:37-41. This commandment only applies to four-cornered garments, which were common in biblical times but are not common anymore. Observant Jewish men commonly wear a special four-cornered garment, similar to a poncho, called a tallit katan, so that they will have the opportunity to fulfill this important commandment. The tallit katan is worn under the shirt, with the tzitzit hanging out so they can be seen. A four-cornered shawl called a tallit (pictured above) is worn by adult men during morning services, along with the tefillin. There is a complex procedure for tying the knots of the tzitzit, filled with religious and numerological significance.


Seven-Branched MenorahOne of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple. The kohanim lit the menorah in the Sanctuary every evening and cleaned it out every morning, replacing the wicks and putting fresh olive oil into the cups. The illustration at left is based on instructions for construction of the menorah found in Ex. 25:31-40.

It has been said that the menorah is a symbol of the nation of Israel and our mission to be "a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6). The sages emphasize that light is not a violent force; Israel is to accomplish its mission by setting an example, not by using force. This idea is highlighted in the vision in Zechariah 4:1-6. Zechariah sees a menorah, and G-d explains: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit."

The lamp stand in today's synagogues, called the ner tamid (lit. the continual l usually translated as the eternal flame), symbolizes the menorah.

The nine-branched menorah used on Chanukkah is commonly patterned after this menorah, because Chanukkah commemorates the miracle that a day's worth of oil for this menorah lasted eight days.


The most commonly known and recognized piece of Jewish garb is actually the one with the least religious significance. The word yarmulke (usually, but not really correctly, pronounced yammica) is Yiddish. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, it comes from a Tartar word meaning skullcap. According to some Orthodox and Chasidic rabbis I know, it comes from the Aramaic words "yerai malka" (fear of or respect for The King). The Hebrew word for this head covering is kippah (pronounced key-pah).

It is an ancient practice for Jews to cover their heads during prayer. This probably derives from the fact that in Eastern cultures, it is a sign of respect to cover the head (the custom in Western cultures is the opposite: it is a sign of respect to remove one's hat). Thus, by covering the head during prayer, one showed respect for G-d. In addition, in ancient Rome, servants were required to cover their heads while free men did not; thus, Jews covered their heads to show that they were servants of G-d. In medieval times, Jews covered their heads as a reminder that G-d is always above them. Whatever the reason given, however, covering the head has always been regarded more as a custom rather than a commandment.

There is no special significance to the yarmulke as a specific type of head covering. Its light weight, compactness and discreteness make it a convenient choice of head gear. I am unaware of any connection between the yarmulke and the similar skullcap worn by the Pope.

Magen David

Magen DavidThe Magen David (shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David) is the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today, but it is actually a relatively new Jewish symbol. It is supposed to represent the shape of King David's shield (or perhaps the emblem on it), but there is really no support for that claim in any early rabbinic literature. In fact, the symbol is so rare in early Jewish literature and artwork that art dealers suspect forgery if they find the symbol in early works.

Scholars such as Franz Rosenzweig have attributed deep theological significance to the symbol. For example, some note that the top triangle strives upward, toward G-d, while the lower triangle strives downward, toward the real world. Some note that the intertwining makes the triangles inseparable, like the Jewish people. Some say that the three sides represent the three types of Jews: Kohanim, Levites and Israel. Some note that there are actually 12 sides (3 exterior and 3 interior on each triangle), representing the 12 tribes. While these theories are theologically interesting, they have little basis in historical fact.

The symbol of intertwined equilateral triangles is a common one in the Middle East and North Africa, and is thought to bring good luck. It appears occasionally in early Jewish artwork, but never as an exclusively Jewish symbol. The nearest thing to an "official" Jewish symbol at the time was the menorah.

In the middle ages, Jews often were required to wear badges to identify themselves as Jews, much as they were in Nazi Germany, but these Jewish badges were not always the familiar Magen David. For example, a fifteenth century painting by Nuno Goncalves features a rabbi wearing a six-pointed badge that looks more or less like an asterisk.

In the 17th century, it became a popular practice to put Magen Davids on the outside of synagogues, to identify them as Jewish houses of worship in much the same way that a cross identified a Christian house of worship; however, I have never seen any explanation of why this symbol was chosen, rather than some other symbol.

The Magen David gained popularity as a symbol of Judaism when it was adopted as the emblem of the Zionist movement in 1897, but the symbol continued to be controversial for many years afterward. When the modern state of Israel was founded, there was much debate over whether this symbol should be used on the flag.

Today, the Magen David is a universally recognized symbol of Jewry. It appears on the flag of the state of Israel, and the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross is known as the Red Magen David.


ChaiThis symbol, commonly seen on necklaces and other jewelry and ornaments, is simply the Hebrew word Chai (living), with the two Hebrew letters Chet and Yod attached to each other. Some say it refers to the Living G-d. Judaism as a religion is very focused on life, and the word chai has great significance. The typical Jewish toast is l'chayim (to life). Gifts to charity are routinely given in multiples of 18 (the numeric value of the word Chai).

Hamesh Hand

Hamesh HandThe hamesh hand or hamsa hand is a popular motif in Jewish jewelry. Go into any Jewish gift shop and you will find necklaces and bracelets bearing this inverted hand with thumb and pinky pointing outward. The design commonly has an eye in the center of the hand or various Jewish letters in the middle.

There is nothing exclusively Jewish about the hamesh hand. Arab cultures often refer to it as the Hand of Fatima, which represents the Hand of G-d. Similar designs are common in many cultures. Why it has become such a popular symbol among Jews? I haven't been able to find an adequate explanation anywhere. My best guess: in many cultures, this hand pattern represents a protection against the evil eye, and the evil eye has historically been a popular superstition among Jews.

For some lovely illustrations of Jewish variations on this design, see:
Chaim Peretz Vitrage


Jewish Cooking

Level: Basic

Jewish cooking is a unique synthesis of cooking styles from the many places that Jews have lived throughout the centuries. Jewish cooking shows the influence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German and Eastern European styles of cooking, all influenced by the unique dietary constraints of kashrut and other Jewish laws.

Many of the foods that we think of as Jewish are not unique to Jewish culture. Stuffed cabbage, a traditional Jewish dish, is common in Eastern Europe. Blintzes and knishes are familiar to all Germans, not just Jewish ones. Falafel and hummus, increasingly thought of as Israeli-Jewish foods, can be found in any Greek restaurant. But the combination of these varied foods into one style of cooking, along with our own innovations, is uniquely Jewish.

On this page, I will identify and describe several of the better-known, popular Jewish dishes. Most of these dishes are Ashkenazic, because that's what I know. Sephardic Jews have their own distinct cooking traditions. I will provide recipes for those foods that I know how to cook, and will provide links to other recipes that I have scattered throughout this web site.

One ingredient you will see in many of these recipes is matzah meal. Matzah meal is crumbs of matzah (unleavened bread). You can find this in the kosher or ethnic section of your grocery store, if your grocery store has one (I have found it in such remote, goyishe places as Athens, Georgia), but if it is not available, you can usually substitute bread crumbs.


Any traditional Jewish meal begins with the breaking of bread. Challah is a special kind of bread used for Shabbat and holidays. It is a very sweet, golden, eggy bread. The taste and texture is somewhat similar to egg twist rolls (those little yellow rolls that look like knots). The loaf is usually braided, but on certain holidays it may be made in other shapes. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to serve round challah (the circle symbolizing the cycle of life, the cycle of the years).

A local deli makes French toast with challah. I highly recommend this. Challah is also wonderful in sandwiches with roast beef or corned beef. Traditionally, however, it is simply used as you might use rolls with a holiday dinner.

The word "challah" refers to the portion of dough set aside for the kohein (See the List of Mitzvot, #394); that is, a portion that is taken out of the dough before it is baked. I am not certain how the term for the removed portion came to be used for the portion that is left over after it is removed.

Bagels and Lox

Is there anybody who doesn't know what a bagel is? A bagel is a donut-shaped piece of bread that is boiled before it is baked. They are often topped with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, or flavored with other ingredients. The bagel has been a part of Jewish cuisine for at least 400 years. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, there are references to it as far back as Poland in 1610. In America, bagels are traditionally served with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) or other fish spreads (herring, whitefish, etc.). They are also quite good with cream cheese and a thick slice of tomato.

Those hockey pucks that you find in your grocer's freezer bear little resemblance to a real bagel. A real bagel is soft, warm and spongy inside, lightly crispy outside. A fresh bagel does not need to be toasted, and should not be. Toasting is a sorry attempt to compensate for a sub-standard bagel.

Gefilte Fish

Gefilte fish is a cake or ball of chopped up fish. My brother's girlfriend describes it as Jewish Scrapple, although I suppose that is not very helpful to anybody outside of the Philadelphia area. It is usually made with white-fleshed freshwater fish, such as carp or pike. The fish is chopped into small pieces (a food processor is good for this), mixed with onions and some other vegetables (carrot, celery, parsley). The mixture is held together with eggs and matzah meal. It is then boiled in broth for a while. It can be served warm or cold, though it is usually served cold with red horseradish and garnished with carrot shavings. Sorry I can't produce a better recipe than that; I don't eat fish.

The word "gefilte" fish comes from German and means "stuffed." Some variations on gefilte fish involve stuffing the fish skin with chopped up fish.

Matzah Ball Soup

Also known as Jewish penicillin. Matzah balls are more traditionally known as knaydelach (Yiddish for dumplings). Matzah ball soup is generally a very thin chicken broth with two or three ping-pong-ball sized matzah balls (or sometimes one very large matzah ball) in it. Sometimes, a few large pieces of carrot or celery are added. Matzah balls can be very soft and light or firm and heavy. A friend of mine describes the two types as "floaters and sinkers." Matzah ball soup is commonly served at the Passover seder, but is also eaten all year round.

Below is my recipe for matzah ball soup. The parsley in the matzah balls is not traditional, but I like it that way.

  • 1/2 cup matzah meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. oil or schmaltz (melted chicken fat)
  • 2 tbsp. water or chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
  • a little black pepper
  • 2 quarts thin chicken broth or consomm

Beat the eggs, oil and water together thoroughly. Add the matzah meal, parsley and black pepper and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit for a few minutes, so the matzah meal absorbs the other ingredients, and stir again.

Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 tbsp. of the batter. Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked enough to eat in about 15 minutes; however, you may want to leave it simmering longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated.

For lighter matzah balls, use a little less oil, a little more water, and cook at a lower temperature for a longer time. For heavier matzah balls, do the reverse. If you are using this to treat a cold, put extra black pepper into the broth (pepper clears the sinuses).


A knish (the k and the n are both pronounced) is a sort of potato and flour dumpling stuffed with various things. It is baked until browned and a little crisp on the outside. They are commonly filled with mashed potato and onion, chopped liver, or cheese. They are good for a snack, an appetizer or a side dish. You should be able to find them in any deli. The word "knish" is Ukrainian for "dumpling."


Blintzes are basically Jewish crepes. A blintz is a thin, flat pancake rolled around a filling. It looks a little like an egg roll. As a main dish or side dish, blintzes can be filled with sweetened cottage cheese or mashed potatoes and onion; as a dessert, they can be filled with fruit, such as apple, cherry or blueberry. They are usually fried in oil. They are generally served with sour cream and/or applesauce.

Cheese blintzes are the traditional meal for the festival of Shavu'ot, when dairy meals are traditionally eaten. They are also commonly eaten during Chanukkah, because they are cooked in oil.

The word "blintz" comes from a Ukrainian word meaning "pancake."


Cholent (the "ch" is pronounced as in "chair" -- an exception to the usual rules of pronunciation) is a very slowly cooked stew of beans, beef, barley and sometimes potatoes. It is the traditional meal for the Shabbat lunch or dinner, because it can be started before Shabbat begins and left cooking throughout Shabbat. A recipe for cholent is on the Shabbat page.


Holishkes are cabbage leaves stuffed with meatballs in a tomato-based sweet-and-sour sauce. They are known by many different names (galuptzi, praakes, stuffed cabbage), and are made in many different ways, depending on where your grandmother came from. It is traditionally served during the holiday of Sukkot, although I am not sure why. Below is my recipe.

  • 8-10 leaves of cabbage
  • Filling:
    • 1 lb. ground beef
    • 1/2 cup matzah meal
    • 1 large grated onion
    • 2 grated carrots
    • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
    • a handful of minced parsley
    • 2 eggs
  • Sauce:
    • 16 oz. can of tomato sauce
    • 1/4 cup of lemon juice
    • 1/2 cup of brown sugar

Gently remove the cabbage leaves from the head. You want them to be intact. It may help to steam the head briefly before attempting this. Boil the leaves for a minute or two to make them soft enough to roll.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a saucepan and simmer, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (it will dissolve faster if you pour the lemon juice over it). Pour about 1/4 of the sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish or lasagna pan.

Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl. Make a ball out of a handful of the filling and roll it up in a cabbage leaf, rolling from the soft end to the spiny end. Put the resulting roll into the casserole dish with the sauce. Do this until you use up all of the filling, making 8-10 cabbage rolls. Then pour the remaining sauce over the top.

Bake approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

If you don't like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the brown sugar.


Tzimmes is any kind of sweet stew. It usually is orange in color, and includes carrots, sweet potatoes and/or prunes. A wide variety of dishes fall under the heading "tzimmes." On Passover, I commonly make a tzimmes of carrots and pineapple chunks boiled in pineapple juice. On Thanksgiving, I serve a tzimmes of sweet potatoes, white potatoes, carrots, and stewing beef.

Tzimmes is commonly eaten on Rosh Hashanah, because it is sweet and symbolizes our hopes for a sweet new year.

The word "tzimmes" is often used in Yiddish to mean making a big fuss about something.

This is the tzimmes recipe I use for Thanksgiving:

  • 1 lb. stewing beef, cut into small chunks
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of water
  • 3 sweet potatoes
  • 3 white potatoes
  • 5 carrots

Brown the stewing beef lightly in a little oil in a 2 quart saucepan. Add the water and sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer. Peel and dice the potatoes and carrots and add to the pot. Let it stew covered at very low heat for at least an hour, adding water periodically if necessary. There should be water, but it should not be soggy. Once the potatoes are soft, take the cover off and let most of the water boil off. Mash the whole mixture until the potato part is the consistency of mashed potatoes. Put the mash into a casserole dish and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

If you don't like so much refined sugar in your diet, you can substitute about a cup of raisins or prunes for the sugar.


Kugel is another dish that encompasses several different things, and the relationship between them is hard to define. The word "kugel" is generally translated as "pudding," although it does not mean pudding in the Jell-O brand dairy dessert sense. It is pronounced "koo-gel" or "ki-gel," depending on where your grandmother comes from.

Kugel can be either a side dish or a dessert. As a side dish, it is a casserole of potatoes, eggs and onions. As a desert, it is usually made with noodles and various fruits and nuts in an egg-based pudding. Kugel made with noodles is called lokshen kugel. Below is my recipe for a noodle kugel.

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup melted margarine or butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 lb. wide noodles
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 1/2 cup chopped apples

Beat the eggs thoroughly in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, sugar and cinnamon beat until thoroughly blended. Cook the noodles and rinse them in cold water. Do not drain them too thoroughly. Put the noodles into the egg mixture and stir until the noodles are coated with the mixture. Let them sit in the refrigerator for about 15-30 minutes, so the noodles absorb some of the egg mixture. Stir again.

Put about half of the egg-noodle mixture into a casserole dish. Put the raisins, almonds and apples on top. Put the remaining egg-noodle mixture on top of that. Bake for about 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees, until the egg part is firm and the noodles on top are crispy. Can be served warm or cold.

Jewish Apple Cake

Jewish deserts generally do not have any dairy products in them, because of the constraints of kashrut. Under the kosher laws, dairy products cannot be eaten at the same meal as meat, thus Jewish deserts are usually pareve (neither meat nor dairy). An example of this kind of cooking is the Jewish apple cake, which I see in many grocery stores. I do not know if this kind of cake is actually a traditional Jewish dish; I cannot find any recipes for it in any of my Jewish cookbooks. However, the style of it is very much in accord with Jewish cooking styles. Jewish apple cake is a light, almost spongy cake with chunks of apples in it. It has no dairy products; the liquid portion that would usually be milk is replace with apple juice, making a very sweet cake.

Links to Other Recipes

Elsewhere in this site, I have provided recipes for:

  • Latkes, potato pancakes traditionally served during Chanukkah.
  • Hamentaschen, filled cookies traditionally served during Purim.
  • Charoses, a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine traditionally served during Passover.

The ultimate traditional Jewish cookbook is Leah W. Leonard's Jewish Cookery. It contains traditional Ashkenazic recipes for holidays and all year round. All of the recipes are kosher. There is a special section for Passover recipes. The book contains a brief discussion of holiday food customs and the laws of kashrut.

Another cookbook that I've gotten a lot of good use out of is Josephine Levy Bacon's Jewish Cooking from Around the World. Don't let that surprising last name fool you! These are kosher recipes from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition, as well as Yemenite and Indian dishes. Jews have lived in just about every country in the world, and these recipes reflect the melding of Jewish traditions and dietary laws with the prevailing cooking styles in the countries where we have lived.


Hebrew Alphabet

Level: Basic

The Hebrew and Yiddish languages use a different alphabet than English. The picture below illustrates the Hebrew alphabet, in Hebrew alphabetical order. Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English, so Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Tav is the last. The Hebrew alphabet is often called the "alefbet," because of its first two letters.

Letters of the Alefbet

Hebrew Alefbet

If you are familiar with Greek, you will no doubt notice substantial similarities in letter names and in the order of the alphabet.

The "Kh" and the "Ch" are pronounced as in German or Scottish, a throat clearing noise, not as the "ch" in "chair."

Note that there are two versions of some letters. Kaf, Mem, Nun, Pe and Tzade all are written differently when they appear at the end of a word than when they appear in the beginning or middle of the word. The version used at the end of a word is referred to as Final Kaf, Final Mem, etc. The version of the letter on the left is the final version. In all cases except Final Mem, the final version has a long tail.

Vowels and Points

Like most early Semitic alphabetic writing systems, the alefbet has no vowels. People who are fluent in the language do not need vowels to read Hebrew, and most things written in Hebrew in Israel are written without vowels.

However, as Hebrew literacy declined, particularly after the Romans expelled the Jews from Israel, the rabbis recognized the need for aids to pronunciation, so they developed a system of dots and dashes called nikkudim (points). These dots and dashes are written above, below or inside the letter, in ways that do not alter the spacing of the line. Text containing these markings is referred to as "pointed" text.

Most nikkudim are used to indicate vowels. The table at right illustrates the vowel points, along with their pronunciations. Pronunciations are approximate; I have heard quite a bit of variation in vowel pronunciation.

Vowel points are shown in blue. The letter Alef, shown in red, is used to illustrate the position of the points relative to the consonents. The letters shown in purple are technically consonents and would appear in unpointed texts, but they function as vowels in this context.

There are a few other nikkudim, illustrated and explained below.

The dot that appears in the center of some letters is called a dagesh. With most letters, the dagesh does not significantly affect pronunciation. With the letters Bet, Kaf and Pe, however, the dagesh indicates that the letter should be pronounced with its hard sound (the first sound) rather than the soft sound (the second sound). In Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation used by many Orthodox Jews and by older Jews), Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an "s" when it does not have a dagesh.

Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a "v," is sometimes a vowel pronounced "oo" (u) or "oh" (o). When it is pronounced "oo", pointed texts have a dagesh. When it is pronounced "oh", pointed texts have a dot on top.

Shin is pronounced "sh" when it has a dot over the right branch and "s" when it has a dot over the left branch.

Pointed TextAt right is an example of pointed text. Nikkudim are shown in blue. This line would be pronounced (in Sephardic pronunciation, which is what most people use today): V'ahavtah l'reyahkhah kamokhah. (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18).

Styles of Writing

The style of writing illustrated above is the one most commonly seen in Hebrew books. It is referred to as block print or sometimes Assyrian text.

For sacred documents, such as torah scrolls or the scrolls inside tefillin and mezuzot, there is a special writing style with "crowns" (crows-foot-like marks coming up from the upper points) on many of the letters. This style of writing is known as STA"M (an abbreviation for "Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot," which is where you will see that style of writing. For more information about the STA"M alphabet, including illustrations and relevant rules, see Hebrew Alphabet used in writing STA"M.
There is another style used for handwriting, in much the same way that cursive is used for the Roman (English) alphabet. This modern script style is illustrated at right. Modern Script
Rashi Script Another style is used in certain texts to distinguish the body of the text from commentary upon the text. This style is known as Rashi Script, in honor of Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Torah and the Talmud. The alefbet at left is an example of Rashi Script.


The process of writing Hebrew words in the Roman (English) alphabet is known as transliteration. Transliteration is more an art than a science, and opinions on the correct way to transliterate words vary widely. This is why the Jewish festival of lights (in Hebrew, Chet-Nun-Kaf-He) is spelled Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanuka, and many other interesting ways. Each spelling has a legitimate phonetic and orthographic basis; none is right or wrong.

Numerical Values

Each letter in the alefbet has a numerical value. These values can be used to write numbers, as the Romans used some of their letters (I, V, X, L, C, M) to represent numbers. Alef through Yod have the values 1 through 10. Yod through Qof have the values 10 through 100, counting by 10s. Qof through Tav have the values 100 through 400, counting by 100s. Final letters have the same value as their non-final counterparts.

The number 11 would be rendered Yod-Alef, the number 12 would be Yod-Bet, the number 21 would be Kaf-Alef, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Resh-He) has the numerical value 611, etc. The only significant oddity in this pattern is the numbers 15 and 16, which if rendered as 10+5 or 10+6 would be a name of G-d, so they are normally written Tet-Vav (9+6) and Tet-Zayin (9+7). The order of the letters is irrelevant to their value; letters are simply added to determine the total numerical value. The number 11 could be written as Yod-Alef, Alef-Yod, Heh-Vav, Dalet-Dalet-Gimmel or many other combinations of letters.

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

I have received several e-mails pointing out that the numerical value of Vav (often transliterated as W) is 6, and therefore WWW has the numerical value of 666! It's an amusing notion, but Hebrew numbers just don't work that way. In Hebrew numerals, the position of the letter/digit is irrelevant; the letters are simply added up to determine the value. To say that Vav-Vav-Vav is six hundred and sixty-six would be like saying that the Roman numeral III is one hundred and eleven. The numerical value of Vav-Vav-Vav in Hebrew would be 6+6+6=18, so WWW is equivalent to life! (It is also worth noting that the significance of the number 666 is a part of Christian numerology, and has no basis that I know of in Jewish thought).

Hebrew Fonts and Word Processors

Several Hebrew fonts for PC (Windows), Mac and Unix (Linux) are available for free from Please be patient! This site is in Israel and is often slow to load. The example of pointed text above uses Snuit's Web Hebrew AD font. These Hebrew fonts map to ASCII 224-250, high ASCII characters which are not normally available on the keyboard, but this is the mapping that most Hebrew websites use. I'm not sure how you use those characters on a Mac. In Windows, you can go to Start | Programs | Accessories | System Tools | Character Map and select them there. If you know the mappings in Windows, you can also type the letters by holding down the ALT key and pressing the number as 4 digits on the numeric keypad. For example, Alef maps to ASCII 224, so if you hold down ALT and press 0224 in the numeric keypad, it will type an Alef. In addition, MS Word for Windows will let you assign shortcut keys to these Hebrew letters at Insert | Symbol.

If you use MS Internet Explorer version 5 or AOL version 5, you can download Hebrew support for your browser from the Windows Update center on Microsoft's website, Very few sites are using this Hebrew support at this time, but they may in the future. Microsoft's Hebrew support includes Hebrew versions of various standard fonts, such as Times New Roman and Arial, as well as a few new Hebrew fonts, such as Rod and Miriam. These fonts map in very strange ways and are not keyboard-accessible; however, you can set up shortcut keys in MS Word for Windows at Insert | Symbol.

If you have AOL, there are also Hebrew fonts that can be downloaded from AOL. Some of these have intuitive keyboard mappings, so you can for example type the letter H and get the letter Heh in these fonts. To find fonts on AOL, go to Keyword: File Search, select Shareware, and search for the term "hebrew font." You may also want to check out the Download area in AOL's Jewish Community (Keyword: Jewish Community). The big alefbet at the top of the page uses a font I downloaded from AOL years ago (it's just called Hebrew; I don't know if it's still there). Many of these Hebrew fonts have the same high-ASCII mappings as the Snuit fonts (which is good, because that's what most websites with Hebrew use), but some of them have intuitive keyboard mappings (a = Alef; b = Bet, g = Gimmel, etc.).

Of course, all of the above fonts would require you to type Hebrew backwards, because word processors go from left to right and Hebrew goes from right to left! If you are serious about writing a significant amount of text in Hebrew, you will need a Hebrew word processor. An excellent Hebrew word processor is DavkaWriter, available from Davka Software. DavkaWriter comes with many attractive Hebrew fonts including both consonents and vowels that will map to your keyboard in an intuitive phonetic way or in the standard Israeli keyboard format. It is very easy to switch between Hebrew and English within a document. DavkaWriter even comes with little stickers to put on the keys of your keyboard so you can learn their keyboard mappings, and an onscreen display shows you their keyboard mappings. Davka also has a lot of fonts available, as well as a lot of other Hebrew and Judaic software.


Hebrew Language: Root Words

Level: Intermediate

Resh-Alef-ShinThe vast majority of words in the Hebrew language can be boiled down to a three-consonant root word that contains the essence of the word's meaning. For example, the first word of the Torah is "bereishit," meaning "in the beginning." The root is Resh-Alef-Shin, which means "head" or "first." (See Hebrew Alphabet to learn the letters). It is the same root as the "Rosh" in "Rosh Hashanah" (first of the year, i.e., Jewish New Year).

Qof-Dalet-ShinThere are surprisingly few root words in biblical Hebrew, but we get a lot of mileage out of the ones we have. For example, from the root word Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning "holy," "sacred" or "sanctified," we get kedushah (holiness), kiddush (a prayer over wine sanctifying Shabbat or a holiday), Kaddish (an important prayer commonly thought of as a mourning prayer), aron kodesh (holy cabinet - the place in synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept), and kiddushin (betrothal). Samech-Dalet-ReshLess obviously, from the root Samech-Dalet-Resh, meaning "order," we get siddur (the daily prayer book, which sets for the order of prayers), seder (the Passover family ritual, which must be performed in a specified order) and sidrah (the weekly Torah reading, also called a parshah).

Bet-Nun-HehA substantial amount of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is derived from the relation between root words. For example, the rabbis concluded that G-d created women with greater intuition and understanding than men, because man was "formed" (yeetzer, Gen. 2:7) while woman was "built" (yeeben, Gen. 2:22). The root of "built," Bet-Nun-Heh, is very similar to the word "binah" (Bet-Yod-Nun-Heh), meaning understanding, insight or intuition.

Buy it at amazon.comIf you are interested in Hebrew root words, an interesting book to look at, is Edith Samuel's Your Jewish Lexicon, which looks at a lot of important Jewish concepts and idioms through their root words. Be aware that this book is written from a Reform perspective.


Common Expressions and Greetings

Level: Basic

What is the proper Jewish thing to say when someone tells you she's pregnant? How do you wish someone a happy holiday in Hebrew? Below are some common Jewish phrases and expressions to answer these questions and more.

Sabbath-Related Greetings

Shabbat Shalom (shah-BAHT shah-LOHM)
Hebrew. Literally, sabbath peace or peaceful sabbath. This is an appropriate greeting at any time on shabbat, although it is most commonly used at the end of a shabbat service.
Gut Shabbes (GUT SHAH-biss; gut rhymes with put)
Yiddish. Literally, good Sabbath. Like shabbat shalom, this is a general, all-purpose shabbat greeting. In my experience, gut shabbes is more likely to be used in general conversation or when greeting people, while shabbat shalom is more commonly used at the conclusion of a service.
Shavua Tov (shah-VOO-ah TOHV)
Hebrew. Literally, good week. This greeting is used after Havdalah (the ceremony marking the conclusion of shabbat), to wish someone a good forthcoming week.

Holiday Greetings

Chag Sameach (KHAHG sah-MEHY-ahkh)
Hebrew. Literally, joyous festival. This is an appropriate greeting for just about any holiday, but it's especially appropriate for Sukkot, Shavu'ot and Pesach (Passover), which are technically the only festivals (the other holidays are holidays, not festivals).
Gut Yontiff (GUT YAHN-tiff; gut rhymes with put)
Yiddish. Literally, good holiday. This greeting can be used for any holiday, not necessarily a festival.
L'Shanah Tovah (li-SHAH-nuh TOH-vuh; li-shah-NAH toh-VAH)
Hebrew. Lit. for a good year. A common greeting during Rosh Hashanah and Days of Awe. It is an abbreviation of L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year).
Have an easy fast
This is the proper way to wish someone well for Yom Kippur. Please, don't wish people a Happy Yom Kippur; it's not a happy holiday.

Other Expressions

Shalom (shah-LOHM)
Hebrew. Literally, peace. A way of saying "hello" or "goodbye."
Mazel Tov (MAH-zl TAWV)
Yiddish/Hebrew. Literally, good luck. This is the traditional way of expressing congratulations. "Mazel tov!" is the correct and traditional response upon hearing that a person has gotten engaged or married, has had a child, or has become a bar mitzvah. It can be used to congratulate someone for getting a new job, graduating from college, or any other happy event. Note that this term is not be used in the way that the expression "good luck" is used in English; that is, it should not be used to wish someone luck in the future. Rather, it is an expression of pleasure at the good fortune someone has already had.
Yasher koach (YAH-shehyr KOH-ahkh)
Hebrew. Literally, straight strength. Figuratively, may you have strength, or may your strength be increased. A way of congratulating someone for performing a mitzvah or other good deed. In essence, you are wishing this person the strength to continue doing this good thing, and you are also recognizing the effort that the person put into doing this good thing. It is most commonly used in synagogue, to congratulate someone after he or she has participated in some aspect of the service.
L'Chayim (li-KHAY-eem)
Yiddish/Hebrew. Literally, to life. The toast you offer before drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages, used the way you would use "Cheers!" in English.
Gesundheit (g'-SUND-hahyt)
Yiddish. Literally, health. This is the normal response when somebody sneezes. The same expression is used in German (Yiddish is largely based on German), and is quite common even among non-Jews, but I thought it was worth pointing out because some non-Jews have told me they were afraid of offending by saying "bless you" to a Jew.

The Name of God

Level: Basic

Please note: This page contains the Name of God. If you print it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.

The Significance of Names

In Jewish thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing named. It represents the history and reputation of the being named.

This is not as strange or unfamiliar a concept as it may seem at first glance. In English, we often refer to a person's reputation as his "good name." When a company is sold, one thing that may be sold is the company's "good will," that is, the right to use the company's name. The Hebrew concept of a name is very similar to these ideas.

An example of this usage occurs in Ex. 3:13-22: Moses asks God what His "name" is. Moses is not asking "what should I call you;" rather, he is asking "who are you; what are you like; what have you done." That is clear from God's response. God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of our ancestors, that He has seen our affliction and will redeem us from bondage.

Another example of this usage is the concepts of chillul Ha-Shem and kiddush Ha-Shem. An act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect or a commandment to be disobeyed is often referred to as "chillul Ha-Shem," profanation of The Name. Clearly, we are not talking about a harm done to a word; we are talking about harm to a reputation. Likewise, any deed that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as "kiddush Ha-Shem," sanctification of The Name.

Because a name represents the reputation of the thing named, a name should be treated with the same respect as the thing's reputation. For this reason, God's Names, in all of their forms, are treated with enormous respect and reverence in Judaism.

The Names of God

I have often heard people refer to the Judeo-Christian God as "the nameless God" to contrast our God with the ancient pagan gods. I always found this odd, because Judaism clearly recognizes the existence of a Name for God; in fact, we have many Names for God.

The most important of God's Names is the four-letter Name represented by the Hebrew letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh (YHVH). It is often referred to as the Ineffable Name, the Unutterable Name or the Distinctive Name. Linguistically, it is related to the Hebrew root Heh-Yod-Heh (to be), and reflects the fact that God's existence is eternal. In scripture, this Name is used when discussing God's relation with human beings, and when emphasizing his qualities of lovingkindness and mercy. It is frequently shortened to Yah (Yod-Heh), Yahu or Yeho (Yod-Heh-Vav), especially when used in combination with names or phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning "the Lord is my Salvation"), Eliyahu (Elijah, meaning "my God is the Lord"), and Halleluyah ("praise the Lord").

The first Name used for God in scripture is Elohim. In form, the word is a masculine plural of a word that looks feminine in the singular (Eloha). The same word (or, according to Rambam, a homonym of it) is used to refer to princes, judges, other gods, and other powerful beings. This Name is used in scripture when emphasizing God's might, His creative power, and his attributes of justice and rulership. Variations on this name include El, Eloha, Elohai (my God) and Elohaynu (our God).

God is also known as El Shaddai. This Name is usually translated as "God Almighty," however, the derivation of the word "Shaddai" is not known. According to some views, it is derived from the root meaning "to heap benefits." According a Midrash, it means, "The One who said 'dai'" ("dai" meaning enough or sufficient) and comes from the fact that when God created the universe, it expanded until He said "DAI!" (perhaps the first recorded theory of an expanding universe?). The name Shaddai is the one written on the mezuzah scroll. Some note that Shaddai is an acronym of Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Doors of Israel.

Another significant Name of God is YHVH Tzva'ot. This Name is normally translated as "Lord of Hosts." The word "tzva'ot" means "hosts" in the sense of a military grouping or an organized array. The Name refers to God's leadership and sovereignty. Interestingly, this Name is rarely used in scripture. It never appears in the Torah (i.e., the first five books). It appears primarily in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as many times in the Psalms.

Writing the Name of God

Jews do not casually write any Name of God. This practice does not come from the commandment not to take the Lord's Name in vain, as many suppose. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as "in vain" literally means "for falsehood").

Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se; it prohibits only erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better.

The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God comes from Deut. 12:3. In that passage, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities. Immediately afterwards, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God.

It is worth noting that this prohibition against erasing or defacing Names of God applies only to Names that are written in some kind of permanent form, and recent rabbinical decisions have held that writing on a computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God's Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God's Name in them. However, once you print the document out, it becomes a permanent form. That is why observant Jews avoid writing a Name of God on web sites like this one or in newsgroup messages: because there is a risk that someone else will print it out and deface it.

Normally, we avoid writing the Name by substituting letters or syllables, for example, writing "G-d" instead of "God." In addition, the number 15, which would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Heh (10-5), is normally written as Tet-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Heh is a Name. See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about using letters as numerals.

Pronouncing the Name of God

Nothing in the Torah prohibits a person from pronouncing the Name of God. Indeed, it is evident from scripture that God's Name was pronounced routinely. Many common Hebrew names contain "Yah" or "Yahu," part of God's four-letter Name. The Name was pronounced as part of daily services in the Temple.

The Mishnah confirms that there was no prohibition against pronouncing The Name in ancient times. In fact, the Mishnah recommends using God's Name as a routine greeting to a fellow Jew. Berakhot 9:5. However, by the time of the Talmud, it was the custom to use substitute Names for God. Some rabbis asserted that a person who pronounces YHVH according to its letters (instead of using a substitute) has no place in the World to Come, and should be put to death. Instead of pronouncing the four-letter Name, we usually substitute the Name "Adonai," or simply say "Ha-Shem" (lit. The Name).

Although the prohibition on pronunciation applies only to the four-letter Name, Jews customarily do not pronounce any of God's many Names except in prayer or study. The usual practice is to substitute letters or syllables, so that Adonai becomes Adoshem or Ha-Shem, Elohaynu and Elohim become Elokaynu and Elokim, etc.

With the Temple destroyed and the prohibition on pronouncing The Name outside of the Temple, pronunciation of the Name fell into disuse. Scholars passed down knowledge of the correct pronunciation of YHVH for many generations, but eventually the correct pronunciation was lost, and we no longer know it with any certainty. We do not know what vowels were used, or even whether the Vav in the Name was a vowel or a consonant. See Hebrew Alphabet for more information about the difficulties in pronouncing Hebrew. Some religious scholars suggest that the Name was pronounced "Yahweh," but others do not find this pronunciation particularly persuasive.

Some people render the four-letter Name as "Jehovah," but this pronunciation is particularly unlikely. The word "Jehovah" comes from the fact that ancient Jewish texts used to put the vowels of the Name "Adonai" (the usual substitute for YHVH) under the consonants of YHVH to remind people not to pronounce YHVH as written. A sixteenth century German Christian scribe, while transliterating the Bible into Latin for the Pope, wrote the Name out as it appeared in his texts, with the consonants of YHVH and the vowels of Adonai, and came up with the word JeHoVaH, and the name stuck.


Level: Basic

TorahThe word "Torah" is a tricky one, because it can mean different things in different contexts. In its most limited sense, "Torah" refers to the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But the word "torah" can also be used to refer to the entire Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah), or in its broadest sense, to the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.

Written Torah

To Jews, there is no "Old Testament." The books that Christians call the New Testament are not part of Jewish scripture. The so-called Old Testament is known to us as Written Torah or the Tanakh.

This is a list of the books of Written Torah, in the order in which they appear in Jewish translations, with the Hebrew name of the book, a translation of the Hebrew name (where it is not the same as the English name), and English names of the books (where it is not the same as the Hebrew name). The Hebrew names of the first five books are derived from the first few words of the book. The text of each book is more or less the same in Jewish translations as what you see in Christian bibles, although there are some occasional, slight differences in the numbering of verses and there are a few significant differences in the translations.

TORAH (The Law):

  • Bereishith (In the beginning...) (Genesis)
  • Shemoth (The names...) (Exodus)
  • Vayiqra (And He called...) (Leviticus)
  • Bamidbar (In the wilderness...) (Numbers)
  • Devarim (The words...) (Deuteronomy)

NEVI'IM (The Prophets):

  • Yehoshua (Joshua)
  • Shoftim (Judges)
  • Shmuel (I &II Samuel)
  • Melakhim (I & II Kings)
  • Yeshayah (Isaiah)
  • Yirmyah (Jeremiah)
  • Yechezqel (Ezekiel)
  • The Twelve (treated as one book)
    • Hoshea (Hosea)
    • Yoel (Joel)
    • Amos
    • Ovadyah (Obadiah)
    • Yonah (Jonah)
    • Mikhah (Micah)
    • Nachum
    • Chavaqquq (Habbakkuk)
    • Tzefanyah (Zephaniah)
    • Chaggai
    • Zekharyah (Zechariah)
    • Malakhi

KETHUVIM (The Writings):

  • Tehillim (Psalms)
  • Mishlei (Proverbs)
  • Iyov (Job)
  • Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs)
  • Ruth
  • Eikhah (Lamentations)
  • Qoheleth (the author's name) (Ecclesiastes)
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra & Nechemyah (Nehemiah) (treated as one book)
  • Divrei Ha-Yamim (The words of the days) (Chronicles)

Written Torah is often referred to as the Tanakh, which is an acrostic of Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

Torah Scrolls

Torah ScrollThe scriptures that we use in services are written on parchment scrolls. They are always hand-written, in attractive Hebrew calligraphy with "crowns" (crows-foot-like marks coming up from the upper points) on many of the letters. This style of writing is known as STA"M (an abbreviation for "Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot," which is where you will see that style of writing. For more information about the STA"M alphabet, including illustrations and relevant rules, see Hebrew Alphabet used in writing STA"M.

YadYou are not supposed to touch the parchment on these scrolls; some say because they are too holy; some say because the parchment, made from animal skins, is a source of ritual defilement; others say because your fingers' sweat has acids that will damage the parchment over time. Instead, you follow the text with a pointer, called a Yad. "Yad" means "hand" in Hebrew, and the pointer usually is in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger (I always find this incredibly amusing). The scrolls are kept covered with fabric, and often ornamented with silver crowns on the handles of the scrolls and a silver breastplate on the front.

Aron KodeshThe scrolls are kept in a cabinet in the synagogue called an "ark," as in Ark of the Covenant, not as in Noah's Ark. The words are different and unrelated in Hebrew. The former is an acrostic of "aron kodesh," meaning "holy cabinet," while the latter is an English translation of the Hebrew word "teyvat" meaning "ship".

The Torah scrolls that we read from in synagogue are unpointed text, with no vowels or musical notes, so the ability to read a passage from a scroll is a valuable skill, and usually requires substantial advance preparation (reviewing the passage in a text with points). See Hebrew Alphabet for more on pointed and unpointed texts.


Jewish scriptures are sometimes bound in a form that corresponds to the division into weekly readings (called parshiyot in Hebrew). Scriptures bound in this way are generally referred to as a chumash. The word "chumash" comes from the Hebrew word meaning five, and refers to the five books of the Torah. Sometimes, a chumash is simply refers to a collection of the five books of the Torah. But often, a chumash contains the entire first five books, divided up by the weekly parshiyot, with the haftarah portion inserted after each week's parshah.


[A Page of Talmud]In addition to the written scriptures we have an "Oral Torah," a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. This tradition was maintained in oral form only until about the 2d century C.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah.

Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century C.E.

There are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian one is more comprehensive, and is the one most people mean when they refer to The Talmud. There have been additional commentaries on the Talmud by such noted Jewish scholars as Rashi and Rambam. Adin Steinsalz is currently preparing a new edition of the Talmud, with his own commentary supplementing the Mishnah, Gemara, and Rashi commentaries.

The Mishnah is divided into six sections called sedarim (in English, orders). Each seder contains one or more divisions called masekhtot (in English, tractates). There are 63 masekhtot in the Mishnah. Approximately half of these masekhtot have been addressed in the Talmud. Although these divisions seem to indicate subject matter, it is important to note that the Mishnah and the Talmud tend to be engage in quite a bit of free-association, thus widely diverse subjects may be discussed in a seder or masekhtah. Below is the division of the Mishnah into sedarim and masekhtot:

  • Zera'im (Seeds), dealing with agricultural laws
    • Berakhot
    • Peah
    • Demai
    • Kilayim
    • Shebiit
    • Terumot
    • Maaserot
    • Maaser Sheni
    • Challah
    • Orlah
    • Bikkurim
  • Mo'ed (Festival), dealing with shabbat and festivals
    • Shabbat
    • Erubin
    • Pesachim
    • Sheqalim
    • Yoma
    • Sukkah
    • Besah
    • Rosh Hashanah
    • Taanit
    • Megillah
    • Moed Qatan
    • Hagigah
  • Nashim (Women), dealing with marriage, divorce and contracts
    • Yebamot
    • Ketubot
    • Nedarim
    • Nazir
    • Sotah
    • Gittin
    • Qiddushin
  • Nezikin (Damages), dealing with tort laws and other financial laws
    • Baba Qamma
    • Baba Mesia
    • Baba Batra
    • Sanhedrin
    • Makkot
    • Shabuot
    • Eduyyot
    • Avodah Zarah
    • Avot (also known as Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers)
    • Horayot
  • Kodashim (Holy Things), dealing with sacrifices and the Temple
    • Zevachim
    • Menachot
    • Chullin
    • Bekhorot
    • Arakhin
    • Temurah
    • Keritot
    • Meilah
    • Tamid
    • Middot
    • Qinnim
  • Toharot (Purities), dealing with laws of ritual purity and impurity
    • Kelim
    • Ohalot
    • Negaim
    • Parah
    • Tohorot
    • Miqvaot
    • Niddah
    • Makhshirin
    • Zabim
    • Tebul-Yom
    • Yadayim
    • Uqsin

In recent times, many observant Jews have taken up the practice of studying a page of Talmud every day. This practice, referred to as daf yomi, was started at the First International Congress of the Agudath Yisrael World Movement in August, 1923. Rav Meir Shapiro, the rav of Lublin, Poland, proposed uniting people worldwide through the daily study of a page of Talmud. Daf Yomi is currently in its 11th cycle. A calendar of the cycle can be found at Daf Yomi Calendar.

Other Writings

In addition to these works, we have midrashim, which are basically stories expanding on incidents in the Bible to derive principles or Jewish law or to teach moral lessons. For example, there is a midrash about why Moses wasn't a good speaker (he put coals in his mouth as a child basically as a way of proving that he wasn't greedy), and another one about Abram discovering monotheism and rejecting his father's idolatry (that's a nifty one: basically, he smashes up all his father's idols except the big one, then blames the mess on the big one, as a way of showing his father that the idols don't really have any power). Some of them fill in gaps in the narrative. For example, in Gen. 22:2, why does G-d say, "thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac." Wouldn't the name alone be enough? One story says that the narrative is skipping out Abraham's responses. "Take thy son." "Which one?" "Thine only son." "But I have two!" "Whom thou lovest." "I love them both!" "Even Isaac." (I'm not sure this is a traditional one -- I got it from a questionable source -- but I like it).

There is also a vast body of responsa, answers to specific questions of Jewish law. Beginning in the middle ages, when local rabbis were faced with difficult issues of Jewish law, they often wrote to the most respected rabbis in the world to get answers to these questions. The local rabbi would present the situation, often including detailed references to the Talmudic passages he had reviewed and his own interpretations of these authorities, and the world-renowned rabbi would provide a reasoned argument in favor of his answer. Over time, these responsa were collected into printed volumes. This tradition continues to the present day, and there are several rabbis in this century who have developed responsa on issues relating to modern technologies. For example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who died in the 1980s, wrote responsa on such diverse topics as the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, the kashering of dishwashers, and artificial insemination. There are literally thousands of volumes of responsa. A project at Bar-Ilan University is compiling these responsa into a computer database. See their website at The Responsa Project for more information.

As you can see, the body of Jewish tradition is very vast. Is there any place to get quick answers? In the middle ages, there were several attempts to create definitive codes of Jewish law. The best-known of these codes are Rambam's Mishneh Torah and Joseph Caro's Shulchan Arukh. In their own time, these works were very controversial, because they did not identify the Torah or Talmudic basis for their opinions and generally ignored conflicting opinions. There was concern that such works would discourage Jews from studying the primary sources: Torah and Talmud. Today, however, these sources are well-respected. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh is often treated as a primary source.

We also have a mystical tradition, known as Kabbalah. The primary written work in the Kabbalistic tradition is the Zohar. Traditionally, rabbis discouraged teaching this material to anyone under the age of 40, because it is too likely to be misinterpreted by anyone without sufficient grounding in the basics.


Torah Readings

Level: Intermediate

Each week in synagogue, we read (or, more accurately, chant, because it is sung) a passage from the Torah. This passage is referred to as a parshah. The first parshah, for example, is Parashat Bereishit, which covers from the beginning of Genesis to the story of Noah. There are 54 parshahs, one for each week of a leap year, so that in the course of a year, we read the entire Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) in our services. During non-leap years, there are 50 weeks, so some of the shorter portions are doubled up. We reach the last portion of the Torah around a holiday called Simkhat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), which occurs in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). On Simkhat Torah, we read the last portion of the Torah, and proceed immediately to the first paragraph of Genesis, showing that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

In the synagogue service, the weekly parshah is followed by a passage from the prophets, which is referred to as a haftarah. Contrary to common misconception, "haftarah" does not mean "half-Torah." The word comes from the Hebrew root Feh-Tet-Resh and means "Concluding Portion". Usually, haftarah portion is no longer than one chapter, and has some relation to the Torah portion of the week.

The Torah and haftarah readings are performed with great ceremony: the Torah is paraded around the room before it is brought to rest on the bimah (podium). The reading is divided up into portions, and various members of the congregation have the honor of reciting a blessing over a portion of the reading. This honor is referred to as an aliyah (literally, ascension).

The first aliyah of any day's reading is reserved for a kohein, the second for a Levite, and priority for subsequent aliyoth are given to people celebrating major life events, such as marriage or the birth of a child. In fact, a Bar Mitzvah was originally nothing more than the first aliyah of a boy who had reached the age to be permitted such an honor. Celebrants of life events are ordinarily given the last aliyah, which includes blessing the last part of the Torah reading as well as blessing the haftarah reading. The person given this honor is referred to as the maftir, from the same root as haftarah, meaning "the one who concludes."

For more information about services, see Jewish Liturgy.

Jewish scriptures are sometimes bound in a form that corresponds to this division into weekly readings. Scriptures bound in this way are generally referred to as a chumash. The word "chumash" comes from the Hebrew word meaning five, and refers to the five books of the Torah. Sometimes, a chumash is simply refers to a collection of the five books of the Torah. But often, a chumash contains the entire first five books, divided up by the weekly parshiyot, with the haftarah portion inserted after each week's parshah.

Table of Weekly Parshiyot

Below is a table of the regular weekly scriptural readings. Haftarot in parentheses indicate Sephardic ritual where it differs from Ashkenazic. There are other variations on the readings, but these are the most commonly used ones. If you want to know the reading for this week, check the Current Calendar.

There are additional special readings for certain holidays and other special days, listed in a separate table below.

Parashat Torah Haftarah
Bereishit Genesis 1:1-6:8 Isaiah 42:5-43:11
(Isaiah 42:5-42:21)
Noach Genesis 6:9-11:32 Isaiah 54:1-55:5
(Isaiah 54:1-10)
Lekh Lekha Genesis 12:1-17:27 Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Vayeira Genesis 18:1-22:24 II Kings 4:1-4:37
(II Kings 4:1-4:23)
Chayei Sarah Genesis 23:1-25:18 I Kings1:1-1:31
Toldot Genesis 25:19-28:9 Malachi 1:1-2:7
Vayeitzei Genesis 28:10-32:3 Hosea 12:13-14:10
(Hosea 11:7-12:12)
Vayishlach Genesis 32:4-36:43 Hosea 11:7-12:12
Vayyeshev Genesis 37:1-40:23 Amos 2:6-3:8
Miqeitz Genesis 41:1-44:17 I Kings 3:15-4:1
Vayigash Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28
Vayechi Genesis 47:28-50:26 I Kings 2:1-12
Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1 Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-29:23
(Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
Va'eira Exodus 6:2-9:35 Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16 Jeremiah 46:13-46:28
Beshalach Exodus 13:17-17:16 Judges 4:4-5:31
(Judges 5:1-5:31)
Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23 Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6
(Isaiah 6:1-6:13)
Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18 Jeremiah 34:8-34:22; 33:25-33:26
Terumah Exodus 25:1-27:19 I Kings 5:26-6:13
Tetzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10 Ezekiel 43:10-43:27
Ki Tisa Exodus 30:11-34:35 I Kings 18:1-18:39
(I Kings 18:20-18:39)
Vayaqhel Exodus 35:1-38:20 I Kings 7:40-7:50
(I Kings 7:13-7:26)
Pequdei Exodus 38:21-40:38 I Kings 7:51-8:21
(I Kings 7:40-7:50)
Vayiqra Leviticus 1:1-5:26 Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Tzav Leviticus 6:1-8:36 Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-9:23
Shemini Leviticus 9:1-11:47 II Samuel 6:1-7:17
(II Samuel 6:1-6:19)
Tazria Leviticus 12:1-13:59 II Kings 4:42-5:19
Metzora Leviticus 14:1-15:33 II Kings 7:3-7:20
Acharei Mot Leviticus 16:1-18:30 Ezekiel 22:1-22:19
(Ezekiel 22:1-22:16)
Qedoshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27 Amos 9:7-9:15
(Ezekiel 20:2-20:20)
Emor Leviticus 21:1-24:23 Ezekiel 44:15-44:31
Behar Leviticus 25:1-26:2 Jeremiah 32:6-32:27
Bechuqotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34 Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Bamidbar Numbers 1:1-4:20 Hosea 2:1-2:22
Nasso Numbers 4:21-7:89 Judges 13:2-13:25
Beha'alotkha Numbers 8:1-12:16 Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Shelach Numbers 13:1-15:41 Joshua 2:1-2:24
Qorach Numbers 16:1-18:32 I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Chuqat Numbers 19:1-22:1 Judges 11:1-11:33
Balaq Numbers 22:2-25:9 Micah 5:6-6:8
Pinchas Numbers 25:10-30:1 I Kings 18:46-19:21
Mattot Numbers 30:2-32:42 Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Masei Numbers 33:1-36:13 Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4
(Jeremiah 2:4-28; 4:1-4:2)
Devarim Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 Isaiah 1:1-1:27
Va'etchanan Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 Isaiah 40:1-40:26
Eiqev Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Re'eh Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Ki Teitzei Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 Isaiah 54:1-54:10
Ki Tavo Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 Isaiah 60:1-60:22
Nitzavim Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Vayeilekh Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30 Isaiah 55:6-56:8
Ha'azinu Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52 II Samuel 22:1-22:51
Vezot Haberakhah Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12 Joshua 1:1-1:18
(Joshua 1:1-1:9)

Table of Special Parshiyot

Below are additional readings for holidays and special shabbats. Haftarot in parentheses indicate Sephardic ritual where it differs from Ashkenazic. Note that on holidays, the Maftir portion ordinarily comes from a different Torah scroll. The Maftir portion is usually the Torah portion that institutes the holiday or specifies the holiday's offerings.
Parashat Torah Maftir Haftarah
Rosh Hashanah, Day 1 Gen 21:1-34 Num 29:1-6 I Sam 1:1-2:10
Rosh Hashanah, Day 2 Gen 22:1-24 Jer 31:1-19
Shabbat Shuvah     Hos 14:2-10
Mic 7:18-20
Yom Kippur, Morning Lev 16:1-34 Num 29:7-11 Is 57:14-58:14
Yom Kippur, Afternoon Lev 18:1-30   Jonah 1:1-4:11
Micah 7:18-20
Sukkot, Day 1 Lev 22:26-23:44 Num 29:12-16 Zech 14:1-21
Sukkot, Day 2 I Kings 8:2-21
Sukkot, Chol Ha-moed Day 1 Num 29:17-25    
Sukkot, Chol Ha-moed Day 2 Num 29:20-28    
Sukkot, Chol Ha-moed Day 3 Num 29:23-31    
Sukkot, Chol Ha-moed Day 4 Num 29:26-34    
Sukkot, Intermediate Shabbat Ex 33:12-34:26   Ezek 38:18-39:16
Hoshanah Rabbah Num 29:26-34    
Shemini Atzeret Deut 14:22-16:17 Num 29:35-30:1 I Ki 8:54-9:1
Simkhat Torah Deut 33:1-34:12
Gen 1:1-2:3
Num 29:35-30:1 Josh 1:1-18
(Josh 1:1-9)
Chanukkah, Day 1 Num 7:1-17    
Chanukkah, Day 2 Num 7:18-29    
Chanukkah, Day 3 Num 7:24-35    
Chanukkah, Day 4 Num 7:30-41    
Chanukkah, Day 5 Num 7:36-47    
Chanukkah, Day 6 (Rosh Chodesh) Num 28:1-15
Num 7:42-47
Chanukkah, Day 7 (not Rosh Chodesh) Num 7:48-59    
Chanukkah, Day 7 (Rosh Chodesh) Num 28:1-15
Num 7:42-47
Chanukkah, Day 8 Num 7:54-8:4    
Chanukkah, First Shabbat   Day 6: Num 28:9-15 Zech 2:14-4:7
Chanukkah, Second Shabbat   Num 7:54-8:4 I Ki 7:40-50
Sheqalim   Ex 30:11-16 II Ki 11:17-12:17
(II Ki 12:1-17)
Zakhor Deut 25:17-19   I Sam 15:1-34
Purim Ex 17:8-16    
Parah   Num 19:1-22 Ezek 36:16-38
(Ezek 36:16-36)
Ha-Chodesh   Ex 12:1-20 Ezek 45:16-46:18
(Ezek 45:18-46:18)
Shabbat Ha-Gadol     Mal 3:4-24
Pesach (Passover), Day 1 Ex12:21-51 Num 28:16-25 Josh3:5-7; 5:2-6:1; 6:27
(Josh 5:2-6:1)
Pesach (Passover), Day 2 Lev 22:26-23:44 II Ki 23:1-9; 21-25
Pesach (Passover), Chol Ha-moed Day 1 Ex 13:1-16;
Num 28:19-25
Pesach (Passover), Chol Ha-moed Day 2 Ex 22:24-23:19;
Num 28:19-25
Pesach (Passover), Chol Ha-moed Day 3 Ex 34:1-26;
Num 28:19-25
Pesach (Passover), Chol Ha-moed Day 4 Ex 9:1-14;
Num 28:19-25
Pesach (Passover)
Intermediate Shabbat
Ex 33:12-34:26 Num 28:19-25 Ezek 37:1-37:14
(Ezek 36:37-37:14)
Pesach (Passover), Day 7 Ex 13:17-15:26 II Sam 22:1-51
Pesach (Passover), Day 8 (weekday) Deut 15:19-16:17 Is 10:32-12:6
Pesach (Passover), Day 8 (Shabbat) Deut 14:22-16:17
Shavu'ot, Day 1 Ex19:1-20:23 Num 28:26-31 Ezek 1:1-28; 3:12
Shavu'ot, Day 2 (weekday) Deut 15:19-16:17 Hab 2:20-3:19
Shavu'ot, Day 2 (Shabbat) Deut 14:22-16:17
Tisha B'Av, Morning Deut 4:25-40   Jer 8:13-9:23
Tisha B'Av, Afternoon Ex 32:11-14, 34:1-10   Isaiah 55:6-56:8
(Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20)
Minor Fasts, Morning Ex 32:11-14; 34:1-10   Is 55:6-56:8
Minor Fasts, Afternoon Ex 32:11-14; 34:1-10    
Shabbat Mevarekhim (Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh)     I Sam 20:18-42
Rosh Chodesh (weekday) Num 28:1-15    
Rosh Chodesh (Shabbat)   Num 28:9-15 Is 66:1-24


Prayers and Blessings

Level: Intermediate

Tefilah: Prayer

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l'hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.

The Yiddish word meaning "pray" is "daven," which ultimately comes from the same Latin root as the English word "divine" and emphasizes the One to whom prayer is directed.

For an observant Jew, prayer is not simply something that happens in synagogue once a week (or even three times a day). Prayer an integral part of everyday life. In fact, one of the most important prayers in Judaism, the Birkat Ha-Mazon, is never recited in synagogue!

Observant Jews are constantly reminded of G-d'-s presence and of our relationship with G-d, because we are continually praying to Him. Our first thought in the morning, even before we get out of bed, is a prayer thanking G-d for returning our souls to us. There are prayers to be recited before enjoying any material pleasure, such as eating or wearing new clothes; prayers to recite before performing any mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles; prayers to recite upon seeing anything unusual, such as a king, a rainbow, or the site of a great tragedy; prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to recite before going to bed at night. All of these prayers are in addition to formal prayer services, which are performed three times a day every weekday and additional times on shabbat and festivals. See Jewish Liturgy.

The Need for Prayer

Many people today do not see the need for regular, formal prayer. "I pray when I feel inspired to, when it is meaningful to me," they say. This attitude overlooks two important things: the purpose of prayer, and the need for practice.

One purpose of prayer is to increase your awareness of G-d in your life and the role that G-d plays in your life. If you only pray when you feel inspired (that is, when you are already aware of G-d), then you will not increase your awareness of G-d.

In addition, if you want to do something well, you have to practice it continually, even when you don't feel like doing it. This is as true of prayer as it is of playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, or writing. The sense of humility and awe of G-d that is essential to proper prayer does not come easily to modern man, and will not simply come to you when you feel the need to pray. If you wait until inspiration strikes, you will not have the skills you need to pray effectively. Before I started praying regularly, I found that when I wanted to pray, I didn't know how. I didn't know what to say, or how to say it, or how to establish the proper frame of mind. If you pray regularly, you will learn how to express yourself in prayer.

Kavanah: The Mindset for Prayer

When you say the same prayers day after day, you might expect that the prayers would become routine and would begin to lose meaning. While this may be true for some people, this is not the intention of Jewish prayer. As I said at the beginning of this discussion, the most important part of prayer is the introspection it provides. Accordingly, the proper frame of mind is vital to prayer.

The mindset for prayer is referred to as kavanah, which is generally translated as "concentration" or "intent." The minimum level of kavanah is an awareness that one is speaking to G-d and an intention to fulfill the obligation to pray. If you do not have this minimal level of kavanah, then you are not praying; you are merely reading. In addition, it is preferred that you have a mind free from other thoughts, that you know and understand what you are praying about and that you think about the meaning of the prayer.

Liturgical melodies are often used as an aid to forming the proper mindset. Many prayers and prayer services have traditional melodies associated with them. These can increase your focus on what you are doing and block out extraneous thoughts.

I also find it useful to move while praying. Traditional Jews routinely sway back and forth during prayer, apparently a reference to Psalm 35, which says "All my limbs shall declare, 'O L-rd, who is like You?'" Such movement is not required, and many people find it distracting, but I personally find that it helps me concentrate and focus.

Hebrew: The Language for Prayer

The Talmud states that it is permissible to pray in any language that you can understand; however, traditional Judaism has always stressed the importance of praying in Hebrew. A traditional Chasidic story speaks glowingly of the prayer of an uneducated Jew who wanted to pray but did not speak Hebrew. The man began to recite the only Hebrew he knew: the alphabet. He recited it over and over again, until a rabbi asked what he was doing. The man told the rabbi, "The Holy One, Blessed is He, knows what is in my heart. I will give Him the letters, and He can put the words together."

Even the more liberal movements are increasingly recognizing the value of Hebrew prayer. My grandmother tells me that fifty years ago, you never heard a word of Hebrew in a Reform synagogue. Today, the standard Reform prayer book contains the text of many prayers in Hebrew, and many of the standard prayers are recited in Hebrew, generally followed by transliteration and an English translation. I have heard several Reform rabbis read from the Torah in Hebrew, also generally followed by an English translation or explanation.

There are many good reasons for praying in Hebrew: it gives you an incentive for learning Hebrew, which might otherwise be forgotten; it provides a link to Jews all over the world; it is the language in which the covenant with G-d was formed, etc. To me, however, the most important reason to pray in Hebrew is that Hebrew is the language of Jewish thought.

Any language other than Hebrew is laden down with the connotations of that language's culture and religion. When you translate a Hebrew word, you lose subtle shadings of Jewish ideas and add ideas that are foreign to Judaism. Only in Hebrew can the pure essence of Jewish thought be preserved and properly understood. For example, the English word "commandment" connotes an order imposed upon us by a stern and punishing G-d, while the Hebrew word "mitzvah" implies an honor and privilege given to us, a responsibility that we undertook as part of the covenant we made with G-d, a good deed that we are eager to perform.

This is not to suggest that praying in Hebrew is more important than understanding what you are praying about. If you are in synagogue and you don't know Hebrew well enough, you can listen to the Hebrew while looking at the translation. If you are reciting a prayer or blessing alone, you should get a general idea of its meaning from the translation before attempting to recite it in Hebrew. But even if you do not fully understand Hebrew at this time, you should try to hear the prayer, experience the prayer, in Hebrew.

Group Prayer

Most of our prayers are expressed in the first person plural, "us" instead of "me," and are recited on behalf of all of the Jewish people. This form of prayer emphasizes our responsibility for one another and our interlinked fates.

In Judaism, prayer is largely a group activity rather than an individual activity. Although it is permissible to pray alone and it fulfills the obligation to pray, you should generally make every effort to pray with a group, short of violating a commandment to do so.

A complete formal prayer service cannot be conducted without a quorum of at least 10 adult Jewish men; that is, at least 10 people who are obligated to fulfill the commandment to recite the prayers. This prayer quorum is referred to as a minyan (from a Hebrew root meaning to count or to number). Certain prayers and religious activities cannot be performed without a minyan. This need for a minyan has often helped to keep the Jewish community together in isolated areas.

Berakhot: Blessings

A berakhah (blessing) is a special kind of prayer that is very common in Judaism. Berakhot are recited both as part of the synagogue services and as a response or prerequisite to a wide variety of daily occurrences. Berakhot are easy to recognize: they all start with the word barukh (blessed or praised).

The words barukh and berakhah are both derived from the Hebrew root Bet-Resh-Kaf, meaning "knee," and refer to the practice of showing respect by bending the knee and bowing. See animation at right. There are several places in Jewish liturgy where this gesture is performed, most of them at a time when a berakhah is being recited.

According to Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot each day! This is not as difficult as it sounds. Repeating the Shemoneh Esrei three times a day (as all observant Jews do) covers 57 berakhot all by itself, and there are dozens of everyday occurrences that require berakhot.

Who Blesses Whom?

Many English-speaking people find the idea of berakhot very confusing. To them, the word "blessing" seems to imply that the person saying the blessing is conferring some benefit on the person he is speaking to. For example, in Catholic tradition, a person making a confession begins by asking the priest to bless him. Yet in a berakhah, the person saying the blessing is speaking to G-d. How can the creation confer a benefit upon the Creator?

This confusion stems largely from difficulties in the translation. The Hebrew word "barukh" is not a verb describing what we do to G-d; it is an adjective describing G-d as the source of all blessings. When we recite a berakhah, we are not blessing G-d; we are expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is.

Content of a Berakhah

There are basically three types of berakhot: ones recited before enjoying a material pleasure (birkhot ha-na'ah), ones recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment) (birkhot ha-mitzvot) and ones recited at special times and events (birkhot hoda'ah).

Berakhot recited before enjoying a material pleasure, such as eating, drinking or wearing new clothes, acknowledge G-d as the creator of the thing that we are about to use. The berakhah for bread praises G-d as the one "who brings forth bread from the earth." The berakhah for wearing new clothing praises G-d as the one "who clothes the naked." By reciting these berakhot, we recognize that G-d is the Creator of all things, and that we have no right to use things without first asking his permission. The berakhah essentially asks permission to use the thing.

Berakhot recited before performing a mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles, praise G-d as the one "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us..." to do whatever it is we are about to do. Reciting such a blessing is an essential element of the performance of a mitzvah. In Jewish tradition, a person who performs a mitzvah with a sense of obligation is considered more meritorious than a person who performs the same mitzvah because he feels like it. Recitation of the berakhah focuses our attention on the fact that we are performing a religious duty with a sense of obligation. It is worth noting that we recite such berakhot over both biblical commandments and rabbinical commandments. In the latter case, the berakhah can be understood as "who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to obey the rabbis, who commanded us to..." do whatever it is we are about to do. See Halakhah: Jewish Law for an explanation of the distinction between biblical and rabbinical commandments.

Berakhot recited at special times and events, such as when seeing a rainbow or a king or hearing good or bad news, acknowledge G-d as the ultimate source of all good and evil in the universe. It is important to note that such berakhot are recited for both good things and things that appear to us to be bad. When we see or hear something bad, we praise G-d as "the true Judge," underscoring the fact that things that appear to be bad happen for a reason that is ultimately just, even if we in our limited understanding cannot always see the reason.

Form of a Berakhah

Many of the berakhot that we recite today were composed by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly nearly 2500 years ago, and they continue to be recited in the same form.

All berakhot use the phrase "Barukh atah Ha-shem, Elokaynu, melekh ha-olam," Blessed art thou L-rd, our G-d, King of the Universe. This is sometimes referred to as shem u'malkut (the name and the sovereignty), the affirmation of G-d as king.

The use of the word "thou" is worth discussing: in modern English, many people think of the word "thou" as being formal and respectful, but in fact the opposite is true. Thou (like the Hebrew atah) is the informal, familiar second person pronoun, used for friends and relatives. This word expresses our close and intimate relationship with G-d.

Immediately after this phrase, the berakhah abruptly shifts into the third person; for example, in the birkhot ha-mitzvot, the first two phrases are blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments and commands us... This grammatical faux pas is intentional. The use of the third person pronoun while speaking to a person in Hebrew is a way of expressing extreme respect and deference. This shift in perspective is a deliberately jarring way of expressing the fact that G-d is simultaneously close to us and yet far above us, intimately related to us and yet transcendent. This paradox is at the heart of the Jewish relationship with G-d.

Birkat Ha-Mazon: Grace After Meals

One of the most important prayers in Judaism, one of the very few that the Bible commands us to recite, is never recited in synagogue. That prayer is birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals.

In Deuteronomy 8:10, we are commanded that when we eat and are satisfied, we must bless the L-rd, our G-d. This commandment is fulfilled by reciting the birkat ha-mazon (blessing of the food) after each meal. Reciting birkat ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching, from the Yiddish word meaning "to bless." Although the word "bentsch" can refer to the recitation of any berakhah, it is almost always used to refer to reciting birkat ha-mazon.

The grace after meals is recited in addition to the various berakhot over food recited before meals.

Birkat ha-mazon actually consists of four blessings, three of which were composed around the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly and a fourth which was added after the destruction of the Temple. These blessings are:

  1. Birkat Hazan (the blessing for providing food), which thanks G-d for giving food to the world,
  2. Birkat Ha-Aretz (the blessing for the land), which thanks G-d for bringing us forth from the land of Egypt, for making His covenant with us, and for giving us the land of Israel as an inheritance,
  3. Birkat Yerushalayim (the blessing for Jerusalem), which prays for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the moshiach; and
  4. Birkat Ha-Tov v'Ha-Maytiv (the blessing for being good and doing good), was added after the destruction of the Temple, although it existed before that time. It emphasizes the goodness of G-d's work, that G-d is good and does good.

In addition to these four blessings, the full birkat ha-mazon incorporates some psalms and additional blessings for various special occasions (holidays, guests, etc.)

If you would like to hear the Birkat Ha-Mazon, check out this RealPlayer recording of Cantor Pinchas Rabinovicz chanting Birkat Ha-Mazon from, the best source of Jewish Torah Audio on the net!  (Please note: This recording uses Ashkenazic pronunciation)

Finding a Minyan (Prayer Group)

As I said above, Jewish prayer is ordinarily a group activity done with a quorum of 10 people called a minyan. If you are interested in finding an Orthodox minyan in your area to pray with, check out Go Daven, a searchable worldwide database of Orthodox minyans. Just tell them where you want to daven (pray), and they'll find you an Orthodox minyan, complete with service times and even a link to a map!

If you would prefer a Conservative synagogue, try the USCJ's Find a Synagogue page. If you prefer Reform, try the UAHC's Directory of Congregations. For Reconstructionist synagogues, try the JRF's directory of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot.