basic hebrew words and their meanings
Shalom (shah-LOME) שלום
Perhaps the best-known Hebrew word today is shalom, which means “peace” or “wellbeing.” It also can be used for both “hello” and “goodbye.”
Todah (toe-DAH) תודה Hebrew for gratitude or acknowledgement, this is the modern word for “thank you.” In Temple times, a Jew who felt grateful for G‑d’s salvation from danger would bring a korban todah, a “sacrifice of gratitude.”
Torah (toe-RAH) תורה Literally “guide” or “instruction,” the Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses which contain G‑d’s instructions. More broadly, Torah refers to the entire corpus of Jewish spiritual scholarship.
Mitzvah (mitz-VAH) מצוה Literally “commandment,” mitzvah refers to any of the 613 commandments in the Torah, especially giving charity. Since a Jew is obligated to follow the commandments after reaching the age of majority, a boy’s 13th birthday is his “bar mitzvah” and a girl’s 12th birthday is her “bat mitzvah.”
Yehudi (Ye-hoo-DEE) יהודי The Jewish nation is known by various names, including Ivrim (Hebrews) and Bnei Yisrael (Israelites). The most common term nowadays, however, is Jews, Yehudim (or Yehudi in singular) in Hebrew. This name came into being since the Jews of the Holy Land were ruled by the Davidic kings, descendants of the tribe of Judah.
Ahavah (ah-hah-VAH) אהבה This is the Hebrew noun for “love.” The Torah speaks extensively about love: Ahavah of Isaac toward his wayward son, Esau; ahavah of Jacob toward his wife Rachel; ahavah between G‑d and His people; ahavah we are to have for each other; and ahavah we are enjoined to extend to “strangers” (converts).
Shabbat (Shah-BOT, or SHAH-boss) שבת The progenitor of the English word “sabbath,” Shabbat refers to the Jewish day of rest. Observed from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening since our Exodus from Egypt, Shabbat is celebrated with special prayers, candle-lighting (on Friday afternoon), feasting, and resting.
Kodesh (CO-desh) קדש Kodesh means “set aside” or “sacred.” Shabbat, the holiest day, is referred to as Shabbat kodesh. Kodesh is also the root of Kaddish (the prayer in which we sanctify G‑d’s name), Kiddush (the prayer in which we proclaim the holiness of Shabbat), and chevra kadisha (sacred [burial] society).
Hashem (hah-SHEM) השם The Torah contains many names for G‑d. Jews have historically refrained from using these names in conversation, instead referring to the Creator as Hashem, which means “the name.” Bonus: The word baruch (bah-ROOKH) means “blessed,” so if someone asks you how you are doing (or whenever you want to report good news), you can preface your answer with baruch Hashem, “blessed be G‑d.”
Ivrit (eev-REET) עברית Jews traditionally refer to the Hebrew language as Lashon Hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue.” Modern Hebrew, on the other hand, is referred to as Ivrit (Hebrew for “Hebrew”).
Imma (EE-mah) אמא The Torah refers to Eve, the first woman, as aim kol chai, “the mother of all life.” Aim is the root word of imma, the Hebrew equivalent of “mommy.”
Abba (AH-bah) אבא Abba is the Hebrew equivalent of “daddy.” In Judaism it is actually a mitzvah to refer to our parents by these honorifics, rather than by their given names.
Kosher (kah-SHER) כשר The Hebrew word kosher literally means “fit.” The laws of kosher define the foods that are fit for consumption for a Jew (as well as the ritual items that are fit to be used), but the word has come to refer more broadly to anything that is “above board” or “legit.”
The Jewish New Year, the beginning of ten days of penitence or teshuvah culminating on Yom Kippur. Traditionally celebrated with sweet or round foods such as apples and honey, and the blowing of the shofar, a hollowed-out ram's horn, during religious services. A customary greeting is shanah tovah or "happy new year!"
The Day of Atonement; a very solemn day devoted to fasting, prayer, and repentance. Observant Jews do not eat, drink (including water), bathe, engage in sexual activity, or wear anything made of leather on this day of awe.
The week-long harvest festival of Sukkot, or "Feast of Tabernacles," commemorates the dwelling of the Israelites in temporary booths (sukkot in Hebrew) during their 40-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. Many families build their own sukkah in which it is customary to eat meals and sleep, and to shake the lulav, a palm frond bound together with myrtle and willow branches, and the etrog, a kind of citrus (pictured here, growing in the Smith College greenhouse, where it is identified as a "Moroccan citrus").
The eight-day festival of Hanukkah—or "Festival of Lights"—commemorates the miraculous victory of the Maccabees and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. In fact, it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday (in religious terms) which unlike most other Jewish holidays, has no restrictions whatsoever on work or travel—although many Jewish families and communities get together to celebrate this festive holiday. It is customary to eat fried foods such as potato latkes or jelly doughnuts.
Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew)
The week-long spring festival of Pesach commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt. The Passover Seder on the first two nights—an elaborate and ritualized meal—recounts the story of Exodus using ritual foods, prayers, stories and songs. Only the first two and last two days of Passover are observed as full holy days, with restrictions on work and travel. However, many extended Jewish families gather for the holiday, and consequently some Jewish students may miss the entire week of classes. (In Israel, schools are always closed for Passover.)
Feast of Weeks; marks the giving of the Law (Torah) at Mt Sinai.