Judaism (יהדות) – the religious civilization of the Jewish people.

Torah she’bikhtav, תורה שבכתב – the written law. This may refer to the Torah (five books of Moses) or the Tanakh (entire Hebrew Bible.)

Torah she’be’al peh תורה שבעל פה – The oral law. This contains the inherited ways that Jews have understood the Bible, including civil and ritual laws, stories, theology and folklore. The oral law – as the name implies – was once taught only orally, but it was eventually redacted in several classic works, the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Midrash. In later generations it was elaborated upon in the two (yes, two) Talmuds.

Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה. The first written redaction of Judaism’s oral law. It was edited & redacted shortly after 200 CE.

Tosefta תוספתא, “supplement”. This book draws on the same wide pool of rabbinic teachings that the Mishnah was drawn from, but with some different additions and omission. It also contains a commentary that written later, around 300 to 400 CE.  While not usually used in prayer or decision making, it’s nonetheless a valuable reference for scholars and rabbis.

Midrash מדרש Classical rabbinic commentaries and homilies on the Bible. There are many different volumes, each written by a different authorship, for a different purpose. Just as an artist creates a painting with paints, rabbis wrote midrash with different verses of Scripture. The various collections were edited between 100 CE and 800 CE

Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud) Not really a book, but rather a multi-volume, encyclopedic recording of the teachings of classical rabbinic scholars.  The name suggests that it was from Jerusalem, but it really came from teachers in the academies of northern Israel. It takes the form of a commentary on the Mishnah, but doesn’t always follow a set path: the discussions are discursive and cross-referential, and new topics pop up within another topic on a regular basis. It covers religious law, civil law, theology, folklore, and problems of pure logic.  Talmud Yerushalmi was redacted in Israel sometime between 400 to 500 CE, although some editing continued on for some time after.

Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud) This too is a multi-volume, encyclopedic recording of the teachings of classical rabbinic scholars.  This Talmud however was written later, and in a different location: It is based on the academies in ancient Babylon, e.g. Pumbedita and Sura.  When we compare the earlier Yerushalmi with the later Bavli, the Bavli sometimes comes to different conclusions, or covers different topics. The core of the Bavli was redacted by 550 CE, but further editing – and indeed, editing and additions – continued into the 800s.


Halakha, הֲלָכָה: “The path”, “the way to go”. It refers to the Jewish way of living. More narrowly it may be translated as “Jewish law”. The term may refer to specific laws, or to the system of interpreting and applying them.

Aggadah, אַגָּדָה – Non-legal parts of rabbinic literature, especially in the Talmud and Midrash. Folklore, historical anecdotes, moral teachings and allegories.

Kabbalah, קַבָּלָה – Jewish mysticism. It’s earliest forms are from the Apocalypses of the 2nd Temple period. After the destruction of the Second Temple comes the Hekhalot writings – from the Hebrew word for “Palaces”. These books describe visions of ascents into heavenly palaces.

A similar literature developed concerning the Book of Ezekiel, especially his description of the Heavenly chariots and angels; this is the Merkabah literature. The genres overlap, so the two may be referred to together as “Books of the Palaces and the Chariot” (ספרות ההיכלות והמרכבה).

Kabbalah in it’s modern sense developed with the publishing of the Zohar in the 13th century. Many Orthodox Jews hold that the Zohar’s teachings are identical to the earlier mystical teachings, just with more revelation and elucidation. However, historians of Kabbalah show that although the Zohar uses earlier terminology, the teachings can be different.

This Zohar is the basis for all forms of Hasidic Judaism, and is also accepted by many other Orthodox groups. However, not all accept the Zohar. Historians have shown that much of the Zohar is a medieval work, and contains some Gnostic beliefs. See  Zohar and Kabbalah, from the Jewish Virtual Library.

Philosophy terms

* Jewish philosophy (פילוסופיה יהודית) is the fusion of classical philosophy with the Jewish faith. This worldview is called philosophical rationalism.

* Theism – belief in a God that is in some ways transcendent, while in other ways immanent. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Holing all three of these beliefs simultaneously is often considered normatibe, but then leads to questions about God’s responsibility for all the evil and suffering in the world.

* Deism – a belief that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur.

* Pantheism is the belief that god is the universe, and the universe is god. There is no transcendent nature to God, no Mind.

* Panentheism (note spelling difference with the above) God is the universe, and the universe is god – but here nature is just one aspect of divinity. God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as creator and the source of morality. This view of God is in Kabbalah, and also in process theology.

In the synagogue

Synagogue –  בית כנסת‎‎ Bet Kenesset, “house of assembly”, or בית תפילה Bet Tefila, “house of prayer”, שול shul, אסנוגה esnoga or קהל kahal). A Jewish house of prayer. Often called a “Temple”.

Bimah, בימה.  elevated platform from where the prayer leader sings.

The Torah Ark, Aron Kodesh ארון קודש, or heikhal—היכל [temple] by Sephardim: The cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept.

ner tamid (נר תמיד), Eternal Light – a light that is always on,  used as a reminder of the original menorah that was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.


Ashkenazi – May refer to Jews from central and eastern Europe, or the culture of such Jews, or the liturgical traditions of such Jews.

Sephardic – this word has several meanings. Often one needs to read the discussion carefully to understand which meaning it has. It may mean

(a) May refer to Jews from Spain and Portugal, or the culture of such Jews, or the liturgical traditions of such Jews.

(b) Ashkenazi Jews often group all non-Ashkenazi Jews together as “Sephardim”, including distinct groups such as Spanish & Protegeuse Sephardim, Mizrachi (Jews of the Arab middle east), and Maghrebi Jews (Jews of North Africa.)

JIMENA – Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa

S&P – the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal


Holy places

Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל . Refers to the ancient land of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Bible, it’s area changed in different periods of time. This land includes the ancient united kingdom of Israel, and after its civil war, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

The State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל‎, the modern day Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael.

Jerusalem, Yerushaláyim, יְרוּשָׁלַיִם – the ancient and modern capital of Israel.

The Western Wall, HaKotel HaMa’aravi – or just ‘Kotel’,  הַכֹּתֶל הַמַּעֲרָבִי . This is second holiest site in Judaism. This wall is the last remaining part of a once larger retaining wall; it was built as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple. It is the location closest to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that Jewish people traditionally had access to for the past 2,000 years, and has been a site of pilgrimage and prayer ever since.

The Temple in Jerusalem, Beit HaMikdash, בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ. The central point of ancient Jewish worship, located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. These successive Jewish temples stood at this location. For 2000 years all siddurim have included prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The Temple Mount, Har Habayit, הַר הַבַּיִת‎‎. The place where the Holy Temple in Jerusalem once stood. It’s Hebrew name literally means “Mount of the House [of God].” This is the holiest site in Judaism.

The Cave of the Patriarchs, also Cave of Machpelah, מערת המכפלה. This is located in Hebron,  חֶבְרוֹן , in the West Bank.  This is third holiest site in Judaism. According to tradition, this is where the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.

Early medieval rabbis

Sa’adiah Gaon. Egypt 882/892, d. Baghdad 942 CE. Rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki ) (1040-1105 CE) – author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, and commentary on the Tanakh (Bible)

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) Spanish rabbi. Excelled in philosophy, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, and bible commentary.

Rambam = Maimonides = Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, 1135-1204 CE. Considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of Judaism.

Ramban = Nachmanides = Rabbi Moses ben Nachman . 1194–c. 1270) Spanish Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.

Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), aka Gersonides or the Ralbag, was a philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer.

Moshe de Leon – 13th century Spanish rabbi. Claims to have discovered the Zohar; historians believe that in large part he was actually it’s author.

Later medieval rabbis

Isaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534- 1572) better known as the Ari (the Lion) . Leader of the Jewish community of Safed (Syrian controlled Israel) The father of contemporary Kabbalah.

Joseph Karo (1488 – 1575) Author of the Beth Yosef (בית יוסף), a massive, authoritative study of halakhah, and it’s condensed, edited version, the Shulchan Aruch (שולחן ערוך), which for many Orthodox communities became seen as a binding code of Jewish law (although this position was not without significant controversy) Even today Conservative and Orthodox Jews often refer back to the Shulchan Aruch as part of their decision making process.

Hasidic Rabbis

Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer, often called Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht (1700-1760) founder of Hasidic Judaism.

Dov Ber of Mezeritch (~1705 to 1772), the Maggid of Mezritch. A disciple of the Besht. Regarded as the first systematic exponent of the philosophy underlying the teachings of the Besht, and the main architect of the movement.

Shnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the Alter Rebbe. Founder of Chabad Lubavitch Judaism.

Mitnagdism, מתנגדים – The opposition to Hasidic Judaism, and many of its beliefs and practices related to Kabbalah, within European Judaism.

18th century-mid 20th century rabbis

Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) German rabbi and scholar, founding father of Reform Judaism. Emphasizing its constant development along history and universalist traits, Geiger sought to reformulate received forms and design what he regarded as a religion compliant with modern times. He founded influential German Jewish journals, and began the process of creating a distinctly Reform Jewish liturgy. He advocated what he saw as moderate reforms, which he saw as a a recovery of the Pharisaic halakhic tradition.

Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) Modern Orthodox rabbi, theologian, and educator

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) German Rabbi, founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school Orthodox Judaism, aka neo-Orthodoxy, aka Modern Orthodoxy.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first chief rabbi of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine, founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook. He was known as a heterdox Orthodox Kabbalistic philosopher, who worked to unite secular and religious Jews in Israel.

Zechariah Frankel (1801-1875) a founder of the historical school of Judaism (studying how Judaism developed within it’s historic context) This school of thought was the intellectual progenitor of Conservative Judaism.

Emanuel Rackman (מנחם עמנואל רקמן‎‎) (1910-2008) American Modern Orthodox Rabbi, serving as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and later as president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He helped draw attention to the plight of Refuseniks in the then-Soviet Union and attempted to resolve the dilemma of the Agunah, a woman who cannot remarry because her husband will not grant a Get.

Solomon Schechter – Professor, Rabbi, first major leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and founder of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Joseph Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993) One of the most important Orthodox rabbis and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, author of Halakhic Man. He was a scion of the Lithuanian Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. As a Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City, he ordained close to 2,000 rabbis over the course of almost half a century.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) Polish-born American rabbi raised as a Hasidic Orthodox Jew, briefly taught at a Reform Jewish seminary, and soon joined the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative.) He is considered one of the leading Jewish theologians & philosophers of the 20th century.

Isaac Klein – (1905 – 1979) A prominent rabbi and halakhic authority within Conservative Judaism, also Major U.S. Army. Author of “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice”

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was in line to become the next (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. His acceptance of the validity of historical study of the Torah led to the Jacobs Affair, which created a schism in Britain’s Orthodox community. Those who held by Jacobs became the British Masorti (Conservative) Movement

Modern day rabbis

Ovadia Yosef (עובדיה יוסף ,1920-2013) was an authority on halakha, and spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party. Born in Iraq, he was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983. His responsa were highly regarded within Haredi and Mizrahi communities. Although generally having a Haredi approach, he also allowed for significant reforms and leniencies.

Elliot N. Dorff TBA

Aharon Lichtenstein (1933 – 2015) was a noted Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva. Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel

Jonathan Sacks – TBA

Page of Talmud


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