These definitions of terms from Chaim Potok's The Chosen were gathered by Dr. Stacy Cordery,
Assistant Professor of History at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and were distributed
to all incoming Monmouth freshmen during the summer. If you have any comments or
suggestions about this material, you can reach Dr. Cordery at email@example.com.
A Brief Definition of Some Terms from Chaim Potok's The Chosen
For Freshman Seminar
Note: Beginning with the word "Yiddish," all of the terms are listed in order of their appearance
in the book.
Hasidism: Today the word Hasid is often used as a synonym for the most religiously
conservative Jew. Historically Hasidism was a religious movement that began in Eastern Europe
in the 1700s. The founder of Hasidism was Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, usually referred to as the
Ba'al Shem Tov. (Sometimes another name used to refer to him is his acronym, the Besht, from
Ba'al Shem Tov.) His name literally means "Master of the Good Name." After several years of
solitude and meditation, in approximately 1736 the Ba'al Shem Tov emerged as a leader and
healer. In 1740 he moved to the Polish border near Lithuania and began accepting disciples.
The Ba'al Shem Tov's teachings focused on an individual's personal relationship with God and
not so much on the details of Jewish law. The Ba'al Shem Tov taught that "God desires the
heart," by which he meant that, for God, a pure heart mattered more than a complete, detailed
knowledge of religious scripture. He also believed that, as God created the world and God was
all throughout the world, people should be joyful in the world. Thus, Hasidic worship could be
chaotic compared to the worship services of other types of Jews and it might include singing and
dancing and feasting. The Ba'al Shem Tov taught that the Tzaddik ([p. 81] the religious leader
of the Hasidim) should be the role model for all people who followed him, and thus the Tzaddik
should live an exemplary life because God revealed himself in the actions of the Tzaddik.
(Tzaddikim [p. 104] is the plural of Tzaddik.) This is how the Tzaddik became so powerful in
Hasidic Judaism. After the Ba'al Shem Tov died in 1760, groups of Hasidic Jews formed all
over, each with their own Tzaddik.
Hasidic: the adjective that describes a type of Jew, i.e. an Hasidic Jew
Hasid: (singular) a Jew who is Hasidic
Hasidim: (plural) all of the Hasidic Jews
Rebbe or Reb: The title used to refer to a Tzaddik.
Mitnagdim: These were the people who opposed the Ba'al Shem Tov's teachings because they
were so unlike other Jewish ideas of the era. Throughout the eighteenth century the Mitnagdim
persecuted the Hasidim, but in the nineteenth century the differences between them decreased.
This was in part because in the nineteenth century, the Hasidim began emphasizing the study of
religious scripture. Mitnagdish is the adjective, i.e., a Mitnagdish child. Mitnaged is the
singular form; see page 118.
Yeshiva: a school for religious and secular education; it can be a college
Yiddish: (p. 9) a language spoken by many Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, that
developed out of German and is written in Hebrew. In the United States, many European Jewish
immigrants spoke Yiddish in their own communities. Several Yiddish words have entered the
English language as a result. Some examples include: bagel; pastrami; shlemiel (a dweeb);
shlemazal (a clumsy person); maven (an expert); meshugga (crazy); shlepping (dragging) [see
schleppers, p. 26]; and yenta (someone who talks a lot). Today in the United States Yiddish is
the primary language only in Hasidic communities.
Shabbat: (p. 9) Sabbath. Sunday is the Christian Sabbath while Sabbath for Jews begins when
the first star is visible in the sky on Friday evening and lasts until Saturday night. The Shabbat
begins with the lighting of candles, a ritual which is traditionally performed by women, and a
blessing said over the candles. ("Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. . . who has
commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.") Then the Shabbat ritual continues with the parents
blessing the children, the husband reading a biblical poem of respect and admiration for his wife,
the singing of a hymn, the kiddush prayer which is said before the drinking of the Shabbat wine,
the hand washing ceremony, and the blessing and the eating of the challah (or chalah). The
challah is a special braided bread eaten on the Sabbath. Then the family eats the Shabbat meal
and concludes with a special grace after the meal. The traditional Sabbath greeting is "Shabbat
Shalom!" (A peaceful Sabbath!) Hasidic Jews take seriously the biblical commandment not to
work on the Sabbath, and for Hasidim the definition of work is very broad.
Synagogue: (p. 9) the place where Jews worship formally, a synagogue is not a temple or a
church in that it is not a consecrated space. It is a building or a space used for the specific
purpose of worship.
Rabbi: (p. 10) this Hebrew word literally means "teacher." It denotes a Talmud scholar and
usually a learned Jewish spiritual leader, but not always. Anyone can call him or herself a rabbi.
A rabbi is not analagous to a Catholic priest, for example, in that a rabbi does not administer
Talmud: (p. 10) The Talmud is the collection of writings on Jewish law and custom.
Gentile: (p. 11) a non-Jew
Ten Commandments: (p. 13) These are the ten laws given to Moses by God, as found in
Tzitzit: (p. 14) ritual fringes attached to any four-cornered garment and worn to remind the
wearer of God's commandments, according to Numbers 15:39. When Jews attend prayer service,
the ritual fringes are attached to a prayer shawl and called a tallit. A tallit is worn like a cape.
Momzer or momser: (p. 20) a really, rotten, awful person. This is a pretty bad name to call
Apikorsim: (p. 23) this is defined in the text on page 28
Mincha or minkha service: (p. 24) an afternoon religious service
Torah: (p. 28) the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (which is called the Old Testament by
Christians), also referred to as the Pentateuch. The Torah can also be the scrolls on which the
they are written.
Kosher: (p. 44) an adjective meaning that something or someone adheres to Jewish dietary laws.
The laws of kashrut state that Jews may eat only certain types of foods prepared in certain ways.
The word kosher literally means "fit." The biblical laws of kashrut ([p. 167] or kashruth) come
from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:4-21.
Abba: (p. 49) father. The more precise American term would be "daddy."
Tefillin: (p. 53) two small black boxes with black straps attached to them with biblical passages
inside of them. Jewish men are required by the Bible to place one of the boxes on their head and
one on their arm each weekday morning. Putting on the Tefillin is one of the first
commandments that a boy fulfills after he makes his Bar Mitzvah. Tefillin is often translated
phylacteries (p. 57). The point of wearing Tefillin is to fulfill the biblical command to keep
God's word before you at all times, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:5-8.
Commentaries: (p. 69) these are explanations and theological discussions of scripture written by
scholars and rabbis throughout history. The commentaries are printed and studied alongside the
Hebrew Bible in order to understand what the text means.
Maimonides: (p. 69) Moses ben Maimon, also known by his acronym Rambam ([p. 224] from
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). Maimonides was a twelfth-century Jewish scholar. He was born in
Spain but fled from persecution to Egypt and spent most of his life there. He wrote down the
Jewish legal code, in a book called the Mishneh Torah. He was also widely regarded as a
physician, he wrote many books about medicine and healing, and he served as the doctor for the
Sultan of Egypt. Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah to try to help Jews to live a kosher, or
fit, life, and to help them better understand the commandments of Jewish law. Maimonides is
one of the most influential philosophers and scholars of all time.
The Mishna: Around the year 200 C.E. (or 200 A.D.) a Rabbi named Rabbi Judah the Prince
wrote down the Oral Law, which is a legal commentary on the Torah explaining how people are
supposed to actually carry out its many laws. The Oral Law had been passed down from scholar
to scholar and taught to the people, but after a time of persecution in Palestine, Rabbi Judah the
Prince decided it was best to write down this Oral Law. It consists of 63 tracts and is called the
Mishna. The Mishna is organized topically, unlike the Torah. If you wanted to research all of
the ways to, as one of the Ten Commandments states, "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,"
then you would have to search throughout all of the Talmud--and you would only find scattered
mention of the Sabbath. If you looked in the Mishna, you would look in the section called
"Shabbat," and its twenty-four chapters would explain how to keep the Sabbath holy, according
to the accumulated wisdom of the ancient rabbis.
Theodor Herzl: (p. 94) Theodor Herzl was born in 1860 and he dedicated his adult life to trying
to create a place where all Jews from around the world could come to live in a totally Jewish
state as one people. This is known as Zionism, and it was Herzl who made Zionism into an
international movement by founding the First Zionist Congress in 1897 (in Basel, Switzerland),
to bring the world's attention to his cause. Herzl is often called the founder of the modern Zionist
Hayyim Nachman Bialik: (p. 94) a twentieth-century Hebrew poet whose writings urged Jews to
fight back against their oppressors. He was a leading poet of the Zionist movement.
Chaim Weizmann: (p. 94) a Russian Jewish chemist, born in 1874, who was strongly influenced
by Theodor Herzl's life and ideas. He was a professor at the University of Manchester in
England, and after World War I, was a leader in the negotiations that led to the Balfour
Declaration of 1917 that committed England to supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After
World War II, he influenced U.S. President Harry Truman's support for the creation of Israel in
1948. Weizmann served as Israel's first president. He died in 1952. Like Theodore Herzl,
Chaim Weizmann is a hero to many Jews.
Shofar: (p. 100) a musical instrument, made from a ram's horn and blown on certain Jewish
holy days to bring people to repentance.
Shul: (p. 111) the name that Hasidic Jews use for synagogue
Ark: (p. 116) The Ark (the Aron Hakodesh) is the chest in which the sacred Torah schools are
kept in the synagogue. It is always elevated above the floor, and usually placed against the East
wall of the synagogue. In many synagogues the Eternal Light (p. 116) is suspended above the
Ark. The Ark in every synagogue is a symbolic reminder of the Ark that God commanded
Moses to make to house the Ten Commandments.
Kaddish: (p. 122) an Aramaic prayer in which God's name is sanctified, or blessed, which is said
at every prayer service. There is a mourner's Kaddish which is a highly ritualized prayer recited
every day at the morning, afternoon, and evening services for eleven months after the death of
Ashkenazic Jews (Ashkenazim) and Sephardic Jews (Sephardim): (p. 130) Jews used to be
divided into two communities: Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. The Sephardim were usually
from Spain (Sefarad means "Spain" in Hebrew) or from the Arab world. The Ashkenazim came
from Europe (Ashkenaz is Hebrew for "Germany"). Jews living in the Arab world are called
Sephardic because their forms of worship more closely resemble Sephardic custom.
Havdalah: (p. 140) the ceremony that concludes the Shabbat. Havdala signifies that the working
week has resumed. Havdalah literally means "separation," the separation between the Sabbath,
or the time set aside for God, and the rest of the week. The Havdala includes a candle lighting,
just as the beginning of Shabbat does, and it is similarly traditionally lit by a girl or a young
Pirkei Avot: (p. 152) a section of the Mishna that contains moral advice and useful sayings, such
as "Say little and do much;" and "Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone."
Goy: (p. 159) a Gentile, someone who is not Jewish.
Avodah Zara: (p. 166) idolatry, or the section in the Torah about idolatry.
Irgun: (p. 213) Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was a Russian Jewish poet-turned-Zionist who
remains one of the most controversial leaders of the movement because his dedication to the
cause of a Jewish state was so strong that it inspired his followers, the Irgun, to use violence to
bring it about. The Irgun, a militant Zionist organization, was started to fight back in an
organized way against Arabs who did not want a Jewish state created from Palestine. They
began fighting, especially after 1944, British army officers who were busy persecuting Irgun
members. By the middle of World War II, the British had reversed their support for a Jewish
state. Palestine was a British protectorate then, and Zionists knew that if Great Britain stood
against the idea, Israel might never be created. The Irgun is still remembered today for their
1946 terrorist bombing of a hotel in Jerusalem that killed ninety British soldiers (the Irgun did
not sanction terrorism against civilians).
Neturei Karta: (p. 213) also called The Guardians of the City [of Jerusalem]. This is a group of
people who oppose Zionism. They oppose the creation of a Jewish state for several reasons, but
the largest sub-group of the Neturei Karta is made of up Orthdox Jews, like the Hasidim, who
believe that God will restore Israel to the Jews in God's own time. Anyone who tries to change
God's timing, like the Zionists, would be defying God's will. Most of the opposition to Zionism
disappeared after the Holocaust, as Jews saw that it would be best to have their own homeland.
Today the Neturei Karta consist mostly of a few hundred families who live in Jerusalem.
Ahad Ha'am: (p. 215) an early Zionist thinker
Smicha: (p. 262) or Semikha, the word in Hebrew means to "lean on." Before the first century,
the way that men were ordained as rabbis would include the ordaining rabbi laying his hands on
the head of the man to become a rabbi, thus literally leaning on him. While this is no longer
done as part of the ceremony, Smicha still means rabbinic ordination. Today not all men or
women who study for the rabbinate become Rabbis at a synagogue. Many go into education or
other fields. Ordination today is usually granted by rabbinical seminaries. Today, Reform,
Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews ordain women; only Orthodox Jews, like Hasids, do
Glustrom, Simon. The Language of Judaism. London: Jason Aronson, 1988.
Marcus, Martin. Yiddish for Yankees. New York: J.B. Lippencott, 1968.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York.: William Morrow and Company, 1991.