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

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 sacraments.

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 Exodus 20:1-21.

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 someone.

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 movement.

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 one's parent.

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 woman.

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 not.


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.