Judaism is built upon layers and layers of rituals, prayers and ceremonies that enhance and enrich the lives of many who choose a Jewish lifestyle. Many of the common prayers and symbols we share below are so woven into our lives it is hard to pull them out individually and give them the proper attention, but here we share the deep meaning and symbolisms behind traditional Jewish phrases you may have heard and would like to know more about.
Baruch ata Adonai
The basis of all things Jewish is prayer. We start our days with a prayer called Modeh Ani, translated as “I give thanks to you”, thanking G-D for restoring our souls within us. We get to begin again and anew every day. What a fresh start! We end each day with a prayer of Shema Yisrael, which means The Lord our G-D the Lord is One. We Jews are nothing if not adherers of gratitude. In fact, you could say we started the gratitude movement!
There are so many blessings we say throughout the day and through the course of a lifetime. We recite blessings before and after eating food, during prayer, and on many other special occasions and holidays. Most blessings begin with Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam- Blessed are You, Lord our G-D, King of the universe. Since we are careful not to take G-D's name in vain, the name for G-D, Adonai, should only be used while reciting a blessing.
Surely you have seen the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which the Jewish people of the Russian town Anatevka sing L’Chaim! To Life! It is a joyous phrase used on many occasions, mostly while toasting over a celebration such as a happy couple becoming engaged, or when drinking with a friend you haven’t seen in many years. The term is at least 2,000 years old, when Rabbi Akiva used the toast “wine and life to the mouths of the rabbis” at his son’s wedding.
We know that alcohol can lead to bad things especially as emotions come out and secrets are revealed. So we toast “L’Chaim” that the wine we are drinking should be To Life. The Hassidim have a custom when one says “L’Chaim” to respond with “L’Chaim V’l’vracha!” To life and blessing!
The simplest explanation is bestowing blessings upon each other. L’Chaim!
A Chai pendant חי is a very popular necklace among Jews, both secular and observant, men and women. Chai literally means Life, and the two letters chet and yud add up to the number 18. There is a custom of giving Chai ‘gifts’ as donations for charity in multiples of $18. Chai can also be found in the word L’Chaim, to life. (See above.)
Spiritually, we see Chai in the Torah verse in Deuteronomy 30:19-20 when G-D discusses the rewards and consequences for following His commandments and brings the heaven and earth as witnesses, saying “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” The Hebrew words, וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, choose life, is followed by “To love the Lord your G-D, to listen to His voice, and to cleave to Him. For that is your life and the length of your days...”
Chai, to live, is also a form of expressing one’s love for G-D.
Shana Tova, Good Year is a way of greeting friends and family on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and throughout the month when many other holidays are celebrated. It can also be said as “Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem”, “May you be written and sealed for a good year”, or simply Shana Tova u’metuka, a sweet new year.
Hanukkah is a festival that commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. It includes the lighting of candles on every day throughout the course of the festival.
We celebrate the “Festival of Lights” as it has become known, because of the miracle G-D created on this day in the holy temple of Jerusalem. At the time the Greeks had rule over the temple and the Jews fought valiantly to reclaim it. When they were victorious, they came to the temple only to find everything destroyed. They had to light the Menorah, a seven branched candelabra that was lit every day, but they could only find one pure jar of oil. The fastest they could get new oil would be eight days, and that one jar of oil lasted 8 days.
We celebrate this miracle today by lighting Hanukkah candles all eight days of Hanukkah, and by eating foods fried in oil like the traditional Jewish ‘latke’, delicious fried potato pancake, and sufganiyot, jelly or other fried donuts.
Chanukah, in Hebrew חנוכה also consists of two words, חנו כ”ה, which can be read as They rested on the 25, as in the Jews finally rested on the 25 of the Jewish month Kislev when they won the battle and began cleaning up the temple. 25 Kislev marks the start of Hannukah each year.
Star of David/ Shield of David
The Star of David, also known as Magen David, or the Shield of David, is a 6-pointed star ✡︎ traditionally worn as a pendent necklace by many Jews who associate with their proud Jewish heritage. In modern times it has become a symbol of Judaism and Israel, featured on the Israeli Flag.
The 3-point triangle in the Star of David can also represent the intricate connection between G-D, the Torah and the Jewish People. Originally designed to resemble King David’s shield, Kabbalists have popularized the symbol as a protection against evil spirits, or as G-D as the protector (shield), of the Jewish people (David).
The word Mensch comes from Yiddish and literally translates to ‘person’. But it is used to mean so much more than that. “Wow he is such a mensch.” “Just a real mensch.” To be a ‘Mensch’ is to be a man of honor and respect, a good person, someone with integrity. It is not only someone who possesses admirable characteristics, but someone who is kind and considerate to all. It is a high compliment, not to be thrown around lightly.
A Jewish expression that means ‘woe is me’. You might hear someone exclaim ‘oy’, or ‘oy vey’, or even ‘oy vey iz mir’, which means woe unto me. Jews like to wax about their woes and use this when hearing bad news, or as a way to express sympathy when hearing about the misfortune of others. So if someone tells you of something negative that happened to them, you can respond simply with ‘oy’, and they’ll know that you hear them.
Used in Judaism as both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, and a way to bestow good fortune upon one another. A traditional farewell can be לך לשלום Lech L’Shalom or צֵאתְכֶם לְשָׁלוֹם Tzeitchem l’shalom which means go in peace, depart in peace, or “May your departure be in peace”. Shalom means peace, and is symbolically representative of tranquility, prosperity, harmony, and much more. It leaves one with a sense of wholeness and completion.