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Judaica and Jewish Symbols FAQ

Ceremonial Objects

Rituals

Symbols


Ceremonial Objects

What is a dreidel?

A dreidel is a children's spinning toy, marked with Hebrew letters forming the acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Sham (meaing "a great miracle happened there") to commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah. In Israel, the last letter on the top is changed so that the phrase is "a great miracle happened here."

See also how to play the dreidel game. Browse Audrey's selection of dreidels.

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What is the difference between a menorah and a hanukkiah?

The menorah is a freestanding seven-branched candelabrum modeled after that of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. Over the centuries the menorah has been the most important symbol of the Jewish people.

Hanukkah lights are kindled for eight nights. Because the lights are sacred and are not to be used for any other, secular purpose such as reading, it became customary to kindle the eight Hanukkah lights with a shammash (servitor) light. The shammash could be used for any secular need. On a hanukkiah (Hanukkah lamp), the shammash stands on the center branch, flanked by four branches on either side; the eight lights are for the eight nights of Hanukkah. With the shammash, Hanukkah lamps have a total of nine lights.

Browse Audrey's selection of Hanukkah lamps.

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What is a mezuzah?

A Jewish home is traditionally identified by a mezuzah, a small parchment scroll inserted in a case and fastened to the doorpost. The scroll includes two passages from the Bible, including the verse "Inscribe them (the words of God) on the doorposts (mezuzot) of your house and on your gates."

One of the Hebrew names of God is written on the back of the parchment. The scroll is rolled so that the name is visible through an opening in the case. The mezuzah serves as a daily reminder of the commandments.

See our Mezuzot informational page for more information and hanging instructions.

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What is a seder plate? What are the symbols on a seder plate? Why an orange on a seder plate?

On the first night of Passover, Jews gather in families or groups to share a ceremonial meal, the Seder. They retell the exodus story, eat unleavened bread (matzah) and symbolic foods, drink wine, and sing songs of rejoicing. A special plate is used for these symbolic foods: the zero'ah (shankbone) represents the biblical lamb sacrifice made on the eve of the exodus from Egypt; the maror (bitter herb) recalls the bitterness of slavery; haroset (usually a mixture of crushed fruits, nuts, and wine) symbolizes the mortar from which the Hebrew slaves made bricks for Pharoah; karpas (a green vegetable) represents the coming of spring; and beitzah (a roasted egg) is a symbol of new life.

In the late twentieth century a custom arose to include an orange on the seder plate. There are many different interpretations of this symbol, but it is most commonly associated with increasing the role of women in particular in the Passover story.

Browse Audrey's selection of seder plates.

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What is a tzedakah box?

Tzedakah (righteousness) is a concept of charity that includes special concern for human dignity. The highest level of tzedakah is to provide the needy with the opportunity to provide for themselves. These boxes are used to collect money to donate to charity.

Browse Audrey's selection of tzedakah boxes.

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What is a Torah pointer?

A Torah pointer (or yad, meaning "hand") is a pointer with a hand or finger at one end that is used when reading the Torah. It is meant to protect the sacred scroll of the Torah, which is written by hand.

Browse Audrey's selection of Torah pointers.

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What is a ketubbah?

The ketubbah (or ketubah) is the traditional Jewish marriage document. Today a ketubbah is one of the prime objects of Jewish artistic expression, and it serves as a permanent and beautiful symbol of mutual commitment and partnership.

See our Ketubbot informational page for more information.

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What is Elijah's Cup?

An Elijah Cup is a ceremonial cup symbolically placed on the Passover Seder table for the prophet Elijah.

Browse Audrey's selection of kiddush cups and Elijah and Miriam cups.

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What is Miriam's Cup?

Similarly to the Elijah Cup, a cup is placed on the Seder table for the prophet Miriam to commemorate her efforts to support the people during the exodus from Egypt.

Browse Audrey's selection of kiddush cups and Elijah and Miriam cups.

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What is a kiddush cup?

Before the Sabbath meal begins, the kiddush (sanctification) is recited over wine. Many kiddush cups are inscribed with biblical verses or quotations from the kiddush blessing.

Browse Audrey's selection of kiddush cups and Elijah and Miriam cups.

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Rituals

What is Havdalah?

The ritual that ends the Sabbath is called Havdalah (separation). It marks the transition from the sacred day of rest to the working week. A braided candle with intertwined wicks is lit, symbolizing how the Sabbath and the weekdays are woven together. Blessings are recited on spices, wine, and light.

Browse Audrey's selection of Havdalah sets.

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What is the breaking of the glass?

Evoking the memory of the shattered Jerusalem Temple, the act of the breaking of the glass at a wedding reminds the bride and groom of the incompleteness and fragmentation of the modern world. It symbolizes the fragility of the human condition and the duty of the couple to make the world whole with their love.

After the wedding, the shards from the broken glass are often preserved and displayed as a remembrance of the wedding day and of this special message of seeking unity through love. Explore Audrey's online selection to find a beautiful hand-blown glass for your ceremony, and select from a variety of heirloom keepsakes for an elegant and timeless display of your symbolic shards.

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How do you play the dreidel game?

Play the dreidel game in a group of two or more people. To begin, each player receives an equal number of tokens, which can be pennies, chocolate coins (gelt), or other small items. At the start of each turn, everyone puts one token in the center "pot." Each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel, then acts according to the Hebrew letter that's facing up when the dreidel stops spinning (see below to find out the actions for each letter). The game continues until one player has won all the tokens!

Nun
(pronounced "nun")
Do nothing.
Gimmel
(pronounced "gimmel")
Take all of the tokens in the pot.
Hei
(pronounced "hei")
Take half of the tokens in the pot.
Shin
(pronounced "shin")
Give all of your tokens to the pot.

Browse Audrey's selection of dreidels.

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What is a Bar Mitzvah? What is a Bat Mitzvah?

Upon reaching the age of thirteen, a Jew begins to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. This occasion is marked by a ceremony recognizing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah (meaning son or daughter of the commandment) as a morally responsible person. To symbolize the passage to adulthood, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah stands before the congregation to read from the Torah in Hebrew. He or she usually delivers a speech discussing the Torah portion and thanking parents for their love and care. It is a popular custom for the family to host a festive meal and celebration in honor of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

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Symbols

Why the pomegranate? What are the seven species?

The pomegranate is one of the seven species of ancient Israel. In many cultures, the pomegranate symbolizes fertility and plenty, and in Jewish tradition, its seeds represent mitzvot ("good deeds").

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Hamsa NecklaceWhat is a hamsa?

The hamsa is a hand-shaped amulet said to bring its owner happiness, luck, health, and good fortune. It has been used for many centuries throughout North Africa and the Middle East in both Jewish and Muslim cultures.

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Star of DavidWhy the Star of David?

The primary symbol representing the Jewish people today is the six-pointed star. Though generally referred to as the Magen David (shield of David), there is no biblical or Talmudic reference for this association. It is used as a geometric and often amuletic motif in many cultures. It was then incorporated into the national flag of the modern state of Israel.

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HaiWhat is hai?

The Hebrew letters for the number eighteen mean hai (or chai) meaning "living." As the concept of life has played an important role in Jewish law and symbolism, hai is traditionally seen as an important number and is often used symbolically on jewelry and other decorative items.

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Hebrew letter ShinWhat is shin?

The Hebrew letter shin stands for Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names of God. It is written on the back of the mezuzah parchment scroll.

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MerkavaWhat is a merkava?

The merkava (or merkaba or merkabah) is a Kabbalistic amulet. The interlaced triangles form a multi-sided, mystical star.

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What is the Tree of Life?

In Jewish tradition, the Torah (Five Books of Moses) is described as a "tree of life," referring to a verse from the biblical book of Proverbs: "It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it...Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."

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Ahava, Hebrew word for loveWhat is ahava?

Ahava is the Hebrew word for love.

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What is the Western Wall?

The Western Wall was a stone retaining wall surrounding the ancient temple in Jerusalem.

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