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The Star of David and the seven-armed candle holder (menorah) are symbols of Jews and Judaism. The cube in this picture stands in the place of an old synagogue. It was made to remember the Holocaust.

Judaism is the world's oldest Abrahamic religion. There are about 15 million followers who are called Jews.[1] It is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, teaching the belief in one God. Both Christianity and Islam have similarities with Judaism. These religions accept the belief in one God and the moral teachings of the Hebrew Bible, which includes the Torah or "תורה."

The laws and teachings of Judaism come from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and oral traditions. Some of these were first oral traditions and later written in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other works.

The Torah is the most important holy book of Judaism. The Hebrew Bible is a collection of writings called the "Tanakh" (תנ”ך) in Hebrew. It is divided into three parts - Torah (תורה, Instruction), Nevi'im (נְבִיאִים, Prophets), and Ketuvim (כְּתוּבִים, Writings).

Beliefs[edit | edit source]

One God[edit | edit source]

The most important teaching of Judaism is that there is one God, who wants people to do what is just and compassionate. Judaism teaches that a person serves God by studying the holy writings and doing what they teach. These teachings include both ritual practices and ethical laws. Judaism teaches that all people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Covenant with God[edit | edit source]

The covenant with God is an agreement that Jews believe God made with Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people. According to the Bible, God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants if they worshipped God and were faithful to Him. God made this covenant with Abraham's son, Isaac, and Isaac's son, Jacob. Jacob was also called Israel, and so his descendants were known as the "Children of Israel" or the Israelites. God later gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments and other laws through their leader, Moses. These laws told the Israelites how to live their lives and build their community.

The Jews are sometimes called the "Chosen People", meaning that they have special duties and responsibilities commanded by God. For example, the Jews must establish a just society and serve only God. Thus, the covenant assures the Jews of God's love and protection, but it also makes them accountable for their sins and shortcomings.

Judaism does not try to convince others to accept its beliefs and practices. But it does accept people who choose to convert to Judaism.

The Messiah[edit | edit source]

Jews believe that God will send a Messiah to save them. The word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word mashiah, which means "the anointed one". The Book of Isaiah describes the Messiah as a just ruler who will unite the Jewish people and lead them in God's way. The Messiah will fix wrongs and defeat the enemies of the people. The Messiah will unite all the people of the world to serve God. People will act just as kind, and the whole world will be filled with peace.

Principles of Faith[edit | edit source]

Maimonides was a famous Jewish teacher of the 12th century. He made a list of 13 principles that include the basic beliefs of Judaism.[2]

Holy writings[edit | edit source]

The two most important groups of books in Judaism are the Bible and the Talmud. The beliefs and rituals of Judaism come from these books. Later, Jewish teachers and scholars wrote more books, called commentaries, which explain and say more about the teachings of the Bible and Talmud.

The Bible[edit | edit source]

The Torah is the most important of all Jewish writings. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible make up the Torah. The Torah contains the basic laws of Judaism and describes the history of the Jews until the death of Moses. Jewish tradition says that God told Moses what to write in the Torah, which is also called the Five Books of Moses.

Jews divide the Bible into three parts and call it the Tanakh. The three parts are the Torah, which is the first five books; the Nevi'im, which are the books of the prophets; and the Ketuvim, meaning the Writings, which are other books of history and moral teachings.

Mitzvot (Commandments)[edit | edit source]

There are various important actions in Judaism. These are called mitzvot. A mitzvah is a commandment (law, rule) from God to the Jewish people. The word mitzvah means commandment in Hebrew, but, perhaps based on common Yiddish usage, many people think of a mitzvah as 'a good deed,' or 'a good thing to do.' Traditionally, Jews believe that the Torah specifies mitzvot for all people; all of mankind must keep seven laws, as taught to Noah and his children after the flood. The Jews must keep 613 mitzvot, which are listed in the Torah. Some mitzvot are for everyday life, and some are observed only at special times, such as on Jewish holidays. Many of these 613 commandments relate to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and therefore cannot be done since the Temple was destroyed.[3]

The Commandments[edit | edit source]

An old torah

Religious Jews believe that Moses brought the Ten Commandments and the Torah down from Mount Sinai. Rabbinic Jews also believe that there is another part of the Torah besides the 5 books of Moses. It is called the Mishnah, also called the Oral Torah or Oral Law. It explains how to follow the laws written in the 5 books. There is a commentary (explanation) of the Mishnah, called the Gemara. Together, the Mishna and the Gemara make up the Talmud. Karaite Jews, however, believe that there is no additional Torah besides the 5 books of Moses.

Traditional Jews believe that God gave the written Torah and the oral Torah to Moses and that Moses told it to the Jewish people, and that it is the same today as it was back then. Traditional Jews also believe that all of the Commandments must still be followed today.

Liberal Jews believe that the Torah was inspired by God but written by human beings. Liberal Jews believe that all of the ethical laws in the Torah must still be followed, but many ritual laws do not need to be followed today.

It is considered good in Judaism to talk about the Commandments and to try to understand how to follow them. The Talmud has many stories about Rabbis who argued about the Commandments. Over time, some opinions have become the rule for everyone. Some rules are still being argued about. Jews praise logical argument and looking for truth.

There is no single leader of Judaism who can decide how to follow the Commandments or what to believe. Even though Jews believe in different things and they disagree about the rules, they are still one religion and one people.

The Ten Commandments are special because they were heard by all of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. However, in traditional Judaism, all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah are equally important.

The Ten Commandments are[4]

  1. Believe in God.
  2. Do not worship anyone or anything except God; do not make, bow to, or worship an image or statue that is supposed to be God.
  3. Do not take God's name in vain.
  4. Observe Shabbat, that means, rest on the seventh day.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not testify as a false witness.
  10. Do not be jealous of anything someone else has.

Shabbat[edit | edit source]

One of the commandments is to keep the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat. Shabbat starts every Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday at nightfall. Shabbat is a day of rest to thank God for making the universe.

The tradition of resting on Shabbat comes from the Torah. According to the Torah, God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, Shabbat, He rested. Many Jews go to their temple or synagogue to pray on Shabbat.

Religious Jews follow special rules on Shabbat. These rules require Jews not to do creative work on Shabbat. One reason for this is to give people a break from all the things that make them busy during the week. This helps them focus more on appreciating God, their family, and the rest of creation. Also it reminds people that God is the creator and ruler of the world; and no matter how great a person's creative power is, it cannot compare with God's creation of the universe and everything in it. Many of these categories of creative work include actions that people might not think of as work. For instance, on Shabbat a Jew cannot:

Traditional Jews are very careful about Shabbat. It is a special day. They clean their houses and prepare special food for Shabbat. They dress in their nicest clothes. They sing beautiful songs and say extra prayers in the synagogue. They have dinner and lunch with their families. Many families also invite guests for dinner and for lunch. They eat special delicious food and sing together traditional Shabbat songs. On Shabbat afternoon people study Judaism together or just visit friends.

Liberal Jews do not follow those rules. Some do go to synagogue, visit friends, or have special meals. But they may also talk on the phone, drive cars, and go shopping.

Kashrut - Jewish Food Laws[edit | edit source]

Jews who follow the religious rules called "kashrut" only eat some types of food that are prepared by special rules. Food that a Jew can eat is called kosher food.[5]

Traditional Jews are very careful about kashrut. They usually cannot eat many foods in non-kosher restaurants or in the home of someone who does not keep kosher. Sometimes, this makes it hard to visit people or to do business. It is important to understand that this is part of their religion. People help avoid this problem by choosing to dine with Traditional Jews in a kosher restaurant or serve them kosher food in their home.

Liberal Jews are not so careful about kosher, although some of them may keep some rules.

Kosher foods[edit | edit source]

  • Jews can eat any fresh fruit or vegetables that do not have any insects on or in them.
  • Jews can eat any fish that has scales and fins. This includes fish like salmon and tuna. They cannot eat seafood like shrimp, lobster, or mussels.
  • Jews can eat meat of any animal that chews its cud (food which has already been partly digested), and has split hooves. For example, cows, sheep, deer, and goats. However, to be kosher it must be slaughtered and prepared in a specific way.
  • Jews can eat many common birds such as chickens and turkeys and duck. The birds must also be slaughtered and prepared in a specific way. Jews can't eat birds of prey, like vultures.
  • Foods sold in stores or restaurants must be checked by a Jew who is an expert in Kashrut. The name for this person is "mashgiach," or kosher overseer. He makes sure that the kosher rules were kept. Foods bought at the store often have a symbol called a hechsher on them to tell the customer that the food has been checked. Many everyday foods have a hechsher.
  • Honey is an insect product made by bees, but it is kosher.
  • It is a well-known myth that kosher food must be blessed by a rabbi.

Non-kosher foods[edit | edit source]

  • Some call Non-kosher foods "Treifah". "Treifah" means "torn". This is because the Torah says not to eat an animal that can be killed or torn by another animal.
  • Jews cannot eat animals that do not have split hooves and do not chew their cud. For example, a pig has split hooves but does not chew its cud. For this reason, it is not kosher. A cow has split hooves and chews its cud, so it is kosher.
  • Jews cannot eat rodents, reptiles or amphibians.
  • Jews cannot eat any sea animal that does not have scales and fins. For example, sharks, eels, crabs, shrimp and lobsters are not kosher.
A shark is not kosher because they do not look like most typical fish
  • Jews cannot eat birds that eat meat like vultures, which are mentioned in a list in the Torah.
  • Jews cannot eat any insects, except for a few types of crickets or locusts.

Other Kosher Rules[edit | edit source]

There are other rules for kosher food as well.

  • Animals must be killed in a certain way, including using a fast strike across the neck with a very sharp blade which makes sure that the animal dies quickly.
  • All the blood must be removed from an animal before the meat is eaten. This is done by a soaking and salting the meat.
  • A Jew cannot eat a meal that has both meat and milk in it. This comes from the rule (in the Torah) that a Jew must not cook a young goat in its mother's milk. Because of this, Jews use separate dishes and utensils for foods that have meat in it, and foods that have milk in it.
  • After eating meat, many Jews do not drink milk products before a time period between 1 and 6 hours has passed.
  • Kosher food must be cooked in a kitchen for actual kosher food. If the kitchen has been used to cook non-kosher food, such as rabbit and pig then the kitchen must be cleaned in a special way before it can be used to cook kosher food.

Important points in a Jewish life[edit | edit source]

  • Birth
  • Brit Mila (for boys) a circumcision ceremony when a boy is 8 days old. It includes naming the baby.
  • Pidyon haben (for boys) is when a father does a special ceremony to redeem his wife's first son from the Temple, as originally all firstborn boys were sent to serve in the Temple. Levites (a tribe of Israel) and Cohanim (priests) do not do this ritual.
  • Bat Mitzvah (for girls) a 'coming of age' ceremony when a girl turns 12 (13 for some Jews). Bat Mitzvah means "daughter of the mitvah" or "daughter of the commandments" in Hebrew. Once a girl turns 12 (or 13), she is considered a woman and is expected to follow Jewish law. A ceremony is not required. Bat Mitzvah not only refers to the ceremony but also to the girl herself.
  • Bar Mitzvah (for boys) a 'coming of age' ceremony when a boy turns 13. It includes reading the Torah and special prayers. Bar Mitzvah means "son of the mitzvah" or "son of the commandments" in Hebrew. Once a boy turns 13, he is considered a man and is expected to follow Jewish law. A ceremony is not required. Bar Mitzvah not only refers to the ceremony but also to the boy himself.
  • Marriage
  • Having Children
  • Death

Kinds of Judaism[edit | edit source]

For a very long time, most Jews in Europe believed the same basic things about Judaism. Jews in other lands had different beliefs and customs than European Jews. About 200 years ago, a small group of Jews in Germany decided to stop believing in many parts of Judaism and try to become more "modern" and more like Germans. Those Jews were called Reform Jews.

Orthodox Jews in 1915

Today there are three main kinds of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. There are also kinds with a smaller number of people, such as Reconstructionist Judaism, and Karaite Judaism, Each group has its own practices according to how it understands the Jewish laws. Some do not believe in keeping most of the laws. For example: Reform (also called Liberal or Progressive) Judaism does not require eating kosher food or keeping the Sabbath at all. Reform Judaism teaches Jews to focus on the ethical laws of Judaism. Conservative Judaism developed after Reform Judaism. The leaders of Conservative Judaism felt that Reform Judaism was too radical. They wanted to conserve (protect) Jewish tradition instead of reforming (changing) it. Orthodox Jews are not convinced that Reform and Conservative Judaism are correct because they believe that the laws given by God are timeless, and can't be changed.

In the most recent survey of Jews in the United States in 2000-2001, it was found that 35% of American Jews say they are Reform, 27% say they are Conservative, 10% say they are Orthodox, 2% say they are Reconstructionist and 25% do not say what type they are.

In Israel, almost all Jews go to Orthodox synagogues. There are very few Reform or Conservative synagogues, but there has been a steady increase since 2009. In Israel, Jews do not call themselves Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Instead, they mostly call themselves "Haredi" (completely religious) "Dati" (basically religious), "Masorati" (traditional/conservative) or "Chiloni" (secular). Surveys suggest that about 20% of Israelis say they are secular, 25% say they are Dati or Haredi and 55% say they are traditional.

Names of God[edit | edit source]

Names are very important in Judaism. Many Jews believe that a name not only tells you who someone is but also tells you something about them. Names of God are very special in Judaism, so Jews do not write them or speak them fully but use other words instead. That is why some Jews write G-d, with a "-" instead of an "o."

HaShem Means "The Name". It is the word Jews use most often when not praying to talk about God.

Adonai means "My Lord." This name tells Jews about God's position. God is the King of the World, and his name Adonai lets us know that.

Elohim means "one who is strong enough to do everything." This name is used when talking about God's power to create or God's justice. This tells us that God is the creator and that God rules the world with just laws.

The two names above are so special that Orthodox Jews use these names only when they pray and read the Torah. When they are not praying or reading the Torah, they say "Hashem" (The Name) or "Elokim".

God - Some Jews write "God" by replacing the "o" with a dash, like this: "G-d". They do this because God's name is very holy so they are not allowed to throw away a piece of paper with "God" written on it. However, if by accident "God" is written, then the paper can be disposed of in a special way and buried in a special place. Others say that "God" is just an English word, not Hebrew, and so it is not holy.

YHWH ("Yehovah") is the most sacred name of God in Hebrew and is not pronounced by most Jews. No one knows where the name came from, or what exactly it means. It looks like the Hebrew word "hayah," which is the verb "to be." (According to Hebrew scripture, when Moses asked God who God was, God told Moses I am that I am.) Jews believe that the name YHWH shows that God is endless. Instead of trying to say it, most Jews say "haShem", which means "The Name." Some people pronounce this name as Yahweh, or Jehovah. Scholars of religion sometimes refer to "YHWH" as the Tetragrammaton, from Greek words meaning "four letters".

History[edit | edit source]

The Jewish scriptures say that Judaism began with a man named Abram who lived in the city of Ur. According to the Midrash, Abram strongly believed that the people in Ur were wrong to pray to different gods and statues. He believed that there was really only one god who was not a statue. The Torah tells that God spoke to Abram and told him to leave Ur with his family and move to Canaan, where he started a new religion. God told him that his name would be changed to Abraham. The Midrash also says that angels taught Abraham a new holy language, which Jews believe is the language today known as Hebrew. Hebrew continues to be the language of Judaism. Abraham's grandson Jacob is said to be the one who first had the name of "Israel".

According to the Torah, at one time, the Hebrew people moved to Egypt because of famine in Canaan. The 12 tribes sold everything that they had to Egypt because Pharaoh had what Israel lacked. In the end, they sold themselves into slavery. Pharaoh agreed and eventually the famine ended, but the tribes were bound to slavery. Later God told Moses that he (Moses) would be an ambassador to God and plead the case to free the 12 tribes of Israel. Pharaoh said "No" time and again and each time he did God sent many terrible punishments to the Egyptians to make him to free the Hebrews. Finally, the Pharaoh let the Hebrews go free but then decided to send the Egyptian army after them. The Hebrews escaped when God made the waters of the Red Sea open a path for them. The waters then returned and drowned the Egyptian army. The Torah says that after this, Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from God.

The Hebrews or Israelites, in twelve tribes, began a country called Israel in Caanan. They fought many wars against other peoples in the area. The name Jew comes from the name of one of these tribes, Judah.

Later this country broke apart into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Israel was conquered by Assyria in the 8th century BC, and the people were taken away. Later Judah was conquered by Babylonia in the early 6th century BC, and its people were taken captive to Babylon. They were allowed to go back to Judah again when Babylon was conquered by Persia. Some Jewish people stayed in Babylon (now Iraq) and others also lived in other countries.

By 50 BC, Judah (then called Judea) was ruled by the Roman Empire. During this time, the main language of Judea was Aramaic. The Jews did not like the Roman government or customs and often made trouble for the Romans. In 70 AD, after a revolt against the government by the Jewish community, the Romans destroyed Judea's capital city, Jerusalem and sent almost all Jews into exile.

After this, the Jewish people did not have their own country. They were a small minority in almost every place they lived. This time is called the Diaspora when Jews spread around the world. They lived in many other countries. Jews living in Spain and Portugal used the language Ladino (also called Judeo-Spanish). Jews living in Germany, Poland, and Russia used the language Yiddish. Jews living in North Africa spoke Judeo-Arabic or Haketia, the local name for Ladino. Jews have lived in most, but not all, places in the world, including India, China, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Even today, Jews who do not live in Israel are often said to live "in the Diaspora". In some places, like India, Jews lived without any problems. In other places, like most of Europe and Islamic countries, there was bigotry or even hatred against Jews and they lived under unfair laws. Sometimes Jews suffered from outright persecution (that is: systematic hatred and violence), sometimes they were forced to dress in special, ugly clothes, pay higher taxes than others, not build higher houses than others, not to ride a horse or donkey, wear certain badges etc. But Jews were known as skillful bankers. In Europe, where the Roman Catholic church forbade Christians from lending money against interest, Jews worked as bankers and money-lenders.

One nomad nation, the Khazars, converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The Khazar khanate, which was in the modern Ukraine and Belarus, was the only independent Jewish state before the modern day Israel. The Khazar state was destroyed by the Eastern Vikings (Rus) in 987.

The Jewish People have always believed that they have a special mission from God. They do things in their own ways, such as having special rules about food and eating, not working on the Shabbat, keeping their own holidays, and not marrying people from other religions. Because of this, people in many different times and countries have thought that the Jews were strange and may be dangerous. Many countries made laws that the Jews could not work in some jobs or live in some places. Sometimes Jewish people were killed because of their religion. The word "antisemitism" describes the hatred for Jews.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi (National Socialist) government of Germany conquered most of Europe. They did terrible things to the Jewish people because they claimed the Jews were responsible for the problems in Germany during and after the First World War. The Nazi government killed more than six million Jewish people. Before they were killed, often in gas chambers, many of the Jews were made to be forced workers, and some of them were forced to help in the killing and capturing of the others.

In 1948 after World War II, the United Nations made the country of Israel for the Jews in Palestine, which is in the same place as the original Israel, in the Middle East. The land had been part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. Then Britain controlled the area under the oversight of the United Nations. Many Jews moved back to Israel, then called Palestine, starting in the late 1800s. When the country of Israel was made in 1948, there were about 600,000 Jews in it. Today there are about 5,600,000 Jews in it.

When Jews moved back to Palestine, there were some people living there now. Most of them did not want to live in a Jewish country. This was the beginning of the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues today.

Jews have come to Israel from all over the world, bringing different languages, music, food, and history to create a unique culture. Israel is the only country in the world where most people are Jews and where Hebrew is the main language.

Jewish history continues today in both Israel and the Diaspora. Outside of Israel, there are many Jews in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and Australia. There are smaller numbers of Jews living in other parts of the world.

Some of the major problems faced by the Jewish people today include resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dealing with high rates of assimilation (loss of Jewish identity) in some countries, like the United States.

References[edit | edit source]

Other websites[edit | edit source]

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