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Introduction: What Does Judaism Mean?

The word Judaism has two meanings. It can mean the civilization of the Jews, the culture of those who claim to be Jews or whom others call Jewish. And it can also mean the religion of the Jews.

The two definitions are simple, but only on the surface. When we try to be precise, defining Judaism becomes a much more complex endeavor.

How can we give a single definition of Jewish civilization? There are African Jews and Persian Jews, Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States, British Jews and French Jews, Russian Jews and Indian Jews. All are a part of the Jewish civilization, yet all have differing views, rituals, and customs. A Jew born in Brooklyn might feel like a stranger when visiting the Jewish community in Bombay, even though there are some things that Jews everywhere have in common.

Nor is defining the Jewish religion simple. It is made up of many parts: beliefs concerning God, the universe, and humanity; customs and ceremonies; a long tradition expressed in the writings of many great thinkers; common history; and the people called the Jews. Nevertheless, a Jew may share in the beliefs of Judaism about God and yet not feel a strong tie to Jews who regularly attend synagogue. A Jew may feel proud of the Jewish heritage and yet not agree with many Jewish interpretations that attempt to describe that heritage. A Jew may even feel a part of the Jewish people and not believe in God. Even the question of who should be considered a Jew is hotly debated.

What, then, binds all people who claim to be Jewish into one people? Just what is Judaism and what does it mean to be Jewish?

What follows is a short description of the meanings of Judaism, its beliefs, its customs, its practices, and the people who share them — the Jewish people. But keep in mind: behind every sentence much more remains unsaid. Just think of this concise explanation as an introduction to further study.

What Beliefs Do Jews Share?

Most Jews share certain beliefs. Among these are

  • the unity of God

  • God’s concern for humanity

  • the partnership of God and humanity

  • the concern that one person should show for another

  • the belief in a world to come or in the Messiah or in a Messianic Age

  • the covenant, an agreement between God and the people of Israel expressed through God’s laws for the proper use of the universe

Jews who participate in religious observances also share

  • Jewish life-cycle practices

  • Jewish holy days and the Jewish calendar

  • the observance of Jewish ethical practices and practices of holiness

  • practices of Jewish prayer and study

Finally, those who in any way identify themselves as Jews, share the long chain of tradition that is the history of the Jewish people.



The Bible tells us that some time during the Early Iron Age — from about 1900 to 1400 BCE [The abbreviations BC=”Before Christ” & AD=”Anno Domini” (Latin for “In the Year of the Lord”) are both references to Jesus. Since Jews do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, they substitute the abbreviations BCE=”Before the Common Era” (that is, before the year 1) and CE=”Common Era” (that is, after the year 1)] — a man named Abraham lived in the Middle East. According to Jewish legend, Abraham questioned the religious beliefs of his ancestors and of the Mesopotamian community in which he lived. He failed to understand how people could bow down to and worship idols — statues made of wood and clay. The legend describes Abraham’s quest in a colorful way.

At first Abraham thought that the stars and the moon should be worshiped; but as night passed and the sun came up, the stars and the moon vanished. He reasoned that the stars and moon could hardly be the most powerful force in the universe if they were so easily vanquished by the light of day. So Abraham decided to worship the sun. But clouds came up and covered the sun and the wind blew the clouds, which rolled up into great thunderheads. In turn, Abraham worshiped the clouds, the wind, the mighty claps of thunder, and the bolts of lightning. But all of these soon passed away. Abraham concluded, “There must be one who rules over all — over sun, moon, stars, wind and cloud; and over all the creatures of the earth. I shall worship the Ruler of the Universe, the One God.” Then Abraham bowed before the God he could not see and spoke a prayer in his heart. It was at that moment, the legend tells, that God spoke to Abraham, saying, “I am here, my son.”

The Bible relates how God commanded Abraham to leave his home and go to a land of promise, Canaan. Canaan was located in the part of the Middle East later called by many names: Israel, Judea, and Palestine. To the Jews, however, it has always been known as both the “Holy Land” and the “Promised Land.” According to the biblical story, God entered into a covenant, an agreement, with Abraham. God promised that Abraham’s children would one day become a great nation that would inherit the land of Canaan. In return, Abraham promised to be faithful to his belief in the One God and to perform the ceremony of Brit Milah (circumcision) as a sign of the covenant.

Modern-day historians are not sure if there ever was a person named Abraham. But to the Jewish people it is hardly important whether Abraham existed or not. The story of Abraham as told in the Bible still teaches the most central of all Jewish beliefs — there is one God who rules over all. This belief in one God, which began with Abraham, was embellished by Moses, and was fully developed in the later prophets of the Bible, came to be called Monotheism.



According to the Bible, Abraham’s tribe increased in size and wealth. Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The Bible describes how the descendants of Ishmael later became the Arab peoples, while the descendants of Isaac became the Jewish people. Isaac also had two sons, twins named Esau and Jacob. The leadership of the tribe passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.

Jacob (who was also given the name, Israel) had twelve sons and one daughter; and the Hebrews (as the Jews were then known) continued to increase in number. Like many merchant tribes of the Middle East in this period, the Hebrews were semi-nomadic. They would settle for a time when they found good grazing land for their cattle and sheep or when they wished to plant seeds and grow crops, but they would move from place to place when the time came to increase their wealth through commercial efforts. From the description in the Bible we can be sure that they were not simple shepherds — not only were they wealthy in silver and gold, but they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, as well.

Once, as the Bible tells, a great drought lingered in the land of Canaan. Rather than starve, the Hebrews sought food in Egypt. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was already there. Many years before, his jealous brothers had sold him into slavery and Joseph had eventually become the pharaoh’s most trusted administrator. Joseph recognized his brothers and, even though they had treated him cruelly, he forgave them and enabled them to settle in Egypt in the section called the Land of Goshen. There, they continued to increase in size.

Many years passed and a new pharaoh came to power — a pharaoh who did not remember Joseph, a pharaoh who enslaved the Hebrew tribes. According to the Bible, the slavery so oppressed the Hebrews that their cries of suffering were heard even in the heavens. In the end, a new leader emerged — a man named Moses.

In the case of Moses, just as in the case of the earlier leaders of the Hebrews, truth and legend are closely intertwined. Certainly someone, perhaps Moses, led the Hebrews (or some significant portion of the Hebrew tribes — since some scholars believe that other portions of the Hebrew tribes never left Canaan) out of Egypt and into the wilderness of Sinai. Following Moses, the Hebrews wandered as semi-nomads in this wilderness for forty years, settling down for a few years at a time before moving on. During this forty-year period, the Hebrew tribes more or less unified into a single nation called the Israelites (or Children of Israel) and Moses taught them the importance of law and the belief in one God.

According to the Bible, a new covenant was made between God and the people of Israel at the mountain of Sinai. Alone, Moses went up the mountain, returning after forty days and forty nights with the Ten Commandments engraved on two stone tablets. These commandments, which included prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and idolatry and enjoined the Israelites to honor parents, observe the Sabbath, and maintain loyalty to the One God, became the cornerstone not only of Judaism but of Christianity as well.

A legal code like the Ten Commandments was not a new idea in the history of religions. Kings and pharaohs had claimed to be given laws by their gods before this. What was unique about this covenant was that God had entered into a direct partnership with the people of Israel, that the proof of God’s love for the Israelites and all humankind was found in the laws themselves, that the choice between good and evil was a personal choice (as well as a national choice) and that blessing or curse would be bestowed in kind based on the choices a person (or a community) made. For the first time in history (in theory, at least), no intermediaries — kings, prophets, or priests — stood between God and the individual or the community. Such is the agreement between God and the Jews still celebrated as the Sinaitic Covenant (the covenant made at Mount Sinai).

Before the Sinaitic covenant, the Children of Israel had a more or less monotheistic religion. Now, through the leadership of Moses and the acceptance of God’s laws, it had become an ethical religion as well. The Children of Israel now believed that God was interested not only in worship and sacrifice, but also in how people treated one another. This has been termed ethical monotheism.



Jews today continue to believe there is a partnership between God and humankind, and especially between God and the Jewish people. The Jewish religion teaches that God cares for the world, renewing it daily, and expects human beings to care for it as if it were their own garden. The Jewish religion teaches that God has given laws instructing individuals to behave fairly toward one another. Moreover, the Jewish belief in the One God implies that all human beings are created equal; every person is a son or daughter of the One God, created in God’s image; and each human being is precious and unique.



The biblical prophet Isaiah dreamed of a time, when

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; … They shall not hurt nor destroy In all my holy mountain; For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah’s dream of a time of ultimate unity, peace, and prosperity was similarly expressed by many of the prophets. It continued to be developed and explored through ongoing generations.

Jews speak of this prophetic vision of the future as “the world to come,” and they believe that the person who will arise to rule over this future united world will (figuratively or literally) come from the family of the King David.

The special name set aside for that future ruler is Mashiach, the “anointed one,” the Messiah. According to Jewish belief, the messiah will be a person, not a god; he will simply lead the nations of the world in a time of unity and peace.

Jews do not believe that Jesus was the messiah because Christianity holds that Jesus was both God and man. Jews do not accept this idea. The Jewish religion teaches that man and God are separate — just as no human can be God, so too God cannot be human. In addition, Christianity generally teaches that the world to come can only be achieved in heaven (after death) and not on earth, but the Jewish idea of the world to come is historical — it looks forward to a time at the end of history when that ideal world will be established here on earth. Also, the Jewish view that every person is equally created in God’s image augurs against accepting any one person as the “son of God,” especially since every one of us is considered by Judaism to be the son or daughter of God. Jews do recognize that in his time Jesus was probably a great Jewish teacher who lived and died as a Jew with no thought of creating a separate religion. Through the centuries, many a Jewish leader has engendered a cult following that claimed him as “the” messiah. Since none of these so-called messiahs has managed either to unify the world or to bring peace to all humankind, they are collectively known as “false messiahs,” no matter how widespread their following. When mainstream Jews speak of yearning for the messiah, they simply mean that they look forward to the time when one person who understands God’s concerns for the world and for humanity will rule all nations.

Most Jews today continue to believe in a special time to come in this world when all people will live in harmony under the leadership of the messiah. Jews do not speculate overmuch on what the world to come will be like — the major concerns of Jews and Judaism are aimed at perfecting or “repairing” this world in which we live daily — but almost all Jews agree (without defining the precise details) with the simple statement made in the Talmud that every Jew will have a place in the world to come.



What the prophets taught, the rabbis and sages made clear. The rabbis (who were teachers and jurists) began the work of creating a Jewish way of life about three hundred years before the Common Era. Some of them became very famous: Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai — and their teachings and stories about them are still studied today in Jewish schools.

One of the most famous stories concerns the Jewish sage, Hillel, who flourished in the first century, B.C.E. A Gentile (non-Jew) once presented Hillel with a strange request, saying, “Teach me the whole Torah, all Five Books of Moses, while you stand on one foot.” A man of lesser patience might have driven the Gentile away, but Hillel was extremely patient. Supposedly, he raised one foot from the ground and said, “Do not unto others that which is hateful unto you.” Then, he continued: “This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—now go and learn.”

Hillel’s statement (later rephrased in the positive and repeated by Jesus) is the Jewish Golden Rule. It was the way the sages and rabbis of the Talmud phrased the teaching of the prophet Micah:

It has been told you, O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.


According to Jewish legend, before creating the world God first made a small model containing all the elements — the various kinds of terrain, the many variants of temperature and climate, the manifold varieties of flora and fauna — that the created world would eventually contain. On the evening of the sixth day of creation, the legend goes, when God had completed the works of heaven and earth, this small model was given a special place. It became the Land of Israel.

As shown by the covenant between Abraham and God, the Jewish people have always had a special attachment to the Land of Israel, calling it the Promised Land. They have always believed that the Land of Israel was included in the covenant between God and the Jews. Historians point out that despite the many years when the majority of Jews lived outside the Promised Land, there has been a continual Jewish presence in the Promised Land from the time of Abraham to the present day. And even when the majority of the Jewish people were separated from the Promised Land, Jews longed to return.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a new movement called Zionism (named for Mount Zion in Jerusalem and modeled on the emerging nationalism in Europe) began. It called for the Jews to rebuild the Holy Land as a Jewish state. (The Holy Land was then called by the name the Romans had given it after they destroyed the Jewish state, Palestine.) In 1948 the State of Israel was established More than six million Jews live in Israel today. And most Jews (religious or not) who live outside of Israel feel a special attachment to the Jewish state of Israel.



All of these ideas and beliefs derive from the covenant of law and love between the Jewish people and God. According to the Bible, this covenant was made with not only with the Children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God speaking, but also with all their descendants from that time to this, and forward to the end of time.

The central element of this covenant is expressed as God’s laws. The laws contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, are called Mitzvot or commandments According to Jewish tradition, there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah (the number is mainly traditional — lists compiled by Jewish authorities through the centuries always contain 613 mitzvot, but no two lists agree).

The rabbis of the Talmud (who were teachers and jurists) taught that every commandment in the Torah is important no matter how slight, and that the reward was the same for not harming a mother bird as for not killing another person. Nevertheless, through the ages, Jews have generally accepted the idea that the Ten Commandments are the most important laws of the Torah.

Judaism Today

Judaism as it is found in the United States today is divided into four major religious movements represented by synagogue membership. A small percentage of Jews identify with more or less extremist, rightwing, cult-like movements (such as Hasidism) which had their origins in eighteenth century Europe. A far larger percentage of Jews (nearing one-half, at any given time) identify themselves as Jewish though they belong to no movement — some of these Jews do join synagogues from time to time, but others prefer to remain “secular” for ideological reasons. Mixed among both secular and synagogue-based Jews, there are others who center their Jewish identity on Zionism.



In the years just after World War II, Zionism (the desire to rebuild a Jewish national presence in the Promised Land) became a popular Jewish cause. Many Jews who had loose ties or no ties at all with religion became involved with the establishment of the State of Israel. Even today, many years after the successful founding of the State of Israel, there are Jews whose only real tie to Judaism is their belief in Zionism and their support for the State of Israel. They are joined by many Jews who are members of synagogues and support a modern Jewish religious movement, but who also find their prime identity as Jews in the Zionist cause.

Broadly speaking, Zionists are proud that a small and struggling state made up mainly of Jews has created a modern democracy out of what were barren mountainsides, near deserts, and mosquito-breeding marshes. Zionists also point with pride at the ability of the Israelis to defend their land against the claims and against the armies of neighboring Arab nations.

Zionists generally agree that the ultimate expression of Zionism is possible only through Aliyah,”going up” to live permanently in the land of Israel. In truth, however, few Jews — Zionist or not — emigrate from the United States to Israel. Nevertheless, many American Zionists express their identity with the Jewish people, in part or in whole, through active support of the State of Israel.



Secular Jews express their Jewish identities in a variety of ways. Some feel a tie to the State of Israel, but their Zionist leanings are not a strong driving force in their lives. Some feel a tie to Jewish religion and attend religious services from time to time, often on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as many Christians do at Easter and Christmas), but they do not maintain a lifelong membership in a synagogue or temple. Some secular Jews express their identity through study — sometimes returning to the study of Judaism in their later years, sometimes seeing study as a way of searching for their roots. Often, secular Jews quest for spirituality — sometimes turning to Jewish ideas and practices, even if they never fully return to the religious practices of their ancestors.

Some few Jews are ideologically secular. They may be atheists who do not believe in the existence of a god. Or they may be agnostics, unsure of whether or not God exists. Among religions, Judaism is somewhat unique in that it makes room for both atheists and agnostics to remain Jewish. It is often pointed out that there is no positive commandment in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) requiring a Jew to believe in God. When it comes to belief, the Torah commands that Jews adhere to the laws of the covenant, which means that idolatry (the belief in many gods) is forbidden. But a person can theoretically live an exemplary Jewish life without a belief in God.

Moreover, connection with the Jewish people is determined by birth, not by belief. If a person is born a Jew (or converts to Judaism), he or she is identified as a Jew. There is no question about this. Even the most religious Jew accepts birth (or conversion) as the only criteria for membership in the Jewish people.



Religious Jews today disagree on what Judaism is and what it should be. Orthodox Jews claim to hold the true religion of Judaism. In fact, Orthodoxy only began to organize and solidify its beliefs in the nineteenth century, in direct response to the Reform movement. To this day, there is less agreement among Orthodox Jews about what being Orthodox means — especially about how particular laws should be followed — than there is disagreement in any of the other modern movements. So, for example, the State of Israel has two “chief” rabbis to serve the Orthodox — one of them serving the style of Orthodoxy (Ashkenazi) that developed in Europe and the other serving the style of Orthodoxy (Sephardi) that developed in what today are primarily Arab lands. Among Ashkenazi Jews, many of the Orthodox follow the laws of the Torah as explained and expanded in a multi-volume code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch that was written by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century.

Generally, all Orthodox Jews believe God gave the entire Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai in two parts — the Written Torah that contains the 613 mitzvot and the Spoken Torah, the oral traditions and explanations later recorded in the work of the rabbis and sages of the Talmud. Orthodox Jews wear a small head covering called a kippah or
Yarmulke at all times. Orthodox Jews are required to offer three prayer services each day (one in the morning and two offered jointly in the late afternoon/early evening), though women are excused from this obligation so they may carry on with their tasks of running a household and raising a family. For the same reason, women are not often encouraged to continue or excel in their Jewish studies.

For the most part, Orthodox children are trained in Jewish parochial schools that teach not only the full range of state required subjects but also Jewish subjects such as Hebrew and Aramaic (and sometimes, Yiddish), Talmud, Jewish history, and Prayerbook. Those Orthodox Jews who go on to become rabbis study at special colleges called yeshivot (singular: yeshivah).

For various reasons, the Orthodox movement is the least organized of the modern Jewish religious divisions, with several national associations claiming primacy. In some parts of Europe — and certainly in the State of Israel, where the majority of the citizens identify as either secular or Zionist — Orthodoxy is the largest religious movement. In the United States, however, the Orthodox movement is far smaller than either its Reform or Conservative counterparts.



Reform Judaism had its beginnings in Germany in the early nineteenth century. Almost immediately, it met with stiff political resistance from the traditional establishment that enjoyed the support of the German government. Though the number of Reform synagogues grew steadily in Europe, its success there was limited compared to its success among Jews in the United States, where there was no connection between the organized Jewish community and the government.

Born in a time when scientific and critical study began to triumph over superstition and entrenched traditions, Reform Jews believe that the Torah was written and edited by human beings (though some profess the belief that the Ten Commandments were written by Moses and given to the people at Mount Sinai). Nonetheless, Reform Jews generally believe that the Torah and its ideas are inspired.

Reform Judaism does not hold that one must wear a kippah, or that one must pray three times a day. The emphasis in Reform Judaism is on ethics: how a Jew should behave. But even when it comes to ethics, Reform Judaism does not follow a single guidebook. Instead, Reform Jews are required to study as much as possible and to make intelligent choices based on what they have learned. Reform Jews generally send their children to afternoon or Sunday schools in addition to regular public schools. In these religious schools, children study the beliefs and practices of Reform Judaism, Jewish history, customs and ceremonies, and so on.

Reform rabbis are not trained in yeshivot but attend a special graduate school called the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (with branches in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati), studying for five years after they have completed their regular undergraduate college degrees elsewhere. Reform Judaism maintains the complete equality of women, encouraging both women and men to conform to the same standards of ethical practice, ritual behavior, and study. In fact, the Reform movement pioneered the ordination of women as rabbis.

The Reform movement currently has the largest membership of any Jewish religious group in the United States. It is also well represented in Europe, Asia, Mexico, and Australia; and, in recent years, it has had some limited success in the State of Israel, as well.



The Conservative movement emerged in Germany and America in the last century. The early leaders of Conservative Judaism broke away from the German Reform movement in order to pursue a middle route between radical reform and reactionary stagnation. In America, leaders of the Reform movement actually helped to establish Conservative Judaism in the early twentieth century, in the belief that the new Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe could identify more easily with Conservative Judaism than with Reform.

Most Conservative Jews believe that some kind of divine revelation took place at Mount Sinai. Some maintain that the written Torah was given to Moses. Others agree with the Reform movement, saying that the Torah is divinely inspired, but the work of human hands.

Especially when it comes to Jewish law, Conservative Judaism takes a stance between plain reason and blind reliance on tradition. Unlike the Orthodox, Conservative Judaism believes that Jewish law should be continually examined to meet the needs of every new generation. Unlike the Reform, Conservative Judaism maintains that Jewish law should be modified by rabbis and sages, and not by individual Jews.

Conservative Judaism teaches that Jews should offer three prayer services daily and follow other traditional customs, such as wearing a kippah when praying (some Conservative Jews wear a kippah at all times, as do Orthodox Jews). But Conservative Judaism also tries to accommodate the modern world. Conservative Jews generally send their children to public schools, supplementing this with religious schooling several times a week. Conservative religious schools emphasize the Hebrew language and knowledge of the Bible.

Conservative Jews prepare to be rabbis at the graduate schools called the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Conservative Judaism originally opposed the idea of women serving as rabbis, but in recent years many women have been ordained as Conservative rabbis.

At one time, Conservative Judaism was the largest movement in the United States, but its popularity has dwindled in recent years. Like the Reform movement, it is represented in countries around the world (with an especially large following in Great Britain) and it has made some in-roads in the State of Israel.



The newest of the four modern Jewish religious movements in the United States is the small Reconstructionist movement. This movement broke away from Conservative Judaism in the 1920s to follow the teachings of a brilliant rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan felt that Judaism needed, not small changes, but a “reconstruction” for our time. Kaplan’s idea of God was unique in Judaism, for while all Jews believed that history was an important aspect of the Jewish religion, Kaplan viewed history as the unfolding of God in the world. In this light, God could be said to be the sum total of all things that are, were, and are yet to be.

In its philosophy, Reconstructionist Judaism differs somewhat from Conservative Judaism. In practice, however, Reconstructionist Judaism adheres closely to its parent movement.

Reconstructionist Jews generally send their children to public schools and to afternoon or Sunday religious school for instruction in Hebrew and Judaism. As in the Conservative and Reform movements, students train to be rabbis at a special college, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (located in Philadelphia) only after completing four years of undergraduate work at another university. The Reconstructionist movement has always been a staunch supporter of women’s rights in Judaism. Indeed, the first recorded ceremony of Bat Mitzvah was held for the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Women in the Reconstructionist movement are encouraged to become rabbis and the first ordination of a
Reconstructionist woman rabbi was held in 1974, only two short years after the first Reform woman was ordained.



Hasidic (sometimes spelled Chasidic) Judaism is a very vocal sub-group that wields influence beyond its small numbers. Its beginnings can be traced to the late 1700s, but the group that calls itself Hasidic today bears little resemblance to its early progenitors. Hasidic Judaism began in an honest effort to restore the joy of Judaism to the average Jew. It succeeded due to the charisma of its early teachers; and, where it continues to succeed today, it is still due to its charismatic leaders each one called a rebbe (a Yiddish term used instead of the Hebrew “rabbi”). Like many other reactionary movements, the main idea of Hasidic Judaism is that Jews should separate themselves from the modern world and continue to live in “the good old ways.” On close inspection, however, “the good old days” (that is, the eighteenth-century world which Hasidism represents in both dress and practice) were times of oppression and ignorance. It was in such a world that Jews could give credence to the claims that their rebbes worked miracles, wrote effective amulets, and exorcised demons.

One group of modern Hasidim — the followers of the Lubavitch rebbe who call themselves Habad (often spelled, Chabad) Hasidim — have proven very canny in the use of modern media to garner attention. Their ever-growing presence on the Internet, for example, makes it seem as if they number in the millions while quite the opposite is the case. Despite their outward look of modernity, their medieval roots persist, as seen in their response to the death of their last rebbe. All mourned him, but some soon proclaimed that the deceased rebbe was either the messiah or the harbinger of the messiah. Huge billboards announced prayers for the dead rebbe‘s resurrection. Such a call, for the resurrection of a charismatic leader, is antithetical to mainstream Judaism (and has been so throughout history as mainstream Jews denounced one false messiah after another)

In terms of belief, the Hasidic movement hardly differs from the Orthodox movement except that it is consistently more stringent and more extremist. While study is encouraged for men and boys, women are still accorded a lesser place in Hasidic Judaism than in any other Jewish religious movement. Unlike the vast majority of Jews in this or any other age, Hasidim read the Bible as the literal word of God believing, for example, that the world was actually created in seven days. Hasidic Judaism is also cult-like in its demand for complete and blind faith on the part of its adherents who live in small tightly knit, carefully controlled communities.

The Hasidic movement remains the smallest Jewish religious group in the United States. Its radical, rightwing position today is ironical, considering its beginnings as a movement to bring new vigor to the Jewish world. Early Hasidism set out to be a liberalizing influence and its early form actually influenced and continues to influence all branches of modern Jewish thought.



No matter what set of beliefs a Jew subscribes to, there is a sense of solidarity among all Jews, born of the recognition that Jews share a common history, heritage, language, and culture. They also tend to share a common fate, sometimes for the good and sometimes not. When one Jew is noticed, all are brought into focus. When the Jewish people, faith, or state is noticed, so is the individual Jew. The Talmud expressed its recognition of this commonality in a positive statement, “All Jews are responsible one for another.” This sums up the Jewish value called Klal Yisrael, the “Community of Israel.”

Jewish Observances

For Jews, religious observances are a way of turning beliefs into actions. These actions are the rituals that create religious moments in a person’s everyday life. There are several major Jewish rituals that mark the passage of time and make time holy, other rituals are directed at helping a person to “think” Jewishly, and still other rituals are designed to help Jews to act Jewishly.

The rituals that divide time and make time holy include the holy days and the special celebrations that are a part of the life cycle of the Jew.



The first Jewish life-cycle celebration for the male baby is Brit Milah, circumcision. Through this symbolic act, which according to the Bible began with Abraham and Isaac, Jewish males are brought into the community of Israel, marked for life as Jews, and given a Hebrew name. The practice of brit milah is common to all religious movements within Judaism and may be performed in the home or the hospital. Among Conservative and Reform Jews (and sometimes even among Orthodox Jews), a naming ceremony in the home or in the synagogue welcomes female babies to their new Jewish identities.



Around the time of their thirteenth birthday, boys and girls are initiated into adulthood in the Jewish community. The ceremony is called Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls — the terms are identical, one being masculine and the other feminine; both mean “Child of the Commandment(s).” It is at the age of twelve and a half for girls and thirteen for boys that young people become adults according to Jewish law. No ceremony is actually necessary, but ceremonies have been customary since the late Middle Ages. Boys (and sometimes girls as well) are called before the congregation to lead the congregation in worship and to read from the Torah, the scroll of parchment on which are handwritten the Five Books of Moses in Hebrew. This reading is often chanted to an ancient melody called a trop. Both boys and girls read also from the Haftarah, a weekly selection from the Prophets loosely connected to the weekly Torah portion.

There are several reasons for this elaborate ceremony. First, as noted above, it marks the point at which a Jewish child becomes responsible for keeping the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism.

Second, it marks a point in the education of the Jewish youth. Not only a rabbi but also any Jewish adult may lead a prayer service or perform a Jewish ceremony in all branches of Judaism except the Orthodox. (In Orthodox practice, only men are allowed to lead congregational worship.) So the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a way of demonstrating that a young person has a sufficient command of Judaism and of Hebrew to lead the congregation.

Third, Bar or Bat Mitzvah provides an important occasion for family celebration. Families typically gather at such times — cousins, uncles, aunts, and even distant relatives making special efforts to attend the ceremony. Everyone joins in the worship service at the temple or synagogue; and, usually, a party is held in honor of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.



Like members of other religious groups, Jewish parents encourage their children to marry other Jews. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin, which means “holiness.” Rabbis or cantors officiate on behalf of both the state and the Jewish people in performing Jewish weddings. According to Jewish tradition, marriage is the most holy of all human institutions. It is counted among the 613 commandments found in the Torah and traditional Jews believe that a person must be married and have children to fulfill this mitzvah properly.

In traditional circles, a ketubah, a special marriage contract, is drawn up. This is a legal agreement between the bride and the groom concerning the marriage arrangements. Many beautifully illuminated and decorated ketubah documents have survived the ages, announcing the marriage arrangements of Jews throughout history. Reform and Conservative Jews also utilize a ketubah that may be beautifully decorated but seldom has the specific legal elements of an Orthodox ketubah.



Judaism teaches that the soul lives on after a person dies. Still, death is a sad time for Jews, as it is for all peoples. Jewish belief does not require a final rite while a person is dying. There is a brief viddui or confession, provided that the dying person is able to speak and wishes to recite it. But if the dying person does not speak the words of the viddui, or if a rabbi is not present, no Jew feels that the soul of the deceased is endangered in any way.

According to Jewish practice, the dead are buried as soon as possible. Traditional Jews do not allow cremations of the dead, and the body of the deceased is tended with great care and respect, often by a group of Jews called the Hevrah Kadishah or “holy community.” As the term indicates, taking care of the dead is considered an act of great merit.

The week following a burial is a period of intense mourning for family and friends. The family remains at home, sitting on low stools as a sign of sorrow. Relatives and friends visit, and daily worship services are recited in the home. The Sabbath is an exception. Because mourning is not permitted on Shabbat, the family leaves its home and joins with the congregation at a synagogue or temple service.

During the first year after a death, the children of a dead parent and the dead person’s sisters and brothers attend synagogue regularly to recite a special prayer for the dead called the Kaddish, the “hallowing” or “making holy.” Each year, on the anniversary of the death, Jews recite the kaddish in memory of a dead family member. Most Jews also light a candle in their home on the anniversary of a death as a reminder of their departed relative.

Jewish Holy Days

Jewish celebrations are not limited to life-cycle events. As do all religions, Judaism sets aside certain holidays and days of remembrance as holy days. These holy days are scheduled according to the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish calendar is not based on the earth’s revolutions around the sun, as the secular calendar is. Instead, the Jewish calendar is made up of moon cycles, each month beginning with the time of the new moon. Jewish holidays fall each year on different dates according to the secular calendar, but on the same date according to the Jewish calendar. Generally speaking, however, Jewish holidays always fall in the same season each year. (Because it is a modified lunar calendar, the Jewish calendar is often in need of adjustment to match the solar year. Just as the secular calendar is adjusted once in four years by adding an additional day, the Jewish calendar adds an additional month every third or fourth year.)



The Jewish year begins in the fall with the celebration of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah ("Head of the Year") is the official Jewish New Year’s Day, on which Jews look back over the year just passed and forward to the year about to come. The blowing of a ram’s horn in the synagogue or temple announces the coming of the new year in a memorable way. This ram’s horn is called a shofar. The shofar was used in ancient times as a call to battle against the enemy. Used in the synagogue today, it calls Jews to battle against evil.

Jews believe that, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God judges each person’s deeds, deciding who shall live and who shall die in the year to come. Therefore, Jews pray fervently, fasting for the entire day of Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement." This day is devoted to praying for forgiveness for any sins which a Jew may have committed, or which the community may have committed. As the day comes to an end, the shofar is again sounded — in one long, clear blast. Then with a feeling of having a slate wiped clean and a fresh beginning, Jews enter into the new year.



Five days after Yom Kippur comes the weeklong Festival of Booths, Sukkot. On Sukkot traditional Jews each build a small open-roofed booth-like building in which they may take their meals or even sleep. The roof of this “booth” (Hebrew: sukkah) is covered with green branches taken from trees and shrubs. The leafy covering does not completely cover the booth in order that the stars may be seen at night. The sukkah is said to be a reminder of the way in which the ancient Israelites lived as they crossed the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. (More likely, though, the Children of Israel used tents rather than booths in the wilderness.)

Before the Romans destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jews, Sukkot was the most important Jewish festival, outstripping even Passover and the High Holy Days. It was called, HeHag, "The Holiday." During Sukkot, farmers and shepherds from every part of the country brought sacrificial offerings to the Temple in the hopes that God would bless them with abundant rain throughout the growing season. Their journey was commanded in the Torah, where Sukkot is listed as the first of the three "Pilgrimage Holidays" — Passover and Shavuot being the other special occasions for bringing sacrifices to the Temple. On Sukkot, in particular, Jerusalem was so overcrowded with pilgrims that temporary wooden housing was erected on every rooftop, in every alley, along every street, and on every adjoining hill. It is probably to commemorate this use of "booths" that Jews everywhere began to build a family sukkah in which to celebrate the holiday.

A blessing is recited on this holiday when the lulav (branches of palm, willow, and myrtle) and etrog (a citron fruit), symbols of the agricultural variety of the Promised Land, are waved. These reminders of nature tie the holiday to its beginnings as an agricultural festival, a venerable ancestor of our modern Thanksgiving.

The day after Sukkot has a special meaning all its own. It is called Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing over the Torah. On this holy day, Jews complete the yearly cycle of reading portions from the Torah scroll in the temple or synagogue. The concluding lines of Deuteronomy (the last book of the Torah) are recited, followed by opening lines of Genesis (the first book of the Torah) — to demonstrate that Jewish study is an everlasting process that has no beginning and no ending. Whereas, in the United States, most Jews dance in the synagogue carrying scrolls of the Torah in their arms, in Israel the dancing is done in the streets and this is one of the most colorful of all Israeli Jewish customs.



As winter sets in, the time comes for the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian army of Antiochus Epiphanes (165 B.C.E.). Hanukkah is really an eight-day celebration of religious freedom. A Jewish legend tells that when the Maccabees drove the Syrian Greeks from Jerusalem, they cleansed and purified the Temple. When it came time to light the Temple Menorah (the seven-branched golden candelabrum God instructed the Children of Israel to design) only a small jar of pure olive oil could be found. This small jar of oil should have burned for only one night, but the legend states that it burned for eight nights instead of one, giving the Jews time to prepare new oil. The legend concludes that the festival of Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights on account of this miracle.

Actually the legend is a later addition to Jewish folklore. According to the Book of Maccabees, the first Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days because it was a late celebration of Sukkot and Simchat Torah — the two important holidays — since they had not been celebrated properly in Jerusalem while the Temple was in the hands of the Syrian Greeks.

A special form of the menorah is used on Hanukkah. It has nine branches: one for each night of Hanukkah and one branch used to light the others. Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle (or flame) in the menorah on the first night and adding one candle each night until all eight candles are lit at once. Until recently, it was customary to give children gifts of nuts and Hanukkah gelt (token sums of money). Since Hanukkah comes around the same time as Christmas, modern Jews have taken to emulating Christian practice by giving their children more significant gifts — sometimes even, one gift for each night of the festival.

For many Hebrew words like Hanukkah there is no absolute transliteration into the English language, but the name of no other Jewish festival has received so many different possible spellings in English. Not only are there problems in representing the opening guttural sound of the Hebrew letter het, but there are possible arguments for doubling the "n" sound of the second Hebrew letter nun and the "k" sound of the third letter caf. It is often fashion, more than scholarship, that determines the English spellings which range through Chanukah, Chanukkah, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, Hanukkah, and so on.



A minor festival, Tu B’Shevat, “the fifteenth day of [the month of] Shevat,” the New Year of the Trees, was set aside in ancient times to mark the beginning of springtime in the Holy Land. Today, Jews around the world use the holiday as an occasion to celebrate nature, to recall God’s commandment calling on human beings to care for the world, and to donate money for the planting of trees in Israel.

Also in the spring, the festival of Purim ("Lots") celebrates an incident from the biblical Book of Esther in which the Jews of Persia were saved from persecution. The entire Book of Esther, called Megillat Esther, is read on Purim. When the reader pronounces the name of the arch-villain, Haman — who threw lots to determine the day on which he would order all Jews in Persia to be killed — the congregation hisses and boos and spins graggers ("Noisemakers"). Although Purim has its serious side as a remembrance of the importance of religious freedom, it is mainly considered a children’s holiday. Children parade around the synagogue costumed as characters from the Esther story; and special three-cornered pastries called Homentashen ("Haman’s Ears") are baked for the occasion.



The major spring festival is Pesach, Passover. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt when the Jews were led out of slavery and into freedom. For eight days (seven in Reform Judaism), Jews eat no normal bread but only the flat, unleavened, cracker-like bread called matzah. The Bible tells how, as the Jews made their hasty preparations to leave Egypt, they had no time to prepare bread for their journey. Instead, they placed the dough — which had no time to rise and be baked — on their backs. There the sun baked it into matzah.

Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals. In Temple times, people brought sacrifices to Jerusalem. Yet, even then, the primary focus of Passover was in Jewish homes, where the holiday meal called the Seder, "The Order [of Service]," was held. Toward the beginning of the celebration, the youngest person present asks four questions set by tradition, and the answer is read from the Haggadah, "The Telling," a short book telling the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt.



From the second day of Passover, Jewish farmers would set aside a measure of new barley called the omer. After seven weeks passed (forty-nine days), these first fruits of the grain harvest were brought as an offering to Jerusalem. The fiftieth day begins the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, the last pilgrimage holiday of the Jewish year.

During the Omer period, three Jewish holy days occur. The first is a holy day of remembrance. The most modern of all Jewish holy days, added after the end of the Second World War, Yom Hashoah, occurs just after Passover. Yom Hashoah is a memorial for the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. In a sense, it is a holy day that is still in the process of being developed. Its celebration typically includes special prayer services and sometimes the lighting of candles, but no established form of worship yet exists.

A second modern holiday is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which is observed as a religious holiday by Jews outside of Israel as well as by the Israelis. Here, too, the exact form of celebration is still a work in progress.

Despite the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, the Omer period is a somber time, but Lag Ba-Omer, the "thirty-third day of the counting of Omer," intrudes as a day of joy and celebration. In Israel, bonfires are lit all across the countryside, casting a yellow glow on the evening sky. Lag Ba-Omer is called a "scholar’s festival" because it commemorates a time when the Romans had forbidden Jews to study the Torah, but the Jews resisted the ban by continuing to study.



The Festival of Weeks, Shavuot, comes at the time of the wheat harvest in ancient Israel. It marks the end of the counting of Omer and the beginning of summer. It is also the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is the last of the three Pilgrimage Festivals. It is sometimes called Hag HaBikkurim, "The Festival of the First-Fruits," since farmers would bring the first fruits of their harvest as offerings to the Temple.

Because it celebrates the giving of the Torah, the modern Reform movement gave it new meaning in the Diaspora by making this the occasion for celebrating the Confirmation of young people. A Confirmation ceremony is held in the synagogue in which the graduating class of the religious school typically leads the service for the whole community, thus "confirming" their commitment to the covenant made at Sinai. The ceremony became so popular that, in some form, it has become a standard part of Shavuot in both the Reform and Conservative movements, and even in many Orthodox congregations.



As summer comes, Jews observe Tishah B’Av, the "ninth day of the month of Av." According to legend, this was the day on which the Assyrians destroyed the First Temple. It is also the date on which the Second Temple fell to the Romans. And Jews in other places have encountered this date in fateful ways throughout history. Some say the ninth of Av, 1492, was the day on which King Ferdinand signed the decree permitting the Spanish Inquisition to drive the Jews from Spain. In commemoration of these and other events, Tishah B’Av is observed as a day of fasting and mourning.

With the approach of fall, the yearly cycle of the Jewish festivals comes to a close only to begin again. These holy days serve as constant reminders to practicing Jews. But more constant than any other is the most holy of all Jewish holidays — the Sabbath.



Jews have long revered Shabbat, the Sabbath, as a "taste of the world to come," a time of rest, of peace, and of contentment. From sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night, observant Jews set aside time to pray and study — a day to refrain from work and everyday cares.

Jews of every religious movement practice similar Sabbath customs. Jews attend synagogue on Friday evening, where they welcome the Sabbath as if it were a visiting monarch, calling it "the Sabbath Queen." At home, candles are lit on Friday evening, and the Kiddush, "Sanctification," the blessing over wine, is sung, welcoming the Sabbath and its sense of peace into the family circle. Parents bless their children; and thank God for providing sustenance by pronouncing a blessing over a loaf of twisted egg-bread called a hallah (often spelled challah). Jewish legend even has it that on the Sabbath every Jew is given an extra soul, for the joy of Sabbath is so great that one soul could hardly contain it.

The celebration continues on Saturday morning with a worship service that includes the reading and study of the entire Torah portion for the week, along with an accompanying portion taken from the Prophets (the Haftarah). Though Bar/Bat Mitzvah can take place whenever the Torah is read (Monday, Thursday, or Saturday), Shabbat has become the most popular day for welcoming young Jews into adulthood.

A ceremony called Havdalah, "Separation," is held as stars appear on Saturday evening. This closing ceremony separates the spiritual time of Sabbath from the mundane week of workdays that follows.

Jewish Prayer and Study

Jews feel that each new day is the most important time. Even the ordinary workday is holy, because it is filled with opportunities for the performance of mitzvot and good works. Jews believe that God judges people on how they behave from moment to moment. Therefore, Jews strive to make their lives worthy by treating others as equals, by seeing the good in everyone they meet, and by trying to find enough reasons to say one hundred blessings a day! Even in hard times, the sages of the Talmud taught, Jews should seek to pursue happiness; and the sages added, “In the world to come, a Jew will be punished for not taking advantage of life’s pleasures.”

Traditionally, Jews use certain rituals on a daily basis, too. Some of these are: putting on the tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries which are two small leather boxes containing verses from the Bible that remind Jews of their duties — one worn on the forehead and one on the arm), praying three times a day, and keeping the dietary laws called kashrut.

The dietary laws prohibit the eating of many different kinds of meat and fish, especially ham, pork, bacon, and shellfish. They also include instructions for slaughtering and preparing meat in a way called kosher (“proper”), in which all traces of blood are removed. In a sense, the dietary laws remind Jews of the natural order of the world, in which each species must feed on other species — whether animal or vegetable. So every meal is offered up as a kind of sacrifice to the creator, who designed the world to sustain itself in this way.

To further remind them of this fact, Jews are also instructed to recite a blessing thanking God for food before each meal; and another, longer blessing praising God for providing enough food for the whole world after each meal.



As is easily seen, Jewish prayer is an aid to developing a meritorious attitude, and a commendable way of feeling. Therefore, Jews actively seek reasons to praise God’s creation. There are Jewish prayers to be said when witnessing a falling star, when hearing the clap of thunder in the clouds, when seeing a rainbow, when noticing the first bud of spring on the branch of a tree, when placing a mezzuzah (a decorative box containing portions of the most important Jewish prayer, the Shema) on a doorpost, when sitting in the sukkah at Sukkot, and even when seeing a very tall or extremely short person.

Jewish prayers are usually recited in Hebrew. Yet, they can be recited in any vernacular or local language, whether it is Yiddish, Aramaic, French, English, Spanish, or Russian. Jews believe that God understands no matter what language a person employs in prayer. Even silence is sometimes said to be an appropriate Jewish prayer language.

The most important of all Jewish prayers is a prayer called the Shema. Strangely enough, the Shema is a prayer that speaks to the Jewish people, and not to God. Its verses instruct the Israelites (the prayer is from the Torah even before the term “Jew” was used for the Jewish people) what they have to do. Here is a part of the Shema prayer:

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.
Blessed be God’s Name and glorious kingdom forever and ever.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I [God] teach you this day, shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder before your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.


In just this one paragraph of the Shema prayer, it is possible to understand why Jews designed the tefillin (phylacteries) to place as symbols on the head (above the eyes) and on the arm; and why most Jews place a mezzuzah on the doorpost of their houses to remind them of God.



A large part of a full Jewish life is allotted to study. The Jewish heritage and tradition grows constantly more complex and involved, and studying it can become the work of a lifetime. Students have actually been known to devote themselves full time to the study of the books known as the Talmud. The Talmud contains the collected discussions of the generations of rabbis and sages who lived from approximately 200 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. In its seven hundred years of collected teachings, the Talmud records the search for a way of life based on the Bible and the Jewish heritage.

Due to the high value they place on learning, most Jewish parents wish to give their children a Jewish education. Jewish children sometimes find themselves enrolled in Jewish day schools instead of public schools, or attending afternoon or Sunday religious schools in addition to public schooling. Religious schooling usually consists of the study of the Hebrew language, Jewish holy days and rituals, the Jewish prayerbook, the Bible, selections from the Talmud and from the Midrash (a body of literature made up of stories, commentaries, and legal discussions surrounding the text of the Bible), the texts of Bible commentaries and legal codes written through the ages, and studies about the history of the Jewish people, the Holy Land of Israel and its modern Jewish state, and other Jewish communities today.

A person may study Judaism deeply and never become a rabbi. Most Jews continue their study of Judaism in one way or another throughout their lives. In Jewish circles, this is referred to as “study for its own sake” and is thought to be especially meritorious. Indeed, many scholars who devote themselves to Jewish studies refuse to become rabbis since the tasks of a rabbi might occupy so much of their time that they would have little opportunity left for learning. Such scholars may teach others or, like other Jews, they may choose merely to continue their studies for their own enjoyment and enlightenment.

Jewish Professions


Some Jews choose to become rabbis. Until modern times, there were no women rabbis. Recently, however, women have entered the rabbinate in three of the four modern Jewish movements. Unlike Christian priests, a rabbi is not necessarily a person who has heard a "call" from God. A rabbi is simply a professional who has studied deeply the books and practice of Judaism and who has gained enough knowledge and sensitivity to serve the Jewish people as a leader and to answer the many questions that average Jews must ask in order to live a full Jewish life.

As a part of their task, modern rabbis perform marriages, name babies, conduct religious services, accept converts into Judaism, preach sermons, lead discussions, and counsel those in need of advice. In addition, rabbis often lead their communities in a variety of Jewish affairs, including raising funds for the American Jewish community, for Jewish concerns around the world, and for charities in Israel. Rabbis can direct or teach in religious and day schools; direct or serve in Jewish agencies and charities such as old age homes and hospices; counsel those in need, direct or work in Jewish community centers, and in welfare associations. Rabbis can also serve as chaplains in the armed forces of the United States. Rabbis officiate at funerals and burial ceremonies and help to comfort the bereaved.

Other Jewish professionals are equipped to do many of these same things, but since ancient times, rabbis have developed the leadership skills and abilities on which the Jewish people most relies.



In addition to rabbis, other professionals serve Jewish communities. Rabbis are often aided by Cantors or soloists, who bring traditional and modern Jewish music to the congregation and may also help to prepare students by teaching them the necessary melodies for reading the Torah and chanting Jewish prayers. In addition, Cantors who have been trained and ordained by accredited cantorial schools can perform most of the functions of rabbis.

Jewish day schools may have a Headmaster or Principal; and Jewish afternoon schools, religious schools, and preschools may have a Principal or Director of Education. These specially trained individuals bring a combination of Jewish learning and administrative skills to their work, as do those who serve as administrators for synagogues or directors of Jewish community centers.

Most Jewish communities also have a "Federation" that collects donations to the community and sees to their proper distribution. Many Jewish professionals serve these federations, most of them bringing combinations of skills in social work, Jewish learning, and Jewish administration.

Professional Jews may also serve as teachers in Jewish programs in universities, or as directors of Hillel foundations on college campuses, organizing Jewish college students for prayer, study, mutual support, and socialization.

Among professional Jews, one specialist is the mashgiach, a "Supervisor," whose task it is to insure that food is kosher — butchered, processed, and prepared in accordance with Jewish laws so that it is fit to be eaten by Jews who observe the Jewish dietary laws. At times, a rabbi or cantor may also serve as a mashgiach. Another specialist involved with kosher food preparation is the shochet, "butcher," who is trained to slaughter animals in ways considered kind by Jewish standards.

A unique Jewish professional is the mohel who circumcises a male child on the eighth day after his birth. In theory, a mohel may be male or female. In practice, the Orthodox utilize only men to perform circumcisions. Because circumcision involves cutting the skin, many a doctor or surgeon elects to train as a mohel, but there is no necessity for a mohel to be a physician or surgeon.

Jewish artists often specialize in creating ritual art for the Jewish community, combining their talents with their knowledge. Jewish poets, writers, and publishers devote their work to educating Jews through a continual outpouring of new works that illumine and enlighten their readers.

One very special kind of Jewish artist is the Scribe, a highly-trained calligrapher who produces new scrolls of the Torah, repairs older scrolls of the Torah, designs and copies new versions of the Scroll of Esther, and creates hand lettered inserts for the mezzuzah and the tefillin ("phylactery") boxes.

The variety of available Jewish professions is amazing, all of them calling on combinations which always include Jewish learning.

The Importance of History

The many beliefs and practices of Judaism were not developed all at once. They were gathered slowly through the course of a long history — one of the longest histories of any living civilization.



The early history of the Jews is recorded in the Bible and in the Talmud and Midrash. Following this period, the long years of Jewish wandering began when, in the year 70 C.E., Titus led the Roman forces through the walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple of the Jews. The Jews considered themselves "in exile" (the Diaspora or "dispersing") from the Promised Land, and they were scattered among the nations of the world. When such a diaspora had overtaken other nations in ancient times, the people had slowly assimilated to local populations and disappeared. This would not be the case for the Jews.

In Babylonia, a large Jewish community flourished. Here, the Talmud was completed around 500 C.E. (a smaller, lesser-known, Talmud had been compiled in the Holy Land slightly earlier). Possibly because it was written in the Diaspora, the Babylonian Talmud became the basis for Jewish ritual practice and belief, community planning, individual and group conduct, government among Jews, and a basic understanding of the Bible from that time forward. In Europe great Jewish communities were established in Spain, Germany, and Poland over the centuries, each contributing to a growing Jewish tradition.

Jews were often persecuted and uprooted. Communities along the Rhine in what is now modern Germany and France were destroyed by the Crusades. The Spanish Jewish community flourished in a Golden Age only to find itself sent into a new exile in 1492 by the Inquisition. A populous Jewish community in Poland was eventually torn by pogroms — organized attacks and massacres encouraged by the church and sometimes instigated by the state.



At the very beginning of the modern period, Jews were already seeking refuge in the United States. As each wave of persecution hit the Jews of Europe and Asia, waves of Jewish immigrants came to the New World. First to appear were Jews who had fled Spain and Portugal. From settlements in England, Holland, and South America, they slowly made their way to the Thirteen Colonies that would later form the United States. Jews fleeing Germany followed them in the nineteenth century. And Jews fleeing Poland and Russia arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, crowding into Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side in New York. The freedoms guaranteed by the separation of church and state in the United States, and the promise of unlimited wealth and prosperity in the New World, drew Jewish immigrants from villages and cities alike.

Throughout the years of the Diaspora, small groups of Jews returned to settle in Palestine (the name give to the Holy Land by the Romans who believed they had struck a death blow to the Jews and called the land after its Philistine inhabitants). Most Jewish returnees settled in towns where they lived observant lives and studied, often supported entirely by charity from Jewish communities in the Diaspora. In modern times, some few came to buy small parcels of land, attempting to eke out a living as farmers.

As conditions in Europe worsened in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Zionism flourished, bringing new waves of idealistic Jewish immigrants. Arriving in the Holy Land, Jewish Zionists found that the land could support farms, vineyards, and orchards. They set out to create a modern Jewish society, one that would not be reliant upon charity from abroad. But the Turkish government was only sometimes tolerant and never truly friendly. Following World War I, in 1917, however, the Turks were forced to allow the government of Great Britain to administer Palestine and the Zionists obtained a promise from the British government: Britain officially declared that it would aid the Jews in establishing a new homeland in Palestine.



Alas, the tide of history was against the Jews one more time. In 1933 Hitler rose to power in Germany, and twelve years later, at the end of the Second World War, a shocked and horrified world learned that the Nazi government and its allies had murdered six million Jews. (For the history of the Holocaust, see The Holocaust: An End to Innocence.) Nationalism had also seized the local Arab populations in Palestine and in the Arab countries surrounding it. Their sudden claim that Palestine belonged to the Arab nations came as a great disappointment to the Jewish people. In the face of it, Great Britain would never complete its commitment to aid the Jewish settlers in the Promised Land.

Despite this, in May of 1948, the State of Israel was created by the new United Nations, and the new Jewish state was immediately attacked by the Arab nations that surrounded it on three sides. A fierce war, which the Arab nations had intended to end by driving the Jews into the sea, ended instead as Israel’s War of Independence. But no peace treaty was signed and the new nation still required supported from the Jewish communities of the United States and Europe. More wars followed, but the young State of Israel grew and prospered. Trees were planted to create forests and to improve the climate of the country, swamps were drained and land was reclaimed for agriculture, factories appeared and flourished, and high technology and advanced science were pursued as prospects for a bright future developed.

The American Jewish community prospered, too, growing stronger with each passing generation. Canada and Mexico had become strongholds of Jewish activity. Jewish communities flourished in England, continental Europe, South America, Australia, and South Africa. It will require many generations to recover from the horrors of the death camps of World War II and to rebuild the Jewish population of the world, but it cannot be denied that the future for the Jews is hopeful.



Jews look upon this history as an important part of their Jewish heritage. They have comprised a significant and involved minority in every epoch of Western civilization and in the history of the Islamic peoples of Spain and North Africa, as well. Jewish greats have often been world greats. A sampling of well-known Jewish figures of the present century would include Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis; Martin Buber, the teacher of humanitarian philosophy; Albert Einstein, the mathematician and scientist; Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of the State of Israel; Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the anti-polio vaccine; Franz Kafka, the great author; Marc Chagall, the brilliant artist; Louis Brandeis, the outstanding American lawyer and jurist; and Stephen Spielberg, the maker of movie magic.

Jews are, of course, proud of the many achievements of their people. But equally as important, from a Jewish perspective, are the many individuals, known and unknown, who worked to build a more peaceful world — people who believed with perfect faith that history moves in an inexorable direction toward the end of days and the world to come. It is this sense of history that enables Jews to continue searching for the ways of God while helping one another.

The Past and the Future

No one can say for certain what the future may bring, but the beliefs and ideas expressed in the religion and culture of Judaism remain optimistic. Jews continue to dream of a better world to come, of a time of peace for all human beings. Their beliefs have inspired other nations, too. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia bears an inscription taken from the Jewish Bible. Displayed on the balcony overlooking the entrance hall at the United Nations headquarters in New York City is a saying from the prophet Isaiah, the selfsame prophet who dreamed the great Jewish dream of a time of universal peace.