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Judaism (from the Greek Ioudaïsmos, derived from the Hebrew יהודה, Yehudah, "Judah"; in Hebrew: יַהֲדוּת, Yahedut, the distinctive characteristics of the Judean ethnos) is a set of beliefs and practices that originating in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), as later further explored and explained withtin the Talmud and other texts. Judaism presents itself as the covenantal relationship between the Children of Israel (later, the Jewish nation) and their God. It is considered either the first or one of the first monotheistic religions, and is among the oldest religious traditions that are still being practiced today. Many of its texts and traditions are central to other Abrahamic religions, with Jewish history and the principles and ethics of Judaism having influenced both Christianity and Islam, as well as some non-Abrahamic religions. As the foundation of Western Christianity, many different aspects of Judaism also correspond to many secular Western concepts of ethics and civil law.

Learn more about Christianity and take a Bible quiz

Followers of Judaism, whether they are converts or born into the Jewish nation (including seculars), are all called Jews. The Jewish collective is regarded to be an ethnoreligious group, for reasons derived from the sacred texts defining them as a nation, rather than followers of a faith. In 2007, the world Jewish population estimated at about 13.2 million people, 41% of which lived in Israel and 40% of which lived in the United States.

Star of David, the Symbol of Judaism

In modern Judaism, central authority is not vested in a single person or body, but rather in sacred texts, religious law, and learned rabbis who interpret the texts and laws. According to Jewish tradition, Judaism begins with the Covenant between God and Abraham (ca. 2000 BCE), who is the patriarch and progenitor of the Jewish nation. Through the ages, Judaism has chosen to follow a number of religious principles, the most important being the belief in a single, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, and transcendent god, who created the universe and still continues to govern it. According to most branches, God established a covenant with both the Israelites and their descendants, and revealed his laws and commandments unto Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of both the Written and the Oral Torah. However, Karaite Judaism holds that only the Written Torah was revealed to Moses. Judaism has traditionally valued Torah study and the observance of all the commandments recorded in the Torah that are expounded in the Talmud.

Historically, Judaism has considered the belief in the divine revelation and acceptance of the Written and Oral Torah as its fundamental core belief, yet Judaism does not have a centralized authority dictating religious dogma. This gave rise to many various formulations as to the specific theological beliefs inherent in the Torah and Talmud. While some rabbis have agreed at times upon a firm formulation, others have disagreed, many criticizing any such attempt to be minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah. Notably, in the Talmud some of the principles of faith (e.g., the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that rejection of them may put one in the category of "apikoros" (heretic).

Jewish Religious Texts

Rabbinic Literature

Judaism has at all times valued its Torah study, as well as other religious texts. The following is a basic, structured list of all the central works of Jewish practice and thought.

  • Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and commentaries
  • Mesorah
  • Targum
  • Jewish Biblical exegesis (also see Midrash below)
  • Works of the Talmudic Era (classic rabbinic literature)
  • Mishnah and commentaries
  • Tosefta and the minor tractates
  • Talmud
  • The Babylonian Talmud and commentaries
  • Jerusalem Talmud and commentaries
  • Midrashic literature:
  • Halakhic Midrash
  • Aggadic Midrash
  • Halakhic literature
  • Major Codes of Jewish Law and Custom
  • Mishneh Torah and commentaries
  • Tur and commentaries
  • Shulchan Aruch and commentaries
  • Responsa literature
  • Jewish Thought and Ethics
  • Jewish philosophy
  • Kabbalah
  • Hasidic works
  • Jewish ethics and the Mussar Movement
  • Siddur and Jewish liturgy
  • Piyyut (Classical Jewish poetry)

Jewish Identity

What makes a person Jewish?

According to traditional Jewish Law, a Jew is anyone that is bornborn of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in accord with Jewish Law. American Reform Judaism and British Liberal Judaism will accept the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents will raise the child with a Jewish identity. All mainstream forms of Judaism are today open to sincere converts, although conversion traditionally was discouraged. The conversion process must be evaluated by an authority, and the convert is examined on his sincerity and knowledge. Converts are given the name "ben Abraham" or "bat Abraham, (son or daughter of Abraham) and in Judaism conversion may be likened to adoption into his family.

Traditional Judaism maintains that Jews, whether by birth or conversion, are Jews forever. Thus a Jew who claims to be an atheist or converts to another religion is still considered by traditional Judaism to still be Jewish. However, the Reform movement maintains that a Jew that has converted to another religion no longer is a Jew, and the Israeli Government also has taken that stance after Supreme Court cases and statutes.

The question of what determines one's Jewish identity in the State of Israel was given new impetus when, during the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion requested opinions on mihu Yehudi ("who is a Jew") from different Jewish religious authorities and intellectuals worldwide in order to settle these citizenship questions. This is far from settled, and will occasionally resurface in Israeli politics.


Traditionally, Jews will recite prayers three times daily, with a fourth prayer added on Shabbat and holidays. At the heart of a service is the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei. Another key prayer during many services is the declaration of faith, the Shema Yisrael (or Shema). The Shema is the recitation of a verse out of the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad—"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is One!"

Most of the prayers in traditional Jewish services can be recited in solitary prayer, though communal prayer is preferred. Communal prayer requires a group of ten adult Jews, called a minyan. In nearly all Orthodox and few Conservative circles, only male Jews are to be counted toward a minyan; most Conservative Jews and members of other Jewish denominations willl count female Jews as well.

In addition to prayer services, observant traditional Jews will recite prayers and benedictions throughout the day while performing various acts. Prayers are recited upon waking up in the morning, before eating or drinking, after eating a meal, and so forth.

The approach to prayer differs among the Jewish denominations. Differences can include texts of prayers, frequency of prayer, number of prayers recited at various religious events, use of musical instruments and choral music, and whether prayers are to be recited in the traditional liturgical languages or the vernacular. In general, Orthodox and Conservative congregations follow closely to tradition, and Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are more likely to have incorporate translations and contemporary writings during their services.

Also, in most of the Conservative synagogues, and all Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, the women participate in prayer services on an equal basis with the men, including roles tht are traditionally filled only by men, such as reading from the Torah. In addition, many Reform temples will use musical accompaniment like organs and mixed choirs.

Jewish Holidays

Jewish Shabbat Bread

Shabbat, the weekly day of rest that last from shortly before sundown on Friday night to shortly after sundown Saturday night, commemorates God's day of rest after his six days of creation. It plays a crucial role in Jewish practice and is governed by a large corpus of religious law. At sundown on Friday, women of the houses welcome the Shabbat by lighting two or more candles and reciting a blessing. The evening meal begins with the Kiddush, a blessing that is recited aloud over a cup of wine, and the Mohtzi, a blessing that is recited over the bread. It is custom to have challah, two braided loaves of bread, at the table. During Shabbat Jews are forbidden to engage in any activity falling under the 39 categories of melakhah, translated literally meaning "work." The activities banned on the Sabbath are not "work" in the usual sense: They include such actions as lighting fires, writing, using money and carrying in the public domain. The prohibition of lighting a fire has been extended now days to driving a car, which involves burning fuel, and using electricity.


Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight day Jewish holiday starting on the 25th day of Kislev (Hebrew calendar). The festival is observed in the Jewish homes by the kindling of lights on each of the festival's eight nights, one on the first night, two on the second night and so forth.

The holiday was called Hanukkah, which means "dedication" because it marks the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Spiritually, Hanukkah is a remembrance of the "Miracle of the Oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for a single day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days – which was the time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.

Hanukkah is never mentioned in the Bible and was never considered a major holiday in Judaism, but it has become much more visible and widely celebrated during modern times, mainly because it falls around the same time as Christmas and has national Jewish overtones that have been greatly emphasized since the establishment of the State of Israel.

Synagogues and Religious Buildings

Synagogues and Religious Buildings

Synagogues are houses of prayer and study. They generally contain separate rooms for prayer (the main sanctuary), smaller rooms for study, and often areas for community and educational use. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues differ greatly. The Reform movement mostly consider their synagogues as temples. Some traditional features of the synagogue are:

  • The ark (called aron ha-kodesh by Ashkenazim and hekhal by Sephardim) where the Torah scrolls are kept (the ark is often closed with an ornate curtain (parochet) outside or inside the ark doors);
  • The elevated reader's platform (called bimah by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim), where the Torah is read (and services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues);
  • The eternal light (ner tamid), a continually-lit lamp or lantern used as a reminder of the constantly lit menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem
  • The pulpit, or amud (Hebrew, a lecturn facing the Ark where the hazzan or prayer leader stands while praying.

Jewish Esnoga Synagogue in Amsterdam

In addition to synagogues, other buildings of significance in Judaism include yeshivas, or institutions of Jewish learning, and mikvahs, which are ritual baths.

Dietary Laws: Kashrut

The laws of kashrut ("keeping kosher") are Jewish dietary laws. Food that is in accord with Jewish law is termed kosher, and food that is not is termed treifah or treif. The Torah cites no reason for the laws of kashrut, but the different rabbis have offered various explanations, including ritual purity, teaching people to control their urges, and also health benefits. Kashrut involves the abstention from consuming any birds or beasts that prey on other animals, and creatures that roam the sea floor and eat the excretions of other animals. Major prohibitions exist upon eating pork, which is considered unclean, and any seafood. Meat is ritually slaughtered, and meat and milk are never eaten together, based on the biblical injunction against 'cooking a kid in its mother's milk'.

Life-Cycle Events

Life-cycle events, or rites of passage, occur throughout Jews' lives that serve to strengthen Jewish identity and to bind them to the entire community.

  • Brit milah – Welcoming male babies into the covenant through the rite of circumcision on their eighth day of life. The baby boy is also given his Hebrew name in the ceremony. A naming ceremony intended as a parallel ritual for girls, named zeved habat, enjoys limited popularity.
  • Bar mitzvah and Bat mitzvah – This passage from childhood to adulthood takes place when a female Jew is twelve and a male Jew is thirteen years old among Orthodox and some Conservative congregations. In the Reform movement, both girls and boys have their bat/bar mitzvah at age thirteen. This is often commemorated by having the new adults, male only in the Orthodox tradition, lead the congregation in prayer and publicly read a "portion" of the Torah.
  • Marriage – Marriage is an extremely important lifecycle event. A wedding takes place under a chupah, or wedding canopy, which symbolizes a happy house. At the end of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass with his foot, symbolizing the continuous mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the scattering of the Jewish people.
  • Death and Mourning – Judaism has a multi-staged mourning practice. The first stage is called the shiva (literally "seven", observed for one week) during which it is traditional to sit at home and be comforted by friends and family, the second is the shloshim (observed for one month) and for those who have lost one of their parents, there is a third stage, avelut yud bet chodesh, which is observed for eleven months.

Prayer Leaders

From the time of the Mishnah and Talmud to the present, Judaism has required specialists or authorities for the practice of very limited rituals or ceremonies. A Jew can fulfill almost all requirements for prayer by himself. Some activities—reading the Torah and haftarah (a supplementary portion from the Prophets or Writings), the prayer for mourners, the blessings for bridegroom and bride, and also the complete grace after meals—require a minyan, which is the presence of ten adults (Orthodox Jews and some Conservative Jews require ten adult men; some Conservative Jews and Reform Jews include women in the minyan).

The most common professional clergy within a synagogue are:

  • Rabbi of a congregation – Jewish scholar who is charged with answering the legal questions of a congregation. This role requires ordination by the congregation's preferred authority (i.e. from a respected Orthodox rabbi or, if the congregation is Conservative or Reform, from academic seminaries). A congregation does not necessarily require a rabbi. Some congregations have a rabbi but also allow members of the congregation to act as shatz or baal kriyah (see below).
  • Hassidic Rebbe – rabbi who is the head of a Hasidic dynasty.
  • Hazzan (note: the "h" denotes voiceless pharyngeal fricative) (cantor) – a trained vocalist who acts as shatz. Chosen for a good voice, knowledge of traditional tunes, understanding of the meaning of the prayers and sincerity in reciting them. A congregation does not need to have a dedicated hazzan.

Jewish prayer services do involve specified roles, which are often, but not always, filled by a rabbi and/or hazzan in many congregations. In other congregations these roles are filled on an ad-hoc basis by members of the congregation who lead portions of the services on a rotating basis:

  • The Baal kriyah or baal koreh (master of the reading) reads the weekly Torah portion. The requirements for being the baal kriyah are the same as those for the shatz. These roles are not mutually exclusive. The same person is often qualified to fill more than one role, and often does. Often there are several people capable of filling these roles and different services (or parts of services) will be led by each.

Many congregations, especially larger ones, also rely on a:

  • Gabbai (sexton) – Calls people up to the Torah, appoints the shatz for each prayer session if there is no standard shatz, and makes certain that the synagogue is kept clean and supplied.

The three preceding positions are usually voluntary and considered an honor. Since the Enlightenment large synagogues have often adopted the practice of hiring rabbis and hazzans to act as shatz and baal kriyah, and this is still typically the case in many Conservative and Reform congregations. However, in most Orthodox synagogues these positions are filled by laypeople on a rotating or ad-hoc basis. Although most congregations hire one or more Rabbis, the use of a professional hazzan is generally declining in American congregations, and the use of professionals for other offices is rarer still.

Specialized Religious Roles

Religious roles within Judaism include:

  • Dayan (judge) – An ordained rabbi with special legal training who belongs to a beth din (rabbinical court). In Israel, religious courts handle marriage and divorce cases, conversion and financial disputes in the Jewish community.
  • Mohel – Ritual circumciser who performs the brit milah (circumcision). An expert in the laws of circumcision who has received training from a qualified mohel.
  • Shochet (ritual slaughterer) – In order for meat to be kosher, it must be slaughtered by a shochet who is an expert in the laws of kashrut and has been trained by another shochet.
  • Sofer (scribe) – Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot (scrolls put on doorposts), and gittin (bills of divorce) must be written by a sofer who is an expert in Hebrew calligraphy and has undergone rigorous training in the laws of writing sacred texts.
  • Rosh yeshiva – A Torah scholar who runs a yeshiva.
  • Mashgiach of a yeshiva – Supervises the emotional and spiritual welfare of students in a yeshiva, and gives lectures on mussar (Jewish ethics).
  • Mashgiach – Supervises manufacturers of kosher food, importers, caterers and restaurants to ensure that the food is kosher. Must be an expert in the laws of kashrut and trained by a rabbi, if not a rabbi himself.

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