Abraham and his wife Sarah are considered founders of the Jewish (Hebrew) people. Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and their grandson Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel are known collectively as the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism. Moses is also central to the foundation of Judaism.
Judaism is the term for the religion of the Jews. The word “Judaism” comes from the name Judah, who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons, and whose tribe became one of the most influential Israelite tribes. Judah is also the name of one of the ancient Israelite kingdoms. Ancient Jewish people are also referred to as Hebrews and Israelites. The term “Israelites” comes from the fact that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after wrestling with a “divine being” (sometimes translated angel).
4000 years ago—that is, 1900 B.C.E. (B.C.E. stands for “Before the Common Era”. This term is increasingly replacing the term B.C., “Before Christ”, when referring to dates in history. B.C.E. refers to any date before the year 1, and C.E., which stands for “Common era”, denotes dates from the year 1 on.)
Abraham, entering into a covenant (a relationship based on a promise, with obligations on both sides) with God, left his home in Ur, a city in ancient Mesopotamia (where most of Iraq is today), and went to Canaan—the land God promised to Abraham and his descendents. The ancient land of Canaan is roughly where Israel and Lebanon and parts of Jordan are today.
As the result of various historical circumstances, Judaism has spread to most parts of the world.
Who Is God?
Judaism is a monotheistic religion, meaning the Jewish people believe in one omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipresent (always present) God. The ancient Israelites believed that God’s name was YHWH. This name was considered very sacred, and was pronounced only once each year—by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Two words which are often used to refer to God are Elohim (Hebrew for “God”) and Adonai (Hebrew for “my Lord”).
Where Did We Come From?
Jewish people believe that the universe was created by God. An account of God’s creation of the world in seven days is given in the Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text. There is an order and hierarchy to creation, with humankind having responsibility for taking care of the rest of creation. Adam and Eve are considered to be the first man and first woman, and all humanity descends from them.
Why Are We Here?
Jewish people believe that the 613 mitzvot (Hebrew for “commandments”) given to the Hebrews by God invite Jewish people to be partners with God—partners with God to make the world a place of shalom (most often translated as “hello,” “good-bye” or “peace”; it actually means “wholeness” or “completeness”) for all people. By observing the mitzvot—which originally meant only the 613 commandments found in the Torah, but now includes all Jewish laws, customs, and practices developed by the Rabbis since the Biblical period—Jewish people believe they are doing their part to repair the world which has been “broken” by human actions.
How Do We Know?
Torah, (Hebrew for “teaching”) in its widest sense, is the body of all Jewish sacred texts. In its strict sense, Torah is the collective name given to five ancient books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Because it is made up of five books, Torah is sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses. The Torah is the teaching given by God to Jewish people. Traditionally, it is considered that Moses received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai, although there are many Jewish people who believe that it was written by several different human beings who were divinely inspired by God.
The Torah contains historical accounts (from the creation of the world through to the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land) of God’s involvement with the Israelites, as well as laws, codes, and rites for the Jewish people to follow and to practice. While Christians have emphasized the Ten Commandments which are given in the Torah, there are actually 613 mitzvot (or “commandments”) in the Torah.
The Talmud is also an important part of Jewish sacred literature. Like the Torah, traditional teachings maintain that the Talmud originated in the time of Moses. Unlike the Torah, however, the teachings in the Talmud were originally handed down orally—until the 5th century C.E. at which time the Talmud was written down. The Talmud can be seen, in part, as commentary on the Torah, explaining and interpreting the laws God gives in the Torah.
Rabbi, which means “teacher” in Hebrew, is the term for a Jewish religious leader, who has studied Jewish law extensively, and is authorized to lead a congregation of Jews, and to make decisions on issues of Jewish law.
What Do We Have To Do?
Jewish people believe that they, as a community, have a special though not exclusive relationship with God. The purity and holiness required for communion (or contact) with God comes through action—the action of observing God’s teachings. In ancient Israel, following God’s teachings included offering animal sacrifices and purification rites.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., these sacrifices and rites were no longer performed. Since that time, other ways of serving and obeying God have been emphasized—caring for the poor, participating in life cycle (birth, marriage, death) rituals, keeping God’s commandments to be honest and fair and just in daily life, and observing Holy Days and Shabbat. Shabbat (or Sabbath in English) means “day of rest” in Hebrew. It begins every Friday at sundown, and ends Saturday at sundown. Jewish people observe Shabbat by having traditional meals and prayers at home, and by going to Synagogue (Jewish house of worship) where prayers are said, songs are sung, and the Torah is read.
There are three major branches of Judaism, although it must be noted that they are not the only groups within Judaism. There are many groups within Judaism which emphasize different ways of looking at and observing God’s teachings. The three main branches of Judaism are the following:
What’s Going On Today?
There are an estimated 14 million Jewish people in the world today (source: 2000 World Almanac). Although it was founded in the Middle East, and is still practiced there today, Judaism’s presence extends throughout the world.
How Do We Recognize It?
Judaism is often represented by the Star of David (magen David which is “shield of David” in Hebrew)—the star created by two overlapping triangles. In ancient times, this symbol was used in several different religions as a sign of protection from evil. From the 17th century C.E. on, however, the Star of David has been used as the general symbol of Judaism.
Did You Know?
Singer Lauryn Hill named her son Zion, but the word Zion is actually the name of the hill in the ancient land of Canaan where the Israelite King David founded the city of Jerusalem. Mount Zion is used as a metaphor for Jerusalem, seen as the place where God dwells, where God is involved with humankind, and from where God directs history.
Shalom, although commonly used as a Hebrew greeting meaning “Hello,” “Good-bye” or “Peace,” this word actually implies “wholeness” or “completeness.”
Bar mitzvah means “son of the commandment” and Bat mitzvah means “daughter of the commandment.” These terms refer to an important life cycle ceremony which generally takes place when a young person turns 13 years of age (or, in traditional circles when a girl turns 12). This event symbolizes the “coming of age” of a child who is not obligated to fulfill adult Jewish responsibilities. This joyous occasion is generally marked by the Bar/Bat Mitzvah participating in the leading of a worship service and, most often, reading from the Torah or Haftarah (reading from the Prophets).
Compiled and edited by Jonathan Ketcham, written by Alison Lutz.
J. L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism (1966)
M. M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (2d ed. 1957, repr. 1967)
J. Neusner, There We Sat Down (1972)
R. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (1980)
A. Eisen, The Chosen People in America (1983)
M. Idel, Kabbalah (1988)
M. A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement (1988)
G. Robinson, Essential Judaism (2000).