Origins and Defining Features

Judaism has historical roots that go back to the second millennium BCE. But the Rabbinic Judaism which forms the core expression of Jewish tradition today would have been unrecognisable to Israelites of the time of David. Tradition identifies four key stages in the process of its development.

1. Abraham

Abraham, the biblical ancestor of the family which eventually became the people known as Israel, is the founding father of Judaism according to the biblical presentation. Promises are made to him, and responsibilities laid upon him and his descendants, by God, made known through a name (YHWH) specific to the Israelite people (including Jews and Samaritans). Thus Modern Judaism understands itself to be in a continuous tradition beginning with Abraham (see Gen 11:27-25:11). The biblical narrative in Genesis and Exodus relates how the family of Abraham, under the leadership of his great-grandson Joseph, migrated to Egypt and took up residence there, where they prospered and became in effect a distinct ethnic group known as Israel (Gen 37, 39-40). However, the emergence some time later of a Pharaoh hostile to the Israelites led to the rise of Moses, the story of the plagues, and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt by way of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exod 1-15). If Judaism is understood primarily as the religion of a people, this offers a powerful origin story.

The second essential element in the origin story of Judaism is the revelation of the Torah to Moses by God during the time when Abraham’s descendants were travelling through the wilderness of Sinai after escaping from Egypt (Exod 19-31; Leviticus, large parts of Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Torah as a whole includes the entire narrative of the Pentateuch, but it is the guidance, instruction, and law revealed in the course of the story that are understood to be the foundation of Jewish life down to the present time.

The most familiar aspect of these laws is the Ten Commandments (Exod 20) which can be seen as a set of general principles.The full set of laws includes provision for the construction of a temple, or rather of a tent for worship in the wilderness, taken as the prototype of the Jerusalem Temple, and the organisation of a priestly order with regular sacrifices. Since Judaism as it is now known is essentially bound to Torah, the time of Moses is seen as an important stage in the development of Judaism.

In reality, according to modern scholarship, these laws developed over a long period beginning during the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (about 1000-586 BCE), with the great bulk of them reaching their final form in the Persian period, the 5th and 4th centuries BCE (see Pentateuch). During the monarchy the worship of YHWH had relatively few of the features that mark out Judaism today. The development of the Torah was enabled and made necessary by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, the exile of its leading citizens to Babylonia, and the dispersal of many Jews to different parts of the Near East and Mediterranean world. This demanded that if the people were to survive they must preserve their traditional religion and customs and enshrine them in permanent form.

A third element in the origin story is the work of Ezra (ca. 400 BCE), following the rebuilding of the temple and the gradual return of many Jews from Babylon, as described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra is said to have brought back a law from Babylonia with the authority of both God and the Persian king, and enforced it on the population of Judah. Traditionally this is identified with the text of the Torah as it now exists. This event might well be described as a reformation.

There came to be a growing emphasis on the meaning of Torah for the individual Jew and the life-style which that implied. In particular, the dietary code known as kashrut (see below), strict observance of Sabbath, restrictions on marriage outwith the community, and attendance at local gatherings for worship (synagogues) gradually grew in importance. However, there were many different currents of belief and observance in these centuries, and parties developed: we hear of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

4. The fall of Jerusalem

The events of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE had arguably the greatest influence in shaping what became recognisable as Judaism in the modern era. A revolt against the Roman occupation in 66-73 CE led to the final destruction of the Temple, and a second war of independence under Bar Kochba in 132-135 CE led to the exile of most of the Jews from Jerusalem and its environs. These events marked the final end of Temple ritual and sacrifice and the growing understanding of Judaism as a religion of the book – of Torah and Prophets – centred on the Synagogue. Parts of the community accepted the leadership of the rabbis (the successors of the Pharisees), and over a period of centuries their understanding of Judaism came to predominate. They developed first the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE – the codification of the oral laws interpreting the customs and rules of Jewish life) and as time went on an extensive commentary on Mishnah developed. Mishnah and commentary together are known as Talmud, which remains to this day the key foundational text of Judaism and was completed around 600 CE. At the same time the liturgy of the synagogue was extended to include hymns and set prayers, many of which are used to this day.

Who is Jewish?

The definition of ‘Jewishness’ is not straightforward, and depends to some extent on the branch of Judaism to which an individual belongs. The two most important criteria are birth (the individual’s parent(s) were Jewish), and conviction (the individual has chosen to convert).

Jewish by birth

Where there is a regular betrothal involving a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are allowed to marry according to the law, there is no question about the status of any of the children born to their union: they are certainly Jewish. In the case of ‘mixed’ marriages, however, the Talmud declares that the status of the children follows that of the mother. In short, only if a child’s mother is Jewish will he or she be unquestionably held to be Jewish.

At the present day the question has become particularly important and at the same time somewhat more complicated. The importance arises from the Law of Return in the State of Israel. If all who are Jewish have the right to citizenship in Israel, it becomes crucial to determine who has the right. Orthodox Jews still hold to the importance of matrilineal descent. However, an increasing number of progressive Jewish groups, particularly in the USA but also in Britain and elsewhere, accept a child as Jewish if either parent is Jewish. This means that many people see themselves as Jewish but are not recognised as such by other Jews. Similarly, many orthodox Jews do not recognise conversions to Judaism sanctioned by a reform Jewish Bet Din (religious court). So even when reform Jews do not recognise patrilineal descent and insist on a form of conversion for their children, those children may well not be recognised by others as Jewish.

Jewish by conversion

The majority of conversions today take place for the sake of marriage, although the discussions of the Rabbis (see below: The synagogue congregation) indicate that they did not consider the prospect of making a good marriage to be a pure enough motive for conversion. Those who want to become Jews are referred to as proselytes. The Hebrew word is ger and in the Bible it is normally translated as sojourner, referring to someone who has settled among the people of Israel and adopted their ways. In fact, as long as the Jews were a people in their own land, there was no process for conversion nor any problem about intermarriage, which first emerges in the book of Ezra when Jews return from Babylonia and marry women of ‘the peoples of the land’ (Ezra 9-10). A counter-example supposedly from an earlier period is the Moabitess, Ruth, who attached herself to Naomi and declared, ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16). In the Rabbinic discussions the story of Ruth is often quoted as the source of many of the conditions of conversion. For example, Naomi three times told Ruth to go back to her people, and it became customary that no prospective proselyte would be accepted without first being told to go away.

A prospective proselyte must be given instruction in both the theory and practice of Judaism and then be examined by the Bet Din both with regard to their sincerity and to their knowledge and ability to keep to the obligations that they are undertaking. The requirements for admission, according to the Talmud, are circumcision for men and a ritual bath for both men and women. After acceptance, the proselyte is given a Hebrew name and are considered to have severed all previous family ties and so in their case the given name is followed by ‘ben/bat Abraham Avinu’ or son/daughter of our father Abraham.

Duties of Observance

Shabbat (Sabbath)

Shabbat, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday, is set aside as a holy day every week, both for leisure and as a ritual day for worship. In Deuteronomy (5:15), Shabbat is to be observed as a way for the Jews to remembering that they were slaves in Egypt. Thus the day of rest is not just for themselves but also for all who work in the household. In Exodus (20:11), on the other hand, the day is kept holy as a mark of respect to God the creator. In consequence, worship in the synagogue on Shabbat morning includes prayers of thanksgiving for creation. The celebrating of God’s creation makes this day a joyous time. Therefore, one is forbidden to fast or mourn in any manner as this would be seen as disrespectful to God’s wondrous creation.

At home Shabbat is inaugurated by lighting two candles. Following this Kiddush [a prayer of blessing] is recited over a glass of wine. During Shabbat there are three festive meals, the first on Erev Shabbat. After worship on Saturday there is a large lunch when the famliy eat a specially baked bread called challah as well as fish and meat. Everyone at the table drinks from the same cup of wine, and all join in reciting prayers in Hebrew. Finally a symbolic ceremony called havdalah (separation or division) is held at night to close Shabbat, separating it in its holiness from the rest of the week. A lighted candle is extinguished in a glass of wine by the youngest member of the house and a spice box is passed around. The spice’s aroma signifies the sweetness of shabbat as it comes to a close.

Kashrut (Kosher) laws are those rules which pertain to dietary laws in Judaism. The diet of Jews is regulated by law for two reasons. In traditional Jewish writings it is said that kashrut is set in order to lessen a Jew’s animal appetite. It is also set to remind them in their day-to-day life of the priestly calling. By having certain eating habits Jews set themselves apart.

There are several rules given in Lev 11 to identify food as clean or unclean. None of these cover vegetables: only animals, birds, and water animals can be treyfah (unclean). Animals which have a ‘true hoof (one with a cleft) and chew the cud are permissible food. This is why neither the pig nor the hare can be eaten. Although the pig has a cleft in its hoof it does not chew the cud. The hare chews the cud (supposedly) but has no hoofs, so one can see that both criteria must be met.

Even permissible meats like sheep or ox can be treyfah, because there are strict laws surrounding the slaughtering of animals. If the animal is killed in accordance with the regulations then the meat can be said to be kosher. Slaughter is the responsibility of the shochet who is trained in the law. He must kill the animal with a very sharp knife that will sever the throat of the animal to kill immediately. Even after the slaughter the shochet must inspect the animal’s carcass for any disease or discoloration that would make the animal unclean for consumption.

A further restrictdion is that meat may not be eaten with any dairy products. Jews may not even have butter on their bread if they are eating meat. They must allow a few hours to elapse before drinking a glass of milk after consuming meat. In a kosher home there will be two sets of utensils: one for meat and one for dairy products. Some houses may even keep a neutral set of utensils for things like fruit and vegetables. The Passover meal also requires its own two sets of dishes. At this meal there must be dishes for meat and then for dairy products, both of which must be undefiled by leavened produce.

Community Life / Rites of Passage

The synagogue congregation

The traditional leader in each Jewish community is the Rabbi. The word literally means ‘my master,’ but it also connotes the meaning of teacher. He (or she in Reform Judaism) is essentially the spiritual leader of the community, and may often follow Torah more closely than his congregation. Historically a Rabbi would be any man with a skill like carpentry or blacksmith. He would be consulted, not because of his skills, but because of his knowledge of Torah. However, during the 12th to 14th centuries, a combination of pogroms against the Jews, the Black Death and the crusades resulted in a dramatic population decrease. A repercussion of these events was that Rabbis were offered salaries in order to build up their communities – a practice which is now the norm.

The synagogue is the physical centre of the Jewish community. As the Rabbi leads the people in worship. A central part of worship is the sidra (a weekly portion of the Torah). The Rabbi’s duties also include the conduct of weddings and funerals.

The Rabbi has a number of assistants: firstly the chazan, who chants the Hebrew of either the prayers or portions of the Torah. Normally his services will be reserved for Shabbat and festivals only. Next, on the more practical side of synagogue life, is the gabbai, who is the synagogue warden. Historically he would collect charity offerings, however nowadays his jobs include choosing people to read from the Torah (a great honour), or asking people to take the scrolls in and out of the Ark.

At the end of the day it is the worshippers who matter. A service can proceed without the presence of the rabbi or the chazan, but it cannot begin until there are ten members of the congregation (a minyan) present (in the case of Orthodox Judaism these must be men). Thus the principle is enshrined that it is the ‘ordinary’ worshippers who are at the heart of the community’s religious service.

Birth, circumcision, and redemption of the first born

When a Jewish boy is eight days old he is circumcised as the physical sign of God’s covenant. The act of circumcision may be carried out in either a hospital, a home or a synagogue. The mohel (circumciser) need not be a doctor, though he will have been trained to undertake this single procedure. The person who has the honour of holding the child being circumcised is called the sandek. Before the circumcision takes place the mohel places the child for a moment on Elijah’s chair – so called because of an ancient belief that Elijah the prophet is always present at circumcisions. The act also symbolises the boy being part of God’s plan. The act is finalised with a blessing from the father to his son and then a blessing from the mohel at which point the boy is given his name. Jewish girls are not completely excluded from this rite as they are given their name in the synagogue the first Shabbat following their birth.

Bar and Bat Mitvah

The transition to adulthood is marked at puberty. Although the child has been initiated into God’s plan at their birth they are now mature enough to understand God’s commandments, and thus can now observe the commandments. The title of the celebration literally means ‘son and daughter of the commandment.’

Boys celebrate their bar mitzvah when they are thirteen years old. They receive tephillin (small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah which are worn by male observant Jews during weekday morning prayers), and Jewish books, and will be called to read from the Torah on the Shabbat following their birthday. Children begin to learn to read Hebrew when they enter primary school, though this does not always mean that they will be able to translate the Hebrew. The service for a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah can last up to two hours with the teenager being called on several times to read from the Torah. The boy’s father will recite the baruch shepatrani (a thanksgiving to God for the boy’s maturity) after the boy has read.

Sometimes an alternative celebration is offered for females which relates more to the role of the woman in Jewish culture. For example, a girl may undertake a project on a woman’s issue. If this sort of procedure is followed it is called bat chayil or deed of excellence. The bat mitzvah service is more common in Reform Judaism when almost identical procedures will be followed. However if a bat mitzvah ceremony is not celebrated in the synagogue then the father may recite the baruch shepatrani at a special meal for his daughter.

Whether it is a boy or a girl who is being initiated into God’s plan the emphasis is on responsibility. The concept of becoming a responsible adult in Judaism is therefore synonymous with accepting responsibility for the Torah. This act of maturity will encompass studying the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat and the meanings and times of the festivals.

Weddings cannot take place on Shabbat or festival days, or during a woman’s menstrual period. At this time a woman is in a state of nidah (ritual impurity) and will remain so until she visits the mikveh, the ritual bath. Nowadays women use the mikveh to prepare themselves for their weddings and the mikveh attendant will also offer spiritual guidance to a prospective bride. In Reform Judaism the couple are blessed on the Shabbat preceding their wedding.

The marriage ceremony is rich with symbolism. The wedding party are shielded by a chupah (canopy) which symbolises harmony, and also points towards security. The ceremony is a culmination of symbols and blessings and legal bonds. The first of these is the birchat eirusin, the initial blessings. Their purpose is to praise God for the sanctification of the people of Israel through the communion of marriage. The bride and groom, who have been fasting, now drink wine from a cup as a sign of this new union. The ketubah is a declaration of the husband’s right intentions in providing for his wife.

The giving of the ring is synchronised with a blessing which echoes the birchat eirusin: ‘With this ring you are sanctified to me according to the law of Moses and Israel.’ The ceremony closes with the birchat nisuin. These seven blessings are of a more general nature. The rabbi praises God for the human race and more specifically for the individual happiness of the couple. Before departing the groom breaks a glass under his foot. The noise of breaking symbolises the destruction of the temple in a last poignant note. Sustaining the memory of this time is a sign of a wish to keep the temple commandments.

The couple then retire into a side room alone. This act of being private is termed yichud. It is a time of private togetherness when the couple snatch some moments alone together. They need this special time alone because in traditional communities the wedding festival usually lasts a week. During this period they will spend time visiting friends and relatives. The meals which they share with them will end with the birchat nisuin. The period of the festival is called the seven blessings, Sheva Brachot.

Though divorce is still a reality in Jewish culture, a civil divorce is regarded as invalid. Historically a man could divorce a woman but a woman could not divorce a man. However, these legal traditions have been significantly reinterpreted. The procedure nowadays for a Jewish divorce is different. A scribe will produce a get which is a document of divorce. This would have been the property of the woman at one time but now it remains the property of the bet din. The couple must apply to a bet din to have a hearing at a suitable time. The scribe must write the get in the presence of the dayanim (judges). As soon as the woman receives the get the divorce takes effect.

Whenever possible a few loved ones will attend a dying person in their last few moments to allow both for a confession, and for recitation of the shema. They shut the eyes of the dead person, and they also tear their clothes as a symbol of grief. One who mourns the dead from the time of death to the burial is called an onan; he or she has special responsibility for making the funeral arrangements, and is specifically exempt from other Torah obligations. After the funeral the mourners are called avelim which means they are now undergoing prolonged mourning. A piece of symbolic food is normally eaten by the mourners: a hard boiled egg, whose closed surface is symbolic of the mourners being unable to translate their grief into words.

It is customary in Judaism to bury a body as quickly as possible; Jewish law forbids cremation, and the body cannot be left alone at any time before the burial. To prepare the body for burial it is taken to the mikveh for a full immersion. Then the corpse is covered in a linen shroud; men will also be buried with their tallit (prayer shawl). Male attendants always wash male bodies and females female bodies. At the funeral psalms will be read and a special prayer for both the life and the departure of the deceased. Sometimes a brief account of the departed will be given by the Rabbi.

For seven days following the funeral the avelim gather in one house; this is the period of shiva (literally ‘seven’). These mourners do not leave the house; often people will bring in food as a means of practical support. Visits from friends occur three times a day and are a time for the mourners to pray together. For the following month (shloshim) male mourners will attend the synagogue every day to recite kaddish. Although this prayer is now clearly associated with mourning, it is not a prayer for the dead: it originated as an Aramaic doxology praising God and praying for peace. In the house of shiva a candle is kept burning day and night as a reminder. The number of visits and the intensity of togetherness in the first week following the death ensure that the mourners receive the initial support which is a necessary part of grieving. For the first eleven months of the year after death male mourners continue to say kaddish everyday, and on the anniversary of the death (yahrzeit) a candle is kept burning throughout the night and the kaddish is said again.

Further reading

Birnbaum, Philip. Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1979.
De Lange, Nicholas. Judaism. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
De Lange, Nicholas, and Miri Freud-Kandel, eds. Modern Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Hunter, Alastair G. “Judaism.” Pages 116-77 in Major World Religions: From their Origins to the Present. Edited by Lloyd Ridgeon. London: Routledge, 2003.
Neusner, Jacob. Judaism in Modern Times: An Introduction and Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Solomon, Norman. Judaism: A Very Short Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.