The Hebrew language, culturally considered the Jewish language, has flourished since before the 10th century B.C.E. In Hebrew, the word Torah means “teaching” or “law” and refers to Judaism’s founding legal and religious texts. The Torah calls the Jewish people “a nation”, referring to them as a group of people with a common history and a common destiny. That history and destiny is related to what is commonly called god, but the Jewish tradition does not allow one to speak or write the direct name of god, so it is written as G-d, and many other words are used instead.
Judaism as a spiritual and social community is focused on relationships: the relationship between G-d and man, the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, and the relationship between people with each other.
The Torah tells the stories of the development of relationships – from the time of creation to the development of the relationship between G-d and Abraham, to the creation of the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, and forward.
The scriptures also detail the mutual obligations created by these relationships, and the various sects of Judaism are formed by the disagreements about the nature of these obligations. The Orthodox say they are absolute, unchanging laws from G-d, the Conservative say they are laws from G-d that change and evolve over time, and the Reform and Reconstructionists say that they are guidelines that you can choose whether or not to follow.
The most deeply held Jewish principle is monotheism. G-d is all-knowing, all powerful, and interested in the history of humanity. Although beyond understanding by humans, G-d is full of compassion and mercy, yet maintains a strict code of ethics and behavior. Therein lies the Jewish model for daily life and moral conduct.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135 – 1204 C.E), also known as Maimonides, created the Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he presented as the minimum requirements of Jewish belief. These principles are widely accepted among all the sects as a summary of the basic beliefs of Judaism.
13 Principles of Faith:
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
- I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
- I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
- I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
- I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
- I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, “Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions” (Psalms 33:15).
- I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
- I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.
- I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.
The Patriarchs and the Origins of Judaism
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, known as the Patriarchs, are considered the genetic and spiritual ancestors of Judaism. They founded the religion known today as Judaism, and their descendants are the Jewish people.
According to tradition, Abraham was born Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia. The son of an idol merchant, he questioned the faith of his father and came to believe in one god. Eventually, the one god that Abram had worshipped spoke to him and offered that if Abram would leave his home and his family, then G-d would make him the father of a great nation and bless him. Abram accepted this offer, and the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people was established.
Abram adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling through what is now the land of Israel for many years. G-d promised this land to Abram’s descendants. Eventually Abram became concerned because he had no children and was growing old. Abram’s wife Sarai was past child-bearing, so following a common practice of the time, she offered her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife to Abram. Hagar bore Abram a son, Ishmael. But because of Abraham and Sarai’s faithfulness, when Sarai was well past child bearing age, G-d promised Abram a son by Sarai. At this time, G-d changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“Father of Many), and Sarai’s to Sarah. Soon after, Sarah bore Abraham a son and they named him Isaac.
Isaac and Ishmael
In a test of both Isaac and Abraham, G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. According to Jewish tradition, Isaac knew that he was to be sacrificed, yet he did not resist, and was united with his father in his dedication to G-d. At the last moment, G-d sent an angel to stop the sacrifice and Isaac later married Rebecca, who bore him fraternal twin sons: Jacob and Esau.
To avoid or end conflict between Sarai and Hagar, Hagar and Ishmael were sent off into a desert region, where G-d protected and defended them. (According to Islamic tradition, the descendants of Ishamel became the tribes and peoples that came later to be followers of Mohammed, that is, Muslims. Modern genetic testing and linguistics tend to bear this out, helping us to understand that all the descendants of Abraham–Jews, Muslims, and Christians–are, as it were, cousins!)
The scriptures tell how Jacob and his brother Esau were at war with each other even before they were born, struggling within Rebecca’s womb. Esau was a good hunter and Isaac’s favorite, but Jacob was more spiritually minded and Rebecca’s favorite. When Isaac was growing old, Rebecca tricked him into giving Jacob a blessing meant for Esau. Escaping Esau’s anger over this, Jacob fled to live with his uncle, where he met his future wife, Rachel. Jacob was deceived into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, but later married Rachel as well, and Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilphah. Between these four women, Jacob fathered 12 sons and one daughter.
Jacob returned to his homeland after many years and sought reconciliation with his brother Esau. The night before he went to meet his brother, he sent his family across the river so that he could be alone with G-d. That night, he wrestled with a man until the sun came up. As the dawn broke, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man, and the “man” revealed himself as an angel. He blessed Jacob and gave him the name “Israel”, meaning “the one who wrestled with G-d”. The Jewish people are often referred to as the “Children of Israel”, signifying their descent from Jacob. The next day, Jacob met Esau and was welcomed by him.
Children of Israel
Jacob fathered 12 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. They are the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, and the ones after whom the tribes are named. Joseph is the father of two tribes: Manasseh and Ephraim.
The Torah tells of how the descendants of Israel became slaves in Egypt, but G-d brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses, following a night of “Passover” when G-d spared the Hebrews from destruction, as the Angel of G-d “passed over” them while death came to many around them; Passover is celebrated to this day as a holy remembrance of the way that G-d protected and freed the people.
G-d then led them out of Egypt on a journey through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. Here, G-d revealed Himself to the Children of Israel and offered them a covenant: if they would follow only G-d and observe His covenant, then they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Through Moses, G-d revealed both the written and oral Torah.
Oral and Written Texts
In addition to the Torah, or written scriptures, there is also an “Oral Torah,” called the Talmud. The Talmud is a tradition explaining what the written scriptures mean, how to interpret them ,and how to apply the Laws from the Torah. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. The oral tradition was maintained until about the second century C.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah. Additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down later and became known as the Gemara. The Talmud is the Gemara and the Mishnah together and was completed in the 5th century C.E. Noted Jewish scholars continue to add commentaries on the Talmud to this day.
The written religious references also include the midrashim and the responsa. The midrashim are stories expanding on the Torah to explain principles or to teach moral lessons. There is also a vast collection of responsa, answers to specific questions of Jewish law. Beginning in the middle ages and continuing through today, when local rabbis were faced with difficult questions of Jewish law, they write to the most respected rabbis to get answers. The renowned rabbi provides an argument in favor of his answer citing specific scriptures. Over time, these responsa were collected into printed volumes to be referenced.
Mysticism and mystical experiences are embedded in Jewish tradition and scriptures. The Torah includes visits by angels, prophetic dreams and visions. It is Jewish tradition that the souls of all Jews ever to be born were present and agreed to the Covenant with Moses. The Talmud tells of famous rabbis who pronounced a name of G-d and ascended into heaven to consult with G-d and the angels about important issues. The mystical school of thought in Judaism is known as Kabbalah, meaning “tradition.” The primary written work in the Kabbalistic tradition is the Zohar, which appeared in the middle ages.
Traditionally, rabbis discouraged teaching this material to anyone under the age of 40, because it is likely to be misinterpreted by anyone without sufficient background in the basic teachings. There are a number of stories that discourage the pursuit of this mystical knowledge as dangerous and irresponsible, and this type of knowledge was traditionally thought to be far too dangerous to be distributed to the average Jew or rabbi.
Like much of Jewish belief, the area of mysticism is open to personal interpretation. Some traditional Jewish sects take mysticism very seriously and passages from kabbalistic sources are included in their traditional prayer books. At the same time, other traditional Jews take are more sceptical of mysticism.
Prayers and Blessings
Judaism stresses that prayer, tefilah, is an integral part of everyday life. There are specific prayers and blessings to be recited before enjoying a meal, before washing hands, upon seeing a rainbow, or lighting a candle; specific prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to recite before going to bed at night and upon waking in the morning. These prayers are meant to increase awareness of G-d and the role that G-d plays in everyday life.
A berakhah or blessing is a special kind of prayer. Berakhot are recited both as part of the synagogue services and as a response or prerequisite to a wide variety of daily occurrences and activities. In a berakhah, the person saying the blessing is speaking to G-d, describing G-d as the source of all blessings, and expressing wonder at how blessed G-d is.
A synagogue is a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogues usually have a large hall for prayer, smaller rooms for study and sometimes a social hall and offices. Some have a separate room for Torah study. Synagogues are not consecrated spaces, nor is a synagogue necessary for worship.
All synagogues contain a Torah ark which is a cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept. The ark in a synagogue is usually positioned to face towards Jerusalem. The ark is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue and the ark is often closed with an curtain which hangs outside or inside the ark doors. Orthodox synagogues have a partition dividing the men’s and women’s seating areas, or a separate women’s section on a balcony.
A rabbi is not a priest, nor does he have any more authority to perform rituals than any other adult male member of the Jewish community. A rabbi is a teacher, a person educated in Jewish law and tradition to instruct the community. When he has completed the necessary course of study, he is given a written document which confirms his authority to resolve disputes regarding the law within the community. Any Jew sufficiently educated to know what he is doing can lead a religious service, and a service led by such a Jew is every bit as valid as a service led by a rabbi. It is not unusual for a community to be without a rabbi, or for Jewish services to be conducted without a rabbi, or for members of the community to lead all or part of religious services even with a rabbi.
A chazzan, or cantor, is the person who leads a Jewish congregation in prayer. Any person known to have good moral character and knowledge of the prayers and melodies can lead the prayer services. In smaller congregations, the rabbi often serves as both rabbi and chazzan while large congregations usually hire a professional chazzan, a person with both musical skills and training as a religious leader. These professional chazzans are ordained. One of their most important duties is teaching young people to lead a Shabbat service and to chant the Torah reading.
Along with basic principles are some basic observances. Two are the eating of kosher food and the keeping of the Sabbath. The regulations for kosher food forbid the mixing of meat and dairy products. Only certain meats are allowed, and they are allowed only after the animal had been slaughtered according to specific guidelines. (Not all Jewish people keep a kosher diet.)
Jews set aside the time from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as a time of spiritual reflection and as a symbol for God’s day of rest after creation. This day is hallowed by prayer and the ritual Sabbath dinner. It is a time of quiet and togetherness. Work is prohibited on the Sabbath, although this law is interpreted differently.
Blessing over the fruit: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who creates the fruit of the tree.”
“If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.” The Talmud
“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow! Grow!” -The Talmud
“The Divine Presence is everywhere.”-Hoshaia Rabba. Talmud: Baba Bathra
“A man must always be exceedingly careful to show honor to his wife.”-Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia, 59a
“Anger deprives a sage of his wisdom, a prophet of his vision.”-Rabbi Simeon b. Lakish, Talmud: Pesahim, 66b
“As long as there is life, there is hope.”-Johanan. Talmud J: Berakot, 9.1
“Man’s advocates are repentance and good deeds.”-Talmud: Sabbath, 32a
“Surely there must be a king who rules over the orbs of heaven and orders them!”-Zohar, Genesis, 86a
“There is no true justice unless mercy is part of it.”-The Zohar
“One who says, “Let good people [and only good people] bless You,” is considered to have spoken heresy.”-Mishna Megillah 4:9
“The righteous shall bloom as a date palm tree and shall flourish as a cedar of Lebanon.”
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. “-Leviticus 19:17-18
Sabbath – The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to cease”, coming from the Biblical account of the seventh day of creation where G-d rested (Genesis 2:2-3). Observation of Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and regarded as a “perpetual covenant for the people of Israel” (Exodus 31:13-17). Shabbat is a weekly day of rest, observed from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Two Shabbat candles are lit and a blessing is recited by the woman of the household, officially marking the beginning of Shabbat. The Sabbath is a time for family, fellowship, and Torah study.
High Holy Days, the three most important and therefor most observed holidays:
Rosh Hashanah – Although named Rosh Hashanah, meaning “head of the year”, this holy day is taken from Leviticus 23:24-25 and is called Yom Ha-Zikkaron, meaning “the day of remembrance”. It is a time of introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year.
Days of Awe – Ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe or also called the Days of Repentance. Again, this is a time of introspection, to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. There is a belief that G-d writes down the names of who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, during the coming year. Although they are written on Rosh Hashanah, the actions taken during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s initial decision. The actions that change this decree are repentance, prayer, and good deeds such as charity. The books are sealed on Yom Kippur. The custom for this time is to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year. According to the Talmud , atonement on Yom Kippur is only for sins between man and G-d, in order to atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.
Yom Kippur – During Yom Kippur, prayer and fasting turn the attention completely to a focus on atonement and reconciliation with G-d. It is a 25 hour complete fast (no food or drink, including water) that begins at sunset the evening before and ends after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. It is also a custom to wear white to symbolize purity.
Chanukah – The Festival of Lights is celebrated in December to commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the defeat of the Seleucid Empire by the Maccabees in 165 B.C.E. According to the Talmud, at the time of the Temple rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the candelabrum in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. During Chanukah, nine candles are arranged in a menorah (a candelabrum): one for each night, plus an extra candle to use for lighting. The only traditional gift of the holiday is “gelt,” small amounts of money. Playing dreidel is another tradition of the holiday. Dreidel is a gambling game played with a square top for small items such as pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. It is said that during the time of the Greek oppression, those who wanted to study the Torah would conceal it by playing gambling games with a top whenever an official was near. While gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians gifts are now included as a way of dealing with Jewish children’s jealousy of their Christian friends’ Christmas presents.
Passover – Passover commemorates the liberation and exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. During the week of Passover (or Pesach), Jews do not eat leavened food in commemoration of the fact that the Jews left Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have enough time to rise. The name Pesach comes from the Hebrew phrase meaning “to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare.” It refers to the fact that G-d passed over the houses of the Jews when he slayed the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exodus, Chapters 1-15).
Purim – Purim commemorates the events that took place in the Book of Esther. It is celebrated by reading the story of Esther, the giving of gifts of food and drink and charity, and by celebrating with eating and drinking. The Talmud commands that a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” In some homes and communities, children dress up and act out the story of Esther for the adults.
This article first appeared on the website of The Fellowship of Comparative Religion, TowardCommonGround.org