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An Overview of Judaism
In this introduction to Judaism there are sections on:
• Early History
• Sacred Texts
Note: The term "G-d" is used in this essay to respect the
Jewish prohibition against spelling the name of G-d in full.
Early History of Judaism
Circa 2000 BCE, the G-d of the ancient Israelites established a divine
covenant with Abraham, making him the patriarch of many nations. From
his name, the term Abramic Religions is derived; these are the three
religions which trace their roots back to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity
and Islam. The book of Genesis describes the events surrounding the
lives of the four patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Moses
was the next leader. He led his people out of captivity in Egypt,
and received the Law from G-d. After decades of wandering through
wilderness, Joshua led the tribes into the promised land, driving
out the Canaanites through a series of military battles.
The original tribal organization was converted into a Kingdom by Samuel;
its first king was Saul. The second king, David, established Jerusalem
as the religious and political center. The third king, Solomon built
the first temple there.
Division into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom
of Judah occurred shortly after the death of Solomon in 922 BCE. Israel
fell to Assyria in 722 BCE; Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
The temple was destroyed. Some Jews returned from captivity under
the Babylonians and started to restore the temple in 536 BCE. Alexander
the Great invaded the area in 332 BCE. From circa 300 to 63 BCE, Greek
became the language of commerce, and Greek culture had a major influence
on Judaism. In 63 BCE, the Roman Empire took control of Palestine.
Three religious sects had formed by the 1st century AD: the Sadducees,
Pharisees and Essenes. Many anticipated the arrival of a Messiah who
would drive the Roman invaders out and restore independence. Christianity
was established initially as a Jewish sect, centered in Jerusalem.
Paul broke with this tradition and spread the religion to the Gentiles
(non-Jews). Many mini-revolts led to the destruction of Jerusalem
and its temple in 70 CE. The Jewish Christians were wiped out or scattered
at this time. The movement started by Paul flourished and quickly
evolved into a separate religion. Jews were scattered throughout the
known world. Their religion was no longer centered in Jerusalem; Jews
were prohibited from setting foot there. Judaism became decentralized
and stopped seeking converts. The local synagogue became the new center
of Jewish life, and authority shifted from the centralized priesthood
to local scholars and teachers, giving rise to Rabbinic Judaism.
The period from the destruction of the temple onward give rise to
heavy persecution by Christians throughout Europe and Russia. The
latter held the Jews continuously responsible for the execution of
Jesus. In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party
drew on centuries of anti-Semitism (and upon their own psychotic beliefs
in racial purity) when they organized the Holocaust, the attempted
extermination of all Jews in Europe. About 6 million were killed in
one of the world's greatest examples of religious and racial intolerance.
A Zionist movement was a response to persecution. Their initial goal
was create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The state of Israel was
formed on 1948-MAY-18. There are currently about 18 million Jews throughout
the world; about 7 million live in North America.
The Tanakh corresponds to the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) in
the Christian bible. It is composed of three groups of books:
• * the Torah Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
• * the Nevi'im, the Prophetic books of Isaiah, Amos, etc.
• * the Ketuvim, the "Writings" including Kings, Chronicles,
The Talmud contains stories, laws, medical knowledge, debates about
moral choices, etc. It is composed of material which mainly comes
from two sources:
• the Mishnah, 6 chapters containing a series of laws from the
Hebrew Scriptures, arranged about 200 CE.
• the Gemera (one Babylonian and one Palestinian) which is an
assembly of comments from hundreds of Rabbis from 200 - 500 CE, along
with a passage from the Mishnah.
• G-d is the creator and absolute ruler of the universe
• Jewish belief is unlike the Christian concept of original
sin (the belief that all people have inherited Adam and Eve's sin
when they disobeyed G-d's instructions in the Garden of Eden). Judaism
affirms the inherent goodness of the world and its people as creations
of G-d. Believers are able to sanctify their lives and draw closer
to G-d by fulfilling mitzvot (divine commandments). No saviour is
needed as an intermediary.
• The Jews are G-d's chosen people
• The Ten commandments, as delineated in Exodus 20:1-17 and
Deuterotomy 5:6-21, form the core of Jewish life
• The need to follow the many dietary and other laws of the
• Boys reach the status of Bar Mitzvah (literally son of the
commandment) on their 13th birthday; girls reach Bat Mitzvah (daughter
of the commandment) on their 12th birthday. This means that they are
recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the
Jewish commandments and laws; they are allowed to lead a religious
service; they are counted in a "minyan" (a quota necessary
to perform certain parts of religious services); they can sign contracts;
they can testify in religious courts; theoretically, they can marry,
although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the proper age for marriage.
• Observation of the Sabbath (day of rest), starting at sundown
on Friday evening.
• Strict religious discipline governs almost all areas of life
• Regular attendance at Synagogue
• Celebration of the annual festivals including:
The Passover, which is held each Spring to recall their deliverance
out of slavery in Egypt. A ritual Seder meal is eaten in each observing
Jewish home at this time. Some Passover dates are: 1998 - 11th April,
1999 - 1st April, 2000 - 20th April ,
The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
which are days of fasting and penitence. Some Rosh Hashanah dates
are 1998 - 21 September, 1999 - 11th September, 2000 - 30tth Spetember
• Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are commonly held to
recognize the coming-of-age of a Jewish youth. Shortly after their
birthday, (13th for a male; 12th for a female), they recite a blessing
during a Saturday Shabbat service. In most cases, they might handle
additional functions, like reading the assigned text from the Torah,
or leading the congregation in prayer. etc.. They often make a speech
which, by tradition, starts with "Today I am a man." The
youth's father often recites a blessing in appreciation for no longer
being burdened with the responsibility of his child's sins. Within
Orthodox and Chasidic practice, women are not allowed to take leadership
roles in religious services. For them, a Bat Mitzvah celebration is
basically a party.
• The local synagogue is governed by the congregation and led
by a rabbi who has been chosen by the congregation. The Chief Rabbis
in France and Great Britain have authority only by the agreement of
those who accept it. Two Chief Rabbis in Israel have civil authority
in areas of family law.
There are five main forms of Judaism in the world today:
• Conservative* Judaism: This began in the mid-nineteenth century
as a reaction against the Reform movement. It is a main-line movement
midway between Reform and Orthodox.
• Humanistic Judaism: This is a small group, mainly composed
of atheists and agnostics, who regard mankind as the measure of all
• Orthodox* Judaism: This the oldest and most conservative form
of Judaism. They attempt to observe their religion as close to its
original forms as possible. They look upon every word in their sacred
texts as being divinely inspired.
• Reconstructist Judaism: This is a new liberal movement started
by Mordecai Kaplan as an attempt to unify and revitalize the religion.
They reject the concept that Jews are a uniquely favored and chosen
people. They have no connection at all with Christian Reconstructionism,
which is an ultra-conservative form of Christianity.
• Reform* Judaism: They are a liberal group, who follow the
ethical laws of Judaism, but leave up to the individual the decision
whether to follow or ignore the dietary and other traditional laws.
They use modern forms of worship.
* These are the largest forms of Judaism
With thanks to the Religious Tolerance Organisation of Ontario for
the Information on this page
Holy Days in Judaism
1. 1st of Tishri, Rosh Hashanah; "Head of the Year",
The Jewish New Year, and the anniversary of the completion of creation.
2. 10th of Tishri ,Yom Kippur; "Day of Atonement", A day
of fasting and praying which occurs 10 days after the first day
of Rosh Hashanah. The holiest day in the year.
3. 15th of Tishri, Sukkot; "Season of our rejoicing; Feast
of Tabernacles", The Feast of Booths is an 8 day harvest festival;
a time of thanksgiving. This was considered the most important Jewish
festival in 1st cent.
4. 25th of Kislev, Hanukkah, Chanukah; "Feast of Dedication",
The Feast of Lights is an 8 day Feast of Dedication. It recalls
the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom.
5. 14th of Adar, Purim; "Feast of Lots", The Feast of
Lots recalls the defeat by Queen Esther of the plan to slaughter
all of the Persian Jews, circa 400 BCE.
6. 15th Nissan, Pesach; "Passover" , The 8 day festival
recalls the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt circa
1300 BCE. A holiday meal, the Seder, is held at home.
7. 6th of Sivan; 50 days after Pesach, Shavouth; "Festival
of Weeks", Pentacost (a.k.a. Feast of Weeks) recalls God's
revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people.
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