The basis of Judaism is ethical monotheism. There is one God, and He requires us to act ethically in all of our endeavors. The underpinnings of Judaism come from the Torah, the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In addition, Jewish rules of conduct describing how a Jew should treat other persons with kindness, respect, and fairness—is based on the other books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud and additional interpretations of the written law. The belief in only one God is captured in the watchwords of Judaism: “Hear, 0 Israel; the Lord is God; the Lord is One.”
Perhaps the most common and recognizable symbol of Judaism is the six-pointed “Star of David,” or “Shield of David,” (Magen David in Hebrew). The origins of the Star of David are unclear, but there are references to it in Jewish contexts as early as the Third Century, CE.
Judaism began about 4000 years ago when God called upon Abraham to leave his native land and people, and to travel to a land that God would show to him. God informed Abraham that God would make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Abraham is considered to be the father of the Jewish faith because he promoted its central idea that there is only one God. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had a son, Isaac. Isaac’s son, Jacob, fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. The descendants of Jacob went to Egypt, where they were enslaved. Moses, a Hebrew, was chosen by God to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, toward the Promised Land. At Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses the Torah. Many years later, the Jews arrived at the Promised Land. Over time, they were conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. The Jews were enslaved by the Babylonians. They were then taken over by the Romans who destroyed much of what had been built in Jerusalem by the Jews, including the Second Temple. Most of the Jews were exiled and eventually moved from place to place to avoid persecution. Beginning in the 1880’s, Jews in large numbers began returning to what is now the modern State of Israel, to reclaim their Biblical and historic home, and to avoid further persecution. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Nazi Germany murdered more than six million Jews in the Holocaust. After World War II, many people believed that for Jews to survive, they needed to live in their own country where all Jews would have the right to live and be citizens. In 1948, Palestine was divided and a Jewish State of Israel was formed. Israel has become an international leader in commerce, as well as in research and development of medical, technical, and agricultural products. Israel is a beacon of civil and human rights in the region, and is the United States’ staunchest ally in Middle East.
Customs and People
Jewish customs and commandments include: circumcision of males at the age of eight days; educating children in Hebrew schools, Sunday schools, and Jewish day schools; and an emphasis on post-high school education. Wedding traditions include the Chuppah, a canopy attached to the tops of four poles, under which the bride and groom stand during the ceremony; the breaking of a glass at the end of the wedding; and celebrating at a festive reception. Many Jews cover their heads with a skull-cap called a kippah or yarmulke, while in synagogue and at other times. Food preparation and consumption are governed by the rules of Kashrut, which prohibit the eating of pork and shellfish and the mixing of meat and dairy products. Kashrut also includes strict rules regarding the preparation and eating of food on the Sabbath and some holidays, especially Passover.
Each synagogue has its own governing structure. Most synagogues have a full- or part-time rabbi, who conducts life-cycle ceremonies and also serves as a spiritual leader, counselor, administrator, teacher, and interpreter of Jewish law. The rabbi is generally the face of the synagogue to the rest of the Jewish community, as well as to the non-Jewish community. The congregation is governed by a board of trustees, members of which are elected by the congregation.
Shabbat (Sabbath) is observed every week, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Jews traditionally do not work on Shabbat. Friday evenings and Saturdays are marked by worshiping at synagogue, festive meals, Torah study, and rest. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and is celebrated in the fall. Traditions include eating apples dipped in honey and blowing the shofar (ram’s horn). Most Jews attend synagogue on these days and the preceding evening. Rosh Hashanah begins the ten days of repentance that culminate on Yom Kippur, which is considered by Jews to be the holiest and most solemn day of the year. Fasting begins at sundown and ends after nightfall the following day. Most Jews attend synagogue on Yom Kippur and the preceding evening. Passover is celebrated in the spring, and commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. A feast called a Seder is held on the first two nights and sometimes on the final two nights of the eight-day holiday. No leavened food (e.g., bread or cake) is eaten during Passover. Matzah (unleavened bread) is consumed, instead.
Jewish worship services occur in a synagogue, or temple, shul, or beit tefilah (house of prayer). The primary component of the synagogue is the Aron Kodesh, or “Holy Ark,” where the Torah scrolls are housed. The Torah scrolls are considered to be the holiest objects in Judaism. Also predominantly located in the synagogue is the bimah, the raised platform from which the rabbi or cantor leads services. Orthodox synagogues have separate seating for men and women, with a structure called a mechitza dividing the men’s and women’s sections. In some Orthodox synagogues, women sit in an upstairs balcony, while the men sit downstairs, near the bimah. Services are conducted in both Hebrew and English or other local language. A typical service mixes prayer, Torah reading, music, and a sermon by the rabbi. Services are held on Friday evenings, Saturday mornings, and Holidays.