No one likes a know-it-all. Most of us realize there’s no such thing – how could there be? The world is far too complicated for someone to understand everything there is to know. So when you come across to know-it-all, you smile to yourself as they ramble on because you know better.
You understand that the quest for knowledge is a never-ending one, and you’re okay with that. You have no desire to know everything, just the next thing. You know what you don’t know, you’re confident enough to admit it, and you’re motivated to do something about it.
At Idiot’s Guides, we, too, know what we don’t know, and we make it our business to find out. We find really smart people who are experts in their fields and then we roll up our sleeves and get to work, to pass along their knowledge to you in the easiest, most-accessible way possible.
After all, that’s our promise – to make whatever you want to learn “As Easy As It Gets.” That means giving you a well-organized design that seamlessly and effortlessly guides you from page to page, topic to topi. It meas controlling the pace you’re asked to absorb new information – not too much at once but just what you need to know right now. It means giving you more instructional steps wherever necessary to really explain the details. And it meas giving you fewer words and more illustrations wherever it’s better to show rathern than tell.
So here you are, at the start of something new. The next chapter in your quest. It can be an intimidating palce to be, but you’ve been here before and so have we. Clear your maind and turn the page. By the end of this book, you won’t be a know-it-all, but your world will be a little less complicated than it was before. And we’ll be sure your journey is easy as it gets.
Publisher, Idiot’s Guides
Part 1: Three Defining Moments
Chapter 1. The Call to Abraham: God in Judaism
Judaism began in a world full of gods. Judaism was the first religion to accept monotheism – the idea that there is one God in heaven and earth.
As described in the Bible, Abraham and Sarah were the first people to realize the truth about God.
Judaism sees God as all-powerful, all-knowing, unique, bodiless, indivisible, and existing everywhere in the universe.
God creates our world, reveals how we should live, and redeems us from physical and spiritual bondage.
Chapter 2. Making the Covenent at Sinai: Torah and Mitzvot
The Israelites accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, creating a Covenant with God Jews follow to this day.
Jews do mitzvot, and in return God commits to taking care of the Jews. Mitzvot is the pulral of mitzvah which is a commandment given to Jews by God. Sometimes Jews use the word “mitzvah” to refer to any good deed.
“Do one mitzvah leads to doing another mitzvah.” – Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 4:2
Together, the mitzvot are called the halachah, which means “the way” or “the path.” Halachah is the general term to describe the obligations of a Jew, and how each of us behaves to fulfill the Covenant with God.
The rabbis and sages didn’t always agree with each other about what was halachah, or what each mitzvah required. They discussed and debated their opinions in communities around the world at different times, somewhat like an academic debate today. They adopted some rules to determine what was the correct understanding of the sacred text. Certainly, those rabbis and sages who proposed the more logical and elegant positions were considered more authoritative. The rabbis and sages who gained a higher position in the Rabbinic Court or who headed a more respected school were given higher regard. The rabbis and sages who lived in the earlier time periods generally were considered more convincing because they lived closer to Sinai. The majority opinion on a mitzvah usaully outweighted a minority opinion.
Many of the disagreements among the rabbis and sages were preserved in the texts. This showed respect for a differing opinion and teacher even if that opinion was outvoted. The system also recognized it might turn out that the majority was wrong on the issue, or the circumstances of Jewish life might change. They therefore deemed preserving the minority opinions very important.
There are not just 10 commandments, but 613, ranging from great ethical requirements to the smallest minutia of living. A positive mitzvah is a commandment by which you must do a required action. There are 248 positive mitzvot, representing one for each bone of the human body as believed at the time they were counted. A negative mitzvah is a commandment by which you must refrain from doing an action. There are 365 negative mitzvot, one for each of the days of the year.
Traditionally, women are not required to follow positive, time-bound commandments.
It is especially worthy to do a mitzvah in a beautiful way to increase God’s glory.
The Ten Commandments, as contained in Exodus, are:
- I am Adonai your god who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods except for Me.
- You shall note make for yourself a sculpted image of Me or anything else that is in the heavens above or under the earth, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow to them or worship them, because I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God, placing the guilt of parents on the children, the granchildren, and the great-grandchildren of those who reject Me. However, I will act kindly to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep My commandments.
- You shall not swear falsely by the name of Adonai your God, because Adonai will not absolve anyone who swears falsely by God’s name.
- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. You shall work six days and you shall do all your tasks during them, but the seventh days is a Sabbath for Adonai your God. You shall not do any work – you, your sones and daughters, your males or female servants, your cattle or the strangers who are among you – because for six days Adonai made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day God rested, blessed the story the seventh day, and made it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother in order that you live for many days on the land that Adonai your God is giving to you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not swear falsely against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servants, oxen or donkeys, or anything else your neighbor has.
Chapter 3: The Temple Is Destroyed
Jews are not a race. There are Jews of every skin color. Jews are not an ethnicity. Different Jews hold many different cultural characteristics, from food to music to customs. Jews certainly are not a nationality, as they live in almost every nation in the world, and often identify strongly with the nation in which they live. We can’t even say Jews are just a group who subscribe to the religion of Judaism, because many Jews are not religious and not observant at all. In spite of all this, something holds the Jews together. Jews care about each other, and hold a special affinity for each other.
Every Jew is a valued and necessary member of the community, and all are required to stay together as a people. As the Talmud says, “Kol Yisrael averim zeh bazeh” – “All Jews are responsible for one another.” (Talmud Bavli, Shavout 39a).
It’s clear that part of being a Jew means connecting with and caring for other Jews.
Regardless of how the ideas of chosenness is defined, Jews generally do not understand it to mean that they are better more moral, or more intelligent than other people. This is an arrogance forbidden by the sacred texts. Jews learn from the prophet Micah, “What is it that God wants from you? Only to do justly, and love mercy, and walk hubly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, emphasis added) The Talmud warns Jews aways from arrogance, saying that “A name made great is a name destroyed.” (Talmud Bavli, Pirkei Avot 1:13)
Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah was offered to other nations, but they rejected it because they didn’t like some of the commandments contained in it. (Pisikta Rabbatai 21) Furthermore, the Torah was given outside of Israel and in an open, public wilderness to say that anyone who wants to, from any nation, can accept it as their own. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh 1)
Part 2: Understanding the Basics
Chapter 4: A Brief History of the Jewish People
Jewish history begins with the stories of the Torah and the Prophets, tracing events from the creation of the world through the establishment of the first Jewish nation in the Promised Land.
The Jewish nation in the Promised Land lasted for about 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jews then dispersed in a migration called the Diaspora.
The Diaspora was time of growth and study. It was also a time of living as a minority among other peoples, and sometimes suffering from anti-Semitic acts.
The Enlightenment ended much of the separation of Jews from other peoples, and radically changed the position of Jews in the world.
The Holocaust destroyed most of the Jewish community in Europe. This tragedy still greatly affects Jewish perspectives today.
Today, there are two large Jewish communities in Israel and North America, with the remaining Jews scattered throughout the world.
Chapter 5: People of the Book(s)
People of the Book(s)
The Jewish Bible is called the Tanach, an anagram for its three parts- i.e., Torah, Nivi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings)
Midrashim are interpretations of the text that tell legends, give some Jewish Law, and explain interpretations of the Tanach. The midrashic tradition began thousands of years ago, and continues today.
The Talmud is a large collection of Jewish Law that provides the traditional halachah. It was developed over centuries and contains the Mishnah, the Gemara, and several commentaries.
Commentaries are line-by-line notations about the Talmud or the Tanach, and provide further understanding of Jewish Law and Scripture.
Responsa are questions posed by rabbis to greater scholars on confusing points of the halachah. Codes are summaries of the halachah from all these sources organized into a readable and easier-to-use form.
The Books of the Torah:
- Genesis (Beresheet): Creation to the Israelites living in Egypt
- Exodus (Shemot): Slavery in Egypt and the Exodus; the Ten Commandments and other laws
- Leviticus (Vayikra): Temple sacrificial and ritual laws for the building and priest; purity laws
- Numbers (Bemidbar): Stories of the Israelites wandering in the desert; additional laws
- Deuteronomy (Devarim): Moses’ final address to the Israelites
The Books of the First Prophets:
- Joshua (Yehoshua): The entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land and conflic with Canaanites
- Judges (Shoftim): Conflicts with Canaanites as the Israelites are led by temporary leaders (Judges)
- First Samuel (Shmuel Aleph): Sotries of the prophet Samuel, King Saul, and the rise of King David
- Second Samuel (Shmuel Beit): The reign of King David
- First Kings (Melachim Aleph): The death of King David, the split into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and events to about 850 B.C.E.
- Second Kings (Melachim Beit): Events from about 850 B.C.E. to the destruction of the First Temple
The Books of Ketuvim (Writings):
- Psalms (Tehillim): Liturgial poems mostly attributed to King David and possibly used in Temple worship
- Proverbs (Mishlei): Wisdom sayings attributed to King Solomon
- Job (Iyyov): The story of a pious man whose faith is tested by God
- Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim): A peom attributed to King Solomon seen as a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people
- Ruth (Rut): The story of a woman who converted to Judaism and was David’s great-grandmother
- Lamentations (Eikah): Peoms of sorrow for the exile and the destruction of the First Temple
- Ecclesiastes (Kohelet): A philosophical book promoting wisdom and simple pleasures over vain pursuits
- Esther (Ester): The story of Esther saving the Jews of Persia; the basis of the holiday Purim
- Daniel (Daniel): The story of upper-class Jews exciled in Babylon
- Ezra (Ezra): The story of the return of Jews to Jerusalem under Cyrus the Great and the dedication of the Second Temple
- Nehemiah (Nechemyah): The continuation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Ezra
- Chronicles (Divrei HaYamim): A separate history of the Jewish people attributed to Ezra, sometimes separated into two books
An even larger body of Jewish discourse is the Talmud, which means “instructions.” The Talmud is a huge compilation of Oral Law, discussion and debate among rabbis, midrashim, and commentary that became the basis of Jewish practice for most of the past 2,000 years.
There are actually two versions of the Talmud. the Talmud Yirushalmi (Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) was written in the land of Israel and attained its final form in the middle of the fifth century C.E. At that time, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and Jews in Israel were persecuted, stopping further additions and development of the Talmud Yirushalmi. The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) was written in Babylonia and was completed in the sixth or seventh century C.E. The Talmud Bavli contains most of the material in the Talmud Yirushalmi and much more. It’s better organized and more elaborate, so when Jews say Talmud, they almost always mean the Talmud Bavli.
The Talmud Bavli is comprised of 63 major parts, each called a maseket or “Tractate.” The standard text is called the Vilna shas and was printed in Lithuania in the 1880s.
Chapter 6: One People, Many Views
The Re-constructionist Movement is the newest of the formal movements in Judaism. It traces its origin to an early twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher named Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. Rabbi Kaplan believed Judaism was more than just a religion, and was better described as a civilization. This civilization rested equally on three values – God, Torah, and the People of Israel. While Kaplan greatly influenced all the non-Orthodox movements, some people who followed Kaplan felt a new branch of Judaism was necessary to reflect his ideas, and the Re-constructionist Movement was born.
- Jews are not uniform. They have many differences in practice and belief, even as they see them selvees as one religion and one people.
- The largest cultural division between Jews is Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Ashkenazic Jews come from Russia and Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews come from Spain, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.
- There are several different movements in Judaism, ranging from the most traditional (Orthodox) to the most liberal (Reform). Other movements include Conservative and Reconstructionist. Some Jews don’t affiliate with any movement.
- Some Jews practice a Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah, which offer a spiritual path to knowing God and understanding the world.
Chapter 7: Ethics and Values in Jewish Life
Judaism is far more than theology and practices. Judaism requires Jews to live in an ethical and moral manner as outlined by the Tanach and Jewish sages through the centuries.
“If you learn and do not act, it would be better if you had not been born.” – Leviticus Rabbah 35:7.
“Humans may subdue the world, but they also must replenish it.” – Genesis 1:28
A Jew must not do a mitzvot if doing it would imperil a life, including his or her own. The only exceptions to this where a Jew must follow the mitzhac, even ar the risk of his or her own life, are murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.
A section of the Talmud speculates about the questions God will ask a person about his or her life after death. The first question is somewhat surprising. God asks, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 31a)
Honesty in business in an important ethic in Judaism. Judaism doesn’t place a greater value either in being poor or being wealthy. Instead, Judaism focuses on how a person bahaves, and how a person attains his or her possessions. A Jew can’t sustain himself, or acquire wealth, by unfair or immoral means.
The injunction for honesty in business applies to how business owners treat their customers. The Torah requires them to use fair and accurate weights and measures. A Jew is strctly and explicitly forbiddent to “skim off the top” or otherwise fail to give customers exacty waht they purchased. Such conduct is beyond immoral – it is abhorrent to God. (Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13-16) The prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind applies to a business owner, because trickery or use of unfarily acquired information in effect makes the customer blind. Steaing is prohibited, as the Talmud attributes the destruction of humanity in the story of Noah to the sin of theft. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedin 108b)
Business owners also must treat their employees fairly and with respect. They must pay their employees’ wages on time, which in Biblical times meant daily. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) The Talmud ties this requirement to the mitzvah of pekuach nefesh, explaining that the worker places his life in the employer’s hands, trusting the employer to treat him fairly and honestly. It’s immoral for the employer to betray that trust. (Talmud Vavli, Baba Metzia 112a) Employers also must treat employees according to the prevailing standard of the community. The employer can’t gain an advantage by depriving employees of a benefit or practice customarily offered, such as meals or periods of rest. (Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 83a)
When people operate their business fairly and honestly, they not only make a living but they increase the peace in the world. A dishonest business destroys trust. Nearly one quarter of the Shulchan Aruch provides rules for the workplace and business, demonstrating how important Judaism considers honesty in business.
Traditionally, Jews give 10 percent of their income to the needy. This mitzvah is not called charity, but tzedakah, an act of righteousness or justice. Jewish thought acknowledges that God is the ruler of the Earth, and the earth and all its resources belong to God as its Creator. (Psalms 24:1) People are allowed to use and enjoy these resources as Gold told Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, one of the responsibilities that come with the privilege of the enjoyment of God’s Earth is the obligation to share and help other people who are also created b’tzelem Elohim.
The Torah places many of the orginal laws about aiding the needy in an agrarian context. A farmer must leave fallen crops – gleanings – for the poor to come and use. A farmer also must leave the corners of his field unharvested, allowing the needy to come and take what they need. The requirement that the corners providers for the poor allows them to easily find the sections designated for them when they’re able to colllect the food, preventing the farmer from hiding what he sets aside for them and then taking it for his own profit. The designation of the corners also prevents the needy from having to travel far into the farmer’s land oso they are seen and potentially embarrassed. The preservation of the dignity of the poor is an important aspect of the justice and righteousness of tzedakah. (Leviticus 19:9-11, Mishnah, Kedoshim 1:10)
Maimonides said there are eight level of giving tzedakah, in ascending order of merit:
- Giving grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret.
- Giving less than one should, but pleasantly.
- Giving what one should, but only on request.
- Giving before one is asked.
- Giving without knowing the recipient, although the recipient knows who you are.
- Giving without making known that you are the giver.
- Giving when neither you nor the recipient know each other’s identities.
- Helping someone to become self supporting through a gift, loan, or finding. employment.
Chapter 8: The Hard Road Home: Zionism and Israel
Principles of the State
Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed on May 14, 1948. It enunciated principles for Israel, including:
- The natural right of Jews to govern themselves and their fate, just like other nations
- The openness of Israel to any Jew who desires to immigrate
- Freedom, justice, and peace as described by the Prophets in the Tanach
- Complete equality of social and political rights for all inhabitants regardless of religion, race, or sex
- Freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture
- Safeguarding the holy sites of all religions
The declaration specifically extended citizenship to the Arab residents within its borders, urging them to help the Jews build a prosperous nation for everyone.
Part 3: A Year of Jewish Holy Days
Chapter 9: The Jewish Calendar – It’s Luni-Solar!
The Gregorian calendar is based on the revolution of Earth around the Sun, which takes 365.24 days. That fraction of a day would a a lot of problem if we didn’t add a lead day – February 29 – every four years. Every 400 years, we skip the leap day because the fraction is a little less than a full quarter of a day.
The Jewish calendar is “luni-solar,” meaning it’s based on both the moon and the sun.
The Jewish calendar is primarily based on the revolution of the Moon around Earth. This takes about 29.5 days, so a Jewish month may have either 29 or 30 days. There are 12 months in the standard Jewish year, which is a total of 354 days.
Here is the problem. Like the Gregorian calendar, the Jewish calendar has to keep its months in line with the seasons.If a full turn of the seasons takes about 365 days, as the Gregorian calendar measures, then the Jewish calendar will “lose” 11 days a year, and the seasons and calendar will quickly misalign unless something is done.
The Jewish calendar solves this problem by adding a “leap month” every two or three years. This is the exact same practice and reasoning as adding a leap day every four years – it’s just more days, and more often, so it makes a more noticeable difference.
The Gregorian calendar bases the years on the amount of time since Jesus’s birth. The Jewish sages looked to the Tanach to provide their gauge as to when to start counting the years. The logical starting point was the creation of the world. The sages looked at the number of years each king ruled and each life span the Tanach listed.
In Judaism, a day actually begins at sundown.
Shabbat: The Most Important Holy Day
Shabbat happens every week from a little before sundown on Friday to a little after sundown on Saturday. Despite its frequency, Shabbat is the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar. It originates at the beginning of the world, as God ended the work of Creation on the seventh day, blessing and sanctifying it. Shabbat is the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, and Jews are commanded multiple times throughout the Torah to observe this day. Shabbat observance has been a central, essential focus of Judaism for centuries.
Why is Shabbat observance so important? Why is it important that we take one day out of the week and make it different and special?
The answer to these questions begins with an observation about the first Shabbat. When God creates the world, God stops working and rests on the seventh day. (Genesis 2:2-3) Why? Surely God had no need to rest. In Jewish understanding, God is omnipotent. Why are we told that an unlimited source of power took a day to rest? Why are we told to do the same?
Part of the answer is in recognizing God’s majesty over the world. By behaving as God di at creation, we honor God and acknowledge God’s blessing and beneficence. After all, the best way to show respect to a Sovereign and Parent is to do what they do. The first version of the Ten Commandments implies this reason by emphasizing God’s creation of the world. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The second recitation of the Ten Commandments implies a different motivation for Shabbat observance. Like the first recitation, the second says that not only you, but all members of th household, servants, strangers living among the Israelites, and animals all must observe Shabbat. Moses reminds the people that hey were slaves in Egypt, and they enjoy freedom only because God redeemed them. Shabbat ensures that everyone shares that freedom by making sure that, unlike, slaves, everyone gets a day free from ordinary work. Shabbat is social justice enacted.
The purpose of Shabbat goes even deeper, especially for those of us today who enjoy plenty of leisure time and holidays. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted this when he identified on of the most important aspects of Judaism as the sanctification of time. In Judaism, we don’t bless objects or venerate things. Instead, we create holy time, and more than anything else, no matter how many physical possessions we have, that sacred time rejuvenates us and gives life meaning.
Think about your favorite memory of a treasured object from your childhood. Is it the actual object or possession that created the good memory, or is it the time when you enjoyed the object? Aren’t the most treasured parts of our lives the time we get to spend with our friends and loved ones, and the experiences we have with them? Sacred time is what makes our lives sweet, and Judaism seeks to crate this sacred time with Shabbat.
On Shabbat we seek to distinguish one day from the ordinary and make it special. Six days a week we concern ourselves with matters of the physical world – our work, our homes, and our tangible needs. Shabbat is a day for us to focus on the spiritual, which allows us to better handle the challenges of the week once Shabbat ends.
The three main goals of Shabbat are menuchah (rest), oneg (joy), and kedushah (holiness).
Chapter 10: Days of Awe: The High Holy Days
- Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the most important days in the Jewish calendar, except for Shabbat. They are called “The High Holy Days.”
- Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year commemorating the creation of the world more than 5,700 years ago. It’s a day of prayer praising God for God’s dominion over the world.
- New year greeting: May you be inscribed for a good year.
- One of the most notable parts of Rosh HaShanah is the blowing of the shofar, the hollowed horn of an animal, usually a ram.
- Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting on which we complete the process of seeking teshuvah (“return, forgiveness”) for the times we “missed the mark” of being the best people we can be.
- One of the most striking aspects of Yom Kippur is fasting. Traditionally, Jews don’t eat or drink from the beginning of Yom Kippur until it ends. This means absolutely no food, no water, or beverage is allowed on this day. The purpose of fast is to remind Jews to think only about matters of the spirit on Yom Kippur, and not on the physical word and personal needs. The day is not over until Jews have a gathering to “break-the-fast,” eating and drinking for the first time in a full day.
Chapter 11: It’s A Pilgrimage!
The Seder furthers the tradition of the inquisitive child by explaining that there are four type of children. The first is the wise child, who knows to ask the questions about the Seder and has deep interest in the answers and all they imply. The second is the wicked child, who asks what all the customs mean to the parents but doesn’t see any meaning in them for him or her. The third is simple, and genuinely asks what needs to be done but doesn’t have interest in the deep meaning of the Seder. The fourth child doesn’t even know if he or she should ask any questions. The inclusion of the four children in the Seder is a metaphor for all participants, for we all act as each of the children at different times in our lives.
- Jews celebrate three pilgrimage festivals when the ancient Israelites would bring sacrifices to the Temple. Each festival has a historical, theological, and agricultural meaning.
- Pesach, or Passover, commemorates God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the first planting of the season.
- Observance of Pesach is a festive dinner held at home called a Seder. The Seder attempts to make participants feel as if God redeemed them personally from slavery by telling the Exodus story.
- Shavuot commemorates God’s revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and gives thanks for the first harvest of the season.
- Sukkot commemorates the Israelites’ residence in temporary booths during their 40-year journey through the desert. Sukkot is a harvest festival, giving thanks to God for creating Earth’s bounty.
Chapter 12: They Tried to Harm Us, They Failed, Let’s Eat!
- Chanukkah and Purim are two similar minor holidays in the Jewish tradition that honor military or political victories in which someone tried to harm the Jewish people, yet they survived.
- Chanukkah is a minor holiday although its practice is widespread, likely due to its proximity to Christmas. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrians in 165 B.C.E., celebrating the Jew’s ability to practice their religion without outside interference.
- Chanukkah is celebrated in the home with the lighting of the chanukkiah, singing, the playing of dreidel, and gift giving.
- Purim commemorates the events in the Book of Esther, in which the Jews of Persia were saved from the genocidal intention of Haman. It’s celebrated with a raucous reading of the book.
Chapter 13: More Days of Our Jewish Lives
- Jewish women take the lead in celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each month.
- Tu Bishvat celebrates the new year of the trees with a Seder and songs.
- Tisha Be’av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as many other tragedies throughout Jewish history. Reform Jews generally don’t observe this memorial.
- There are a variety of additional commemorations and holidays to mark events in modern times.
Part 4: Jewish Life Events
Chapter 14: It’s a Boy! It’s a Girl!
- Jews celebrate the birth of a male child with a welcoming ceremony called a brit milah at which the boy is circumcised and named. Some girls have a similar ceremony without the circumcision called a brit bat or brit chayyim.
- The Jewish “coming of age” ceremony is a bar or bat mitzvah, meaning son or daughter of the commandments. The young man or woman becomes responsible for performing the mitzvot. They generally lead all or part of a worship service.
- Many b’nei mitzvah have a party celebrating the event after the service. The party isn’t the bar or bat mitzvah, but an affair to rejoice that the young man or woman has reached this religious milestone.
- Some communities celebrate Confirmation, a ceremony held a few years after the bar or bat mitzvah confirming what the young man or woman said about being a Jew following the mitzvot at the earlier life cycle event.
Chapter 15: Breaking the Glass: Jewish Weddings
Seven is a mystical number in Jewish tradition representing completeness, and corresponds to the number of blessings.
- Marriage is one of the most joyous occasions in a Jew’s life, and Judaism traditionally views marriage as an ideal for everyone.
- There are several rituals for a Jewish couple leading up to the wedding ceremony. These include the veiling of the bride (Bedeken) and the signing of the wedding agreement (kentubah).
- The wedding ceremony takes place under a chuppah. There are several meaningful rituals in the ceremony, including the giving of a ring to the bride, the recitation of seven special blessings (sheva brachot), and the breaking of a glass.
- It’s a great mitzvah to rejoice with the bride and groom, making them happy and treating them like royalty.
- Judaism allows divorce, finding it to be a cause for sadness but desirable in some circumstances. Traditionally, a divorce occurs only when a husband gives his wife a special document called a get.
Chapter 16: Choosing to Become Chosen: Conversion to Judaism
- Jews traditionally don’t proselytize; however, it is possible to convert to Judaism.
- Once a person converts to Judaism, halachah requires that person to be treated exactly the same as anyone born as a Jew.
- Conversion to Judaism is usually a long process involving at least a year of study and experience.
- A ger generally must perform several rituals, including circumcision or hatafat dam brit if make, appearing before a Beit Din, and immersion in a mikvah.
Chapter 17: When a Jew Dies
- Jews grieve and commemorate a death according to the values of Kavod HaMeit (honoring the dead), Nichum Aveilim (comforting the mourner), and returning the body to the earth.
- The chevre kadisha cares for the body, ritually washing it and making sure it’s treated with respect. No preservatives may be used an no changes to the body may occur.
- Jewish funerals usually take place within 24 to 48 hours after death. It’s an important mitzvah to mourn and care for someone who has died.
- The seven relatives – mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, and spouse – are required to sit shiva after the death, and refrain from ordinary activities and pleasures. The tradition then gradually eases the restrictions, aiding the mourners to return to ordinary life after suffering the loss.
Chapter 18: The Next Frontier: After Death
- Judaism doesn’t provide clearly developed ideas of what happens to a person after death beyond the belief in the immortality of the soul.
- The Tanach describes a shadowy place called Sheol where everyone goes when they die.
- The idea of Sheol evolved to a belief in olam habe, the World to Come, where God would resurrect righteous people in a world of peace and prosperity led by a king called the Mashiach.
- Some Jews have adopted a belief in reincarnation, although that remains a minority view held by those adhering to the Kabbalah.
PART 5: A JEWISH HOME
Chapter 19: Unique Treasures in a Jewish Home
Home is a place of beauty, love, learning, and connection to G-d. Judaism has a special name for the home: mikdash me’at – “the small sanctuary.” Home needs to be a place of love and respect. It means everyone in the family must cooperate with each other, help in supporting and maintaining the home to extent each is able, and try to make the home the special, sacred place it can be.
- Home is extremely important in Judaism. Jews call the home the mikdash me’at – “the small sanctuary.”
- Most Jews affix a mezuzah, a container enclosing a small scroll with verses from Deuteronomy, upon their doorposts.
- Some Jewish homes leave a corner of the ceiling unfinished to represent the incompleteness of Jewish life without the Temple. Some Jewish homes also include an artwork called a mizrach indicating the proper direction of prayer toward Israel.
- Most Jewish homes contain Jewish books and art, some with cultural or historical meanings.
- Many Jewish homes contain ritual objects that add artistic beauty to the home as well as providing the means for religious celebration. Common objects include kiddush cups, candle sticks, Havdalah sets, dreidels, chanukkiot, and Seder plates.
Chapter 20: Jewish Food for Jewish Thought
- Many Jews “keep kosher,” following dietary laws that prohibit eating foods such as pork and shellfish, and eating milk and meat together.
- Challah is sweet, braided egg bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and many Jewish holy days.
- Many of the Jewish holy days are associated with particular foods with historical, Biblical, or spiritual meanings.
- The two ethnic divisions in Judaism, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, have different traditional foods reflecting the areas in which they live or lived.
Chapter 21: The Jewish Bedroom
Judaism has never been afraid to talk about sex. Jewish texts contain discussions of everything important in life, and it’s undeniable that sex is an important aspect of human relationships. Judaism establishes guidelines about gender roles, relationships, and sexual behavior that seek to make this part of life holy and spiritual.
- Sex is not a sin in Judaism, but an important part of human life.
- Judaism sees the primary purpose of sex to be procreation, but doesn’t minimize its importance for pleasure and part of a happy marital relationship.
- Judaism especially approves sex on Shabbat, but disapproves of sex in certain relationship or without consent.
- Traditional Jews observe the law of niddah, refraining from sex during a woman’s menstrual period and the days following.
- Many Jews abide by the rules of tzni’ut (modesty), adopting codes for appropriate dress.
Chapter 22: The Child’s Space
- Having children is an important mitzvah in Judaism. The first mitzvah God gave to the people was “be fruitful and multiply.”
- Parents have the responsibility of caring for their children, which traditionally includes circumcision, redemption, teaching Torah, acquiring a wife, and teach a craft.
- Even if a couple doesn’t have children, they may fulfill the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply” by helping the children of others learn Torah.
- Children must honor their parents in accordance with the fifth of the Ten Commandments.
PART 6: THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Chapter 23: Communal Jewish Space: Synagogues
- A synagogue serves three primary functions. It’s a Beit Tafillah (House of Prayer), Beit Midrash (House of Study), and Beit Knesset (House of Meeting).
- The center of the synagogue is the ark in the sanctuary where the congregation keeps their Torah scrolls. A Torah scroll is made of animal skins attached to two wooden poles, and is produced the same way books were prior to the development of the printing press.
- The two types of Jewish clergy are the rabbi (teacher, community leader) and the cantor (musical leader).
- Jews become members of synagogues through their affiliation with and support of the institution. Synagogues maintain themselves financially in different ways, but anyone may join regardless of financial means.
Chapter 24: Sing Unto God! Jewish Prayer
- Prayer is an important aspect of Judaism, allowing Jews to petition and communicate with God, gain an understanding of the universe, and gather as a community.
- Jews traditionally gather for prayer three times daily. However, there are many opportunities for Jews to pray or say a blessing.
- A Jewish worship service combines fixed prayers and individual intentions, called keva and kavanah.
- Some Jews use meditative techniques in their prayers.
Chapter 25: Symbols, Clothes, and Sacred Space
- The most common symbol of Judaism today is the six-pointed star called the Magen David. Other symbols throughout Jewish history include the menorah, hamsa, Tree of Life, pomegranate, and Lion of Judah.
- Traditional Jewish men war a head covering called a yarmulke or kippah. They war a prayer shawl called a tallit and leather boxes with straps called tefillin during some worship services.
- Orthodox Jews dress modestly, often in subdued colors and fashions or in black. Orthodox women generally must dress modestly without showing much of their skin below their necks, or above their wrists and ankles.
- Many Jews visit a ritual bath called a mikvah to mark a change of status or to restore spiritual purity.
Chapter 26: Judaism and Christianity: Where We Differ
- Judaism and Christianity share many values, and have a great deal in common with each other.
- Judaism doesn’t accept Jesus as a special divine figure, the Messiah, a prophet, or a teacher of Judaism.
- Judaism’s primary statement of faith is the Sh’mah, which says, “Hear Israel, Adonai is Your God, Adonai is One.” Jewish thought through the centuries, as described by Maimonides, has expressed that this means God is singular, unique, and incorporeal. God isn’t divided into separate parts of aspects, because this would lessen God from the all-powerful entity envisioned in the Jewish idea of monotheism. Clearly, these ideas conflict with the notion of a human being with a special and unique divine aspect such as Christianity extends to Jesus. Giving God a physical body contradicts the Jewish idea of God’s incorporeity, and dividing God between a “Father” and a “Son” departs from the Jewish idea of God’s unity. Moreover, any sort of understanding of God as a human being challenges the Jewish idea of God’s uniqueness.
- The Jewish view of Mashiach is worldlier, and even political. In Judaism, the Mashiach is the King of Israel who will restore the Israelite Kingdom, including the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mashiach isn’t a divine figure with extraordinary abilities, but a Jewish peace, harmony, and prosperity. From the Jewish perspective, Jesus was not the Mashiach because he didn’t meet these definitional criteria held by Judaism. He wasn’t the anointed King of a Jewish state in Israel, and he didn’t regain independence from the Romans. His presence on Earth didn’t bring peace, harmony, and prosperity. He simply didn’t do what Jews believe the Mashiach would do.
- Judaism provides a very specific role for a prophet. A prophet generally acts as the spokesperson for God, warning a specific people to turn from their evil ways toward God. Although Jews later study the words of the prophets and apply their teachings to current life, a Jewish prophet has a particular purpose for the society in which he preaches. For example, Jeremiah is concerned with the Kingdom of Judah prior to the Babylonian exile, and Jonah is called as a prophet to aid the people of Ninevah.
- The Gospels present Jesus as teaching many worthy ideas, with some identical or substantially similar to those found in Judaism. However, this actually argues against Judaism accepting Jesus as a great or revolutionary teacher of Judaism. Jew have no need to accept Jesus as a teach of Jewish ideas because they already have their own teachers.
- Judaism and Christianity differ in their views of the role of sin, including whether a person is born with sin and how a person renews himself after sinning.
- Christians believe everyone is born with sin, which they view as a serious deficiency for a human being. Sin is a bad thing that needs to be removed from one’s soul. The way a person removes sin in these forms of Christianity is through Jesus. Christianity holds Jesus as the only person born without sin, and believes God sent him to Earth to die for the sins of human beings The Christian view of the Messiah gives Jesus the spiritual role of acting as an intermediary between human beings and God. Christians can relate to God through Jesus, and Jesus can save a person’s soul if that person adopts this belief as his or her own. As Jesus says in John 4:16, “I am the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”
- Judaism takes a very different perspective on sin, repentance, and a person’s relationship with God. In Judaism, people are not born with sin. The Jewish morning prayers say that, “The soul that You have given me is pure.” Judaism also believes that sin is equivalent to failing to follow the mitzvot, or “missing the mark.” While not following the mitzvot certainly isn’t desirable, it isn’t necessarily as blameworthy or corrupting as expressed in some forms of Christianity. Judaism recognizes that everyone misses the mark during their lives, and the appropriate response is to repent through the process of teshuva.
- The concept of teshuva significantly diverges from the idea of repentance through Jesus. Teshuvah is a personal process. If a person sins against God, he or she must direct their prayers and pleas directly to God. Judaism doesn’t find an intermediary such as Jesus required or beneficial to a person’s relationship with God. Judaism often speaks of a “personal God,” holding the ideal to be a direct relationship between an individual and the Divine. In Judaism, the role of sin a how a Jew spiritually cleanses the sin varies significantly from Christianity.
- Christianity significantly diverged from Judaism by replacing performance of the mitzvot with belief and faith in Jesus.
- Judaism emphasizes life on Earth and performance of the mitzvot, while some forms of Christianity place a greater emphasize on the afterlife. Judaism says little specifically about the afterlife, while some forms of Christianity have well developed descriptions of it.