Idiot’s Guides As Easy As It Gets: Judaism

26 May 2017 | This Idiot’s Guides by Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein starts with an excellent and encouraging introduction by Publisher Mike Sanders.

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 compliated 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 everthing, 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.

Mike Sanders,
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not swear falsely against your neighbor.
  10. 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 terpretations 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 y 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:

  1. Genesis (Beresheet): Creation to the Israelites living in Egypt
  2. Exodus (Shemot): Slavery in Egypt and the Exodus; the Ten Commandments and other laws
  3. Leviticus (Vayikra): Temple sacrificial and ritual laws for the building and priest; purity laws
  4. Numbers (Bemidbar): Stories of the Israelites wandering in the desert; additional laws
  5. Deuteronomy (Devarim): Moses’ final address to the Israelites

The Books of the First Prophets:

  1. Joshua (Yehoshua): The entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land and conflic with Canaanites
  2. Judges (Shoftim): Conflicts with Canaanites as the Israelites are led by temporary leaders (Judges)
  3. First Samuel (Shmuel Aleph): Sotries of the prophet Samuel, King Saul, and the rise of King David
  4. Second Samuel (Shmuel Beit): The reign of King David
  5. First Kings (Melachim Aleph): The death of King David, the split into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and events to about 850 B.C.E.
  6. Second Kings (Melachim Beit): Events from about 850 B.C.E. to the destruction of the First Temple

The Books of Ketuvim (Writings):

  1. Psalms (Tehillim): Liturgial poems mostly attributed to King David and possibly used in Temple worship
  2. Proverbs (Mishlei): Wisdom sayings attributed to King Solomon
  3. Job (Iyyov): The story of a pious man whose faith is tested by God
  4. Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim): A peom attributed to King Solomon seen as a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people
  5. Ruth (Rut): The story of a woman who converted to Judaism and was David’s great-grandmother
  6. Lamentations (Eikah): Peoms of sorrow for the exile and the destruction of the First Temple
  7. Ecclesiastes (Kohelet): A philosophical book promoting wisdom and simple pleasures over vain pursuits
  8. Esther (Ester): The story of Esther saving the Jews of Persia; the basis of the holiday Purim
  9. Daniel (Daniel): The story of upper-class Jews exciled in Babylon
  10. Ezra (Ezra): The story of the return of Jews to Jerusalem under Cyrus the Great and the dedication of the Second Temple
  11. Nehemiah (Nechemyah): The continuation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Ezra
  12. Chronicles (Divrei HaYamim): A separate history of the Jewish people attributed to Ezra, sometimes separated into two books

The Talmud:

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 alaborate, 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


* Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein, 2015. Idiot’s Guides As Easy As It Gets: Judaism. Alpha.



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