Judaism is one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world having begun about 4,000 years ago. Today, Judaism is practiced by about 15 million people worldwide. This ancient religion was the first to be monotheistic (believing in one God) and is the root of today's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. Judaism and the Jewish people have a long and storied history that is tragically marked by persecution and exile but also resilience and strength.
Judaism is about 4,000 years old and is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Judaism originated in the Middle East and is the predecessor to both the Christian and Islamic faiths. People who practice Judaism are called Jews. The ancient language of the Jewish people is Hebrew, which is the language of choice for prayers and is the official language of Israel. Today, there are about 15 million people who practice Judaism with about 6.1 million in Israel, 5.7 million in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more throughout Europe, the Middle East, and around the world.
The holy book of Judaism is called the Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible. The Tanakh is made up of three sections: the Torah, the Nevi'im and the Ketuvim. The sacred Torah is composed of the "Five Books of Moses". They are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are also included in the Christian Bible as the beginning of the Old Testament.
The Book of Genesis explains the story of creation, saying God created the earth and everything in it in six days. On the seventh day, God rested. Genesis also describes the story of Abraham, who is considered the father of Judaism. Around 1800 BCE, a Hebrew man named Abraham lived in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). In ancient Mesopotamia, it was common to practice polytheism.
Abraham and his wife Sarah had always desired to have children but were never blessed with any of their own. They had grown old and had given up. Then, one day Abraham had a revelation from God who told him that he must believe in and worship only Him, the one true God. God told Abraham that he would be rewarded for his faith and devotion with land and descendants. In what is called the "Abrahamic Covenant", God made Abraham three promises. God said, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing." The belief in one God was a radical idea for the time period.
Abraham did as God commanded and he and his wife left in search of the "promised land" which was discovered to be in Canaan on the Mediterranean Sea. Although Abraham and Sarah were now very, very old, God kept his promise and they eventually were blessed with many children, including two sons named Isaac and Ishmael. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all considered to be descendants of Abraham. Jews and Christians believe themselves to be descended from Abraham's son Isaac, whereas Muslims believe they are descended from Abraham's son, Ishmael. Because of their common ancestry, the three religions are called the Abrahamic faiths.
In one story, Abraham was tested by God by being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Because he showed his devotion and faithfulness to God, Abraham was saved from sacrificing his son and instead sacrificed a lamb. Abraham's son Isaac later had a child named Jacob and in another story, Jacob struggles or wrestles with an angel of God throughout an entire night. Because of this, Jacob is called Israel, which in Hebrew means "One who wrestles with God." As time went on, Jacob had 12 sons of his own and these 12 sons became the leaders of the 12 Tribes of Israel also called the the Children of Israel or Israelites.
About a thousand years after Abraham came Moses, who would become the most important prophet of Judaism and an important prophet in Christianity and Islam as well. The Israelites (also called the Hebrews) were forced to migrate due to widespread drought and famine. They crossed the desert and entered the land of Egypt. While they were initially welcomed, they were eventually enslaved by the Egyptians and remained so for generations. At one point, in an effort to decrease the Hebrew population, a cruel Pharaoh ordered that all first-born male children of the Hebrews be killed. A Hebrew woman placed her baby in a basket in the Nile River near where the Pharaoh's daughter regularly bathed. The Pharaoh's daughter found the helpless infant and rescued him. She named him Moses and he was raised as a prince of Egypt.
God spoke to Moses through a burning bush on Mount Sinai and told Moses that he had been chosen to free the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land. Following God's command, Moses boldly went to the Pharaoh and told him to "Let my people go" but the Pharaoh refused. To punish the Pharaoh, God sent plagues upon the Egyptians: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Despite these horrible plagues, the cruel Pharaoh still refused to free the Israelites. God sent one final and terrible plague: the killing of all the firstborn children in Egypt. As God sent the angel of death, he told Moses to instruct the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood over their doors so that the angel would know to "pass over" their houses and do them no harm. In honor of this, the Jewish festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt is called Passover.
The Pharaoh finally relented after this plague claimed the life of his own son and told the Israelites to leave quickly so that no more horrors would befall them. In their hurry, Moses told the Hebrews that they would not have enough time for their bread to rise, so instead they should make 'unleavened' bread for the journey (which is bread made without yeast). This is why unleavened bread is traditionally served during Passover festivals. As Moses and the Israelites began their exodus from Egypt, the Pharaoh changed his mind. He and his soldiers pursued the Israelites all the way to the Red Sea. God commanded Moses to point his staff at the Red Sea, which miraculously parted the waters and allowed the Israelites to walk across the sea bed to safety. After crossing, Moses again waved his staff and the sea returned to normal, drowning the Pharaoh's army and saving the Israelites.
Moses and the Israelites traveled through the Sinai desert and arrived at Mount Sinai. There, God once again appeared to Moses as a burning bush and revealed the Torah to Moses with a total of 613 Mitzvah, or commandments, including the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets and are the following:
This new covenant with God, named the Mosaic Covenant, was a promise between God and His people that if they follow the commandments and worship only Him, the one true God they would be blessed by God with a nation in the Promised Land (Israel).
The Israelites wandered the desert for another 40 years before finally finding their way to Israel. The twelve tribes eventually united to create the Kingdom of Israel around 1020 BCE - 922 BCE and there were three kings that successively ruled: King Saul, King David, and King Solomon. The Star of David originates from King David, who conquered Jerusalem and built it up to be the center of Israel's political and religious life.
King Solomon built the holy Temple of Solomon, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that contained the two stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Solomon's Temple became the holiest and most important place of worship for the Jewish people. However, following the death of King Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms: The Kingdom of Judea in the South with its capital of Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Israel in the North with its capital at Samaria. The divided kingdoms were vulnerable to invasion and the neighboring Assyrians took advantage. Around 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel and in 600 BCE, successfully overtook the Kingdom of Judea as well. The Assyrians ruled the region until another powerful Mesopotamian empire, the Babylonians, invaded, led by King Nebuchadnezzar II. When the Babylonians conquered the city of Jerusalem around 587 BCE they destroyed Solomon's Temple. Historians debate what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. It is unknown whether the Ark was destroyed, captured, or hidden. Nebuchadnezzar II forced the Jewish people into exile to Babylon where they were held captive for almost 50 years. The story says that the prophet Ezekial was tasked with keeping the Jewish faith alive during this traumatic time period. Around 539 BCE, the Persian King Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonian empire. Cyrus is praised in the Hebrew scriptures for freeing the Jewish people from exile by allowing them to return to their promised land to rebuild the Temple of Solomon on the same site. It was called the Second Temple.
Around 200 BCE, Judea was taken over by the King of Syria and during his reign, the Jewish people were once again oppressed and persecuted. Their religion was outlawed and they were forced to worship Greek gods. In 168 BCE, Syrian soldiers marched upon Jerusalem, massacring the Jews and desecrating the city's holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its walls. A Jewish priest Mattathais and his five sons led a resistance movement. They were known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees. After Mattathais' death in 166 BCE, his son Judah Maccabee took the helm and though greatly outnumbered, led his people to victory against the Syrians. While trying to cleanse and rededicate the Second Temple the Maccabees began by lighting the Ner Tamid, the "eternal light" that symbolizes God's omnipresence and is to be burned constantly. However, the Maccabees saw that the Syrians had defiled all but one days worth of oil. What happened next is considered to be a miracle: the light burned for eight nights! This wondrous event is the basis for the eight-day festival of Hanukkah that is celebrated by Jews around the world.
During Hanukkah, a candle holder called a menorah or one called a hanukiah, which is a menorah with nine branches, is lit each night during the eight-day festival. After sundown each night during Hanukkah, a candle is lit and added to the previous ones until all are lit on the final night. The ninth candle sits higher in the center. It is called the shamash or "helper” and is used to light the other candles. While lighting the candles, blessings and prayers are recited. In honor of the miracle of the oil, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes called latkes and jam-filled donuts called sufganiyot are often served. Another popular tradition is playing a game with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel. While Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in Judaism, it has become a prominent one that often includes the exchange of gifts, especially for children.
In 70 CE, the Roman empire laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the holy Second Temple; only its "Western Wall'' remained. The area which was the site of the two destroyed temples is called the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is home to two holy Islamic mosques: the Dome of the Rock to the north, which was built in 691 CE, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the south, built in 705 CE. In the southwest stands the remnant of the Second Temple, the Western Wall. The Western Wall or "Wailing Wall" is a site of great importance and is considered the holiest site in Judaism. It is a place of prayer and pilgrimage for the Jewish people.
After conquering Judea, the Romans revived its previous name of Palestine. They forced the Jewish people into another exile away from the "Holy Land". This is known as the diaspora, which means the dispersion of a people away from their original homeland. For the Jews, it meant that for the next 2000 years, they would be away from Israel. Thriving Jewish communities spread all over the world as they immigrated and settled throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
The Jewish people maintained their faith, traditions, and culture despite great obstacles. People of Jewish heritage have made tremendous contributions in every aspect of civilization: law, science, mathematics, cuisine, culture, music, and the arts. While it is important to honor these achievements, it should not be the greatness of the Jewish people that spares them from persecution, but rather our shared humanity. And yet, during these 2,000 years of the diaspora, Jews continued to face periods of intense suffering at the hands of their closest neighbors. Scapegoating and anti-Semitism led to some of the world's greatest atrocities. Over the centuries, Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East faced persecution, forced conversion to Christianity, government organized massacres called 'pogroms', and genocide.
The Holocaust, or Shoah in Hebrew, was the systematic mass murder of 6 million Jews across Europe by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, the newly created United Nations passed a resolution in 1947 that partitioned Palestine to create the State of Israel as a home for the Jewish people. This is considered to be the end of the diaspora. After Israel's declaration of Independence in 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war followed. 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war and while the region has seen times of stability and peace, this was the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continues to this day.
There are several different sects of Judaism, including:
Jews celebrate several different important holidays throughout the year, such as:
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