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What is Judaism? | Judaism Beliefs & History Activities


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.

Student Activities for Judaism



What is Judaism?

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 Torah and the Story of Abraham

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.

The Story of Moses

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.

The Ten Commandments

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:

  1. I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall not worship false gods
  3. You shall never take my name in vain
  4. You shall keep the sabbath day Holy
  5. Honor your Father and Mother
  6. You shall not murder
  7. You shall not commit adultery
  8. You shall not steal
  9. You shall not lie
  10. You shall never want what belongs to others

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.

The Temple of Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant, and Exile in Babylon

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.

The Story of Hanukkah

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.

Roman Conquest and the Diaspora

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.

Core Beliefs in Judaism

  1. Belief in one God, all powerful and all knowing, who created all things and has no equal.

  2. Belief in the soul that lives on after death. Your actions in life influence what kind of afterlife you will have.

  3. Belief in Tzedakah: Charity and supporting social justice. The Torah says, "Thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field… neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger." The Jewish people have a long history of supporting social justice and giving to charity. Many Jews donate 10% of their income to those in need.

  4. Belief in the coming of the messiah or mashiach. Most Jews believe that the messiah hasn't come yet. While they acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was an important figure, he is not considered to be the messiah in the way Christians believe. Instead, the Tanakh prophesied that a messiah will come who will usher in a new era, called the Messianic Era, by rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, reuniting all of the Jews in the Holy Land and bringing about eternal peace and an end to all hunger, war, and suffering. Jewish scriptures say that when the Messiah comes, every Jew who has ever lived will be resurrected to witness God creating a new heaven here on Earth. This belief in the resurrection influences Jewish laws regarding burial. Jews are forbidden to be cremated and are supposed to be buried with their bodies intact.

Other Important Aspects of Judaism

  1. In addition to the Torah, The Talmud is another important text in Judaism. It is the book of Jewish law. It is a vast collection of debates and commentary on law, history, philosophy, ethics, and how the Torah should be interpreted by thousands of rabbis. It was completed between the 3rd and 5th century CE. It has over 10 million words, making it one of the most complex religious texts in the world.

  2. The Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest and prayer. Shabbat is also called the Sabbath and is the Hebrew word for Saturday. It is observed beginning a few minutes before sunset on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday.

  3. A synagogue is a Jewish house of worship. It serves as a place of prayer, teaching, and as a community center. The synagogue contains an ark like the Ark of the Covenant where the Torah scrolls are kept. An "eternal light" burns before the ark. There are also tall menorahs, pews, and a raised platform where passages from the Torah are read.

  4. A Rabbi is a Jewish religious leader who is a trained scholar and interpreter of Jewish law. The Torah and Jewish law outlined specific dietary rules called kosher. Today many Jews still "keep kosher" by abiding by these rules. Vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts are all kosher, however meat must be from an animal that "chews its cud and has a cloven hoof" like cows and sheep. Pigs, rabbits, shellfish, birds of prey, and fish that are without fins and scales like sharks are not kosher. Animals must also be slaughtered in a specific way that is humane.

  5. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are coming of age ceremonies for boys and girls. They are celebrated when a boy or girl reaches their 13th birthday and "become" a bar or bat mitzvah, and are considered of the age of religious duty and responsibility.

Sects of Judaism

There are several different sects of Judaism, including:

  • Orthodox Jews who believe in a very strict and literal interpretation of the Torah. For example, on Shabbat working, driving, or handling money is not permitted.

  • Conservative Jews who seek to preserve the traditions of Judaism while allowing for some more modern elements.

  • Reform Judaism is more liberal and promotes progressive ideas. They seek to maintain traditional Jewish values while adapting practices to reflect the changes in modern society.

  • Reconstructionist Judaism was founded in 1922 by Mordecai Kaplan in the United States and is a progressive sect that believes Judaism is constantly evolving with time and societal shifts. It was the first to extend the tradition of a Torah service to mark the beginning of religious adulthood to girls called a Bat Mitzvah. This has since been adopted by most Jewish sects.

  • In Israel, Hilonim account for about half of Jewish Israeli citizens. They are similar to the 30% of Jewish people in the United States who identify as Jewish culturally and through ancestry but do not identify with any particular denomination.

  • Jewish Holidays

    Jews celebrate several different important holidays throughout the year, such as:

    • Passover: This seven or eight day festival and celebrates the exodus, when the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt.

    • Rosh Hashanah: This is the Jewish New Year that celebrates the time of the story of Creation which is believed to be 3761 BCE. Therefore, the current Hebrew year in 2021 is 5781.

    • Yom Kippur: This is the “Day of Atonement” that is considered the holiest day of the year for Jews. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and praying.

    • Hanukkah: Also known as the “Festival of Lights”, Hanukkah lasts for eight days and commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks over 2,000 years ago and the miracle that one day of lamp oil lasted for 8 days.

    • Purim: This joyous holiday commemorates the time in the 5th century BCE when a young Jewish woman named Esther risked her life to save all the Jews of Persia from death.

    • Essential Questions for Judaism

      1. When and where did Judaism originate?
      2. What are some important beliefs and holidays in Judaism?
      3. What objects or symbols are important or sacred in Judaism?
      4. Where are its followers today and how many people practice Judaism throughout the world?
      5. How do Jewish people worship and who are their spiritual leaders?

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