What is Judaism ? History
Judaism, at 4000 years old it is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and the granddaddy of Christianity and Islam.
But even though its teachings helped create the world’s two most popular religions many people don’t know what the Jews actually believe.
What is the Torah?
What’s a Covenant?
And why does no one worship mermen in the Middle-East anymore?
Well, Let’s Find out.
Judaism developed here in the eastern Mediterranean over the last 4000ish years. Today about 15 million Jews are making it the world’s tenth-largest religion.
Right, let’s jump straight into their Beliefs.
1. The Tanakh
Tanakh is the Hebrew name for the Hebrew Bible, known to most English speakers as the Old Testament. But obviously, they don’t call it that since they don’t recognize any New Testament. The Tanakh is actually a trilogy and the word Tanakh is made up of the names of the 3 sections of the Hebrew Bible.
T: for Torah N: for Nevi’im and K: for Ketuvim
The first section, the Torah, is the most sacred book of the Jewish People.
The Torah consists of five books shown here and is sometimes called the Five Books of Moses.
Let’s summarise this very long and very sacred holy book in a few paragraphs, it should be easy!
In the beginning, God creates the world in six days and then has a deserved rest on the seventh.
Later on, God starts talking to a guy named Abraham The Hebrew. He tells Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to a land called Canaan, which is here.
God makes a deal or covenant with Abraham, promising “I will make of thee a great nation ” and offers “the whole land of Canaan” to him and his descendants.
To seal this special covenant God said unto Abraham “Every man child among you shall be circumcised.” and Abraham was like we’re going to do what now! “ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you”.
Circumcision was a symbol literally “cut into the flesh” of the Jewish People to show their covenant with God. And has been done by every Jewish male for thousands of years.
The Covenant is extremely important in Judaism.
Later Abraham’s grandson called Jacob literally wrestles with God or an angel of some sort for an entire night.
So from then on, Jacob would be called Israel “one that struggles with God”.
Jacob/Israel has twelve sons and their descendants would become known as the Children of Israel or Israelites and give their name to the land of Canaan now known as Israel.
The Children of Israel would be enslaved in Egypt. But then one of them called Moses would under God’s guidance lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Moses and his people arrive at Mount Sinai. Here God gives Moses the entire Torah which contains 613 Mitzvah or commandments the most famous of which is the 10 Commandments written on stone tablets.
This new Covenant requires Jews to worship only this God and to follow His commandments.
In return, God will bless the Jewish people and make them a holy nation living in the Promised Land.
The Israelites eventually form a kingdom and one of their kings, Solomon builds a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which houses the Ark of the Covenant and becomes the sacred heart of Jewish worship.
Ironically enough Solomon’s kingdom would cut itself in two. Israel, populated by 10 tribes descended from the sons of Jacob in the north, and Judah populated by the other 2 tribes, primarily the Judah in the south.
In 722 BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel, leaving Judah as the sole surviving Jewish kingdom.
This is why this guy, Judah, a random son of Jacob, not even the one with the dazzling coat of many colors, gave the religion of Judaism and the Jews their name.
In 586 BCE the Babylonians conquered Judah, demolished the Holy Temple, and sent the people into exile and slavery in Babylon.
The destruction of the Holy Temple and Babylonian exile is a heartbreaking historical event for Jewish people.
But then in 539 BCE along came Cyrus The Great with his big Persian army and a cool hat. He wrecks the Babylonians, frees the Jews, and rebuilds the Holy Temple.
That concludes our retelling of the Tanakh. It is foundational to all Jewish belief and my summary barely scratches the surface.
In 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple ….again, and sent the people into another exile.
The Jews moved out across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East forming a diaspora that periodically suffered persecutions, pogroms, and genocides from their neighbors.
This 2000ish year exile is considered to have lasted up until 1947 with the partitioning of Palestine and the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948.
Now that was a very brief summary of 2000 years of complex history, please bear that in mind.
So Abraham lived in a world that believed in many many gods. You had your Marduks, your Nergals, you even had Dagans, everyone loves Dagan, look at him the fancy merman.
But Abraham believed in One God. An eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe, and the source of morality. He has no children, rivals, or equals.
This is known as monotheism and Judaism would spread this concept across the ancient world acting as an origin for both Christianity and Islam. Nearly everyone in this region follows a monotheistic religion and merman worship has dropped significantly.
The names of God used most often in the Tanach are Elohim and the Tetragrammaton, which is honestly one of the coolest words ever. The Tetragrammaton is the letters YHWH.
The actual pronunciation YHWH was lost thousands of years ago. Today it is sometimes pronounced as Yahweh.
But many Orthodox Jew will not say this name out loud and will say HaShem, “the name” or Adonai “My Lord” instead.
Many Orthodox Jews won’t even write words like God down, as a sign of respect and will use something like G-D instead.
The Jewish God also takes an active interest in human affairs and interacts with humans on Earth.
Humans can develop a personal relationship with God. God granted humanity freewill so they, like Jacob, can “wrestle with God” (Genesis 32:29), to find and relate to God in their own personal way.
3.The World To Come
The Hebrew Bible barely mentions heaven or hell. Heaven is just where God lives.
It mentions a place called Sheol, but it’s just a vague underworld where souls go after death.
But the Bible does make it certain that the soul lives on after you die.
When Abraham dies, for example, the Bible says he “breathed his last, dying at a good, ripe age, old and content, and he was gathered to his people….”.
The Bible describes a bunch of different characters being gathered to their people and sinners being cut off from their people.
So while the body returns to the earth the human soul goes somewhere to live on with its ancestors.
Jews accept that they do not know what the afterlife will be like or what its rewarding will be, but think that it will be based on the kind of life they have lived.
So they try to follow God’s path and commandments as closely as possible because even if they don’t know what afterlife rewards that may bring they are certain it will improve the current world.
Many Jews try to act with Tzedakah or Justice or charity.
Tzedakah comes from the Torah which 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 stranger”. Today many Jews donate 10% of their income to the needy as part of Tzedakah.
Many Jews today and in the past have hoped for the coming of a masheach or messiah. Who is prophesied in the Tanakh?
The Messiah is a Jewish leader that will bring about the Messianic Era.
They will rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and bring all the Jews back into the Promised Land.
Which will bring about the perfection of the world and an end to all hunger, war, and suffering.
When the Messiah comes, every Jew who ever lived will be literally resurrected.
They will return to Jerusalem to be present when God creates new heaven on Earth.
This is why Jewish law states Jews must be buried with any amputated limbs lost in life.
Jewish law also forbids cremation. To keep the physical body intact for when it is resurrected by God after the arrival of the Messiah.
For Jews, the Messiah has obviously not yet arrived because there is still suffering and inequality in the world.
We already looked at the Tanakh, but another book is also essential to the Jews.
The Talmud is a collection of different books and is over 10 million words long and covers 38 volumes.
It is a massive collection of commentary on the Torah and on itself on how the Torah or its commandments should be interpreted. It’s filled with debate, legal interpretations, history, ethics, philosophy, and legends.
Within a few lines, you can see rabbis that lived centuries apart debating a topic in the Talmud, and it’s extremely interesting.
It provides the foundation for Jewish law and is a guidebook for Jewish life.
What is Judaism?
THE JEWISH PEOPLE
Judaism is more than a religion. It is also a people, nation, culture, and civilization but not a race.
There are black, Asian, and white Jews. There are people born Jewish as well as converts.
Atheist, Agnostic, and a buffet of differing levels of religious Jews.
According to Jewish law, a Jew is a child born of a Jewish mother or a person who converts to Judaism.
Some Jewish denominations now accept descent through the father too.
Since the Medieval Period, there have been two major groups of Jewish People. Ashkenazi, Sephardi.
• The Ashkenazi are the Jewish community that developed in Central and Eastern Europe. They speak Yiddish, a combination of Hebrew and the languages of Central Europe. Yiddish words like bupkis, chutzpah, and klutz are familiar in English speaking pop culture because most Jewish immigrants in the United States were Ashkenazi.
• The Sephardi Jews are descendants of the Jews of Spain, and those who fled from Spain to other Mediterranean countries and North Africa. They have their own language, Ladino, a combination of Hebrew and Old Spanish. But unfortunately, this language is under serious threat of extinction
• There are communities of Jews who do not fall into these two groups such as the Jews of Iran and Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, China, and Georgia among many others.
All these different groups make up a diverse range of Jewish beliefs and cultures.
What many Americans and Europeans think of as Jewish culture or Jewish food is really Ashkenazi culture and Central and Eastern European food, adapted to Jewish kosher laws.
An Ashkenazi will eat Schmaltz herring while a Sephardi prefers couscous.
An Ashkenazi will celebrate with a glass of schnapps, a Sephardi will go for some Arak. Ashkenazis called Saturday, Shah-boss, Sephardic says shah-BAT.
Before the Second World War, about 9 million Jews lived in Europe, 5 million in the Americas, 800,000 in Asia, and 600,000 in Africa. Just over 15 million in total.
What is Judaism?
About six million Jews were systematically murdered during the Shoah, the Jewish term for the Holocaust.
The emigration, expulsion, or extermination of Jews from their old heartlands during the 20th century has made North America and Israel home to the majority of modern Jews.
Today there are many different denominations of Jews. Ranging from Jewish atheists to Orthodox Jews.
Orthodox Jews believe the Torah is the direct word of God and they strictly follow its words and commandments.
The best known Orthodox Jews are the Chasidic Jews, due to their recognizable and distinct fashion, which has now been stolen by hipsters.
There is also Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism who all cover a wide range of beliefs.
From not believing in a personal or supernatural god and thinking ritual and ceremony have no place in the modern world. To believe in God and the Torah but changing their interpretation of them as society evolves.
Shabbat or the Sabbath or Saturday is the 7th day of the Hebrew week and the most important day for Jews.
Since God rested on the seventh day, Jews do the same.
It is a day of physical and spiritual rejuvenation. Jewish law prohibits work on the Shabbat.
Activities such as doing business, spending money, shopping, housework, driving, using electricity, or even using the phone are discouraged. While things like prayer or reading are encouraged.
What is Judaism?
The laws of Kosher regulate the Jewish Diet.
What is Kosher? Well according to the Torah and Jewish law.
All vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts are kosher.
When it comes to meat a kosher animal is one that both chews its cud and has a cloven hoof.
Don’t worry I didn’t know what cud was either. Cud is a bit of food that an animal chews then swallows then vomits back into its mouth and chews again.
This is why some animals appear to be chewing all the time.
Examples of kosher animals are cattle and sheep. While nonkosher animals include pigs, dogs, rabbits, and well humans actually.
Kosher animals must also be killed in a certain way called shechita. This method uses a trained professional with an incredibly sharp knife to deliver quick death.
Finally, all blood must be drained from the animal because blood isn’t kosher.
Today kosher food can be bought from kosher shops or recognized by special kosher symbols on products.
All shellfish, birds of prey like eagles or owls, and fish without both fins and scales like shark, whale, and porpoise are not kosher.
What is Judaism?
From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE until today, the synagogue has been the center of Jewish life and worship.
In every synagogue, you’ll find a handwritten Torah Scroll. Which is read aloud during services.
You’ll also find a rabbi. A rabbi is a trained Jewish scholar and interpreter of Jewish law.
They conduct many Jewish events, such as circumcisions, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.
While there you may notice people wearing a kippah also known as yarmulka on their heads.
Judaism originated in the Middle East, where a sign of respect to God is a covered head.
Orthodox Jews believe they are always in the presence of God, so they wear a kippah at all times.