Judaism is one of the oldest religions on Earth. It was one of the first religions to believe in only one God (monotheism). There are about 13 million followers of Judaism worldwide, called Jews. There are Jewish laws, rules, and guidelines for all parts of life. These are taught in both written and oral traditions. Their holy book is called the Torah. Most Jews believe that the Torah was written by God.
The Jewish scriptures say that Judaism began with a man named Abram who lived in the city of Ur. According to the Midrash, Abram strongly believed that the people in Ur were wrong to pray to different gods and statues. The Torah teaches that the Torah was around when God created the world. He believed that there was really only one God who was not a statue. The Torah tells that God spoke to Abram and told him to leave Ur with his family and move to Canaan, were he started a new religion. God told him that his name would be changed to Abraham. The Midrash also says that angels taught Abraham a new holy language, which Jews believe is the language today known as Hebrew. Hebrew has continued to be the language of Judaism until today. Abraham's grandson Jacob is said to be the one who first had the name of "Israel".
According to the Torah, at one time, the Hebrew people moved to Egypt because of famine in Caanan. The Pharaoh became worried that the Jews would take over, so he made them slaves. God told the Hebrew leader Moses to help free them. God sent many terrible punishments to the Egyptians to convince their Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Finally, the Pharaoh let the Hebrews go free, but then decided to send the Egyptian army after them. The Hebrews escaped when God made the waters of the Red Sea open a path for them. The waters then returned and drowned the Egyptian army. The Torah says that after this, Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from God.
The Hebrews or Israelites, in twelve tribes, began a country called Israel in Caanan. They fought many wars against other peoples in the area. The name Jew comes from the name of one of these tribes, Judah.
Later this country broke apart into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Israel was conquered by Assyria in the 8th century BC, and the people were taken away. Later Judah was conquered by Babylonia in the early 6th century BC, and its people were taken captive to Babylon. They were allowed to go back to Judah again when Babylon was conquered by Persia. Some Jewish people stayed in Babylon (now Iraq) and others also lived in other countries.
By 50 BC, Judah (then called Judea) was ruled by the Roman Empire. During this time, the main language of Judea was Aramaic. The Jews did not like the Roman government or customs, and often made trouble for the Romans. In 70 AD, after a revolt against the government by the Jewish community, the Romans destroyed Judea's capital city, Jerusalem and sent almost all Jews into exile.
After this, the Jewish people did not have their own country. They were a small minority in almost every place they lived. This time is called the Diaspora, when Jews spread around the world. They lived in many other countries. Jews living in Spain and Portugal used the language Ladino (also called Judeo-Spanish). Jews living in Germany, Poland, and Russia used the language Yiddish. Jews living in North Africa spoke Judeo-Arabic. Jews have lived in most, but not all, places in the world, including India, China, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Even today, Jews that do not live in Israel are often said to live "in the Diaspora". In some places, like India, Jews lived without any problems. In other places, like most of Europe and Islamic countries, there was bigotry or even hatred against Jews and they lived under unfair laws. Sometimes Jews suffered from outright persecution (that is: systematic hatred and violence), sometimes they were forced to dress in special, ugly clothes, pay higher taxes than others, not build higher houses than others, not to ride a horse or donkey etc. But Jews were known as skillful bankers. In Europe, where the Roman Catholic church forbade Christians from lending money against interest, Jews worked as bankers and money-lenders.
One nomad nation, the Khazars, converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The Khazar khanate, which was located in the modern Ukraine and Byelorussia, was the only independent Jewish state before modern day Israel. The Khazar state was destroyed by the Eastern Vikings (Rus) in 987.
The Jewish People have always believed that they have a special mission from God. They do things in their own ways, such as having special rules about food and eating, not working on the Shabbat, keeping their own holidays, and not marrying people from other religions. Because of this, people in many different times and countries have thought that the Jews were strange, and maybe dangerous. Many countries made laws that the Jews could not work in some jobs or live in some places. Sometimes Jewish people were killed because of their religion. The word "antisemitism" describes the hatred for Jews.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi, or National Socialist government of Germany conquered most of Europe. They treated the Jews very badly, because they said that the Jews caused most of the problems for Germany in the First World War. The Nazi government killed more than six million Jewish people. Before they were killed, many of the Jews were made to be slaves, and some of them were forced to help in the killing and slavery of the others.
In 1948 after World War II, the United Nations made the country of Israel for the Jews in Palestine, which is in the same place as the original Israel, in the Middle East. The land had been part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I. Then Britain controlled the area under the oversight of the United Nations. Many Jews moved back to Israel, then called Palestine, starting in the late 1800s. When the country of Israel was made in 1948, there were about 600,000 Jews in it. Today there are about 5,600,000 Jews in it.
When Jews moved back to Palestine, there were people living there. Most of them did not want to live in a Jewish country. This was the beginning of the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues today.
Jews have come to Israel from all over the world, bringing different languages, music, food, and history to create a unique culture. Israel is the only country in the world where most people are Jews and where Hebrew is the main language.
Jewish history continues today in both Israel and the Diaspora. Outside of Israel, there are many Jews in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Russia, the Uktraine, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and Australia. There are smaller numbers of Jews living in other parts of the world.
Some of the major problems faced by the Jewish people today include: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dealing with high rates of assimilation (loss of Jewish identity) in some countries, like the United States.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion which believes that the world was created by a single, all-knowing divinity, and that all things within that world were designed to have meaning and purpose as part of a divine order. According to the teachings of Judaism, God's will for human behavior was revealed to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Saini. The Torah, or commandments, which regulate how humans are to live their lives, was a gift from God so that they might live in according to His will.
Maimonides was a famous Jewish teacher of the 12th century. He made a list of 13 principles that include the basic beliefs of Judaism.
There are various important actions in Judaism. These are called mitzvot. A mitzvah is a commandment (law, rule) from God to the Jewish people. Most people think of a mitzvah as 'a good deed,' or 'a good thing to do.' There are 613 mitzvot that Jews are told to do. Some are for every-day life, and some are done at special times. Many of these 613 commandments can not be done now, because the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
Religious Jews believe that Moses brought the Ten Commandments and the Torah down from Mount Sinai. They also believe that there is another part of the Torah besides the 5 books of Moses. It is called the Mishnah, also called the Oral Torah or Oral Law. It explains how to follow the laws written in the 5 books. There is a commentary (explanation) of the Mishnah, called the Gemara. Together, the Mishna and the Gemara make up the Talmud.
Traditional Jews believe that God gave the written Torah and the oral Torah to Moses and that Moses told it to the Jewish people, and that it is the same today as it was back then. Traditional Jews also believe that all of the commandments must still be followed today.
Liberal Jews believe that the Torah was inspired by God but written by human beings. Liberal Jews believe that all of the ethical laws in the Torah must still be followed, but many ritual laws do not need to be followed today.
It is considered good in Judaism to talk about the commandments and to try to understand how to follow them. The Talmud has many stories about Rabbis who argued about the commandments. There is a joke about this: "Two Jews, Three Opinions." Over time, some opinions have become the rule for everyone. Some rules are still being argued about.
There is no single leader of Judaism who can decide how to follow the commandments or what to believe. Even though Jews believe different things and they disagree about the rules, they are still one religion and one people.
The Ten Commandments are special because they were heard by all of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. However, in traditional Judaism, all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah are equally important.
One of the commandments is to keep the Jewish Sabbath or Shabbat. Shabbat starts every Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday at sunset. Shabbat is a day of rest to thank God for making the Earth.
The tradition of resting on Shabbat comes from the Torah. According to the Torah, God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, Shabbat, He stopped. Many Jews go to their temple or synagogue to pray on Shabbat.
Religious Jews follow special rules on Shabbat. These rules say that no work can be done on Shabbat. This includes many actions that people might not think are work. For instance, on Shabbat a Jew cannot:
Traditional Jews are very careful about Shabbat. It is a special day. Everyone walks to the synagogue. They say extra prayers. No one goes far from home. People visit friends. They invite guests for dinner and for lunch. People study Judaism together.
Liberal Jews do not follow all of the same rules. They go to synagogue and visit friends and have special meals. But they may also drive cars, go shopping, and use electricity.
Jews who follow the religious rules called "kashrut" only eat some types of food that are prepared by special rules. Food that a Jew can eat is called kosher food.
Traditional Jews are very careful about kashrut. They usually can not eat in non-kosher restaurants or in the home of someone who does not keep kosher. Sometimes, this makes it hard to visit people or to do business. It is important to understand that this is part of their religion.
Liberal Jews may or may not keep kosher. It is best to ask them individually.
There are other rules for kosher food as well.
Important Points in a Jewish Life
For a very long time, all Jews believed the same basic things about Judaism. About 200 years ago, a small group of Jews in Germany decided to stop believing in many parts of Judaism and try to become more "modern" and more like Germans. Those Jews were called Reform Jews.
Today there are three main kinds of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. There are also kinds with a smaller number of people, such as Reconstructionist Judaism, and Karaite Judaism, Each group has its own practices according to how it understands the Jewish laws. Some do not believe in keeping most of the laws. For example: Reform (also called Liberal or Progressive) Judaism does not require eating kosher food or keeping the Sabbath at all. Reform Judaism teaches Jews to focus on the ethical laws of Judaism. Conservative Judaism developed after Reform Judaism. The leaders of Conservative Judaism felt that Reform Judaism was too radical. They wanted to conserve (protect) Jewish tradition instead of reforming (changing, improving) it. Orthodox Jews do not believe that Reform or Conservative Judaism are correct because they change too many things in ways that are not allowed.
In the most recent survey of Jews in the United States in 2000-2001, it was found that 35% of American Jews say they are Reform, 27% say they are Conservative, 10% say they are Orthodox, 2% say they are Reconstructionist and 25% do not say what type they are.
In Israel, almost all Jews go to Orthodox synagogues. There are very few Reform or Conservative synagogues. In Israel, Jews do not call themselves Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Instead, they mostly call themselves "Haredi" (super-religious) "Dati" (religious), "Masorati" (traditional) or "Chiloni" (secular). Surveys suggest that about 20% of Israelis say they are secular, 25% say they are Dati or Haredi and 55% say they are traditional.
Names are very important in Judaism. Many Jews believe that a name not only tells you who someone is, but also tells you something about them. Names of God are very special in Judaism, so Jews do not write them or speak them fully but use other words instead. That is why Jews write G-d, with a "-" instead of an "o"
The most important of these names is the Tetragrammaton, or "Four-lettered word": YHVH, YHWH. Jews are not allowed to say this name, and instead say Adonai. Even Adonai is only used by some Jews in prayer. Most Jews would refer to God as Hashem, or "The Name". Jews are not allowed to erase the Tetragrammaton, so they rarely write it down outside of their most holy books, such as the Torah.
Other Jewish names of (or references) to God include
Other names include Elohim, El, Shaddai, Tzeva-ot, 'Elyon, and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh which are respectively pronounced by observant Jews as Elokim, Kayl, Shakkai, Tzeva-Kot.
Certain names, such as Shalom, are pronounced as written, but when written one letter, in this case the last letter, is omitted. The last of the above "other" list is often said as Ek-yeh Asher Ek-yeh.
HaShem Means "The Name". It is the word Jews use most often when not praying to talk about God.
Adonai means "My Lord." This name tells Jews about God's position. God is the King of the World, and his name Adonai lets us know that.
Elohim means "one who is strong enough to do everything." This name is used when talking about God's power to create or God's justice. This tells us that God is the creator and that God rules the world with just laws.
The two names above are so special that Orthodox Jews use these names only when they pray and read the Torah. When they are not praying or reading the Torah, they say "Hashem" (The Name) or "Elokim".
God - Some Jews write "God" by replacing the "o" with a dash, like this: "G-d". They do this because God's name is so holy they are not allowed to throw away a piece of paper with "God" written on it. However, if by accident "God" is written, then the paper can be disposed of in a special way and buried in a special place. Others say that "God" is just an English word, not Hebrew, and so it is not holy.
YHWH ("Yehovah") is the most sacred name of God in Hebrew, and is not pronounced by most Jews. No one knows where the name came from, or what exactly it means. It looks like the Hebrew word "hayah," which is the verb "to be." (According to Hebrew scripture, when Moses asked God who God was, God told Moses I am that I am.) Jews believe that the name YHWH shows that God is endless. Instead of trying to say it, most Jews say "haShem", which means "The Name." Some people pronounce this name as Yahweh, or Jehovah. Scholars of religion sometimes refer to "YHWH" as the Tetragrammaton, from Greek words meaning "four letters".
Many famous people have been Jewish or have come from Jewish families.
Some famous people from Jewish backgrounds are:
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