Of the three Abrahamic religions-religions that consider Abraham to be a founder and central prophet (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)- Judaism is the oldest. Although its followers comprise less than one quarter of one percent of the world’s population, their influence the world over has been anything but minimal. The faith that began in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago has reached all parts of the world, as a result of forced expulsion as well as deliberate migrations. The Jewish world population is roughly about 15 million; the majority are concentrated in Israel, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, though there are significant communities in other countries including France, Britain, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Canada.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion; it supports a single, all-knowing God who created the universe and functions as its ongoing overseer. The “Shma,” the short, most familiar Jewish prayer, makes this basic statement of faith: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” This is a rejection of polytheism (belief in many gods) and an affirmation of Adonai (a name for God) as the single God of Abraham and all Jews and the universe. Central to Judaism is the concept of the covenant between God and his people that began with Abraham, in which God has chosen Jews to be a light to the nations, and they have accepted the greater responsibilities and obligations that God’s law entails.
According to Judaic tradition, God’s 10 commandments, or rules for human conduct, were given to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah, their religious text (and an important part of the Christian Bible and Muslim Koran as well), is the word of God and a guide for all behavior; other movements within Judaism place equal weight on the Torah but interpret it less literally than Orthodox Jews. Unlike Christians, who regard Jesus as the messiah (savior), Jews believe that the messiah has yet to appear. Ultimately, they believe that a messiah, or a messianic age, will emerge to repair and redeem the broken, imperfect world.
Judaism is both a religion and a civilization, based on its sacred texts, laws, and customs. It is fundamentally rooted in the Hebrew Bible, which is often thought to have begun as an oral narrative in ancient times and was later written down and canonized.
Judaism emerged before construction of the First Temple (completed in 957 B.C.E.) in Jerusalem and flowered during the period of the First and Second Temples (957 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) under the direction of a hereditary priesthood.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), which made the Temple-centered priesthood obsolete, it was shaped into Torah Judaism by the rabbis (teachers, who would become, increasingly, clerics as well) in the first few centuries of the Christian era.
From the early third through the sixth centuries C.E., the rabbinic sages devised the Talmud (first the Mishnah and later the Gemara), a collection of oral law and commentary. The Talmud constitutes the legal case studies and interpretations derived from Torah (technically, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy-but more generically all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible or, even more broadly, all Jewish teaching or law). The Talmud is ingeniously arranged, with central texts surrounded by significant commentaries by great historic interpreters of the Torah and Talmud (not all of whom agree).
It is impossible to summarize as complex a subject as Judaism, but the famous Roman-era rabbi Hillel, responding to a challenge, once reduced the teachings of the Torah to one simple lesson that could be delivered while standing on one foot. Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; now go and study.” The Jewish Sabbath begins at sunset Friday and continues until sunset on Saturday. (Observant Jews hold synagogue services twice a day every day.) The Jewish house of worship is called a synagogue.
Besides being used for religious services, it is used for the purpose of community affairs and education.
The synagogue liturgy of today continues to follow patterns established centuries ago, making it recognizable to Jews worldwide, though variations (sometimes significant) occur according to regional, ethnic, and doctrinal differences Jews have suffered centuries of anti-Semitism (a particularly virulent form of racism that stereotypes and demonizes Jews). Anti-Semitism was expressed most horrifically during World War II (1939–1945 C.E.), when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany sought to exterminate, with systematic, industrial precision, the entire European Jewish population. The Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew) killed six million Jewish people in one of the most devastating crimes against humanity ever committed.
(An additional six million non-Jews were exterminated as well; these included homosexuals, gypsies, the mentally or physically disabled, Communists, and other political dissidents.) In response, a new term was coined, “genocide” (the killing of an entire people), and new efforts were undertaken to prevent such inhuman atrocities in the future (unfortunately, with limited success). The Holocaust and its memory significantly shaped the experience of Jews and non-Jews in the second half of the 20th century and will continue to do so well into the future.
Two major divisions of Jewish culture are based on geography: the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim.
Ashkenazi, an old Hebrew word for Germany, originally denoted Jews who spoke Yiddish, a German dialect, but it has come to include Jews from northern and eastern Europe and their descendants from the Americas. The Sephardim (a designation derived from the old Hebrew word for Spain) were once those Jews who settled in Spain and Portugal, but the denotation of the word has expanded to include the Eastern Jews of Mediterranean, Balkan, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands and their descendants living in the Americas. Originally, an Ashkenazi Jew was a Yiddish speaker and a Sephardic Jew referred to one who spoke a dialect of Castilian Spanish called Ladino. Some Jews still adhere to this narrow understanding of Sephardim, but, in Israeli colloquial usage, Sephardim have come to include Jews who speak (or whose fathers or grandfathers spoke) dialects of Arabic, Berber, or Persian as well.
Sephardim are also called the Edot Mizrah, or Oriental Jews. Although the Ashkenazi and Sephardic differ in their rituals and liturgies, both groups recognize the authority of the other’s rabbinical courts and rulings.

Origins and History
According to Jewish tradition, around 2000 B.C.E.
the God of the Israelites made a covenant with Abraham. The book of Genesis (present in the Christian Bible as well as the Torah) chronicles the lives of the first three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The next great leader of the Israelites was Moses, who freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt and was given the law by God while the Israelites wandered in the desert. Ultimately, according to Hebrew scripture, Moses’ successor, Joshua, led the Israelites into Canaan, defeated the Canaanites, and took possession of the Promised Land.
According to biblical accounts, God and the prophet Samuel reluctantly acceded to the people’s desire to have a king like other nations, and at God’s direction, Samuel designated Saul king of Israel.
Israel’s second and most famous king was David, who established Jerusalem as the hub of the Jews’ political and religious life. The third and reputably wisest of all kings, Solomon (David’s son), constructed the First Temple there.
Between 734 B.C.E. and 581 B.C.E., Israel came under Babylonian control, and six deportations of Israelites followed. Many fled voluntarily. The Babylonian empire was conquered by an alliance of Medes and Persians who, under Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. But from that time to today, a majority of Jews have lived outside of Israel. After the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great drove out the Persians and occupied Israel in 332 B.C.E., Jewish culture was increasingly Hellenized, or influenced by Greek civilization. Then, in 63 B.C.E., the Roman Empire seized control of Israel.
Various Jewish sects emerged in the first century C.E., one of which ultimately developed into the Christian religion. One adherent, later known as Saint Paul, deviated from Jewish traditional practice and took his prophetic message to the Gentiles, non-Jewish people.
Roman oppression and subsequent Jewish revolts resulted in the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., including the destruction of the Second Temple (which had been rebuilt in 515 B.C.E.). With this disaster, Jews were driven out of their ancient homeland, and Jews and Judaism spread further throughout the world. Since the Temple could no longer serve as the sacred site of Jewish religious practice, individual synagogues developed into new centers of Judaism, and power swung from a hereditary priesthood to diverse teachers and scholars- rabbis. Rabbinic Judaism was thus born.
Jews believe in one, unique God, whose shape and appearance are unknowable. There are no subordinate deities in this monotheistic religion.
Orthodox Jews deem the words of their biblical Prophets (indeed, the entire Torah) to be authentic and God-inspired. The Jews view Moses as the greatest of their prophets and the recipient of the Torah (in both written and oral form) from God.
Judaism teaches that there can be only one Torah.
Presently, there are several different main sects of Judaism. The more traditional forms, however, do not necessarily consider the most liberal as a part of the faith. The largest, oldest, and most conservative form is Orthodox Judaism. Though they vary in the rigor of their observance, ultra-Orthodox, modernOrthodox, and Hasidim have a common belief in the origin and sanctity of hibachi (Jewish law that supplements scriptural law) as established in the Torah and Talmud. They seek to practice Judaism in the most original form possible and revere every word in their religious texts as being inspired by God.
Reform Judaism first emerged as a liberal movement among Jews in Germany in the 1790s, as they and other European Jews struggled to accommodate to a rapidly changing, modern world following emancipation (lifting of government restrictions on Jews, first in Revolutionary France in 1791 C.E.). They redefined Judaism and biblical law, seeking to realign it with their new circumstances and opportunities, and to diminish the distance between Jews and non-Jews, particularly by abandoning traditional rituals and laws, such as those governing food preparation and consumption (kashrus, or kosher dietary restrictions). Reform Jews remain heirs to the Torah but believe that their sacred heritage should evolve and adapt. Reform Jews, for example, embrace pluralism and accept women as rabbis. Reform Judaism is well established today among North American Jews (some 38 percent of Jews in the United States).
Conservative Judaism started in the middle of the 19th century in response to the Reform movement.
It is regarded as a major movement that is somewhere between Reform and Orthodox. Like Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism is bound by Torah rituals and laws, but, like Reform Judaism, it is open to innovation and adjustment to the modern world, as long as doing so affirms essential Jewish values. Conservative Jews allow congregants to drive to synagogue on Sabbath. Modern Orthodox only reluctantly permit disabled worshippers or those who live at a distance to drive or discreetly ignore their cars. More stringent Orthodox are careful to live within walking distance of their synagogues and hold services in their homes if they are not able to walk to synagogue. Similarly, Conservative Jews allow mixed seating of men and women in synagogue, while Orthodox Jews separate the sexes.
Conservative Judaism, adheres exclusively to matrilineal descent as a definition of a Jew, unlike Reform Judaism’s definition of a Jew as a child who has either a Jewish mother or father, who is raised in a Jewish home, and who is given a Jewish education.
Finally, Reconstructionist Judaism, perhaps the newest of all Judaic forms, is a small movement started in the early 20th century in an effort to unite and rejuvenate Judaism. Reconstructionism regards Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization.” It is committed both to tradition and to the search for contemporary meaning. According to Reconstructionist Judaism, each generation of Jews must reshape its faith and traditions. This form differs from Orthodox Judaism in its emphasis on the evolution (as opposed to immutability) of Judaism itself, and it diverges from Conservative Judaism in terms of its priorities, particularly with regard to the degree of continuity or change appropriate in ritual observance and law. Reconstructionist Judaism differs from Reform Judaism in its greater commitment to the preservation of tradition.

Holidays and Religious Observances
The rituals of Judaism are observed according to a calendar based on a combination of the lunar and solar cycles. It includes festivals required by the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Torah), others prescribed in later biblical books, and commemorating post-biblical or even modern events. The Hebrew year begins (in the seventh month, Tishri) with Rosh Hashanah in the fall (Jewish New Year), followed directly by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkoth (a harvest festival), and Simchat Torah (completion and recommencement of the Torah reading cycle), all in the month of Tishri.
Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) is observed in Kislev, near the Winter Solstice. Tu Bshvat, the Festival of Trees, follows in late winter, while Purim (a springtime, topsy-turvy festival) is celebrated in the month of Adar. Passover (Pesach) in the month of Nisan- the first Jewish month-is a seven-day festival that marks the beginning of the agricultural calendar and celebrates the Hebrews’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. Beginning on Passover, 50 days are counted until the celebration of Shavuot, a first fruits festival in Sivan (on the cusp of spring and summer). In between, Jews commemorate two modern events- Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). Tisha Bav (the ninth of the month of Av) is a fast observed in midsummer in memory of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The cycle continues through the month of Elul, beginning again with Rosh Hashanah (literally the “head of the year”) on the first of Tishri, in the new year.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is a two-day festival observed during Tishri (“beginning” in Babylonian), the seventh month of the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar (September–October on the Gregorian calendar). Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year” in Hebrew, is so named because Tishri is also the first month of the Hebrew civil calendar.
In the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is referred to by many names: Yom Teruah (“the day of sounding the shofar,” Feast of the Trumpets); and Yom Hazikaron (“the day of remembering”). Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the 10-day period called Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), a time for repentance that ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This period is also called Ben Kesseh LeAssor; Kesseh and Assor refer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively. Thus, it refers to the period between the two festivals. While this observance is a time for deep introspection, it is also a time for friends and family to come together and for people to forgive each other. Most significantly, Rosh Hashanah is the time to recognize God as the supreme judge of all living creatures.
Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) is one of the most important holidays of the year for both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Even Jews who are not otherwise strict in their observances make it a point to refrain from work, attend synagogue, and fast on this day. It is one of the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which includes Rosh Hashanah, the first two days of the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur, the last of the 10 days. It falls on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar (September–October), and ends the 10-day period of penitence that Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) begins. Yom Kippur is a total Sabbath (day of rest), when work of any kind is prohibited, and the devout abstain from eating and drinking water. Yom Kippur is the last chance to show regret and make amends so as to ameliorate God’s judgment relating to those sins. One atones only for the sins between oneself and the Creator, not for sins committed against another human being. To seek forgiveness for the sins against another person, a compromise with that person must be arrived at and, if possible, the trespass forgiven; this harmonious conclusion must be accomplished before Yom Kippur begins because this is the day when God closes the books and one’s fate, for better or worse, is sealed.
Hanukkah, “dedication” in Hebrew, is celebrated for eight days, usually beginning around mid to late December. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the observance recalls the Jews’ struggle for religious freedom and celebrates their triumph against the Hellenistic Syrians. In 165 B.C.E., after the Temple had been taken back and the Syrians repulsed, Judah Maccabee and his forces entered the Holy Temple and found it a shambles. When they had finished cleaning it up, they decided to rededicate it. But, when they searched for oil to light the hanukkiah for the celebrations, all they could find was a flask with only enough oil to last a day. The oil, however, lasted for eight days, giving the Maccabees time to procure new oil. On the festival’s first night, one light of the nine-branched hanukkiah is lit. Each night after that, another light is lit until the eighth and final night, when all of them are lit. The gradual addition of lights reminds the Jews of the miracle’s magnitude and growth.
There are recitations of blessings every night prior to the lighting of the candles: As they burn the eight lights of the hanukkiah, Jews narrate the triumph of their ancestors over depravity, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the miracle of one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days.
Pesach, or Passover, from Hebrew PehSamech-Chet, which means “to pass over, pass through, to exempt, or to spare,” is an eight-day festival that commemorates the departure of the nation of Israel from Egypt and the origin of a Jewish state led by Moses (or Moshe) about 3,000 years ago. Though it is mainly celebrated to remember the exodus of the Jews from Egypt after centuries of slavery, the festival also marks the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. Pesach signifies both the physical as well as the spiritual freedom earned by the Jews. The tale of the Jews’ mass exodus is told in chapters 1–15 of Exodus in the Bible. The pharaoh, concerned about the Hebrews’ population growth, decided to kill the first-born son in every Jewish family.
Moses’ mother, however, hid him in reeds along the Nile, where the pharaoh’s daughter found him and saved his life.
Sometime later, to free the enslaved Hebrews, God determined to send plagues. After each plague, Moses would remind the pharaoh of his promise to allow the Hebrews to leave, but every time the pharaoh reneged on his promise.
Finally, after the 10th plague (and losing his own son), the pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites leave Egypt. The Jews believe that God, while slaying the firstborns in Egypt during the plague, spared their houses, hence the notion of “passing over.” Jews consider the removal of chametz from their homes as the most important aspect of Pesach. Chametz refers to leaven and this act recalls that, during the exodus, the Jews were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they did not have time to let their bread rise.
Thus, they ate unleavened, or flat, bread. It is also symbolic of the removal of egotism and pride, the “puffiness,” from our souls.