Origins and Development

The Covenant between God and Abraham that represents the start of Judaism appears in the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, Genesis 12:1–3:

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.

Abraham followed God’s instructions in his search for the Promised Land, and after many years of wandering around ended up in a place called Canaan. Along the way, God tested his faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but at the last minute, God intervened and stopped the sacrifice. He then repeated his promise to Abraham of becoming the father of a great nation. Abraham and his descendants settled in Canaan.

When the famine came, Abraham’s son Jacob took his family to the land of Egypt. They settled in, and Jacob fathered many sons and the family prospered. The descendants of Jacob’s sons would later become the twelve tribes of Israel. The new pharaoh of Egypt, worried that Jacob’s family might become more powerful than the Egyptians, came up with an idea to restrict their proliferation: kill every newborn male child at birth. The account of this, recorded in the Bible in Exodus, has within its horror a wonderful story.


The midwives got around Pharaoh’s edict with some success, so the Pharaoh stepped up the campaign and ordered that every newborn son be cast into the river. The Israelites’ daughters were spared.

One Jewish mother decided to hide her newborn son. She made an ark from bulrushes, put the boy in it, and laid it by the riverbank. The daughter of Pharaoh came to the river to wash herself and when she walked along the bank, she saw the ark and told one of her maids to fetch it. The Pharaoh’s daughter opened the ark and saw a baby boy; it was crying and she had compassion. The child became her son and she named him Moses.

When Moses was fully grown, he saw an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moses killed the slave master and had to flee Egypt. He settled in a rural farming area called Midian. Around the same time, Pharaoh died during a time of great suffering for the Israelites. God remembered his covenant with Abraham. He looked on the people and had respect for them.

Moses was tending to his work in the desert when he came to a mountain. An angel appeared to him in the form of a flame of fire on a bush. The flame burned intently but did not consume the bush. A voice then came from the bush and told Moses that he had been chosen to deliver the people from the Egyptians and take them to another land flowing with milk and honey. God commanded Moses to return to the new Pharaoh.

Pharaoh, as expected, refused the demands from Moses. As punishment, God sent ten plagues to the Egyptians, none of which had any effect. Finally, one did: it brought death in one night to the firstborn son of every Egyptian family.

After this final plague, Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Then, he had second thoughts and sent his army after them. They caught up with the Israelites at the banks of the Red Sea. The army prepared to destroy them, but God parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could get safely across. Once the Israelites were safely on the other side, the Pharaoh’s army gave pursuit. God made the Red Sea close again, drowning the entire army.

God had warned Moses of the final plague and told him that all Israelite families should smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts so their sons would not be killed on that night. The lamb’s blood would be a token, and when God saw the blood, he would pass over the house. God told Moses that sacrifice should be observed forever, and it is still celebrated as the eighth day of the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach).


The Ten Commandments

Moses was now the leader of a large number of contentious people on the move, and he had some problems. Being pursued was one of them; the others were hunger, thirst, and rebellion. Fortunately, God was still communicating with Moses and issuing instructions.

About three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites were camping in the wilderness of Sinai. God told Moses to go up to the top of the mountain. There, God revealed to Moses the Ten Commandments, written on two tablets of stone. They dealt with the people’s relationship with God and each other. God also gave Moses hundreds of more detailed rules and laws. The Ten Commandments form the basis of all the Jewish laws. They have had, and continue to have, immense influence on many other religions as well.

Pursuing the Promised Land

Deuteronomy 31 tells that when Moses was 120 years old, the Lord came to him and told him he was about to die and he would not reach the “Promised Land.” God commanded Moses to write down the Law (or Torah) and give it to the Levites. Moses’ brother Joshua was appointed by God to succeed as leader of the Israelites. Moses then climbed up Mount Pisgah, which overlooked Canaan, the Promised Land that he would never enter. Moses was never seen again, and how he died remains a mystery.

The two tablets containing the laws God gave to Moses were housed in a gold-plated chest called The Ark of the Covenant. The Israelites carried the Ark with them before they settled in the Promised Land, and from time to time took it into battle. It was taken to Jerusalem by King David, and was eventually placed in the Temple by King Solomon. Placed inside the Tabernacle within the Temple of Jerusalem, the Ark was seen only by the high priest of the Israelites on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The final fate of the Ark is unknown.

As time went on, the Israelites were ruled by a series of kings: Saul, David (who wrote many of the psalms in the Bible), and David’s son, Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom of Israel split in two and formed Judah and Israel. Throughout the centuries that followed, the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, although some came back. In 63 B.C.E., the Romans conquered the land and gave it a new name: Palestine. Three years later, the Jews revolted against Rome, but were defeated. The Temple in Jerusalem, which was rebuilt after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, was finally destroyed in 70 C.E.

All that remains of the Temple is the western wall, called the Wailing Wall. It is now a center of pilgrimage and prayer for Jews from all over the world. This site, Judaism’s holiest place on earth, is used for private prayer (performed while facing the Wall) and for public services and bar mitzvahs.

Abraham, who may have lived about 3,000 years ago, is recognized as the father of the Jewish people. God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be God’s chosen people. For their part, believers must obey God’s laws. The laws were given to Moses by God, on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are but a fraction of the 613 Mitzvot or commandments. These statements and principles of laws and ethics are all contained in the Torah or Five Books of Moses. The Mitzvot are known as commandments of “Laws of Moses.” They consist of a mixture of positive commandments to perform some act (to love God and to emulate His ways) and negative commandments to abstain from certain acts (not to profane His name or test Him unduly).

Although numerically a modest-sized religion (about 20 million adherents), Judaism has provided the historical foundation for two of the world’s largest religions: Christianity and Islam.


Central Beliefs

Judaism is a religion of ethical monotheism. God is unique and the ultimate authority, but the utter and essential backbone of the entire religion is the Torah, comprised of the first five books of theBible, attributed to Moses.

In addition to the Torah, the Hebrew canon includes the Nevi’im or the books of the prophets. Nevi’im are generally divided into two sections: the former prophets (comprised of twenty-two books) and the latter prophets, of which there are twelve. The writings of the twelve minor prophets are copied onto one scroll, so that they can be counted as one entry, so to speak. The total number of books in the Hebrew canon is thirty-nine, which was the number of scrolls on which they were originally written.

The Torah

The Torah, the most important section of the Jewish Bible, is a series of narratives and laws that chronicle the beginning of the world through the death of Moses. Jewish people and Christians agree that Moses was the author of the five books. The study of the Torah is considered an act of worship for the Jews; it is read religiously each Sabbath. Over the course of a year, the entire Torah will be read on Sabbath and festival days. There are daily and weekly classes and groups for those who wish to study the Torah.

The Talmud

The Talmud, which means study or learning, is a reference to the interpretations of the Torah. It is the supreme sourcebook of law, as it takes the rules listed in the Torah and describes how to apply them to different circumstances. It’s not actually a legal code — there are other works for that — but it is the ultimate source material used to decide all matters of Jewish law. The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud.

There is a confession of faith called a Shema, made up of three scriptural texts from Deuteronomy and Numbers, that demonstrates the power and demands emanating from the Jewish God. Because the original requirement to study the Torah night and day was understandably tough, the Shema became the substitute as a minimum requirement. It is said that pious Jews hope to die with the words of the Shema on their lips. Here is a short extract:

And ye shall teach them (these words) to your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy home, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up … remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

The fifth of the Ten Commandments says that nobody shall work on the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, starts at dusk on Friday and ends at dusk on Saturday. The synagogue has services Friday night and Saturday morning. Jews start the Sabbath by dressing up for a good meal and maybe some singing and celebration. Saturdays they go visiting friends and family and sit around reading the Torah. A ceremony called Havdalah marks the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evening. The family gathers, a candle is lit, and a box of sweet-smelling spices is passed around. If dinner is served after Havdalah, it must have been prepared earlier because cooking is not permitted on the Sabbath.


A Belief in One God

What do the Abrahamic faiths have in common? They share a belief in a single, all-powerful God as the creator and sustainer of the universe. This view was not always the case; earlier Jewish texts maintainthat the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob was just one among many gods and goddesses of the ancient Middle East. This changed about 700 B.C.E., however. By that time monotheism had become common place in Judaism. It also became true in Christianity and Islam.

In each of the Abrahamic faiths, God is the absolute power, and it is the believers’ unwavering duty to follow God’s ways in their daily lives. Islam puts special emphasis on such unquestioning obedience to God. By way of contrast, Christianity and Judaism have a scriptural tradition of questioning, arguing, and debating with God.


Rituals and Customs

Virtually everything a devout Jewish person does from the beginning to the end of life is regulated by an adherence to Jewish law and obedience to the will of God. This is most evident in the various rites,rituals, and customs of the faith. Most Jews have a mezuzah on every doorpost in the home (excluding the bathroom and toilet) to remind everyone to keep God’s laws.

A mezuzah is a parchment inscribed with religious texts in a case attached to a doorpost in a Jewish home as a sign of faith. When it comes to prescribed ritual, rites, and customs, Jewish people generally happily conform to their religious heritage.


Birth, as far as Jewish boys are concerned, means circumcision on the eighth day. The Torah says it’s the fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 17:10–14). This procedure is performed by a specially trained person called a mohel. The mohel recalls the Covenant and recites a blessing while cutting off the foreskin. The baby’s name is said at the same time.

Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar mitzvah is a ceremony held when a Jewish boy is thirteen and considered old enough to take responsibility for himself and his obedience of the law. In Jewish religious terms, he is considered an adult. The boy will be able to wear phylacteries (religious symbols worn on the forehead and left arm) during weekday and morning prayers. He may also be counted as an adult when ten males are needed to make a quorum for public prayers.

The public act of acknowledging religious maturity requires the boy to be called upon during the religious service to read from the Torah. Bar mitzvah generally takes place on a Sabbath. After the ceremony, there is frequently a festive Kiddush, or prayer, over a cup of wine and a family social dinner or even a banquet.

In modern times, Reform and Conservative congregations introduced bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls, to parallel the bar mitzvah celebrations for boys. Thereafter, Modern Orthodox congregations also instituted ceremonies for groups of girls together, usually on a Sunday. More traditionalist Orthodox groups rejected the bat mitzvah altogether, seeing it as a modernist innovation imitating reform or Christian practice.

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