Marriage and the raising of children is an important part of Jewish life, just as it is in other religions. The role of matchmaker is still an important one in Jewish communities. The wedding ceremony can be held in a synagogue or in the open air. In the Jewish faith, though, it cannot take place on the Sabbath or on a festival. The bridegroom places a gold ring on the bride’s forefinger, then the kethubah or marriage contract is read and the rabbi recites the seven marriage blessings. At the end of the ceremony, the bridegroom traditionally breaks a wineglass under his foot.

What are the skull caps called that Jewish men wear?
They are called yarmulkes (Yiddish) or kippahs (Hebrew) and serve as physical symbols that demonstrate the wearer’s submission to God. Most Jews, except the most liberal members of the Reform movement, wear yarmulkes during religious services. Some Jews wear yarmulkes any time they appear in public.

The Jewish marriage contract has, in some ways, similarities to a prenuptial agreement; it has conditions stipulated that guarantee the bride’s right to property when her husband dies. In the Orthodox and Conservative congregations, it is a prerequisite for marriage. Originally, the contract was made to make divorce more costly for husbands as a deterrent against marriages that were made in a highly emotional state.


Death in the Jewish faith goes along with the belief of other religions on the resurrection of the dead. Differences are evident when deciding on what happens to the body — burial or cremation — which depends on the sect to which the individual belonged. The body must be buried as soon as possible after death (within twenty-four hours is typical) and in Jewish consecrated ground. The body is washed, anointed with spices, and wrapped in a white sheet. For a week after the death, close relatives sit at home observing shivah, wearing a torn or cut upper garment and taking no part in everyday life. Friends and relatives have a duty to visit and bring food and succor. For eleven months after death, a prayer known as the kaddish is recited every day at the synagogue and the death is remembered every year thereafter.



The synagogue is the center of Jewish community life. It has three traditional functions: house of prayer where services are held on the Sabbaths and festival days; house of assembly where Jewish peoplecan meet for any purpose; and house of study where the Torah and Talmud are studied. Children can also come to learn Hebrew and the Torah. Public congregational prayers are said at the synagogue every weekday. Prayers can only take place if there are at least ten men present in the synagogue. It is a Jewish man’s duty to attend prayers as often as possible.

A rabbi has no more authority to perform rituals than any other member of the Jewish community; a synagogue can exist and operate quite well without one. However, a rabbi is usually employed by the congregation to run things and settle disputes regarding Jewish law. Generally, a rabbi has been formally educated in Halakhah (Jewish law). When a person has completed the necessary course of study, he or she is given a written document known as a semikhah, confirming his authority. A rabbi’s status does not give him the authority to conduct religious services; any knowledgeable Jew can lead a religious service. However, rabbis are the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community. In many areas, particularly in the United States, rabbis carry out pastoral counseling, hospital and military chaplaincies, and teaching in Jewish schools.

A typical synagogue contains an ark — a special cupboard or alcove that faces Jerusalem —where the scrolls of the Law are kept; there will also be a perpetual lamp or “eternal light” before the ark. The synagogue will have a bimah, a raised platform near the center of the room used for reading the Torah and saying or singing prayers. Many Jewish prayers are sung; the singing may be led by a cantor or a choir or it can be congregational singing.

Men and women are still segregated in Orthodox synagogues. Historically, the women’s section was located in the balcony, while men sat in the main part of the synagogue. Now, the men and women may sit side by side, separated by a border that bisects the synagogue. The practice of segregation has been abandoned in Reform and Conservative congregations.

The Torah scrolls, which are handwritten on parchment, are protected by being “dressed” in velvet coverings and silver ornaments. The scrolls are valuable; the handwriting on them is carried out by a skilled expert and can take a year to complete. In addition to the elaborate fastenings, there is a silver pointer used when reading the Torah, to avoid finger contact with the parchment. It is the duty of every adult male to take a turn reading the Torah, which requires special training. When a boy does this for the first time, it is considered an important occasion in his life.

The public readings and worship of the Scriptures can be a complicated and elaborate ceremony depending on the time and day of the week and which kind of festival is being observed.


Religious Festivals and Holy Holidays

Festivals are the backbone of the Jewish faith; they reflect Jewish history and its teaching. They fulfill the purpose of festival remembrance by maintaining and passing on, one generation to the next,the emotions of a heritage carried forward into the present and never lost. They nurture the sense of cohesiveness that has sustained the Jewish people throughout their long and often heartrending history.

In the Jewish calendar, festivals are divided into two segments: major and minor. The five major ones are as laid down in the Torah: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year usually takes place sometime in September. This holiday is also known as the Day of Judgment or Day of Remembrance. Rosh Hashanah ushers in a ten-day period of self-examination and penitence.

The Day of Atonement, known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur, arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is the most solemn Jewish religious holiday. On this day, Jews seek purification through the forgiveness of others and sincere repentance of their own sins. They abstain from food, drink, and sex.

The days for the Festival of Pesach or Passover usually fall in March or April. Passover celebrates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. During this weeklong holiday, Jewish people eat unleavened bread known as matzoh in commemoration of the quickly made unleavened bread the Israelites had to subsist on during their escape from Egypt.

Shavuot, translated into Greek as “Pentecost” by the early Christians, takes place seven weeks after Passover and was originally an agricultural festival that marked the beginning of the wheat harvest. Additionally, this holiday also commemorates the anniversary of Moses receiving the Law of God on Mount Sinai.

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. It is an autumn festival that celebrates the end of the harvest. During this holiday, which lasts a week, people build little huts, known as sukkahs, where they are required to spend some time in meditation.

All other festivals are considered minor, although Hanukkah, officially a minor festival, has become so popular that it is often celebrated more than some of the major festivals.

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. This produces the need to add a thirteenth month every now and then so that the major festivals fall in their proper season. It takes a Jewish mathematician to track what is called the lunisolar structure.


Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is a movement that modified or abandoned many of the traditional Jewish beliefs, laws, and practices in order to bring Judaism into the modern world in all aspects of social, political,and cultural conditions. The movement began in Germany in the nineteenth century in response to appeals to update the Jewish liturgy and other rituals. The Jews were being liberated from the ghettos, and many began to question Jewish tradition and its dietary laws, prayers said in Hebrew, and even the wearing of special outfits that set them apart as Jews.

The First Reform Services

A Jewish layman, Israel Jacobson, began a school in Seesen, Brunswick, Germany in 1801. In 1809, he held the first Reform services. The liturgy was in German, not Hebrew; men and women were allowed to sit together; organ and choir music were added to the service; and Jacobson instituted confirmation for boys and girls to replace the traditional bar mitzvah. The services also left out all references to a personal messiah who would restore Israel as a nation. The questions being asked were: “Who is Israel? What is its way of life? How does it account for its existence as a distinct and distinctive group?”

The Spreading Movement

The Reform movement was not a success in Europe. Many European governments that regulated religious communities didn’t countenance more than one form of Judaism in any particular locale. It was in the United States, to which the movement was imported by the mass German-Jewish immigration in the 1840s, that it flourished. By 1880, almost all the 200 synagogues in the United States had become Reform.

In 1885, the Pittsburgh Platform, put together by Reform rabbis, declared that Judaism was an evolutionary faith and should be deorientalized. One conclusion was that the Talmud should be looked at as religious literature, not as legislation.

What do Reform Jews believe?
One of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to each particular belief or practice. As Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote, “Reform Judaism affirms the fundamental principle of liberalism: that the individual will approach this body of mitzvot (commandments) of freedom and choice.”

3Current movements advocate a return to more traditional mores. In 1999, Leaders of Reform Judaism embraced rituals associated more with Conservative and Orthodox Judaism than with the Reform movement, wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls, observing dietary laws, and conducting prayer services in Hebrew.


Orthodox Judaism

Orthodoxy in Judaism came into existence around 1795 and supported a belief in the dual Torah. The dual Torah was revealed at Sinai and is concerned with oral and written versions of the law. The argumentwas that the written law could never have stood alone and must have been accompanied by an oral tradition. For example, Exodus 12:15 says that the number of days during which unleavened bread must be eaten amounts to seven, whereas in Deuteronomy 16:8, it is six. Orthodox Jews rely on the oral Torah to account for the discrepancy.

Orthodox Judaism is not a unified movement; it is many different movements adhering to a common principle. They believe the Torah — both written and oral — to be of divine origin and the exact work of God; the human element was not involved in its creation, so the words are immutably fixed and remain the sole norm of religious observance. Most of the movements have similar observances and beliefs; it’s the details that vary.

Beliefs and Practices

While Orthodox Judaism adheres to the common Jewish principles, the following are some of the ways in which they are uncommon. In addition to the Sabbath, religious holidays include the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). All holidays except the Day of Atonement are observed for two days. The first two days of Passover and last two days of Tabernacles are days on which work is forbidden, as it is on the Sabbath and other holidays. The preparation of food is prohibited only on the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement. Hanukkah and Purim are post-Biblical holidays and do not include a prohibition against work.

Orthodox households have strict rules regarding the way foods and their utensils are used. Meat and dairy products may not be eaten together or at the same meal. A completely different set of utensils is used for the two types of food; there are different storage areas and the utensils should be washed separately. The law so affects Orthodox Jews that some find it virtually impossible to eat out, except in strict Kosher restaurants.

There are no restrictions about medical treatment. Orthodox Jews consider physicians instruments through which God can effect a cure. When it comes to death, funeral, and burial requirements, the form is to follow the established way, but it prohibits cremation. Apart from very unusual circumstances, such as promoting justice, autopsies are not permitted because they break the prohibition against mutilation of the body and show disrespect for the dead. A rabbi should be consulted before an autopsy is considered.

Contraception is limited to women. A vasectomy or use of a condom by males is not permitted. Abortion is permitted if the continuation of the pregnancy presents grave physical or psychiatric dangers.

The Essential Element

The essential element of Orthodox Judaism is the complete and utter adherence to the established laws. Everything in the life of an Orthodox Jew is directly related to the affirmation of that ethic. There are even some communities that maintain holy Israel should live wholly apart from gentiles. Other, more moderate, members agree that integration with Western culture while maintaining the law of the Torah together with secular politics and general social affairs is preferable.

It is estimated that only about 10 percent of the total Jewish population in America is Orthodox. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, which represents about 1,000 congregations, was founded in New York City in 1898.


Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Jews are the most orthodox of the Orthodox movement, even though, strictly speaking, both are distinct branches of Judaism. Hasidic Jews adhere absolutely to the teachings of the written law (theTorah) and the oral law (the Talmud). The sect began in Poland in 1760, led by a revivalist named Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), who stressed the study of Jewish literature. In the Hasidic tradition, a Master is also known as a Zaddik or righteous man.

The Master is has a direct line to God. After the founder’s death, Hasidism spread throughout Europe and diversified. The main body of the sect remained in Europe until the Holocaust, when tremendous numbers of Hasidic Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. Some escaped to the United States. In New York, they settled predominantly in Brooklyn, where today around 100,000 followers live.


Hasidic Jews often get attention on the street because of their appearance. The men are usually dressed completely in black with wide-brimmed hats, long coats, beards, and extended, rope-like sideburns. Originally, their dress was the local custom in Poland; today, it symbolizes their religious fervor.

Jewish law says there should be a separation between the top and bottom halves of the body when praying. Most Hasidic men wear a gartel; others wear a regular belt.
Often, a Hasidic man will be seen with a black box (tefillin) on his head or arm to follow the Torah commandant to have a box containing parchment verses from the Torah. During morning services the box is worn on the head (“between your eyes”) or on the arm (“upon your hand”). In some congregations, women also wear tefillin.

Another custom regards the hair, both on the head and on the face. As always, the law is open to interpretation. The most orthodox men who follow the law to the letter will not deviate from the commandment that a straight razor should not be used on one’s temple or to shave one’s beard. The side-locks are also an answer to an interpretation of the law against shaving the temples. The long sideburns are called peyot.

Beliefs and Practices

Hasidic religious duties are carried out in a spirit of devotion. Prayer serves not to petition or supplicate God but as the way to ascend to a relationship of union with God.

While the Hasidic way of life may seem very restricted or even morose, it was the source of some profound music. In the 1700s, the Hasidic movement exerted a significant influence on what is called klezmer in Yiddish. The word is used to denote professional eastern European Jewish dance musicians. The term is a combination of two Hebrew words: kle, which means “vessel” or “instrument,” and zemer, which means “song.” In recent times, klezmer music has gained prominence. The Hasidic sect made religion more accessible to the masses by emphasizing dancing and singing with intense urgency to “ascend” to higher realms through their music.


Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism is predominantly centered in the United States. Inspired by Zacharias Frankel in the 1800s, it was expanded in 1902 in New York by a Jewish Talmudic scholar, Solomon Schecter. In 1913,Schecter founded the United Synagogue of America, which eventually grew to over 800 Conservative congregations.

Central Beliefs

Conservative Judaism believes in observing traditional Jewish laws, sacred texts, and beliefs and being open to modern culture and critical secular scholarship, which allows for changes in practices.

The theology of the Conservative movement is midway between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism, with Orthodox being the strict element and Reform the more liberal. For instance, in 1985 the Rabbinical Assembly, an organization of Conservative rabbis in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Israel, founded in 1900, voted to allow the admittance of women as rabbis for the first time, something Orthodox Judaism has yet to do.

Many Conservatives stress Jewish nationalism, encourage the study of Hebrew, and support the secular Zionist movement, which emphasizes the importance of the Jewish national homeland and supports the development of Israel. In spite of the differences among the affiliations, the Conservatives have maintained continuity with tradition, which often makes it difficult to differentiate one theology from another. The Conservatives like diversity, which is why their views and practices range from Orthodoxy to Reform.

A Forward Movement

In 1960, the leadership of Conservative Jews agreed to allow the use of electricity on the Sabbath and a car to travel to the synagogue. This decision was a major step forward in the direction of modern thought for Conservative Jews.

Conservative Jews maintain their links with the past by insisting on the sacredness of the Sabbath and respecting some dietary laws, like the prohibition against eating pork. However, they do not require a strict kosher kitchen. The rabbinical assembly, Conservative Judaism’s official body, is located in New York City at the Jewish theological seminary, which educates future rabbis for the movement.

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