An overview of the Jewish faith

jewish man

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world today. Jewish history extends back through the ancient Israelite and Hebrew people to Abraham. As a timeline of Judaism shows, through centuries and millenniums of suffering, persecution, dispersion, and victory, Judaism continues to exert a profound influence around the world. The basic facts of Judaism are found in its beliefs, history, and practices.

Jewish beliefs begin with the conviction that there is only one God. This important truth is revealed through the sacred writings of men like Moses and the prophets, the most important of which is the Torah. In Judaism, religion isn't one aspect of life - it is life. There are holidays and celebrations year round, like Passover and bar mitzvahs, to commemorate what God has done in the past and is doing in people's lives today.

At the beginning of the 21st century, approximately 14 million people identify themselves as Jews. And there are three main branches or denominations in Judaism, each of which has a different approaches to religious life, like adherence to the Law.

Jewish beliefs, history, holidays, practices, and more

Jewish Beliefs

Right doctrine and theology are very important in Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures address the biggest topics in life, from God, to the universe, to people, and it's important to believe their testimony. In the 12th century, a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides, summarized Jewish beliefs in a teaching called the 13 Articles of Faith, which many people have found to be a helpful summary of this religion's convictions.

Central to Jewish theology is the doctrine of God. Jews are monotheists. A central figure in Jewish thought is the Messiah, who is the promised anointed one that God has promised. The Scripture's teaching on human nature is also important as it establishes both the dignity of male and female as creations of God and bearers of God's image, yet they also affirm the inherent sinfulness of people and their need for forgiveness. And not only is this life important to Jewish thought, but the afterlife is as well.

Regarding beliefs, there are similarities and differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity (click to see a comparison chart).

Jewish Sects

Today, two people who identify as Jewish may have different beliefs because the religion has developed unique sects over time. The three major branches are conservative Judaism, orthodox Judaism, and reformed Judaism. Many people are also familiar with Hasidic Judaism. These denominations obey the Hebrew Scriptures differently and so live out their faith differently.

Jewish Holidays

The most important events on the Jewish calendar are holidays. Holidays in Judaism are important because they commemorate significant historical events, they mark special times in the year, and they celebrate important moments in people's lives. Many Jewish holidays are rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Examples include the Sabbath (recorded in Exodus), Passover (recorded in Exodus), The Day of Atonement (recorded in Leviticus), The Festival of Booths (recorded in Leviticus), The Jewish New Year (recorded in Leviticus), The Festival of Trees (recorded in Leviticus), and Purim (recorded in Esther). Furthermore, the Days of Awe are the 10 days from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur.

Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday, but it is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It commemorates an event that occurred after the sacred writings were authored, which was the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem, including Antichous IV, and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. When the temple was rededicated, God miraculously made the one day's worth of oil burn brightly for eight days.

Also, see the when the Jewish holidays occur on this calendar, which runs through 2016.

Jewish History

life in Hebrew
"Life" in Hebrew

Also see:
Jewish Symbols

History is important to Judaism because in it people see God's revelation, work, and unfolding plan. Judaism didn't appear in a vacuum, so its historical context is important to understand. There are several important highlights in the narrative accounts of the Hebrew Scriptures that are vital to Judaism. The time period of the Patriarchs begins with Abraham and continues with Isaac and Jacob. This era lays the foundations for subsequent ones.

The next important chapter involves Moses and Mount Sinai. After the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt by means of the 10 Plagues of Egypt, Moses leads them through the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula, an event commonly called the exodus. Moses receives the Law on Mount Sinai. Then, after 40 year of wandering in the desert because of disobedience, the Israelites enter the Promised Land and are ruled by judges for 400 years. When they ask for a king in order to be like the other nations, God relents and this begins the period of the monarchy.

Jewish Texts

The most important text in Judaism is the Torah (or Law). The Torah is part of the Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh, which consists of the Law, Prophets and Writings. Although not part of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud is also important because it records rabbinical interpretations of the sacred Scriptures. The Midrash is also important, reading like expositions on the sacred texts. The Responsa also concerns the Torah, especially case law.

The Zohar is a sacred text related to Kabbalah.

Jewish Life Cycle Rituals

Judaism commemorates the important moments in a person's life. With regard to the young, Judaism practices naming ceremonies and has traditionally held to the redemption of the firstborn. For males, circumcision (Brit Milah) is an important custom and for teenagers the Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a wonderful celebration. Yet another significant aspect in a young person's life is marriage (also see divorce).

At the end of life, death is commemorated, in part, by the mourning of those still living.

Jewish Practices

The foremost religious practice in Judaism is obeying the 613 Commandments found in the Law of Moses (also see: Mitzvot and Rabbinic Law). This includes keeping kosher and practices related to worship and prayer.

Jewish Things

A synagogue is where Jews have gathered to meet and worship for over two millenniums.

Sacred clothing and garments are also important to many Jews, including a kittel, a mezuzah, the tallit and tzitzit, as well as tefillin (phylacteries).

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