What Is Judaism?
Judaism is the first monotheistic religion (belief in one God) and is one of the oldest world religions. Adherents of Judaism are called Jews.
The Foundation for Judaism is the Torah (or Pentateuch) which consists of the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is why Jews are said to believe in the God of the Old Testament. According to the Torah, Abraham is the father of Judaism. He was born at a time when people worshipped many gods, but he believed that there was only one God. Moses, one of Abraham’s descendants, freed their people from slavery in Egypt and taught them God’s commandments upon receiving the Torah.
Apart from the Torah, the other sacred texts which the Jews use as reference are the Tanakh (or Hebrew Bible), Talmud, and Midrash. Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. The Nevi’im and Ketuvim are the books of history, prophecy, poetry, and other sacred writings. The Talmud is also called the Oral Torah while the Midrash is composed of interpretations of the Torah.
The main denominations of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Judaism is not a simple religion because it has many laws. And this has led many Jews to detach, giving rise to more relaxed versions of the religion, differing mainly in their approach to Jewish law. Orthodox Jews say that Jewish law is divinely ordained, everlasting, and unalterable while Reform Judaism says that Jewish laws are mere guidelines and need not be strictly followed by all Jews. Conservative Judaism would therefore fall somewhere in the middle.
An example of Jewish law is their restriction on diet. Just like Muslims have halal (or permissible food), Jews have kosher – food prepared in accordance with their dietary laws which is collectively called kashrut. To be considered kosher, meat and poultry must be slaughtered in a process called shechitah – it has to be quick and painless. Meat and dairy products must also not be eaten together. A grace period of up to 6 hours must elapse before one is eaten after the other. This is supposedly based on the Biblical command against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. The Jews are also not allowed to eat pork or shelled seafood. Cookware and tableware must also be used exclusively to prepare and serve kosher food.
Their dietary laws are mostly derived from the Oral Torah. The reasons for the restrictions include obedience to God, ritual purity, self-control, health improvement, reduction in animal cruelty, and preserving the distinctness of the Jewish community.
The Jews are also required to wash their hands before eating bread, which, come to think of it, does not only purify them ritually but also prevents sickness. In some cases, they are even required to purify themselves by taking a ritual bath called a mikveh.
Judaism is also a very colorful religion, rich in tradition. Below are some of them.
Jewish people worship in synagogues and a rabbi usually leads the service. Rabbis are considered spiritual authorities, having spent years studying in yeshivas (or seminaries).
It’s quite easy to spot a Jew on the street as they usually wear clothing to identify with their religion, such as the kippah or yarmulke which is a brimless skullcap. They say that by wearing this, you are recognizing that God is above all mankind. It is also a symbol of pride and identity for them as this is a visible sign of their faith.
Jewish holidays incorporate the themes which characterize God’s relationship with humanity such as creation, revelation, and redemption. Holidays are important for the Jews because it helps them remember the past, express gratitude for the present, and hope for the future.
Shabbat or Sabbath – a day of rest which starts on Friday evening until Saturday evening. This is reminiscent of the Bible story of Creation. God rested after 6 days of creation. Keeping the Sabbath holy is also included in the 10 Commandments. Jewish people, who are known to be hard working, are not supposed to think about work or other stressful things during Sabbath. It’s a nice break to their daily grind because it’s an oasis of calm, a time of stillness in their lives.
Pesach or Passover – a week-long holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. A ritual dinner (called a seder), which is similar to a Thanksgiving dinner, is celebrated either on the first or second night of the holiday. Jews usually refrain from eating bread throughout this holiday, in remembrance of the fact that their ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and did not have the time to wait for their bread to rise.
Sukkot or Festival of Booths – commemorates the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. It is celebrated through the construction of temporary booths or shelters called sukkot that represent the shelters of the Israelites during their journey. Jews around the world eat (sometimes even sleep) in sukkot for 7 days and nights.
Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. It marks the beginning of a 10-day period of atonement leading up to Yom Kippur, where Jews are obliged to search their souls and make amends for sins committed. Just like any New Year celebration, Rosh Hashanah is a time to look back at the year that passed and make resolutions for the year to come.
Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a day of communal fasting and praying for forgiveness for one’s sins. On the eve of Yom Kippur, before candles are lit, a prefast meal called the seuda mafseket is eaten.
The Jews have gone through a lot of persecution from as far back as the 1st century AD. But somehow, they have survived through it all. A sad and unforgettable part of their history is the killing of over 6 million Jews during World War II which they commemorate through the modern holiday of Yom Ha-shoah (or Holocaust Memorial Day).
Rites of Passage
Life cycle events, or rites of passage, serve to strengthen Jewish identity and bind them closer to the entire community. Below are some of the more popular rites.
Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
When Jewish children turn 12 or 13, they go through a ceremony called bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls). This celebration commemorates their passage into Jewish adulthood, meaning that they can now fully participate in Jewish traditions.
Have you ever attended a Jewish wedding ceremony where the groom breaks a glass with his foot at the end? Well this actually symbolizes the continuous mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the scattering of the Jewish people. It is to remind them that even in the midst of celebration, Jews still feel sadness for their loss. However, some joke that the breaking of the glass is actually the last time a newly married man will ever be able to put his foot down!
The Jews believe that God’s loving kindness flows every moment of everyday and advocates the imitation of God by espousing the values of compassion, mercy, peace, and self-respect. Specific Jewish ethical practices include practices of charity (tzedakah) and refraining from negative speech (lashon hara).
It has been said that Judaism is a faith of action. Indeed, Judaism emphasizes practice over belief. Now, is Judaism a strict religion? Yes, but only because Jews strive to bring holiness into everything they do. For them, every act should honor God such that their whole life becomes an act of worship. For the Jews, it is important that the way they live their faith contributes to the overall holiness of the world.
The Jews may be small in number compared to other religions; but by their faith and resilience, they have survived so much hatred and persecution. May we be inspired by them and instead sow love wherever we may be. By restricting ourselves, we in fact gain the freedom to worship God in a way that pleases Him most.
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