Judaism is the religion of more than 14 million people around the world. As the oldest living religion in the Western world, it provided the foundation for Christianity and Islam, the other two major monotheistic religions. Together, these three faiths account for half of the world’s population.
Origins and Beliefs
Judaism introduced monotheism—the belief in one God—to the world. This concept is encapsulated in the Shema, a prayer recited daily by Jews: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Jews believe that God’s providence extends to all people, but that a special covenant exists between God and the Israelites. This covenant, however, is not perceived as providing special privileges but rather a duty to exemplify God’s message to humanity.
The idea of a coming Messiah has been a source of optimism for Jews. However, the core beliefs of Judaism are not laid out in an official creed, emphasizing conduct over doctrinal correctness. Judaism affords considerable latitude in matters of belief, particularly regarding the messianic future and immortality. This faith is deeply rooted in earthly life, seeking a just and peaceful world order.
Sacred Texts and Observances
The foundation of Jewish belief is the Hebrew Bible, particularly its first five books known as the Torah. The Torah is revered as the primary revelation of God’s law to humanity, relevant for all times. These laws were clarified and expanded upon in the oral Torah, eventually written down in the Mishnah and Talmud.
Many Jewish practices include adherence to dietary laws (kosher), rules about marital relationships, daily prayer and study, and the recital of blessings. The Sabbath and festivals are observed both at home and in the synagogue, the centre for prayer and instruction in Judaism. Observant Jews wear phylacteries (tefillin) during morning prayers and affix a mezuzah, a box containing Torah passages, to their doorposts.
Jewish Calendar and Holidays
The Jewish calendar is based on lunar months, adjusted to align with the solar year through the addition of a 13th month six times in a 19-year cycle. Days are reckoned from sunset to sunset, with the Sabbath observed from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
Key holidays in the Torah include Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Passover, Shavuoth (Feast of Weeks), and the Feast of Tabernacles. Other holidays include Chanukah and Purim. On the eighth day after birth, male children are circumcised in a ceremony known as a brit milah. At 13, a boy becomes responsible for performing commandments, marked by a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, while girls have a similar ceremony called a Bat Mitzvah.
Diversity in Judaism
Judaism is more than a religion; it’s a civilization with diverse cultures, languages, and histories. Jewish communities around the world each have unique customs and traditions, from Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe and Germany, to Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal, and Mizrahi Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.
There is also diversity within religious practices. Judaism spans from Orthodoxy, which is influential in Israel’s religious and political institutions, to Conservative and Reform Judaism. Even within these categories, practices can vary greatly.
The Bottom Line
Judaism’s rich tapestry of beliefs, customs, and traditions has evolved over millennia. Despite numerous challenges, Judaism has thrived due to its diversity and adaptability. Amidst this diversity, Jews worldwide share a common faith, traditions, and a sense of connection to the Jewish people. Their collective experience continues to shape Judaism and its role in the world today.