Centuries after the flood of Genesis 6-8, God appeared to a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons, with the promise, “‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth will be blessed by you'” (Gen. 12:2-3 NIV). He established a covenant with this man, Abram, to be called Abraham, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars and to give them a land to call their own.
Thus begins Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people.
Exploring the principles of Judaism, one might encounter the observation that Judaism is less about belief and more about action. No definitive belief system exists, although the Jewish philosopher and Torah expert Moses ben Maimon, also called Maimondes or Rambam, attempted in the 12th century to compile a list of the basic, general beliefs of Judaism, called the Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith. At its core, Judaism emphasizes deed, not creed.
Nevertheless, adherents of Judaism do mutually hold to a few key beliefs, among them the belief that there is one eternal, infallible God and that He has spoken through the Torah. More traditional followers believe that a messiah will come; others, in a messianic age, a utopia of sorts. The messiah, the prophets of the Written Torah foretold, would come from the line of King David to deliver the Jewish nation. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the messiah, while most Jews still wait. (Jews that acknowledge Jesus as the messiah are known as Messianic Jews or, colloquially, “Jews for Jesus.”)
The central scripture of Judaism is the Torah, the first part of the Written Torah, which encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament Bible, also called the Pentateuch. In the 200s B.C., Rabbi Simlai identified 613 distinct commandments, or mitzvot, in the Torah that direct right living, 365 negative (“don’t’s”) and 248 positive (“do’s”). (For a complete list of the mitzvot, see this article.)
The Written Torah also contains the Nevi’im [Prophets] and the Ketuvim [the Writings]. The Nevi’im records the history of the Jewish people; the Ketuvim, poetry, prophecy, and history.
In addition the Written Torah, Judaism has an Oral Torah, so named because it describes laws not specified in the Written Torah, but passed through application and tradition. Judah ha-Nasi, a prominent rabbi during the Roman occupation of Judea, edited the Mishnah, a written book of the Oral Torah. The Talmud, the other book of the Oral Torah, is made up of law and thought extracted from the Mishnah.
For much of the 20th century, one could divide Judaism into three main branches: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative.
- Orthodox Judaism adheres most closely to the teaching of the Torah and following the 613 mitvoz.
- Reform Judaism arose in Enlightenment Europe with the view that the traditions and rituals of Orthodox Judaism were outdated. Followers of Reform Judaism often pick and choose which aspects of Judaism apply to them according to their convictions.
- Conservative Judaism, known as Masorti Judaism outside of North America, falls between Orthodox and Reform. It aligns with the motto “tradition and change.”
Several other sects have arisen over the years, but the three above are still relevant on the religious scene of Judaism today.
The house of worship in Judaism is called a synagogue. Adherents may also study and meet at a synagogue. Each synagogue contains an Ark, Torah scrolls, and an Eternal Light. The Ark, a wooden chest, symbolizes the covenant God made with Moses at Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus. The Eternal Light, Ner Tamid, “hangs above the Ark…always burning as a symbol of God’s presence.”
From a platform called the bimah, a rabbi or congregation member reads from the Torah. All but unmarried women cover their heads with a hat in respect for God. Some men wear tallits, or prayer shawls. Recitation of prayer from the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, forms the main part of worship.
The holidays and festivals of Judaism revolve around the history of the Jewish people. Using a standard Gregorian calendar, these celebrations fall on different dates every year but, by the Jewish calendar, they come as regularly as Christmas or Valentine’s Day. The Jewish calendar coordinates the astronomical phenomena of day, month, and year so that each month has either 29 or 30 days, with years of either 12 or 13 months. The major holidays of Judaism are as follows:
- Shabbat: This is a weekly observance modeled after God’s creation of the world, when He worked for six days and rested on the seventh.
- Rosh Hashanah [“beginning of the new year”]: This is one of the biggest holidays for the Jewish people. It celebrates the Jewish new year. Though the first month in the Jewish calendar is Nissan, Rosh Hashanah takes place on the first two days in the 7th month, Tishri.
- Yom Kippur: The Torah calls this day Shabbat Shabbaton, which means “a Sabbath of complete rest.” The day focuses on self-denial and atonement. It falls on the 10th day of Tishri, eight days after the end of Rosh Hashanah.
- Sukkot: This holiday, which begins five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishri, both celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the Hebrews’ forty-year wandering in the wilderness. It ends with Shemini Atzeret, the “8th day of assembly.”
- Simchat Torah: Translated as “rejoicing with the Torah”, this celebration marks the end of the annual Torah reading cycle and the beginning of a new. It is the 23rd day of Tishri.
- Hanukkah: This eight-day holiday commemorates the miracle of the menorah after the Jews overthrew a tyrant king who had captured the temple in Jerusalem. Though they had enough oil to light the eight candles of the menorah for only one day, it burned for eight. Hanukkah celebrates light in the dark days of winter and freedom from oppression. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the 9th month.
- Purim: This celebration on the 14th or 15th day of Adar, the 12th or 13th month, stems from the rescue of the Jews from Haman in the Book of Esther. Haman despised the Jews, and convinced King Xerxes of Persia to sign an edict to kill them, but Queen Esther, the Jewish wife of King Xerxes, prevented this genocide.
- Passover: This festival remembers the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, where they had been slaves. It lasts eight days, beginning on the 15th day of the first month Nissan.
- Shavuot: Also called the Festival of the First Fruits, Shavuot began as a harvest festival, but has developed into a celebration for the giving of the Law. It lasts from the evening of 6 Sivan [the 3rd month] to the evening of 8 Sivan.
- Tisha B’Av: On this day, Jews remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem by first the Babylonians, then the Romans. If not a leap year, it occurs on the 9th day of Av, the 5th month in the Jewish calendar.
About 14 million people worldwide, or 0.2% of the global population, identify as Jewish, though censuses do not tell how many practice Judaism. However, even if every Jew in the world adhered, Judaism would still rank at the smallest of the five major world religions.
A little less than half of the world population of Jews lives in Israel, staying close to Jerusalem. The Jews regard Jerusalem, Yerushalayim in Hebrew, as a holy place, where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, and where King David prepared for the building of the First Temple. The Holy Temple has faced much destruction over the centuries, and today only the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, remains.
Today, the Jewish people still wait for the day that they will, as expressed in Israel’s national anthem, “live in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Other posts in “World Religions”
 About Yom Kippur
Disclaimer: I am not a religious scholar or theologian, but only a young woman trying to better understand the beliefs of those around me. I do not claim infallibility in my analysis of religion, and apologize for any errors.