The Jews have a 5,750 year history, tracing their origins to Biblical times. Evolving out of a common religion, the Jewish people developed customs, culture, and an ethical system which identified them as Jews regardless of their individual religious attitudes. The ancient Jews were both conquerors and the conquered. But they were among only a handful of ancient peoples to survive, despite centuries of persecution, massacres, and their dispersion amongst all of the world’s nations. Where other peoples assimilated, the Jews adopted some local customs and folkways, but held onto the basic tenets of their religion and culture.
This chapter describes the history, religion, customs and culture of the Jewish people. An understanding of “who are the Jews” is a prerequisite to understanding the roots of anti-Semitism, which, in its most vile form, sowed the seeds of the Holocaust which had as its ultimate objective the total annihilation of the Jewish people.
Judaism is the religion of the Jews. There are an estimated 14 million followers of the Jewish religion around the world. Most of the world’s Jews are concentrated in three countries: the United States (six million), Israel (3.7 million), and the Soviet Union (2.5 million). Other nations with significant Jewish populations are France (650 thousand), Great Britain (400 thousand), Canada (300 thousand), Argentina (300 thousand), and Brazil (150 thousand).
Judaism was the first religion based on monotheism, the belief in one God. All of the major Western religions found their roots in Judaism.
A central tenet of Judaism is that God, the Creator of the World, made a special agreement called a covenant (berit in Hebrew) with Abraham, from whom the Jewish people descended. The covenant provided that the Jews would be blessed with God’s love and protection if they remained true to God’s law and faithfully worshipped Him, and be accountable for sins and transgression against God and His laws. The Jewish People have often been referred to throughout history as the “Chosen People” because of the belief that the Jews were singled out among all of the ancient peoples to receive God’s laws and His blessings. According to Judaism, the Jews were chosen to be His servants although God is the universal Creator of all humanity.
Jews traditionally do not encourage converts, although converts are accepted after they demonstrate knowledge about the faith and their sincerity in accepting its laws.
The tenets of Judaism include a belief in a coming Messiah (derived from the Hebrew, meaning, “the anointed one”) who will unite the Jewish people and lead them under a Kingdom of God on earth and bring peace and justice to all mankind.
While Judaism recognizes an “afterlife,” it is principally a “this world” religion. The Creator in Judaistic theology is all-knowing and does not have a corporal form.
Judaism is traditionally decentralized. There is no equivalent to a Pope or other central, international decision-making authority who determines religious dogma or practice. Each Jewish congregation is responsible for its own affairs and is usually, but not always, led by a spiritual leader called a rabbi. Many rabbis are trained in a seminary or university established for the purpose of furthering religious scholarship and teaching. Each of the major groups of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist) has its own institution in the United States for training rabbis, and each sect, and for that matter, each congregation, maintains its own practices, traditions, and interpretations of Jewish law.
Jewish worship and study often takes place at a synagogue, and religious services often include prayer and readings from the Torah. Services held in a synagogue are traditionally led by a rabbi and assisted by a cantor, who leads the chanting and songs which accompany prayer.
Judaism traditionally emphasizes ethical conduct and the treatment of others “as one would wish to be treated themselves.” Thus, the doctrine which does exist through written and oral Jewish law is continually being reinterpreted to respond to modern developments.
The major body of Jewish law is found in the Torah, which consists of the Five Books of Moses (also known as the Pentateuch) and which forms the first part of the Old Testament. This law has been supplemented by oral law and interpretations of the law which comprise the Talmud.
There are 613 commandments included in the Torah, which also includes the “Ten Commandments.” These 613 commandments govern Jewish law covering such areas as philanthropy, sacrifices, prayer, ritual purity, dietary laws, and observances of the Sabbath and other holy days. The Jewish system of law, also referred to as Halacha, includes a civil and criminal justice system which is followed by observant Jews. Halacha regulates Jewish life, such as marriage and divorce, burial, relationships with non-Jews and education.
As is true with adherents of all religions, the degree to which individual Jews observe Jewish laws and traditions varies.
Among the practices of observant Jews are:
1. Dietary Laws
Strict Jewish law requires that Jews may not eat certain foods, such as pork, certain seafood, or food without the blood removed, and may not mix dairy and meat products at the same meal. These laws also describe how animals must be slaughtered so as to minimize suffering.
2. Jewish Calendar
Jewish law utilizes both a lunar and solar calendar to set the dates of holidays. The dates of holidays and festivals are determined by a lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. The time from new moon to new moon is 29 days, 12.75 hours. Jewish months are thus either 29 or 30 days. Because a solar year is 365.25 days and a lunar year is about eleven days shorter (12 times 29.5), adjustments are made to the Jewish calendar to assure that holidays remain within the same season (which themselves are solar-based calculations rather than lunar) every year. A lunar month is inserted as a “leap month” as a part of this adjustment, with a total of seven months being added every 19 years.
The Jewish Sabbath and holidays traditionally begin at sunset the evening before the day the Sabbath or holiday is observed. Thus the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah in 1990 was observed September 21st and 22nd, but began at sunset on September 20th.
3. Sabbath and Festival Observance
The fourth of the ten commandments is “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy” (Exodus 20:8). Observant Jews do not perform any work on the Sabbath, which is spent in prayer and religious study. In addition to the Sabbath, Jews both in ancient times and today celebrate holidays and festivals, each of which have their own rituals associated with observance. Among these are:
Rosh Hashanah (New Year): Rosh Hashanah marks the new year of the Jewish calendar. It is both a joyous and a solemn holiday. Jews around the world do not work and do not attend school on that day. The ram’s horn (shofar) is blown ritually to serve as the beginning of ten days of repentance which culminates in Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur: This is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Jews do not go to work or to school on Yom Kippur, and refrain from eating or drinking for the entire holiday. It is considered by Jews to be the day in which every individual is judged by God, and thus it is a solemn day marked by prayer and repentance.
Passover: Passover is an eight-day festival commemorating the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. A ritual feast on the first two nights of this holiday, called a Seder, includes the recounting of the Passover story. Ritual foods are eaten during these eight days which are not eaten at other times of the year. Observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days and the last two days of this holiday.
Shavuot (Feast of Weeks): Shavuot is a festival which marks the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai by God. It is a two-day holiday which is often celebrated by having an all night study session on religious topics with friends. Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Shavuot.
Succot: Succot is a commemoration of the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness before they received the Torah. It is also a commemoration of the final harvest before the winter rains. It is an eight-day holiday, and observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days or the last day. It is customary to build a structure called a Succah as a symbol of the types of structures the Israelites lived in while they were wandering in the dessert.
Simchat Torah: Simchat Torah commemorates the conclusion and the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings which lasts one year. It occurs the day after Succot ends. Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Simchat Torah.
Hanukkah: Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday which marks the victory of the ancient Israelites, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C.E. Traditionally, Jews light a candle for each night of this holiday until there are eight on the eighth day, plus an extra “shammash” candle. In recent times, it has become traditional to exchange gifts on this holiday. Although Hanukkah usually occurs during the time of Christmas, it is in no way a comparable holiday to Christmas for the Jews.
Purim: Purim is a minor festival of the Jewish calendar which commemorates the triumph of the Jews over a murderous plot by an advisor to King Ahasuerus in Persia in the fifth century B.C.E. It is a joyous holiday and is celebrated by reading the Megillah (a scroll which tells the story of Purim) by baking hamintaschen (triangular-shaped cookies containing jams) and by dressing up in costumes.
4. Ritual Clothing
For centuries, observant Jews have dressed differently than citizens of their host countries while engaged in secular and non-secular activities. During prayer, Jewish males have traditionally worn the following:
a. Skull cap (Kippah, yarmulka): head covering.
b. Phylacteries (Tefillin): these are small boxes containing Torah passages written on parchment with leather straps which are worn on the forehead and left arm during prayers.
c. Fringed Shawl (Tallit): these are worn during prayer.
5. Life Cycle Events
a. Circumcision (Bris) male Jewish children are circumcised on the eighth day after their birth as a sign of a covenant between Abraham and God. The boy is given his name at this ceremony.
b. Bar Mitzvah: at the age of thirteen, Jewish law considers boys to have reached adulthood. A special service is held in the boy’s honor, and he is permitted to read from the Torah for the firs time. The comparable ceremony for girls is a Bat Mitzvah which varies in religious significance depending on the sect of Judaism.
c. Marriage and Divorce: at a marriage ceremony, observant Jews sign a marriage contract called a Ketuba. The Ketuba describes the conditions of marriage. The marriage ceremony, as in many other religions, has been ritualized and often includes the breaking of a glass by the groom to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. Jewish law recognizes divorce, made official by a document called a Get. Even if observant Jews obtain a civil divorce, the spouse is unable to remarry in the absence of obtaining a Get from a Jewish court.
d. Death and Mourning: upon the death of a Jew, the body is ritually washed and placed in a coffin for burial, generally the day after death. Loved ones observe a seven-day period of mourning called Shiva at which time religious services are held in the home of the bereaved. The anniversary of the death of a parent (Yahrzeit) is observed by lighting a candle and saying a prayer (Kaddish) in memory.
A Brief History of the Jewish People
The history of the Jews, as described in the Bible, begins with the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was the first to forsake the polytheism and idol worshipping of his people for a belief in one God. Abraham’s son, Isaac, and Isaac’s son, Jacob, are also considered to be patriarchs by the Jews. The story of Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, is also found in the Bible. He was sold as a slave to the Egyptians by his own brothers. As a result of a famine, the remainder of Joseph’s family resettled in Egypt where they and their descendants lived in peace for several generations. However, in approximately 1580 B.C.E., a new Pharaoh (ruler) in Egypt felt threatened by the Jews as well as other peoples who had settled there, so he made them slaves.
In the Book of Exodus, the story of Moses and his liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage is told. Moses led the Jews out of Egypt after the Egyptians were afflicted with ten plagues. The Israelites then spent 40 years wandering in the desert under Moses’ leadership. While in the desert, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and, according to tradition, returned with the Ten Commandments from God as well as the Torah. Moses died before the Israelites entered the “Promised Land” of Israel.
Following the death of Moses, the twelve tribes of Israel (one tribe descending from each of Jacob’s twelve sons) were led by Joshua into the Promised Land, then inhabited by the Canaanites. After capturing Jericho, the Israelites systematically conquered the rest of Israel. Challenges from Canaanites and Philistines were repelled, the latter people suffering a defeat at the hands of Samson.
The Israelites, seeking an alternative to theocratic leadership, convinced the religious leader at the time, the prophet Samuel, to anoint a king. The first king was Saul (1020-1000 B.C.E.), a member of the tribe of Benjamin, who won victories over the Ammonites and the Philistines. However, Samuel became disillusioned over the autocratic way King Saul ruled the country. Instead of passing leadership of the nation onto Saul’s son, Jonathan, Samuel secretly anointed David, a member of the tribe of Judah, as Israel’s second king. David had won renown as the warrior who had slain the giant Goliath. David was the eventual victor of a power struggle, which eventually made him king over all of Israel. During David’s reign, the Israelites captured Jerusalem and made it both their religious and secular capital.
The heir to King David’s throne was Solomon, the son of the King and Bath-Sheba. King Solomon’s reign (961-922 B.C.E.) was peaceful. He was noted for lavish building projects, including the First Temple in Jerusalem. There was discontent among the tribes which settled in the north concerning the heavy taxation and forced labor policies of King Solomon, which he felt necessary to create his lavish palaces and public buildings.
Following his death, the ten northern tribes broke away and established their own kingdom, while the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Solomon’s successor, King Rehoboam. The capital of the Northern Kingdom was established in Samaria, and the capital of the Southern Kingdom remained in Jerusalem, the historic city in Judah under Jewish control.
In 722 B.C.E., Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians. The fate of the Jews of Samaria is unknown, and they are referred to as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”
In 598 B.C.E., Judah was invaded by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. Much of the population of the Israelites was sent into exile in Babylonia. Jerusalem itself fell under siege in 586 B.C.E. and was destroyed. The destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem is commemorated by the Fast of Tishah be-Av, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av. In exile, the Israelites found themselves to be able to participate in the economic and social life of their new land, and to reorganize and maintain Jewish life. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 B.C.E., the Persian King Cyrus permitted all conquered peoples to return to their homelands. About 50,000 Jews returned to Judah, although many stayed in Babylon, having established a new life there.
After several decades of delays, the Second Temple was built and dedicated in 516 B.C.E.
Following centuries of relative peace and calm in which the ancient land of Israel was ruled by the Egyptians, the Syrians gained the upper hand in 198 B.C.E. At first, Syrian rule was benign. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes began his rule, he sought to forbid the practice of Judaism in favor of Hellenism. He required the erection of a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple, which kindled a revolt. The military commander for the Jews was Judah Maccabee, who overcame a superior force of highly equipped Syrians to win several battles. Following these victories which bordered on the miraculous, Judah Maccabee reentered the Temple, cleansed it of its desecrations, and rededicated it. The Festival of Hanukkah commemorates these victories.
Triumph over the Syrians was short-lived. The Roman Empire engulfed the area, and with brief exceptions, controlled what became known as Palestine for almost 700 years. King Herod (37-4 B.C.E.) ruled over Judah with the sanction of the Roman Senate. He was a master builder, creating magnificent temples, public works, ports and palaces. The ruins of many of his works, including the reconstructed Second Temple, may still be viewed today.
The Jews revolted against Roman rule in 70 C.E. After a siege, the Second Temple was destroyed (once again, on the 9th of Av of the Jewish calendar) and resistance was crushed except for a company of zealots who took over a fortress at Masada, near the Dead Sea. The Roman army tried for three years to crush that resistance. When defeat of the revolt was inevitable, the defenders drew lots and killed themselves rather than surrender. Jerusalem was restored by the Romans as a pagan city.
The focus of Jewish intellectual life following the destruction of the Second Temple was established in Yavneh. Jewish scholars met here and during the end of the second century and beginning of the third established an oral Jewish law to complement the Torah. This oral law was written down at the end of the second century C.E. by R. Judah ha-Nasi, and is known as the Mishnah. Discussion on the Mishnah was also put to writing, and is known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara together are called the Talmud. The Jewish scholars in Babylon also developed a Talmud, which eventually supplanted the Palestinian version as the ultimate authority in Jewish legal matters. New centers of Jewish scholarship were established in the diaspora, principally in North Africa and Muslim Spain by the end of the 10th century.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. Jewish legal rights were restricted. During the first three centuries of Christianity, the issue that separated Jew from Christian was whether Jesus was the true Messiah. By the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity had evolved with customs, rituals and laws far different from Judaism.
Palestine was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. Many Jews served in the Arab armies which conquered the Iberian peninsula, and settled in Spain. For centuries, Jews flourished in Spain and North Africa, and recorded achievements in science, medicine, music, philosophy and culture.
Jewish life in the Middle Ages was for the most part a story of social and economic isolation, persecution and massacres. Jews were isolated both physically and socially from the fabric of life in the Middle Ages and the period following the Middle Ages. Yet they filled an important niche. Christianity outlawed usury, the lending of money. Jews were permitted to fill this vacuum by acting as moneylenders and financiers.
At first, Jews in the diaspora segregated voluntarily. This was partly for self-protection, but it was perhaps more the result of the requirements of the Jewish religion: to be close to a synagogue and other religious institutions. The concept of segregating Jews involuntarily behind walls was developed in ancient times, but it was not actually implemented as a policy until 1462 in Frankfurt, Germany. The idea caught on in the rest of Europe and became the norm in the 16th century. Unlike its modern 20th century counterpart, the ghetto of 16th century Europe permitted Jews to leave during the day and do their business. While the ghettos permitted Jews to live peacefully, conditions were often crowded and inadequate. However, the isolation of Jews in ghettos had the effect of eliminating assimilation with the host communities, and preserved and enhanced the survival of the Jewish culture.
Those governments unwilling even to tolerate Jews who were segregated in ghettos expelled them. At one time or another, all Jews were expelled from England (1290), France (1306 and 1394), Austria (1420), and Spain (1492). There were local expulsions throughout Europe including those in Germany. Some expulsion policies were reversed when governments realized that the Jews served a useful purpose.
It was not until the Enlightenment (see Chapter 5) that Jews had the opportunity to participate in modern society free from persecution. The fundamentalist acceptance of Jewish law underwent a severe challenge, and the result was the development of reformist movements which eventually culminated in the establishment of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements.
Jewish culture developed for 2,000 years in pre-World War II Europe. Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe created a culture of religious practice, arts and music, language (principally Yiddish), and education. It was an entire culture which the Nazis sought to make extinct.
There were distinct differences in the cultures of Jews who settled in the “East” and “West” in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Generally, Jews who settled in Western Europe (France, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, for example) were more assimilated than their “eastern” counterparts of the Soviet Union, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania, and Hungary. They were more likely to speak the language of their host nation, less likely to be religiously observant, more likely to intermarry, more likely to be urban settlers, more likely to be middle-class, more likely to be formally educated, and more likely to affiliate with generic political parties which represented more than just Jewish interests. Western European Jews were more likely to be accepted by their host countries as full citizens. For the most part, they were able to live side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors, free from the threat of physical attacks and anti-Semitism. Eastern European Jews did not feel safe from pogroms. For many Jews in Western Europe, they were Jewish by religion, but identified with their host country. Thus, when the Jews of Germany were targeted by the Nazis, most of them had a history of feeling that they were “German” rather than “Jewish.”
History of Israel
By the end of the 19th century, Jewish nationalism emerged as a prevailing dream. This movement, known as Zionism, envisioned a return of all Jews from the diaspora to a Jewish homeland. In the 1880s, Eastern European Jews made their way to what was then called Palestine. This was the first Aliyah (immigration) wave, the purpose of which was largely to establish agricultural settlements. Baron Edmond de Rothschild assisted with funds. The first Zionist Conference was held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. It took another 51 years and the experience of the Holocaust, though, to see the Zionist dream become a reality. As a result of this official sanction for a Jewish homeland by the League of Nations, Jews were encouraged to immigrate to Palestine. The Arabs opposed Jewish settlement and there were many anti-Jewish attacks.
In 1905, a second Aliyah wave brought Jews from Russia. Tel Aviv was founded in 1908, the first all-Jewish city.
In 1917, with the British defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine came under British rule. The modern Arab states were established at that time. In November 1917, in the Balfour Declaration, the British government announced its intention to facilitate the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This Declaration was endorsed by the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers at a Conference in San Remo on April 24, 1920. In 1922, the League of Nations granted to Great Britain a Mandate to secure the establishment of a Jewish homeland, to facilitate Jewish immigration and to encourage Jewish settlement on the land. By 1929 the Jewish population in Palestine was 160,000, and by the spring of 1936, with the advent of Hitler and increased German immigration, there were close to 400,000 Jews, or about 30 percent of the total population.
In 1939, the British, influenced by the Arab uprisings and the Mufti of Jerusalem, issued the White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to 10,000 per year for five years, with any further Jewish immigration to be made only with Arab consent.
At the close of World War II, the “Palestinian Question” came before the General Assembly of the United Nations. It recommended that the British Mandate be ended and that Palestine be divided between the Arabs and Jews. On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly partitioned the country into two independent, sovereign states.
On May 14, 1948, the British government terminated its Mandate. The day after, May 15, 1948, the British left the country, and David Ben-Gurion, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, declared the independence of the State of Israel.
Contributions of the Jewish People to Civilization
As individuals and as a people, Jews have had a great impact on civilization, contributing to ideas and culture in every field of human endeavor. Judaism was a parent religion to Christianity and Islam. Jesus was a Jew, as were his disciples. The Hebrew Scriptures were the foundation of Christianity. Jewish law was accepted as a guide to ethics and morality based on the concept of individual conscience. Islam incorporated the Jewish concept of one God, the Scriptures, and Jewish prophets.
Assimilation: To accept the culture of another group while giving up one’s own.
Blasphemy: Words written or spoken which express contempt or irreverence about God.
Circumcision: The removal of the foreskin of the penis, which is done ritually in newborn Jewish males eight days after birth to symbolize the covenant between God and Abraham.
Covenant: A holy agreement between God and man.
Diaspora: Countries outside of Israel inhabited by Jews.
Ghetto: A section of a city in which Jews were required to live surrounded by walls.
Kosher: From the Hebrew for “proper,” correct,” or “valid,” it usually refers to food or anything prepared under the proper ritual supervision.
Monotheism: The belief in one God.
Paganism: A follower of a polytheistic religion.
Polytheism: The belief in more than one God.
Rabbi: A Jewish scholar or religious leader from the Hebrew for “my master.”
Talmud: Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemora, it is the oral tradition of Jewish law which has been written down and serves as the authority in Jewish law.
Torah: Literally meaning “teaching,” it consists of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The term also refers to the parchment scroll in which the hand-lettered text of the Five Books of Moses appears.
- Arrange to visit places of worship in your community. Compare and contrast the architecture, internal layout, ritual objects, style of prayer books, paintings and glass panes, and other objects of art.
- Research how the Jews of your community came to settle there, and what professions and businesses they chose.
- Invite the director of your community’s Jewish Family Service to discuss problems which affect members of the Jewish community, and how these problems may differ from those affecting the non-Jewish community.
- Invite a resettled Soviet Jewish refugee or a speaker from the local Soviet Jewry Council to describe the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union.