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Description of Judaism

Jewish beliefs and practices.
Judaism & Christianity compared.

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This is a continuation of a previous essay

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Basic Jewish Beliefs:

There is a story in wide circulation about a question asked of Rabbi Hillel -- a notable rabbi from the 1st century BCE. A non-Jew asked the rabbi to teach him everything about the Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded: "What is hateful to you, don't do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now, go and study."

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (a.k.a. Maimonides) is generally accepted as one of the most important Jewish scholars from Medieval times. He wrote a list of thirteen principles of faith. This list has been generally accepted by Jews for centuries as a brief summary of the Jewish faith. However, the liberal wings of Judaism dispute some of the 13 today.

  1. G-d exists.
  2. G-d is one and unique.
  3. G-d is incorporeal.
  4. G-d is eternal.
  5. Prayer is to be directed to G-d alone and to no other.
  6. The words of the prophets are true.
  7. Moses was the greatest of the prophets, and his prophecies are true.
  8. The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses.
  9. There will be no other Torah.
  10. G-d knows the thoughts and deeds of men.
  11. G-d will reward the good and punish the wicked.
  12. The Messiah will come.
  13. The dead will be resurrected. 1

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Additional Jewish beliefs:

Some additional beliefs found commonly among Jews are:

bulletSome Jews view Jesus as a great moral teacher. Others see him as a false prophet or as an idol of Christianity. Some sects of Judaism will not even say his name due to the prohibition against saying an idol's name.
 
bulletThe Jews are often referred to as G-d's chosen people. This does not mean that they are in any way to be considered superior to other groups. Biblical verses such as Exodus 19:5 simply imply that G-d has selected Israel to receive and study the Torah, to worship G-d only, to rest on the weekly Sabbath, and to celebrate the festivals. Jews were not chosen to be better that others; they were simply selected to receive more difficult responsibilities, and more onerous punishment if they fail.
 
bullet The Mosaic Law consists of 613 commandments found in Leviticus and other books. They regulate all aspects of Jewish life.
bullet The Ten commandments, as delineated in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, form a brief synopsis of the Law.
bulletThe Messiah (the anointed one of G-d) will arrive in the future and gather Jews once more into the land of Israel. There will be a general resurrection of the dead at that time. The Jerusalem Temple, destroyed in 70 CE, will be rebuilt.
bulletA fetus gains full personhood when it is half-emerged from its mother's body.
bulletBoys reach the status of Bar Mitzvah on their 13th birthday; girls reach Bat Mitzvah on their 12th birthday. This means that they are recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws. Males are allowed to lead a religious service; they are counted in a "minyan" (a quota of men necessary to perform certain parts of religious services). Following their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah they can sign contracts; they can testify in religious courts; theoretically, they can marry, although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the proper age for marriage.

The more liberal movements within Judaism differ from some of the above beliefs concerning the source of the Torah, the concept of direct reward and punishment according to one's behavior, etc.

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Jewish Practices

They include:

bullet Observation of the weekly Sabbath as a day of rest, starting at sundown on Friday evening.

bullet Strict discipline, according to the Law, which governs all areas of life

bullet Regular attendance by Jewish males at Synagogue

bullet Celebration of the annual festivals including:
bullet Passover, or Pesach is held each Spring to recall the Jews' deliverance out of slavery in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. A ritual Seder meal is eaten in each observant Jewish home at this time. Six different foods are placed on the seder plate in the order in which they area eaten:
bullet Karpas (vegetables dipped in salt water) recalls the bitter tears shed during slavery
bullet Maror (bitter herbs) to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
bullet Chazeret (bitter vegetables) also to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
bullet Choroset (apple, nuts & spices with wine) represents the mortar used by Hebrew slaves.

Also placed on the seder plate, but uneaten during the Seder meal:
bullet Zeroa (lamb shankbone) to recall the Passover sacrifice in the ancient temple.
bullet Beitzah (roasted egg) symbolizes mourning, sacrifice, spring, and renewal.

Not placed on the Seder plate, but often eaten, is a boiled egg.

After women were first allowed to become Rabbim, some Jews commented: "A woman belongs as a Rabbi like an orange belongs on a seder plate." As such, many Reform Jews now include an orange with their Seder Plate to commemorate female Rabbim.


bullet Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and is the anniversary of the completion of creation, about 5760 years ago. It is held in the fall.

bullet The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are days of penitence. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting until sundown.

bullet Sukkoth or the Feast of Booths is an 8 day harvest festival; a time of thanksgiving.

bullet Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights is an 8 day feast of dedication. It recalls the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom. It also commemorates a miracle in the Temple, when one-day's worth of oil allowed a candle to burn for eight days. It is typically observed in December. Originally a minor Jewish holy day, it has become more important in recent years.

bullet Purim, the Feast of Lots recalls the defeat by Queen Esther of the plan to slaughter all of the Persian Jews, circa 400 BCE.

bullet Shavout, the Feast of Weeks recalls G-d's revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people. It is held in late May or early June.

Rules for calculating Rosh Hashanah and Passover are available online at: http://quasar.as.utexas.edu/


bullet The local synagogue is governed by the congregation and is normally led by a rabbi who has been chosen by the congregation. A rabbi is a teacher who has been well educated in Jewish law and tradition.

bullet Any adult male with sufficient knowledge can lead religious services. In reform and some conservative congregations, a woman can also preside. This is often done in those Jewish communities who lack a rabbi.

bullet The Chief Rabbis in France and Great Britain have authority only by the agreement of those who accept it. Two Chief Rabbis in Israel have civil authority in areas of family law.

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Judaism and Christianity compared:

Although Christians base much of their faith on the same Hebrew Scriptures as Jews, there are major differences in belief:

bullet Jews are strict monotheists, like Muslims. They view G-d as a single, indivisible entity. This contrasts with most Christians who view God as a Trinity -- a single entity with three personalities -- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

bullet Jews generally consider actions and behavior to be of primary importance; beliefs come out of actions. This conflicts with conservative Christians for whom belief is of primary importance and actions tend to be derivative from beliefs.

bullet Jewish belief does not accept the Christian concept of original sin (the belief that all people have inherited Adam and Eve's sin when they disobeyed G-d's instructions in the Garden of Eden).

bullet Judaism affirms the inherent goodness of the world and its people as creations of G-d.

bullet Jewish believers are able to sanctify their lives and draw closer to G-d by performing fulfilling mitzvot (divine commandments).

bullet Jews do not recognize the need for a savior as an intermediary with G-d.

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This topic is continued in a following essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. This is the popular, short version of the Thirteen Principles. The original, more complete, version appears in the book: Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah.

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Copyright 1995 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-JAN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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