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    Judaism – a quick guide & common questions


    Judaism is the mother-faith from which Christianity and Islam developed. All three date back to Abraham, who discovered the one, true, invisible God. At Mount Sinai, several centuries later, Moses and the Israelites received the Torah (teaching), which revealed the way God wished to be served. Belief in one God, taught by Abraham, and observance of the Torah, taught by Moses, are the basic principles of Judaism.


    The great book of Judaism is the Torah. Strictly speaking, the Torah consists of the first five books of the Scriptures, known as the Five Books of Moses. But the name Torah has come to stand for the teachings of Judaism as a whole. The Torah gave rise to many commentaries, interpretations and codes of conduct, at first passed on by word of mouth (“the Oral Law”). Much of this material was written down in the 5th century in the Talmud (“Learning”), a great work in 63 volumes. Apart from ethical and theological teaching, the Talmud contains closely reasoned discussions on Judaism, stories about the sages, and information on legal, historical, social and even scientific matters.


    These principles of the Jewish faith were formulated by Moses Maimonides (13th century):

    1. God created all things;
    2. There is only one God;
    3. God has no bodily form;
    4. God is eternal;
    5. We must pray only to God;
    6. All the words of the prophets are true;
    7. Moses was the greatest of the prophets;
    8. The Torah we have is the same that was given to Moses;
    9. The Torah will never be changed;
    10. God knows human deeds and thoughts;
    11. God rewards good and punishes evil;
    12. The Messiah will come to redeem Israel and the world;
    13. There will be a resurrection of the dead.


    Judaism contains duties to God, especially modes of worship and rituals, and to human beings, especially truth, justice and peace. Jewish ethics stress business, professional, public and personal morality. Marriage and the family are especially important to Judaism, as are education and charity. While it believes it is the true faith, Judaism respects other religions and upholds freedom of conscience and belief for all human beings.


    Observant Jews eat only kosher foods. Kosher meat must come from a permitted animal or bird (ham, bacon, pork and shellfish are not kosher), carefully slaughtered by a pious person. The meat is soaked in water and then salted and rinsed in order to remove the blood. Meat and dairy foods are not cooked, served or eaten together. Kosher homes have separate meat and dairy utensils.


    Jews pray three times a day, though spontaneous prayer may be offered at any time. God accepts prayer in any language, but the official language of Jewish prayer is Hebrew.

    In ancient times, Jews had a temple in Jerusalem, which will one day be rebuilt. Today, the Jewish place of worship is the synagogue, where prayer takes place facing Jerusalem.

    Public worship requires a minyan of ten males aged 13-plus. In orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately and the service is conducted by males.


    The Sabbath is a day of rest from work, lasting from sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. Features of the day are the synagogue services and the family gathering at home. Sabbath candles are lit before sunset, and prayers of sanctification are said over wine and bread.

    Pesach (Passover) lasts eight days and marks the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. On the first two evenings there is a home ceremony with symbolic foods recalling the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. The main Passover food is unleavened matzah, eaten to recall the “bread of affliction” in Egypt. Passover is the time of the barley harvest in Israel.

    Shavu’ot falls seven weeks after Passover. On Shavu’ot God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, so that it is an occasion for renewed dedication to the Divine law. It is the time of the wheat harvest in Israel.

    Rosh HaShanah (the New Year) is the anniversary of creation when God reviews His world and examines the deeds of human beings. The shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) is blown as a call to spiritual wakefulness.

    Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a 25-hour fast largely spent in prayers for forgiveness and in making resolutions for the future. Yom Kippur falls ten days after Rosh HaShanah.

    Sukkot comes at the end of the fruit harvest in Israel. The sukkah or harvest booth recalls the portable homes of the Israelites in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The sukkah symbolises the fragility of life and the need for God’s protection.


    The Jewish population of the world is about 15 million. Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, when great sages and outstanding centres of learning and piety were devastated.

    The largest Jewish community in the world is in the United States of America, where six million Jews live.

    There are over five million Jews in the State of Israel, established in 1948, which is the spiritual and cultural centre of world Jewry. Jews have been in Australia since the First Fleet and despite their small numbers have made many contributions to national life.


    Synagogue is Greek for the Hebrew Bet HaKnesset, house of gathering, as the synagogue has always been the place of assembly for prayer and study. When the Jewish reform movement was started in Germany early last century, its pioneers chose to call their prayer houses temples, because they did not believe in the prophecy that a third Temple would some day be built in Jerusalem, claiming instead that each prayer house, wherever it was, was a miniature temple.

    The historian Solomon Grayzel cites a different reason: “The word ‘synagogue’ stirred ghetto memories and stood for all that Christianity had bitterly combated; with the word ‘temple’ the (reformist) Jews, who sought forgetfulness of the age-old conflict, thought that they could make a new start.”


    Minyan means a count or quorum, constituted by 10 males of 13 and over. With it, the Torah can be read publicly and major prayers recited. The reason for the number 10 goes back to the Bible. God agrees with Abraham to save Sodom if there are 10 righteous men in the city; of the 12 spies sent to investigate Canaan, 10, called a congregation, come back with a negative report. The Jewish sages say that when 10 are assembled for prayer or study, the Divine presence is there. Maimonides, the philosopher, declares that a person who does not pray with the congregation is a bad neighbour. Worshipping as and with a congregation helped to create the well-known Jewish sense of community.

    In small communities people come from vast distances to ensure there is a minyan and the synagogue can keep going. Many Jews first learn what a comfort it is to be part of a minyan when they say Kaddish (the prayer recited by mourners) in time of bereavement. The fellowship of the minyan is a source of support. It also demonstrates the continuity of the generations. Though a loved one has gone, the saying of Kaddish with a minyan implies that the family, the tradition and the community will continue.


    Religious items, including old prayer books, are not be destroyed or discarded, even if they are damaged or worn or no longer of usable. The Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) buries them in a Jewish cemetery.


    Among the eight ceremonial garments of the high priest in ancient days was a mitre or turban, upon which was a crown inscribed “Holy to the Lord”. The ordinary priest wore four garments including a head-cover, “for glory and beauty”. But this was obligatory only during the Temple service, and not required of ordinary lay people.

    In Talmudic times the wearing of a hat was a mark of modesty and piety. Rabbi Huna said he never walked four cubits with his head bare, for he regarded the covering of the head as a sign of submission to God. The Talmud tells of a pious woman who made sure her son did not go bareheaded, “so that the fear of Heaven might rest upon him to keep him away from sin”.

    In time, rabbis invested the headcovering with greater status, making it a law, not merely a pious custom. The covering of the head became established in the Middle Ages to emphasise Jewish identity. All this applies to males. Married women have always been obligated to cover their hair as a mark of modesty.


    Kippah is the Hebrew term for the skull-cap. The Yiddish equivalent, yarmulke, is probably from Polish, though some derive it from the head covering worn by medieval clergy, called armucella. Others hold that it comes from the French arme, a type of rounded medieval helmet with a movable visor. A traditional, though unlikely, view is that yarmulke is a distortion of the Hebrew, Yarei M’Elokim, “in awe of God”.


    The Bible commands Jews to wear fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the generations. If a person is not wearing a four-cornered garment, no tzitzit (fringes) are necessary. But in order not to lose the command of fringes, Judaism invented a four-cornered garment – two in fact, one worn under the shirt, and the tallit (prayer shawl) worn over one’s top clothes.

    The purpose of tzitzit (fringes), according to a traditional explanation, is indicated by the words: “You shall look at it (the fringe) and remember all the commands of the Lord, and do them.” The five knots and eight threads in each corner, plus the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of tzitzit, yield a total of 613, the number of commands in the Torah. The fringes thus remind a Jew of the Torah and its commandments.

    The duty of fringes is not obligatory on women.


    There are women scholars, teachers, pastoral workers and spiritual role models in Judaism, but there are no Orthodox communities that have women rabbis. This is no reflection on women’s piety or Jewish feeling; indeed women are often more spiritual than men. But Judaism allocates somewhat different roles to men and women respectively, and reserves for men the public roles in the synagogue. However, women play a full role in Jewish community life, and Jewish scholarship among women is flourishing in Israel and elsewhere.


    Where both parents are Jewish it is obvious the child is a Jew. In a mixed marriage, the mother is the determining factor. This is derived from Biblical verses and was affirmed by the Talmudic sages and accepted by the Jewish world throughout all the centuries.

    Lord Jakobovits, a former Chief Rabbi of Britain, has written: “In making this choice, the certainty of maternity must be set against the doubt of paternity, however small this doubt may be. Even in nature, the mother’s bond with her child is, in some respects, firmer than the father’s. The determination of the child’s religious status by the mother may indicate that she has the superior influence on the child’s religious development.”


    The six-pointed star was known from ancient times, but only in recent centuries has it become the Jewish symbol. In the Bible or Talmud the Jewish symbol was the menorah. The earliest literary reference to the Star of David is in a 12th century work, where it is mentioned alongside the names of the angels. The symbol itself was found on a Jewish tombstone from 3rd century Southern Italy and on a Jewish seal of the 7th century, but in both cases it has no specifically Jewish significance.

    The star may have been David’s monogram in ancient Hebrew script. Theologians suggest it reflects themes in the Psalms of David, such as man reaching up to heaven, and God reaching down to man. Others see in it the human being raised upward by the good inclination and dragged down by the evil inclination.

    It may have become a Jewish symbol when European Jews, seeing that churches bore the sign of the cross, sought a symbol of their own. When Israel became a state in 1948, the Magen David was officially adopted as a symbol on the flag.


    Judaism believes in both Olam HaBa, the world to come, and Techiyat HaMetim, the resurrection of the dead in messianic times. One of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is, “I firmly believe that there will be a revival of the dead”, but to Maimonides, Olam HaBa and Techiyat HaMetim are separate stages. After a period in Olam HaBa, he says, the soul will rejoin its body; then everyone will die again, and the soul will survive.

    In reference to Olam HaBa, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote: “You hear many people, and even rabbis, say that Jews don’t believe in life after death. Nothing could be further from the truth. The concept of a life after death, of a final reward and punishment, has always played a vital part in Jewish theology. The Bible contains many references to the resurrection of the soul, and the ancient writings of the Talmud and the Midrash are full of speculative descriptions of paradise and purgatory. The early Jewish writers and philosophers all delve extensively into the mysteries of the future life, never once doubting its veracity.”


    In Judaism, the human body is sacred both during life and after death. It is regarded as the property of God, given on loan for our lifetime. No one is permitted to injure or destroy the Divine landlord’s property. One consequence is that a Jew must not take risks with his or her life, e.g. by means of drug addiction. After death the body is carefully and reverently prepared for burial by the Chevra Kadisha, and then interred in the earth; cremation is not permitted by Orthodox Judaism.

    An autopsy is regarded as destroying the peace and dignity of the body, and mutilating God’s property. It is therefore not permitted in Judaism, unless required by secular law, or necessary in the interests of medical science and saving other lives.


    Many do, but Jewish law requires them not to. The Sabbath law prohibits “work”, is understood as using skill to fulfil an intelligent purpose. Since Saturday the Jewish Sabbath originated as the day when God desisted from creative activity, Jews are expected to emulate His example and avoid workday activities on that day. These include operating electrical or other power-driven devices.


    The Jewish food laws (kashrut) are based on the Bible, as part of the general principle: “I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” For Judaism, holiness is not achieved by withdrawal from normal life, but by living within the world and its pleasures (including eating) whilst honouring the teaching of the sages: “Sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you.” It entails being aware of God every moment of the day and hallowing even the most everyday act.

    Even the details of kitchen equipment are therefore part of the total pattern of Jewish living. By carefully keeping to the food laws, says Maimonides, we are trained “to master our appetites, and not to consider eating and drinking the be-all and end-all of existence”.

    Keeping kashrut is good spiritually, as a constant reminder of God. It is good ethically: it helps us to be able to say “no”, and it fosters concern for animals and the environment. It is good socially: it ensures no Jew will be embarrassed by a host who serves an unacceptable meal. It is good, too, for Jewish identity, as a crucial expression of Jewish commitment. Not every Jew keeps kashrut strictly, but hardly any Jew will eat pork, ham or bacon.


    Jewish food laws require that Jews:

    • Do not eat the meat of animals such as the pig; kosher (permitted) animals must have a cloven hoof and chew the cud.

    • Buy only the meat of kosher animals which have been slaughtered according to traditional procedures by a shochet, who uses an exquisitely sharp knife which ensures the minimum of pain to the animal.

    • Do not eat meat unless it has first been soaked and salted to remove the blood; eating or drinking blood is forbidden by the law of the Bible.

    • Do not mix meat foods and dairy foods.

    • Poultry must come only from certain birds specified in the Bible and must be slaughtered by a shochet, then soaked and salted, and not mixed with dairy foods.

    • Fish must also come from specified categories, excluding, for example, shellfish. There is no set method of killing fish for consumption. Fish and eggs may be included in either meat or dairy meals.


    This is called a mezuzah. It contains a parchment strip on which two biblical passages – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 – have been written by hand in Hebrew by an expert scribe. The mezuzah is attached to the front door and the doors of the other rooms of the house (except toilet and bathroom) as a reminder of faith and loyalty to God. It is fastened to the right-hand doorpost (seen as one enters the room) within the top third of the doorpost. It is fixed in a slanting position with the higher end pointing into the room.

    The Hebrew word Shaddai (Almighty) is written on the back of the parchment, denoting that the Almighty is present in that house or building. Some say that Shaddai is short for Shomer Dal’tot Yisra’el, “Guardian of the Doors of Israel”. Others see in the name the words, She’amar La’Olam Dai, (“He said to the world, ‘Enough!'”), which is a reminder not to infringe the privacy of others: gates and doors provide both security and privacy.


    Jesus was born and died a Jew. His followers were Jewish, and his preaching was based on the tradition of Judaism. He did not consider himself the founder of a new religion, and he did not purport to teach anything other than Judaism.

    Scholars have shown that there are Jewish sources for many of his sayings and teachings. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is an amalgam of Jewish texts: its first sentence is an almost verbatim translation of the first sentence of the Kaddish.

    The major differences between the faiths are not so much between Judaism and the religion Jesus observed, but between Judaism and the religion about Jesus that developed after his death. The differences fall under three headings: beliefs about God; claims about Jesus; and views of life.

    Beliefs about God: though Christianity believes in the tri-une nature of the Deity as Father, son, and holy spirit, Judaism sees any such notion, no matter how explained, as completely unacceptable. Judaism believes in the Unity of God: there is only one God, who is unique and indivisible. Concerning Jesus, Christianity sees him as the son of God, the incarnation of the Almighty; Judaism is adamant that no man can be God, and God cannot take on human form.

    Christianity says Jesus was the Messiah. Judaism, however, sees no evidence that he fulfilled the Biblical messianic prophecies. It affirms that the Messiah is yet to come, and believes that we can help to bring about his coming. Christianity says Jesus mediates between man and God. Judaism believes that man needs no mediator, but can approach God direct. Christianity says that Jesus is the Saviour, and without belief in him, one cannot be “saved”; Judaism maintains that salvation comes from living an upright life, no matter what one’s formal creed or religious label.

    The third group of differences concerns views of Life. Christianity regards man as born inherently sinful, but able to overcome this handicap through belief. Judaism considers that man is by nature neither righteous nor sinful. If, however, a person sins, they can return to God by repentance and good deeds. Christianity teaches that the body is evil and the soul is pure. Judaism does not distinguish between body and soul. Both are God’s handiwork and must work together in harmony.

    Christianity stresses the life of faith, Judaism the life of Divine commandments. Christianity stresses the salvation of the individual, Judaism the welfare of the whole community. Christianity emphasises life after death; Judaism prefers to stress making the most of life on earth. Jews prefer not to contrast religions and judge them against one another. They see that each has its attraction for its adherents. Jews, however, are at peace with Judaism.


    Even though there are Jews who get caught up in the seasonal tinsel and commercialism, Christmas is not a Jewish but a Christian occasion, marking the birth of the Christian saviour. Jews do not celebrate Jesus’ birthday, because Christmas really represents not so much the Jewish Jesus of his time, but the Jesus of later theology, with whom Jewish thinking parts company. Some things, therefore, are only for Jews and some only for Christians. Jews respect the convictions of Christians, but they cannot observe Christmas.

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