The Main Teachings and Beliefs

There is no formal creed that all Jews are obliged to accept, but certain basic teachings can be found in all periods of Jewish history, though they may not always have been understood in the same way. Foremost among these is the Shema, so called because it is the first word of the Hebrew sentence in Deuteronomy, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Since ancient times this sentence has been recited by Jews every day in their prayer. It is spoken again before retiring and is the last utterance of one's life. It expresses the Jew's faith in a Creator of all that is. It is a way of saying that life is worth living no matter what difficulties have to be faced. It says that God is One and thereby rejects a belief in no god at all or a belief in two gods or three or many. This belief in one God is called monotheism.

A Covenant with God

According to the Bible an event took place at Mount Sinai that shaped the whole course of Jewish history. It was there that Moses — the leader of the Jewish people — spoke to the Children of Israel, in God's name, and presented to them all the laws by which they were to live. Among those laws are the Ten Commandments and many other laws and regulations covering every aspect of life for both the individual and society. According to the Bible, the Jewish people, or Children of Israel as they were then called, entered into a covenant, or agreement, with God, through which they were pledged to keep God's law. God, in turn, would look after them, making their land fertile and securing them from their enemies.

Because of the covenant, the Jewish people looked on themselves as a chosen people, not chosen for special advantage, but chosen for special responsibility: to obey God's law and to serve God always. So strong was this idea that even when the sacred city Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and again by the Romans hundreds of years later, the people did not rebel against God but said it was because of their sins that tragedy had come upon them. They looked on their exile from their land as punishment for their failures, not the failure of their God to care for them. In modern times this idea was modified by Reform Judaism, which looked on the scattering of the Jewish people as a call to teach the world about God, and it became the "mission" of the Jewish people to do so. More recently, the Reconstructionist movement removed from its prayer book any reference to the chosen people though they continued to believe that the Jew has a special obligation to study God's law and to live by it.

A Jew's Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the Jew to bear witness to God in everything he or she does, not only to observe the religious customs and practices of Judaism but to be examples of proper moral behavior. Almost a hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era, a great rabbi named Hillel was approached by a pagan who wanted to be taught all of Judaism in a brief statement. "What is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is the law, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study," was Hillel's prompt reply.

Failure to obey the law is a sin. To recover from sin, a person may repent, which in Hebrew means "to return" and try again. Repentance, therefore, is a way of recovering from doing something wrong and must be followed by an act of atonement, a way of making up for one's errors. So important is it for the Jew to be "at one" with God that the most important day of the religious calendar is called the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Life After Death

In its thinking about the future, Judaism presents a wide variety of beliefs. In biblical times there was no belief in any real life after death. The dead went to a place called Sheol for an eternity of silence and sleep. There was a belief that someday all the world would accept God and would be united in keeping God's law. This joyous future was to be in this life on earth: Shortly before the beginning of Christianity, the idea of a life after death gained popularity and has remained a part of traditional Jewish belief to this day, although the nature of that life after death is not presented in any detail. The idea of a coming great day is still held by most Jews but is interpreted in several ways. Traditionalists, or Orthodox Jews, believe that God will send his "anointed one" (Messiah) who will lead the world to a universal acceptance of God. When that time comes, say the Traditionalists, the righteous dead of all generations will be brought back to life. Liberal Jews still retain a faith in the triumph of goodness and truth and the coming of a better day, but they believe that it will be accomplished through human effort and cooperation.


Differences in Judaism

It is not surprising that a people as spiritually creative as the Jews would find that not all agreed on how the tradition was to be understood or the direction Jewish life was to take. Some of these differences were not of great consequence, but others, of great significance, left their imprint on the development of Judaism. Some differences today are broad and of great consequence, causing considerable tension among various groups in the Jewish world.

Orthodox Judaism

The differences in Jewish life today grow out of different approaches to the Jewish religious tradition. This tradition, including the Written law (the Bible) and the Oral law (the Talmud and the writings of the rabbis, or teachers), is accepted without question by those called Orthodox. Orthodox Jews accept the Revelation to Moses at Sinai as described in the Bible and accept as binding the decisions of the Talmud and later codes of Jewish law. (Non-Orthodox Jews consider the traditional texts to be of great importance but are prepared to make changes that will help adjust Jewish life to the modern world.) In spite of general agreement on basic religious ideas, some differences can still be found among the Orthodox, among whom are the Sephardim, descended from Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal until the end of the 1400's; Ashkenazim, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe; and Hasidim, a community that originated in Eastern Europe.

The Hasidim (the word hasid means "pious") are descended from Jews of the 1700's in Poland and the Ukraine who led a mystic revival and spiritual revolution in Judaism. While Orthodox in their beliefs, they stressed the importance of joy and enthusiasm in performing their religious obligations. The founder of the movement was Israel ben Eliezer, called the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the good name"). Political and social conditions led to the rapid spread of the Hasidic movement. Numerous sects grew up around religious leaders, called Zaddikim ("holy men"), who dominated the life of their communities and frequently created dynasties of religious rule.

The Hasidic movement at first was rejected by the intellectuals who dominated Jewish life, but it attracted the masses who suffered from poverty and discouragement. While the followers of this movement held to the requirements of Jewish law (Halakhah), they appeared to their opponents as giving too much attention to the mystical and the emotional elements in Judaism. These opponents, called Mitnaggedim, were often violent in their denunciation of the Hasidim. Both groups felt threatened, however, by the Jewish Enlightenment at the end of the 1700's and the Reform movement that began to emerge.

After World War II, those Hasidim who escaped from Eastern Europe settled in Israel and the United States and have since moved as well to other parts of the world. They are frequently recognized by their traditional clothing and their close community life.

Reform Judaism

As Jews moved into the modern world, some felt the need to find a way of life closer to that of their neighbors. In 1818 a group of Jews in Hamburg, Germany, built a synagogue, which they called a temple. They introduced German in their prayer, shortened the service, and allowed instrumental music in their worship. A sermon was preached in German. They introduced Confirmation for boys and girls in place of Bar Mitzvah (see "Ceremonies and Rites"). They gave up a belief in a personal Messiah and the hope that all Jews would someday return to the land of Israel. They eliminated head covering and special dietary regulations and put great emphasis on ethical behavior.

The Reform movement did not grow rapidly until it was transplanted to the United States. In 1873, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which today has more than 750 congregations in its membership. In 1875 he founded the Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the training of rabbis. In 1889, Rabbi Wise organized the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which now has almost 1,500 members.

Conservative Judaism

Those who shared much of the spirit of Reform but were unhappy with some of its extreme positions created a Conservative movement. Members of this movement were willing to accept change, but only at a slower pace and in greater adherence to the tradition. Solomon Schechter, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, was one of the foremost spokespersons of the movement. Conservative congregations are joined in the United Synagogue, and the Rabbinical Assembly is the association of Conservative rabbis.

As is the case in Reform Judaism, there is tension within the Conservative movement between those who seek a more traditional expression of the Conservative philosophy and those who strive for a more liberal adjustment to the needs of Jewish life today.

Reconstructional Judaism

In 1934, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan published his Judaism as a Civilization, an attempt to apply modern thought to the Jewish religion. A movement grew out of this effort, and today there is a fellowship of Reconstructionist Congregations, and a Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. The Reconstructionist movement publishes its own prayer books, as do the Reform and Conservative movements.

Diversity of Jewish Thought

The diversity of Jewish thought frequently gives rise to sharp exchanges among the various groups of Jews, especially between those who hold to strict orthodoxy and those who take a more liberal position. In Israel, the Orthodox enjoy government support and try to limit the development of any liberal form of Judaism. Of particular concern are such questions as "Who is a Jew?" "Who may be authorized to accept converts?" and "Which Jewish institutions should be given public and government support?"


Sacred Writings

Foremost among the sacred writings of Judaism is the Bible, a collection of books composed over a period of a thousand years, from the 1100's to the 100's B.C. It is what Christians called the Old Testament, although the arrangement of some of the books is dif ferent in the Hebrew Bible. Of especial importance is the Torah, comprising the Five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — the main source for Jewish law.

Since the Bible was understood to contain all the laws necessary for personal and community life, it was continually studied and explained to make it applicable to change. Originally these explanations and comments were handed down orally from one generation of rabbis to the next. In the second century of the Christian era, this "Oral law" was arranged into a code and written down in a work called the Mishnah. Once written down, this code required interpretation and development, which was called Gemara. One Gemara was developed in Palestine and was joined to the Mishnah in the early 300's to produce the Palestinian Talmud. Another Gemara was developed in Babylonia and was joined, at the end of the 400's, to produce the Babylonian Talmud. These great collections of Jewish law and lore became the basis for all later development of the Jewish tradition.

Another body of literature, the Midrash, developed through the interpretation of the biblical texts. Largely nonlegal in character, it contains imaginative elaboration of the stories and ideas of the Holy Books.

After the completion of the two Talmuds, Jewish law continued to develop as inquiries were directed to the academies in Babylonia from the many places in which Jews lived. These questions and answers, in the hundreds of thousands, represent the Responsa literature. It tells us much about Jewish law and a great deal about the social, economic, and political conditions of Jewish life.

In the 1100's Moses Maimonides organized the vast body of Jewish law in a work called the Mishneh Torah. In the 16th century Joseph Caro used a different structure to produce the Shulhan Arukh ("The Prepared Table"), which became the standard text for Traditional Judaism.

Jewish mysticism, called Cabala, produced a work called the Zohar ("Splendor"). It was largely written by Moses De Leon, who died in 1305. The Zohar long was attributed to a rabbi of the 100's, Simeon ben Johai, who still is considered its author by some.



The worship of God is an essential part of the Jewish faith. Originally, this worship was expressed in both prayer and sacrifice. Sacrifices were offered during the four centuries of its existence in the Temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon and after that, for another five centuries, in the Temple built after the return from Babylonian exile. In addition to sacrifices, administered by the priests, psalms and prayers were sung by the Levites, a tribe that since earliest times had been charged with the supervision of Jewish worship.

While the Temple was still in existence, a popular institution emerged that became a house of prayer, a place of study, and also a place for community gathering. This institution came to be known as the synagogue, and when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, it became the leading institution in Jewish life. It is found everywhere today and is the central institution of every Jewish community. It is the forerunner of the Christian church and the Muslim mosque.

The religious leader of the Jewish community is called a rabbi, which means "master" or "teacher." The position of the rabbi derives from Jewish tradition, which qualifies the rabbi to respond to all matters of Jewish law and ritual. Upon the completion of study, the rabbi is ordained by other rabbis who have supervised the instruction. In this way, the office has maintained a continuous history of more than 2,000 years. Until 1972 all rabbis were men, but in that year the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion ordained its first woman rabbi. In 1986 the first woman rabbi was ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

The leader of a congregation in prayer need not be a rabbi but may be a member of the congregation with a knowledge of the prayer service or liturgy. When the knowledge necessary for leading a worship service is accompanied by a fine voice and a familiarity with the musical tradition of the synagogue, such a person is called a cantor. Until recent times all cantors were men, but now female cantors serve in many Reform and some Conservative synagogues.

Jews are expected to pray three times each day: in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The prayers are read from a prayer book and may be recited either privately or with a congregation, which requires a group of at least ten worshipers, called a minyan. A Traditional service, which would count only males as part of the minyan, is entirely in Hebrew. In Conservative and Reform congregations women may be included in the minyan, and the prayers may contain varying amounts of English.

Additional prayers are recited on Sabbaths and Festivals, and a passage from the Torah Scroll (Five Books of Moses), appropriate to the occasion, is read to the congregation.


Sabbath and Holy Days

Since biblical times the Sabbath has been a day of utmost importance. It was set aside because God completed the creation of the world in six days and made the seventh day a day of holiness and blessing. It is also a reminder that the Children of Israel were once slaves in the land of Egypt and that Jews were therefore obliged to free their servants and slaves from labor on the Sabbath. The day is also referred to as a "sign of the covenant" between God and the Children of Israel. While no work is to be done on the Sabbath, rest is not its main purpose. Its goal is holiness, and the day is set apart in each week for prayer and study.

The Sabbath begins with the setting of the sun on Friday evening. Following the service of welcome for the Sabbath, a Sabbath meal is shared by members of the family. Shortly before sunset, Sabbath candles are lit, generally by female members of the family. The Sabbath meal begins with a kiddush (the sanctification of the Sabbath over a cup of wine) and the breaking of a special loaf of bread called a hallah. Following the meal, grace is recited and Sabbath songs (zemirot) are sung.

Some Reform and Conservative congregations have their worship services following the Sabbath meal and include the lighting of the candles and the kiddush as part of the service. Following the service there is usually a congregational social hour called Oneg Shabbat ("Sabbath delight").

The Torah Scroll is read on Saturday morning and again at the Sabbath afternoon service. The day is ended with a special service of Havdalah ("distinction"), which notes the difference between the sacred and the profane, between the Sabbath and the ordinary days of theweek.

In the fall of the year the High Holy Days are observed. They are days of reverence and awe and a time to look into one's heart and to begin a new religious year as a better person. The first of these days is Rosh Hashanah ("new year"), and it is followed on the tenth day by Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"). To assist in the act of repentance on Yom Kippur, it is customary to fast during the whole 24-hour period. According to the tradition, these days provide forgiveness for sins against God, but sins against others can be forgiven only when one has repaired the damage that has been done.

Passover comes in the spring and commemorates the Exodus from Egypt (when Moses led the Jews out of slavery) and the beginning of the planting season. Seven weeks later the Festival of the First Fruits is observed and is called Shabuoth. The third festival, called Sukkoth, is observed at the time of the last harvest. The last day of the Sukkoth Festival is called Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing of the Torah"), and it notes the completion of the annual cycle of weekly scripture readings from the Torah Scroll.

There are two holidays that commemorate historical events. There are special prayers for these days, but the usual restrictions against work do not apply. Hanukkah is an eight-day Festival of Lights that begins on the 25th of Kislev (late November or December); it commemorates the "Rededication" of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 165 B.C. Candles are lighted in an eight-branched candelabrum (menorah). The closeness of Hanukkah to Christmas has encouraged the giving of gifts, especially in America. Three months later, on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim, or Feast of Lots, commemorates the rescue of the Jews of Persia with the help of Queen Esther, the wife of King Ahasuerus, whose prime minister Haman had tried to destroy them. The Scroll of Esther (Megillah) is read, and the day is marked by merrymaking, costumes, and the exchange of food.

In the summer, on Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av, or Ab), a fast day memorializes the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and other sad occasions of Jewish history.

Three additional days marking recent events are observed by many Jews: Yom Ha-Shoah, or Holocaust day on the 27th of Nisan (usually in April); Yom Ha-Atzmaut, the anniversary of the founding (1948) of the State of Israel, on the 5th of Iyar (in April or May); and Yom Yerushalayim, the unification of Jerusalem (1967), on the 28th of Iyar (in May).


Ceremonies and Rites

Life-cycle events are important in Judaism and reflect a striving toward kedushah ("sanctification"), which is the goal of Jewish religious living.


The birth of a child is regarded as a blessing from God and an occasion for deep gratitude. Traditionally, a daughter would be named in the synagogue on the first Sabbath following her birth. A son is named at the Brit Milah ("Covenant of Circumcision") on the eighth day. The circumcision is performed by an official called a mohel. Through the ceremony of circumcision the child is brought into the Covenant of Abraham and enters into the Community of Israel.

When young people reach the age of 13, there is a special ceremony among the Orthodox for boys only and among Reform and Conservative Jews for girls as well. The young person is called to the reading of the Torah and may be counted henceforth in the minyan for the congregational worship. A boy is called a Bar Mitzvah ("Son of the Commandment"), and a girl is called a Bat Mitzvah or Bas Mitzvah ("Daughter of the Commandment"). In many synagogues the Bar and Bat Mitzvah participate in the conduct of the service of worship, read out of the Torah, and chant the prophetic portion or Haftarah. This is an important day in the life of the family, and guests are invited to the synagogue to share the joy.

Early Reform congregations discarded Bar Mitzvah in favor of Confirmation for both boys and girls. The Confirmation service takes place on the Festival of Shabuoth, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Although Confirmation is still held in the Reform synagogues, it has not displaced Bar and Bat Mitzvah.


The Jewish marriage ceremony takes place under a canopy (chupah), which is a symbol of the bridal chamber. The traditional ceremony begins with a blessing of betrothal (engagement) and is followed by the kiddushin, in which the groom places a ring on the index finger of the bride's right hand and says, "Behold, thou are consecrated unto me with this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel." Liberal Jews will often use two rings, allowing the bride to recite her formula to the groom. A traditional marriage contract (ketubah) is then read. Written in Aramaic, it lists the responsibilities of the husband for the care and support of the bride. In Liberal ceremonies the traditional ketubah may be replaced by a personal statement of the bride and groom to each other.

Following the ketubah, seven benedictions are recited. The ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass or other fragile object. For some the glass-breaking is a memorial to the destruction of Jerusalem; for others it may be a reminder of the fragile character of human happiness. An authorized official, usually the rabbi, is required by state law; but Jewish law requires two witnesses and someone who is sufficiently learned to oversee the ceremony.

Civil law requires that divorce take place according to the laws of the state of residence. This is acceptable to Reform Jews, but Traditional Jews require that a get, a Jewish divorce, be signed by the husband before either party may remarry.


Following death and burial, the immediate family enters a seven-day period of mourning (shivah) during which they remain at home except for the Sabbath, when they may attend the synagogue. After the seven days, and until the 30th day, the mourning customs are eased and the bereaved begin a return to normal life. During this time, and for the next ten months, it is customary to recite the Kaddish (mourner's prayer), which concludes every congregational service of worship.

On the anniversary of a death, a yahrzeit ("anniversary") candle is lighted and the kaddish prayer recited in the synagogue. On Yom Kippur and each of the Pilgrimage Festivals a memorial service (yizkor) is held.

Conversion to Judaism

Judaism welcomes those who wish to accept the Jewish faith. A ceremony of conversion (gerut) is conducted by three rabbis who determine the candidate's preparation. Traditional Jews require a visit to the ritual bath (mikvah) for a woman and circumcision for a male. Reform Judaism does not officially require either, although many Reform rabbis request this of those they have instructed. Upon conversion the new convert, or proselyte (ger), is considered a Jew in every respect.


Dietary Laws

The Bible declares certain animals, fowl, and fish as acceptable for food, while others are prohibited. An animal must chew the cud and have cloven hooves, while fish must have both fins and scales. Forbidden or acceptable fowl are listed by names. A further restriction says, "Thou shalt not boil a kid in the milk of its mother." This has led, in Traditional Judaism, to a complete separation of meat and dairy foods, which may not be served out of the same dishes or eaten at the same meal or in close proximity of time to one another.

The laws of the Talmud further extend dietary restrictions, and even an acceptable animal must be ritually slaughtered by an official trained to perform the task with a minimum of pain to the animal. Only the forequarters of a properly slaughtered animal may be eaten because of the presence of a forbidden sinew in the hindquarters. The flesh of meat and fowl must be soaked and salted to remove all traces of blood.

The prohibition of bread or leaven on the Passover requires further dietary precautions. An unleavened bread called matzot is eaten.

Food that is acceptable according to Jewish law and the utensils that may be used are kasher, or kosher. Foods not acceptable are called terefah.

Reform Judaism officially rejected the dietary laws although many Reform Jews keep some form of dietary restriction. Conservative Judaism accepts all the dietary restrictions, except for wine, which is no longer restricted. Traditional Jews observe the dietary regulations as a divine mandate, while Conservative and Reform Jews often observe the dietary laws for historical and psychological reasons.

Jerome R. Malino
Rabbi Emeritus, United Jewish Center
Danbury, Connecticut