logo1.gif (1591 bytes) Basic Judaism



Please note: the following is the entire content of a booklet I prepared about Basic Judaism. The entire content is copy-righted by me. You may printout a copy of this material, making sure to give me "credit" for authorship. You may not make multiple copies nor sell such copies for profit.

Table of Contents:             In this segment you will find...

PREFACE        PROLOGUE           TORAH           AVODAH           GMILUT HASSADIM


FAMILY         HISTORY                          LITERATURE                                             CULTURE  

HEBREW         LAND               FAITH IN GOD                 RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS




For other subjects try   Basic 2   or   Basic 3








Most people, today, in their haste to obtain a general education, do not stop to consider the roots from whence they came. Many educated, well informed Americans are totally oblivious to Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and/or theology. More unfortunate yet is the fact that most have misconceptions about what Judaism is, what it celebrates, what it teaches its adherents. Yet, if we are to live together in a community of faith, or even just in the same community — it is necessary for non-Jews and Jews alike to have a fundamental knowledge of and sensitivity to Judaism.
My objective in writing this book was to make a concise and universally accepted presentation. The world-famous anthropologist and author, Margaret Mead, said that there is no such thing as “objectivity” — every person speaks from inside his or her own skin -- some just try to look at issues from every conceivable viewpoint, while others prefer to keep a narrower perspective. I do hope that the reader will find my presentation to be in the first category.
This is a book about Judaism. Judaism is the root of Christianity. It shares with Christianity the faith in the Father, the Creator. However, Judaism is as different from Christianity as the airplane flown by the Wright brothers is from a DC-10. (And I am not assigning the roles of the first pair to the second respectively or conversely.)
For those who wish a “first taste,” I hereby present this work. Once exposed, the reader may wish to, and indeed should, pursue his studies of Judaism further. For those who read this booklet on their way to a visit in Israel, I believe that learning the facts presented here will give a better understanding of the reasons for Israel’s existence — and how the miracle of that existence took place. However, a word of warning: do not forget that Israel is a national entity, and as such it caters to citizens who are not Jewish also. However, it's stated "reason for being" is to serve as a haven for persecuted Jews. Expect it to be different from any country you have ever visited.
For all people of good will and faith, this work is meant as a hymn of praise to the God of Abraham, confirming His abundant blessing to all the families of mankind through the seed of Abraham.
"And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing." [Genesis 12:2]


A story is told of a heathen who, wishing to anger Jewish sages, would ask them to teach him Judaism “while he stands on one foot” — which is to say in very quick order, since one cannot balance himself on one foot for too long. One Rabbi after another lost his temper and sent the heathen away satisfied that “Jews can’t take it.”
Finally the heathen came to Rabbi Hillel, a great sage and teacher, who was known for his kindness and patience. The heathen asked his question, and Hillel smiled and replied, “Certainly! ‘Hassanu aleykha al ta’as lere’akha!’ — What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor!” The heathen was surprised and asked, “Is this it?” Hillel replied, “Yes. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
The Talmud, in Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states, “Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omed: al haTorah ve’al ha’Avodah, ve’al Gmilut Khassadim.” — The world rests upon three things: God’s teaching, Godly deeds and works of loving-kindness. This, like Hillel's more brief statement, is a good short introduction to what Judaism is all about.




The word itself is most often mistranslated to mean “Law,” though its root in Hebrew is either “Yoreh,” which means shoot, or “Lehorot” which means to teach. Originally it was called “Torat Moshe” — the teaching of Moses or “Torat Hashem” - the teaching of God. Torah, then, is the Five Books of Moses. However, all the teaching of God is “Torah,” and therefore, we also call the whole Scriptures by that name.
Everyone is familiar with the story of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, where God spoke what is most often called “The Ten Commandments.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, they are called “Aseret hadibrot,” the Ten Statements, or words, not commands or laws! Judaism teaches that incorporated in the words of God was “the whole Torah” — the entire teaching! Why is Torah related to the verb “to shoot?” Either because God was “shooting” His teaching from Sinai at mankind, or because God’s teaching is a target for us to aim at! We must practice our skill at getting the target each and every time.




There is more than one meaning to this word in the Hebrew — though the chief meaning is “Work.” However, the “labor of God” is not just “work” in the sense of a menial chore performed mindlessly, just to fulfill an obligation to an employer. Rather, the service of God is a privilege that is at one and the same time rewarding, ennobling, and uplifting in nature.
The “Avodah” of God is fulfillment of “Mitzvot” - Godly teachings found in the Torah. There is no word in any language other than Hebrew that is an exact match of the word Mitzvot - and that may explain why the word is often mistranslated (to mean “law”) and misunderstood. (The singular form is “mitzvah” as in “Bar-Mitzvah.”)
The expiating service of atonement that was performed by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur is one example of Avodah. The daily prayers offered by a Jewish person, done in sincerity -- and leading to a commitment to live a righteous life devoted to the service of mankind is still another.


Helping the widow and the orphan, providing for a poor girl to have a proper wedding, visiting the sick, and preparing the remains of the dead for burial — these are also examples of Avodah, which is to say labor for the glory of God, but they fall into another category: deeds of loving-kindness and mercy.
The Torah is replete with lessons of love — love emanating from God, filling the whole world which He created. Love that was given to man as a trust to care for those around him in a partnership with God. There is no court, no authority on earth, that can legislate the ethical and moral life-style that is required of a committed Jew.
The guidelines for a Jew’s relation to his Creator are given in Deuteronomy 6:5, “...and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The message of Torah is the message of true humanity and civility — it is the most demanding and the most liberating! The Scriptures summarize the concept with the following: “My son, forget not my Torah, but let thy heart keep My mitzvot... do not despise the chastening of the Lord... Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding... Her [Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who hold steadfastly onto her, and happy are those who hold her fast.” [Proverbs 3:1,11,13,17,18]




One always hears about “Jewish law” — yet Hillel’s answer to the heathen belies the claim that Judaism is strictly legalistic in its nature. Jewish law is called Halakhah, which means “path” — and refers to a cradle to grave life-style. Judaism is dynamic and capable of change in the spirit of Halakhah, with care to avoid change for its own sake.
Torah remains a Tree of Life — but there is also a great body of “oral teaching” from which Halakhah is derived. If one was to examine Halakhah from beginning to end, one would find many “contradictions,” laws that advocate or prohibit opposite sides of the same issue. The sages explain that this is done for the purpose of allowing judges or arbiters to rule one way or the other based on the particular situation in each case that comes up for decision. Still, we live in Judaism in the spirit of the teachings of Torah, mitigated by Halakhah to live in our age and in the world we live in.




Many people ask the question, “What is Judaism?” — and I have heard responses such as, “Judaism is... How can I put it into words? It’s the religion of a Jewish person, what he aspires to be, to do...” “It is a faith like Christianity... It’s being Jewish...” While it is true that Judaism is manifest through all of those answers — it is also certainly true that the answers are not the definition of Judaism.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to give a single sentence (or even paragraph) definition to the question. One would be quite correct to say that “Judaism is different things to different people.” Yet, this kind of an answer begs the question of definition!

What, then, is Judaism?

When it is impossible, or at least difficult, to give a definition of an item (“a universal set”), we can sometimes look at its constituent parts (“subsets”), and by defining the parts we reach a “sense” of the whole item. We can say, then, that “Judaism is what Jews are and do” — which is not a definition of Judaism but of its components. Now, if we can define “Jew” we may be able draw conclusions about Judaism.
The American Everyday Dictionary gives the following definition: “Jew (joo), n. 1. One of the Hebrew or Jewish people. -adj. 2. Jewish. -Jew’ess, n. fem.” I don’t consider that a very good definition. Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary gives a definition that is not much better: “...1. a: a member of the tribe of Judah b: Israelite 2: a member of a nation existing in Palestine from the 6th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. 3: one whose religion is Judaism.” This, too, is a poor definition.
A good dictionary definition that would be acceptable to the majority of Jews would read as follows: Jew (joo) n. 1. A person born of a Jewish mother who has not taken for him/herself any religion other than Judaism; 2. A person who has converted to Judaism by some religious ceremony according to some religious laws.
From the last definitions we can draw some conclusions: Judaism is [From (1)] (a) a birthright; (b) a family relationship, a clan, a people; ©) a history; (d) a literature; (e) a culture; (f) a language; (g) a land; [and from (2)] (h) a faith in God; (i) religious institutions; (j) religious calendar; (k) holidays and fast days; (l) life-cycle practices; (m) customs & ceremonies.
There is one more point that needs to be made: Judaism is not a race! The Scriptures makes it very clear in the story of creation that God made man unique, and that at one and the same time we are all different and we are all the same.
The claim that the Jews are a race is, in fact, a racist statement. The second definition above makes it abundantly clear that anyone wishing to join the Jews through conversion may do so — without any consideration to birth, previous religious beliefs or the color of one’s skin.




One may ask, “which definition of Judaism is this?” Is there more than one definition? Is there more than one Judaism? In the modern world, particularly in the United States, there are a number of “streams” within Judaism, though all agree that there is only one Judaism! The Jewish people, like any other people on earth, have a more conservative, maybe even fundamentalist, “right” — and a more liberal, less traditional, “left.”
The three main divisions (“right, center, left”) are: “Orthodox Judaism,” “Conservative Judaism,” and “Liberal (or “Reform”) Judaism.”
Within each of these groups one also finds the more “right” wing and the “left” wing. Thus, within Orthodoxy one finds ultra-orthodox, mainline orthodox and “modern” orthodox; there are also Jewish mystic movements whose followers are called Hassidim. Founded in the 18th century in eastern Europe by Rabbi Yiksrael Baal Shem Tov, who reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hassidim are not "the most religious Jews,” as some people believe (mostly because of their distinctive way of dressing and lifestyle; the Conservatives have “Traditional conservatives” on the right, and “egalitarians” on the left, with a recent addition of the “Reconstructionist” movement, which is a liberal offshoot of Conservatism that has come into its own and claims to be a “new” branch between the Conservative and the Reform; the Liberal movement divides along issue lines: interfaith marriages, patrilineal descent (the children of a Jewish father being “Jews from birth”) and the practices of the synagogue concerning the prayer shawl, the head covering, the use of Hebrew in services, intermarriage and conversion, etc..
The Jews were spread all over the world more than two thousand years ago. After the fall of the Roman empire, and especially after the rise of Islam, the world was divided into areas that had little contact with one another. Jews were left in those different areas, and developed and changed with the indigenous culture. Consequently, Judaism was split into European (Christian-influenced) Jewry, called “Ashkenazim,” and Moorish Spanish (and other Islamic lands) Jewry, called “Sepharadim.”
Ashkenazim originally spoke the language of their “land of origin” -- South-Western Germany and North-Eastern France, which was German. However, after they were expelled from that area they continued to speak that language, adding to it words in the new languages of the lands they now inhabited, plus Hebrew words for terms they didn’t use and thus had no words for in German. This “mixed” language became known as “Yiddish” or “Jewish”.
Sepharadim spoke the language of their “land of origin:” Castillian Spanish. Again, over the years, after the expulsion, they added words in Hebrew and other languages, creating what is known as “Ladino.”
Before we begin to explore the various facets of Judaism we may want to ask two questions: Why do we bother with this matter, at all? We are Jews. I, the author, am a Jew, and I represent other Jews whose birthright, whose heritage, is Judaism. We are proud of our Judaism and we feel very strongly about wanting to continue the “Jewish line” in our progeny.
The second question is in two parts: Won’t this be a better world if some people didn’t always wish to stand out and be different? Why do we, Jews, wish to be so pushy and insist on remaining different? Well, again, speaking for myself and those I represent - the answer to the first part of the question is no! We do not feel that the world would be a better place if we acquiesced and fell in line.
A world full of buttercups and nothing but buttercups would be a yellow eyesore! The beauty of a rainbow is in its many colors, and the beauty of mankind is in our differences. This world would be a better place when no group of people would try to force another to conform. As to the second part of the question, we Jews think that we are not pushy at all - we are peace lovers and peace seekers. But we are proud of our heritage, and we choose to keep it whole and intact. We have a right to our existence, purchased with the suffering of a thousand generations in every corner of the world. We will not be denied.



Since the beginning of Jewish existence, a Jewish mother gave birth to Jewish children. The rationale for this rule has to do with the fact that, traditionally (and historically), the mother is the one parent who spends the most time with the young child in his/her formative years. The precedent case upon which this rule is based is that of the great Jewish emancipator, Moses. He was born to Amram and Yokheved, Levites. However, he was placed in the Nile river and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, to be taken into her home and raised as a prince of Egypt. His sister, Miriam, who saw the infant taken by the Egyptian princess, suggested the use of a wet nurse from among the Israelites -- and brought Yohebed to the palace to serve as nurse to her own son. When the child grew and no longer needed the nurse, the mother was separated from the child. Yet, years later, when the young man went out to view the labor of the Israelite slaves — his compassion for them caused him to attack a cruel Egyptian taskmaster for the sake of an Israelite slave. Therefore we teach that while the family name is passed on from the father to the children — the birthright to Judaism is passed on through the mother only. In the last few years, the Reform movement in American Judaism has postulated that there is also a birthright through the father — but this is a matter of great dispute and is not widely accepted. One should also note that since only one parent passes Judaism down, there cannot be, and there is no such thing as a “half Jew” or “part Jewish.”



In ancient times people were not very mobile. The great majority of humanity spent their whole life within an area of a few square miles. This fact meant that people in an area — a valley, a village, or a small town, were pretty much intermarried to the point where they were all “one big family.” Of course, the larger the area covered, the less family relation one would find. Small nations which developed in ancient times had this kind of close-knit family feeling, while large modern nations such as the United States obviously do not.
The Jewish people originated in one small area of the world in days of antiquity — and to this day they trace the roots of their family tree back to the same common ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Some may ask: what of the convert? Surely when one talks of the “Jewish family” one excludes all but “Blood Jews!” Not true! Jewish tradition and law both dictate that the convert accepts not only the God of Abraham but also his blood line. It is as though the convert is adopted by the Jewish family.
When a Jew participates in synagogue practices he (or she) is called by a “Jewish name” - which is the name given at the first Jewish life-cycle ceremony, followed by the name of the father (e.g. Moshe Ben Amram, David Ben Yisha’y, etc.). When a convert accepts Judaism he or she takes a Jewish name which is followed by “Ben Avraham Avinu” — son of our Patriarch Abraham. Thus in one act the convert accepts not only the fatherhood of God but the family of Israel, the kinship of all Jews.
The best example of this act of accepting the peoplehood of the Jews by a convert is found in the book of Ruth, in the Bible, where the convert, Ruth, says to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “...entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for wither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God...” [Ruth 1 : 16]




Our third patriarch, Ya’akov (Jacob), had twelve sons born to him by his two wives and their two hand-maidens. Their names were: Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissakhar, Zevulun, Gad, Naftali, Dan, Asher, Joseph (Yosef), and Benjamin. Ya‘akov became known as Yisrael. The twelve Tribes of Israel are the sons, except for Levi, who was not a tribe but only a “family” of God serving people. Joseph had two sons who became tribes with the ten other brothers: Ephraim and Menashe. Thus twelve tribes entered the Land of Israel after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness: Reuben, Shimon, Yehuda, Yissakhar, Zevulun, Gad, Naftali, Dan, Asher, Ephraim and Menashe, and Benjamin (and the “family” of Levi). Having survived the exodus from Egypt, these people were led by Joshua across the Jordan River. They went on to conquer and settle Israel and divided up the portions amongst themselves.
The 12 Tribes were a united body under the kingships of David and his son, Solomon. During this era of the United Monarchy, the tribes did not always get along, occasionally squabbling over numerous internal political problems. When Solomon's son, Rekhav’am, ascended to power in 928 BCE, the infighting reached a new peak and eventually led to a division among the people. From this point onwards the 10 Northern Tribes were known as Israel (they even elected a king, Yerov’am, for themselves!). The remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, continued to live under the House of David, also called Judah or Judea.
The Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered in the year 722 BCE, and the Ten Tribes were exiled by the Assyrians. This exile is the historical source for the concept of the “Ten Lost Tribes.” The Kingdom of Judah defends itself against the Assyrians and continued to exist until the year 586 BCE, when the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, conquer the remaining two tribes. Thus ends the historical era known as the First Temple Period.




The concept of the "Ten Lost Tribes" has followed Jews until today. Actually, the fate of those Israelites of the northern kingdom has never been in doubt: they became known as “Jews” and became a part of the “Jewish people” formed by them and the Judeans when they were exiled. Despite the claims by numerous groups and tribes around the world to be these “lost tribes.” In some instances, rabbis and other students of this phenomenon have gone to distant places in South America, Central Asia, and Africa in order to attempt the verification of such claims. However, today’s “Jews” are descendants of all the tribes and the Levites as well.
Some people have conducted DNA research among African tribes to prove that they are part of the "Ten Lost Tribes" – and claim that they have conclusive proof of special DNA features linking those tribes to Jewish DNA traits. I have no argument with the possibility that Jews intermarried with African people and the “Jewish blood line” is evident in African tribes. However, they are not the "Ten Lost Tribes" – for there are no lost tribes, only the name of the “tribes” changed to “Yehudim” - Jews!



To be a Jew is to have a memory that is four thousand years long.” Elie Weisel

One might well argue that, surely, history is something that all mankind shares. After all, what has taken place in the past is the common heritage of all who live in the present! Yet, mankind is not very concerned with the events of the past, and all too often we seem to ignore or forget the past. Because the Jews share a feeling of family, and a family tradition that goes back many generations — all the way back to the “first Jew,” Abraham — we try to instill in our progeny a sense of our common history and destiny.
We have had much more than our share of sorrow, of trials and tribulations, of persecution and attempts at annihilation. That we have survived is due in part to the depth of our conviction, and in part to the realization of and pride in our glorious history. We, Jews, are unique among the nations in all of human history in many aspects of our long journey from birth to tomorrow.
We stood with Abraham at the Covenant between the Split Parts (Genesis 15) and with Moses at the Burning Bush. We were at Jericho when the blast of the shofrot (rams’ horns) brought the walls down, and at Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezar put it to the torch. We stood with the martyrs massacred in Jerusalem when the Crusaders captured the town for the glory of their God, and we shared the fate of the Jews slaughtered in Damascus in a Moslem blood liable., We were with the martyrs in the torture chambers of the Spanish inquisition, and we suffered in pogroms sanctioned by the Russian authorities.
With every blood letting we became stronger in our conviction, more sure of our resolve to maintain our covenant with God, “...I will take you to Me for a people and I will be your God...” [Exodus 6:7] Thus we remember our history in our daily service when we speak of “Our God and God of our fathers, the God of Avraham, Yitz’hak and Ya’akov...” or when we speak of our heritage as “Morashat Yisrael -- The inheritance of Israel’ — for Yisrael is both the new Jewish state and the name of the third patriarch, Jacob!
The four thousand years of Jewish history can be studied in great detail, making it a lifelong process -- or they can be studied in “blocks” or “time periods.” I have found that it is best to look at it from two perspectives: (a) as two time capsules of two thousand years each, and (b) as eight capsules of five hundred years each.
The first two thousand years of Judaism was a time that was directly related to the Jewish nation and the Jewish land -- one may call it “the rise and fall of the Israelite nation.” The second two millennia was a time when the Jews existed as a minority in many lands where their existence and safety were never to be taken for granted.
If we look at Judaism in five hundred years cycles, we see (1) the age of the Patriarchs and the “family” of Jacob [Israel] to the time of bondage in Egypt; (2) the age of the exodus to the settlement in the Land of the Promise, to the safety of that land under King David; (3) the age of the decline of the Jewish state, with a split in the kingdom, followed by the fall of Israel, followed by the fall of Judaea and destruction of the Temple; (4) the return to Zion and rebuilding of the Temple, and existence as a semi-autonomous state while many Jews remained outside the homeland, followed by countless ups and downs in the fortunes of state, to the end of the Jewish commonwealth at the hands of Rome; (5) the age of the Jewish community of Babylonia and Persia; (6) the age of the Jewish community in Northern France and Germany (Ashkenazim); (7) the age of the Jewish community of Spain and the Moslem world (Sepharadim); (8) the age of the Jewish community of Eastern Europe and the New World.
No matter which perspective one takes to look at Jewish history, it becomes obvious that we are at the beginning of a new period in this history. To survive and flourish in the future we must hold on steadfastly to the past and learn about it thoroughly, to insure that mistakes are not repeated and chances are not missed.




A people who keep track of their history for a period of four thousand years, as the Jewish people have done, are bound to have written this history down. This record, if nothing else, would be considered literature. Jewish literature, of course, is not limited to a record of our travel across time. Indeed, the greater part of our literature relates to our faith, a subject that we have not touched on as yet.
The beginning of Jewish literature is “The Book” - the one known as “The Bible” (Greek = Biblos) . Of course, we are talking of the “Jewish Bible,” which is what Christianity calls “The Old Testament.” Since the New Testament is not part of our Holy Writ, we have “just” one Testament - our Book of Books, Tanakh. Some modern scholars have examined our Scriptures and declared that they are not “original” - they have much in common with pre-Jewish, pre-Biblical, Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature and further, they are not more than 2,500 years old. That may indeed be so - but it does not take away from the original, monotheistic, ethical and moral teachings that are uniquely “Jewish!” Further, some claim that the "original" Hebrew texts have been lost, and the present Hebrew texts are translations of Greek translation of the old Hebrew from the first century before the Christian era. The examination of scrolls discovered in the last seventy five years, particularly the "Dead Sea scrolls," disprove this claim.
The Jewish Scriptures are made up of three parts: The Torah (“the Five Books of Moses”); the Prophets (Nevi’im); and the Writings (Ketuvim). The initials of these three parts forms a Hebrew word, “Tanakh,” which is what we call our "holy book." In our History, much mischief was caused by the Greeks and by Hellenized (Greek influenced) Jews, so I will not use the Greek for the Hebrew Scriptures
History itself was the editor that decided which books should be in the Tanakh. Some books mentioned in our Scriptures have disappeared without a trace. Some of the book found in our collection seem "out of place," like the Scroll of Esther," in which the name of God is not mentioned even once. There are books of antiquity in Jewish literature that existed in Scriptural times but were not judged to be worthy to be included in the Tanakh, and were left out. They form the extra-Scriptural literature that is sometimes called by the Greek name “apocrypha.” These include the book of Tobit. Other book were not included because they originated after the Tanakh was "closed" - such as the Book of Maccabbees I & II.
After the Tanakh was completed, around the year 500 b.c.e., the scholars of Judaism set down in writing two sets of books that expand and interpret it. Called Mishnah and Gmara, these texts were combined to form what is known as the Talmud. There are actually two “Talmuds” -- a Hebrew Talmud that originated in the Land of Israel and is known as “Talmud Yerushalmi – the Jerusalem Talmud,” and a much larger work compiled in Mesopotamia (and written in Aramaic), known as “Talmud Bavli – the Babylonian Talmud.”
At the same time that the Talmud was being compiled, two other great literary projects were being created: the Midrash, a compilation of lessons gleaned from the Scriptural text; and the Aggada, legends and stories derived from the text in the Scriptures and expanding its scope.
All of the above mentioned books are literary works that were already in existence some one to two thousand years ago!
Another great literary compilation of the Jewish people is the liturgy of Jewish worship. Two great volumes come to mind, the "Siddur Tfila" ("Order of Prayers") ascribed to Se'adia Ga'on and the "Mahzor " ("Repeater") ascribed to Amram Ga'on.
Since the invention of paper and pen, the volume of Jewish literature has increased many fold. Historically, most of the literature was connected to the Jewish religion or to Jewish history. Long before the invention of the printing press and the typewriter, great scholars such as Rabbi Shlomo Yitz'khaki, known as Rashi (born 1040 in Troyes, France, died in 1105) wrote and published a commentary of the entire Tanakh and Talmud; Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon [Maimonides], known as Rambam (born 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, died in 1204) wrote many volumes, including the definitive “Guide for the Perplexed,” “Mishne Torah,” and many commentaries; Rabbi Moshe Ben Nakhman [Nakhmanides], known as Ramban (born 1197 in Gerona, Spain, died in 1270) published more than 50 volumes of commentaries. Throughout the ages, most of these literary works were written in Hebrew. Spain also produced great poets - Yehuda Halevi and Iben Gabirol are just two examples that come to mind.
As mentioned earlier in the chapter about Jewish History, the Jews who lived in the Christian (Western) world saw their life and safety decline at the time of the crusades in the beginning of the eleventh century; Spanish Jewry began its decline some four centuries later with the "Christianization of Spain" under Ferdinand and Isabella. Jewish scholars in this period began to delve into mysticism, called in Hebrew Kabbalah - Advanced in Spain and Southern France and continuing in Safed, in the hills of Gelilee. Kabbalah scholars began compiling a great body of literature called Zohar. This group of books include commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah and Scriptural interpretations as well as material on Mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology. The Zohar is written, like Talmud Bavli, in Aramaic.
With the beginning of the age of enlightenment, in the seventeenth century, a new type of literature has evolved, called fiction. One must remember that the field of secular literature was closed to Jews because of Anti-Semitism almost until the twentieth century - yet Jews excelled and sometimes had to give up their Judaism to be accepted, as did the German poet Heinrich Heine, and the French composer Jacques Offenbach. In the late nineteenth and in the twentieth century, many of the great authors were and continue to be Jewish, and their work is influenced by and depicts the Jewish life and life-style that is their heritage and background. These “modern” authors wrote (and continue to write) in every language of human expression. Jews have won the Nobel prize for literature for writing in Hebrew, German, Russian, French and English. I doubt if any library building, anywhere, could contain every volume of Jewish literature ever written.
Literature is more than religion and fiction. Professional literature exists in science, the arts, and social science. The Jewish presence in this field is evident in the astonishing fact that some thirty percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jews. Surely, in literature we see the proof of the passage in Genesis, “ and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” [12:3]




The dictionary defines “culture” as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education” — which is surely a by-product of the history and survival of a people over four thousand years! However, Jewish culture is much more than a by-product. From earliest times, the Jews were literate. The Hebrew language was one of the first to be written down. When the Children of Israel left bondage in Egypt they designated one family, the Levites, to dedicate itself to the perpetuation of Jewish culture through education, the keeping of the national literature — both written and oral — and the transmitting of knowledge to the totality of the people. The Levites were the first civil servants, teachers and clerics that were protected and respected for their holy duties.
Jewish culture created a people who, by the time of the advent of Christianity, were capable of reading and writing, and versed in the “basic literature” of Judaism — the Tanakh. Also, since earliest time, the Jews had created a very civilized culture where all enjoyed a great degree of safety and equality. Women were given autonomy and rights in the Torah, as were the poor, the orphaned and the “stranger within the gates.” In the exilic period, beginning maybe as early as 600 Before the Common Era (B.C.E.), the Jews established schools where young and old alike came to study their literature and customs. The dietary laws (kashrut) which the Jews followed dictated another aspect of culture -- an “ethnic” cuisine. The observation of the Sabbath and the holidays, the injunction to bathe, all became aspects of Jewish culture.




There is a commentary on the story of the exodus from Egypt that says: What made the Israelites worthy of God’s personal intervention, when He came down in person to redeem them from Egypt? It was the fact that they did not forget their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (History); they did not intermarry with the Egyptians (Family); and they never gave up the use of the Hebrew language in their homes! They named their children by Hebrew names (e.g. Amram, Yokheved, Aaron, Miriam).
Every people become known by three things: their constituents, their land of origin, and their language. The children of Israel had much to be proud of with their founding fathers; they knew that the Land of Canaan was their “promised land;” and they had a “national tongue” from the earliest times. Thus, when the cupbearer of king Pharaoh mentioned the dream-interpreter he met in jail (Joseph), the term he used was “...there was with us a young man, a Hebrew...” [Genesis 41:12]
Indeed, the relationship between the language and the people is so important and recognized that the term “a Hebrew” is an accepted synonym for “a Jew.” The Hebrew language is one of the oldest languages of mankind. It is a Semitic language, related to the Arabic and to the ancient languages of Mesopotamia — Aramaic, Sumerian and Babylonian. It is very different from the Romanesque languages (Spanish, French or Italian) or the Anglo-Saxon (English) language.
The Hebrew Alpha-Bet is a phonetic one, consisting of twenty-two characters, all of them consonants. There are vowel symbols that were created when Hebrew stopped being a spoken language — but those who are fluent in the language do not need vowels to read texts, and, indeed, the major texts of Hebrew literature are without vowels. Oh, yes, Professor Higgins, in Pygmalion (and “My Fair Lady”), had it right: Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, is written “backwards” — from right to left (actually it is not “backwards,” since it is older than English).




Judaism has been associated with the Land of Israel since its very beginning. Indeed, one might argue that the land was a part of the beginning! The first patriarch, Abraham, was ordered by God to depart the land of his birth, Aram of the Two Rivers, and go to the land which the Lord would show him. When he arrived in the place, God made a covenant with him, saying “to thee and to thy seed shall I give this land.” Abraham’s son, Isaac, never left the land, and his grandson, Jacob, left it twice — once to go north and east to Abraham’s ancestral homeland, and the second time to go south and west to Egypt, to avoid the famine that engulfed the whole area. On his deathbed, Jacob made his children swear to him that they would bury him in his father’s burial plot, the Cave of Makhpelah, in Hebron, in the Land of the Promise.
Four hundred years later, Jacob’s seed returned to the land to make it their national home. There they established themselves and made a name for themselves. There they established two kingdoms — Israel and Judaea, and the land became known as their homeland. From about 1300 before the common era to the year 70 of the common era, with a short break from 586 to 510 B.C.E., Jews lived a national existence in all or part of the Holy Land. From the year 70, when Rome destroyed the Temple and the City of Jerusalem and exiled the Jews out of the land, the Jews yearned for a return to that Land of the Promise. In the daily services, recited morning, noon and night, the Jew would repeat an earnest petition for a return to the ancestral homeland, “...and gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and restore us triumphantly to our homeland.” [Siddur, Shmoneh Esre — Jewish prayer-book, the silent devotion]




We live, in Western society today, in a very special and advanced age in the history of mankind. We are so conditioned to our age, and to the many, many advantages that we have (e.g. good shelter, sufficient food, and relative safety), that there are many people who question the very existence of a god. This kind of doubt did not exist in ancient times. People have been seeking answers to the fact of their existence and the mystery of their circumstances since the dawn of human consciousness.
The doubters always ask, “did God create man, or did man create God?” Indeed, a study of primitive beliefs brings us to the realization that man attempted to fashion god “in his own image.” Heathens tended to perceive their gods as capricious, malicious, impetuous superhuman beings who acted with great power on the whim of the moment. The ancients tried to control their circumstances by offering the gods a “bribe” for keeping their world in order. Of course, their religiosity was limited to the success of their offering to protect them! Religious institutions grew in direct proportion to the success ratio of the “holy men,” from witch doctors to high priests. Men who could maintain a high rate of success-to-failure in an apparent control of the unpredictable part of nature, or who were able to explain the unpredictable as a reward or punishment by the gods gained power as “holy men” and social-political leaders.
The above account would certainly lend credence to the claim of the agnostics (those who believe that man created God) — but the above account is not the total story of man’s search for God!
At a point in time, some four thousand years ago, there appeared on the world stage a man called Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. Abraham recognized that the heathen religions around him just could not be correct. He reasoned that (a) the “power of God” could not be shared, nor competed for, by a multitude of superhuman “gods.” He further realized that (b) since the world exists in an orderly and systematic fashion, it is not likely that the God who made it is humanlike in his passions and pettiness. Therefore, he concluded that God does not act impetuously, nor would He change the course of events because of a “bribe” (read “sacrifice offering”) made by human beings.
This kind of reasoning caused Abraham to come to a realization (which we call “revelation”) that there is only one God, originator and owner of all of creation -- which he had made. Abraham perceived a God who was invisible and indivisible, all powerful, all present, and all knowing -- an infinite God who is the “complete set” of being. God manifests Himself in everything, and yet is not bound by anything. God is capable of doing anything and everything -- and yet has created man with free will, so that he can make choices for his life. He believed that God created the world in a state of grace, and that everything He created is good. There is no evil except for an evil inclination in man. Man can pervert God’s plan and bring about evil in the world. Abraham further realized that God can continue to exist without man — but man’s continued well-being required a relationship with God! How does man relate to such an enormous God? By emulating His qualities. If God is graceful, we need to be graceful; if God is loving, we must be loving; if God is forgiving, we must be forgiving. Relating to God will not change God’s plan for this world -- but it will minimize the possibility that we will interfere with God’s plan and bring about evil. It also gives us the fortitude to accept what does happen in our life.


While we recognize that Abraham was the founding father of the Jewish religion as well as the Jewish people, it is also necessary to understand that the Jewish people have grown and developed since the time of Abraham, and through the ages their institutions were reformed, changed and reorganized from time to time. In the “formative stage,” that of the patriarchs, there was no official system of worship and no specific, written rules of personal or communal behavior.
The Jewish religion was not formalized until the time of the exodus, when Moses, the leader of the “tribes” that left Egypt, became the great Law Giver, teaching the people what the Lord had given him to know as His Teaching — “Torah,” and His Path — “Halakhah.” It was Moses who set up the Priesthood and established its guidelines (in the books of Leviticus and Numbers). He also informed the people of the special role that will be played by the Levites, the Civil Servants, Teachers and Keepers of God’s Teaching. Moses, inspired by God, established the first place of Jewish worship - the Tabernacle. He prescribed its size, its shape, its architects and decorators. He established the schedule for the different offerings that were to be made in the Tabernacle. Close to the time of his death, Moses chose the man who would be his successor — Joshua the son of Nun.
As the events of Jewish history unfolded, the Tabernacle was replaced with a shrine at Shiloh and another at Beth-El, and those were eventually replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem D.C. (David’s Capital), which was built by King Solomon and was renowned for its great magnificence. There the Jewish religion established a norm that was to last for close to a thousand years. While the formal contact of the Jewish people and their God was through the Temple and the Priests in Jerusalem, as early as the sixth century before the Christian era the Jews were already engaging in a different form of worship: the offering of prayers as communing with God.
Since sacrifices were only allowed to be offered at Jerusalem, and since not everyone could go to Jerusalem, the people in any given village or small town would send one (or more) to Jerusalem, and at a set time, when he was making the offering for them at The Temple, they would commune with him and with God at a given place in their hometown.
They would recite passages from the Scriptures that their teachers (Levites) had taught them: the sixth chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy was a favorite, “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord Our God the Lord is One; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might...” [Deuteronomy 6:4-5]
The people were taught the moral lessons of God’s teaching by a religious leader unique in all the ancient world — not a member of the establishment, he was called to his duty by God Himself, and he was known as a prophet. In all, there were some twenty or twenty five prophets. Some left behind great literary works — others are known only by inference. Some were of noble birth, others were of humble roots; all came by their “profession” against their will. Some were sent to speak to the non-Jewish world (e.g. Jonah), though most spoke to Israel and Judaea. Most prophets reproached the people when they broke God’s teachings while living in the land of the promise, some spoke words of consolation and return after the Jews were punished by God with exile from that land.
Once the Jews were out of their homeland and living as a minority in a world of non-Jews, non-Hebrew-speaking people, there was a need for Judaism to change to give it a form that could survive in the new circumstances. In the lands of their exile: in Sumer, Babylon and Persia, the Jews developed schools (Beit Midrash) and Assembly halls (Beit Knesset) that were the beginning of the institution of the Synagogue. There arose among the people teachers and leaders of public prayer that were known as Rabbis. The great Oral tradition that used to be kept by the Levites was put down in writing (The Mishnah), and Judaism made the transition from a national religious code of (civil and religious) law to an international ethical religion that would help keep Judaism alive for the next two thousand years (aided by the selfsame code of law).
Changed as it was, there remained common threads keeping it together: the centrality of the Holy land and the hope of return to that land; the bond of “family” that made the Jews feel that they were somehow responsible for one another; the Hebrew language. Above all, of course, there was the faith in God’s sovereignty, and the complete trust in His faithfulness to the covenant He made with the Jews as an eternally binding promise.




The synagogue is the central institution of (non-national) Judaism in our age. It is a place of prayer, a place of learning, and a place of meeting. Indeed, the word “synagogue” is from the Greek “place of Assembly.” While there are many great and beautiful synagogue buildings throughout the world, it is not the edifice that makes it a synagogue — it is the people who come there to pray to God and commune with Him in the Jewish manner.
Ten Jewish people in prayer constitute a synagogue! They can come together (and have!) in a home, in a field, on a bus, on board ship or in an airplane. The only place they cannot assemble to pray is a place dedicated to worship of another religion. A Jew can pray by himself — but he cannot bear witness to God’s holiness without someone to hear his testimony, and therefore it is better to worship in a congregation. Any Jew can lead the service. However, we are taught, “lo am ha'aretz melamed” – an ignorant person does not teach. Therefore, a person who wishes to teach a lesson (sermon) about Judaism must have knowledge, and the ability to impart it to others.




Attendance at the synagogue is not prescribed in the Scriptures — because the synagogue is a late or post-Scriptural institution. When the Jews lived as a nation within their own borders, their religion was a part of their every day life. Sabbath was a day when no citizen did any manner of work. The festivals were celebrated with a holiday air in every market place, and the language of the Scriptures was the vernacular of street urchins and babes in arms, of beggars and merchants, of housewives and scholars in their academies.
However, when the Jews were exiled and settled in foreign lands, they were doomed to being a minority in a non-Jewish world. To avoid the pitfalls of foreign influence, the Rabbis introduced the Jews to a microcosm called “the house of gathering” (Beit Knesset) — or as it is called in Greek, “Synagogue.” In this place the Jews were a complete majority; here they drew strength from each other; here they learned their customs and repeated their prayers in the language of their ancestors. Again, drawing a parallel with the science of modern psychology, we can see the value and great importance of the synagogue. It is here that the atmosphere is conducive to Jewish learning, the Jewish experience, Jewish gestalt.
Here we use audio and visual aids to create in the mind of those who attend a total Jewish experience: The eyes behold the leaders on the pulpit; the prayer shawls (talitot) worn by all congregants serve as a badge of common identity; the holy ark and the Torah scrolls serve as a focal point for our admiration of the Lord of the Universe. The music of the synagogue creates a mood — all serve to sharpen our awareness of our faith, our common history, and our close relation with the rest of the “house of Israel” — the Jewish people everywhere.
People voice one complaint more often than all others: “Prayers are insincere!” “We use the words of men long dead to express sentiments that we do not hold true or valid.” “Since God is a nonperson, how can we talk to Him?” “What is prayer anyhow?”
Judaism began with sacrifices being offered to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. With the fall of the Temple, Judaism shifted its emphasis, calling for words of prayer as a substitute for the ritual of sacrifice. Again, here, we see the great minds of Judaism at work — for words are “free” while oxen are possessions, and so the poor become equal to the richest in prayer-offerings as they never could have been when devotion was measured by the offering of livestock.
The value of prayer can be great, indeed, if only we pray with meaning and understanding. For prayers are poetry and prose that can stir our souls and raise our spirits. Be it with melody, be it with special intonation, or be it just with the weight of the words we use — prayers can cause the release of great emotions, great forces to move both spirit and body — and bring us fulfillment.
Communication with God, in the modern approach to religion (which is as old as Judaism) is based not on talking out, but on talking in — introspection, self search, concentration within the self. The voice of God is not a thunder, nor is it the roar of the seas — it is a still small voice, or as the Hebrew original said it, “the sound of complete silence.” Can one, then, communicate with God? The synagogue, in isolating the worshiper from the fast pace of the world around him, may help one reach the state of mind necessary for this “sound of complete silence” wherein God will listen — and answer back!
When a person enters the synagogue, he or she should feel that they are among friends. They should not hesitate to introduce themselves or to ask anybody questions about anything happening. They may want to just sit and watch the service unfold, or they may wish to follow in the prayer book in English -- or become involved in some personal way that seems comfortable to them.
If they are unfamiliar with Jewish practices, they have but to come to the synagogue regularly, and eventually they will learn all the different melodies and customs and how to participate fully with the ‘regulars.’ But even if they don't know all the practices to begin with, they can still participate and be spiritually elevated by the experience.
What is the essence of the service -- the purpose of the prayers, the singing, the ritual? Jewish tradition teaches that it is a way to develop a love of God, which extends to a love of His creation, His people, and by and by a love of oneself. We should also become aware of God's reciprocated love for us. Jewish prayer is a form of meditation. By entering a meditative stance during the service and coming into contact with one’s deepest self, which is the soul, one can truly open oneself to other people and to God. The mystics teach that before a prayer-service it is good to utter one's intention to fulfill the mitzvah, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," because we open ourselves to God's love even as we generate love for our fellow beings. That's why it's important for us to be friendly when we're together in the synagogue. Therefore anyone who enters the synagogue, be he a “regular” or a first time visitor, should relax and feel at home. This is God's House, and therefore it's also “home” for everyone.
The main task in prayer is to get close to God. One shouldn’t worry too much about being in step with every detail of the synagogue service. Focus should be on the essence, which is, as has been stated above, to be in a meditative mood and to open oneself to the love of humanity and of God. Only then can one actually meet Him, communicate with Him and commune with Him.
How does one meditate in prayer? Unlike the Eastern traditions where one “loses oneself,” we wish to find ourselves, become more aware. First, resolve to take your mind off any worries or concerns about outside affairs, and to concentrate on what you are doing now, which is tending to the needs of your soul. Then, through the recitation of inspiring words and beautiful poetry, singing, Torah reading, and other activities, focus more and more on the spiritual reality of your being and on God, until, inspired by God (and moved by your effort), you'll have “an experience.” Initially, that may mean a feeling of peacefulness and calm. Eventually, though, you will feel yourself entering into God's presence.
To get the most out of your synagogue experience, use this time to meditate. You can meditate by reciting, by listening, by singing, or by thinking deeply. Be friendly and relaxed, avoid excessive conversation in the sanctuary. Concentrate on the prayers and put yourself in a meditative mood. Avoid looking around you constantly. As in any form of meditation, you must control your glance to focus your mind. One easy way to do this is to direct your gaze on the page in the prayer book. Feel free to look around from time to time, but with a spiritual purpose, to take in the religious activity happening around you. Close your eyes occasionally and picture yourself surrounded by God's presence, by the host that attend Him in His court -- or imagine that He is right in front of you, so that He is looking at you and you are looking back at Him. Reflect on the deeper meaning of your life. Think about loving God, people, and yourself.
Read prayers aloud or whisper them, moving your lips. Prayer that is read in total silence is not considered a real and valid meditation in Judaism. God can hear the murmurs of our hearts, but we must hear words! More that just uttering words, we need to make an effort to put meaning and emphasis in the prayers, so as to imbue them with feeling. We should sound like we mean what we say. Think about the prayers and try to understand them. Ask yourself questions about the content, and see how you can best understand the prayers so that they reflect truth to you. Don't be surprised if some of them express ideas contrary to your own views. Part of your effort in praying in “the Jewish way” is to become familiar with traditional views, which may be new to you. If you encounter something in the prayers that disturbs you, don't dwell on it. Focus on the parts that speak to you. Try to keep up with the congregation, but don't worry if you lag behind. Don't rush. If you do, you will lose your meditative mood. If you skip a prayer here or there that is quite all right. If you lose your place in the prayer book, just ask the person next to you. He or she will be glad to help.
If you don't read Hebrew, read the English. If you are reading the Hebrew without understanding it, you may want to read the English occasionally to reflect on what you're saying. When reciting Hebrew prayers without understanding them, consider the words in the holy tongue as vehicles carrying your innermost thoughts and deepest spiritual longings to God. While uttering the Hebrew words, think thoughts related to the prayer and focus your mind on God. When the congregation sings a prayer, consider the spiritual message of the melody as primary and the words as secondary. Join in the singing and let the song carry your soul heavenward. It is a good practice, if you feel comfortable doing so, occasionally, to utter short personal prayers during the service for what you need or what a friend or a loved one needs. Personal prayers may be expressed inaudibly. You may say such things as: “Dear God, I pray for the health of my dear ones. Please bring them healing.” If you are not used to praying, you may start with, “God, I have not spoken to you before; I want to get close to You, to learn about You and how to relate to You. Please guide me. Please show me the way!”
Try to establish a continuous meditative mood throughout the service. If you avoid interruptions, distractions in deeds or thoughts, you will soon build up for yourself spiritual power, you will be able to enter a meditative mood, and, with God's help, “something will happen.” You will have a spiritual experience. Even if you are not used to prayer and will not “reach God” when you come into the synagogue, if you follow the above suggestions, you are very likely to experience, at a minimum, a taste of peace and joy.


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