logo1.gif (1591 bytes)Basic Judaism 2



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...









WEDDING                                                  DIVORCE                 DEATH & MOURNING                   

CREMATION                                                  LIFE AFTER DEATH               OUR PURPOSE UPON EARTH


For other subjects try   Basic 1   or   Basic 3







The spiritual leader of a Jewish congregation, who usually leads the service and teaches the lessons of the reading from Scriptures, is called the Rabbi. However, though he may be defined, in our culture, as "the Jewish clergy-person," he is not a minister, and certainly not a priest. The title "Rabbi" is derived from the Hebrew "rav," which means "great" or "master." Because Rabbis are knowledgeable in Torah and Talmud, the blueprint of Jewish life, their role was not only that of leader of the service and teacher of Judaism, but also (and originally primarily) that of judge in matters of religious and secular nature within the Jewish community.

Rabbis train in special academies called "Yeshivot" or Seminaries. Jewish knowledge was never meant to be restricted to any one "elite" group, and originally all (or most) Jews studied in Yeshivot. Rabbis were the teachers and heads of the Yeshivot — and they were not paid for their Rabbinic duties. Eventually, because of the need for religious leadership in far-off Jewish communities, the great Yeshivot began sending their most advanced students or teachers to communities that sent a request for Rabbinic leadership. The dean of a seminary would give a "smikhah" (which was a letter of introduction or verification) — or ordination -- to the person he would send. Thus, "Rabbi" became a title of successful completion of a course of study, like "Doctor."

Judaism is not a formal religion, with a "church hierarchy." In many countries, because of an existing relation between the state and the church, there is a loose "state Rabbinate" with a Chief Rabbi. However, in the Jewish faith the clergy do not have "rank" authority. There are no bishops, cardinals, or a pope. In every country, in every city or town, a Rabbi has authority for his congregation. To be sure, there are rules and guidelines for the manner in which services are conducted and issues of Jewish law are decided — but the interpretation of the rules and guidelines occurs at the local level by the local Rabbi.

As mentioned before, while there is only one Judaism, there are in the U.S. today three (or four) divisions or branches within that Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, (Reconstructionist,) and Liberal or Reform Judaism. Each group has its own Yeshivot, and follows the teachings of Judaism according to its philosophy. Today’s Rabbis, like their Christian American colleagues, are much more than leaders of services and preachers of a weekly sermon. They act as representatives of their faith in the general community, they council and help congregants and strangers alike, they officiate at births, weddings and burial services.




In the days when the Temple stood, three main sacrifice-offerings were made daily -- and that tradition has been preserved. Jews are prescribed a ritual of three services daily: Morning "Shakharit," afternoon "Minkha," and evening "Ma’ariv."

A Jew may pray wherever he may be -- but it is recommended to do it in the company of other Jews who form a ‘quorum’ -- or, as it is called in Hebrew "min’yan" – of ten, in a "congregation."

The main parts of the service are introductory prayers morning and afternoon, the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6) in the morning and evening services, the Silent Devotion, and the concluding hymn "Aleynu" which states that it is incumbent upon us to praise God for making us what we are and who we are.

Each section of the service ends with a sanctification prayer called the "Kaddish." There are two versions of the Kaddish prayer, a short one, called "Khatzi Kaddish" (half Kaddish), and a longer one, called Kaddish Shalem (complete Kaddish).

This Kaddish prayer is also used as the memorial prayer recited by mourners for eleven months after the death of a direct relative, or on the anniversary of the death of a relative. However, if you examine the text, you will notice that there is no mention of death or mourning in this prayer. Rather, it is a prayer that glorifies God and states our hope to see His sovereignty extend over all of His creation. It is as a sign of our acceptance of His direction that we recite this prayer in our distress.

The reading of the scroll of the Torah takes place on Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbaths, and all holidays. When the Torah is read, it is the high point of the service. On Shabbat we have special services added to augment the holiness of the day: Kaballat Shabbat ("welcome to the Sabbath) on Friday night, and Musaf (additional) service on Shabbat morning. On Shabbat afternoon we read from the Torah.




Jews are not required to wear special clothing, though some, very orthodox Jews (as a rule), do wear garments that identify them as members of a particular sect. Some wear black coats and hats. Others wear a hat with a fur trim. Many orthodox women wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, and a kerchief covering for their hair. Many Jews, nowadays, wear a small head-covering.

No matter what they wear elsewhere, upon entering a Jewish house of worship, all men are required to cover their heads as a sign of humility before God (except for some Reform congregations). While some men choose to keep their street-hats on, most prefer to replace their hats (if indeed they wear a hat) with a little prayer-cap called "kipa" – hat, or "Yar Malka" – for the reverence of God.

During the morning services (and on rare occasions in the evening services ) Jewish men wear prayer shawls, called Tallit in Hebrew. The use of the tallit dates back to ancient times, originating in the book of Numbers 15:37-41. On the four corners of the Tallit are found the fringes that are commanded to us, which are called in Hebrew Tzitzit. If one of the four Tzitzi’yot is missing, the Tallit is not "Kosher" -- which is to say not proper to wear. Orthodox men wear a special undershirt-like garment, with Tzitzi’yot on its corners which they keep displayed, to fulfill the Torah obligation (mentioned above).




A calendar is an invention of man, created for the purpose of keeping time in perspective. Time is measured in relative terms: from sunrise to sunset; from the time the sun casts the shortest shadow to the same time the next day; from one harvest time to another. In ancient times the phases of the moon were an easy means of measuring the passage of time. The first calendars were "lunar" calendars. Today we measure a year by the position of the sun over the equator. The Roman calendar is a "solar" calendar. When the Jews left bondage in Egypt they began to keep time by their own (lunar) calendar.

The problem with measuring and keeping time by the phases of the moon is that a "lunar year" is about two weeks short of a "real time" (solar) year [i.e. 365.25 days]. Also, in Judaism the seasons are an important aspect of the calendar. To insure that the Jews won’t celebrate the spring festivals in the fall and the fall holidays in the spring, a special mathematical formula is used to insert an extra month into the calendar in "leap" years, which occur at intervals of two or three years in such a way that there are seven leap years in every nineteen year "cycle." In this manner, while the date on a Jewish and Roman calendars do not coincide every year, they will coincide every nineteen years. The date, on the Jewish calendar, is determined from the time of creation, according to the Scriptural accounting. By that calendar, the year 1990 corresponds to the year 5750.




In Judaism there are no "sacraments" — at least not prescribed sacraments like the ones one finds in other religions. Instead, our tradition teaches that everything exists in the world in its "natural state" which is good — for that is how God planned and created it. We, human beings, were created in His spiritual image, and have an obligation to elevate the natural unto a loftier level of existence — which we call "holy." Thus, with no specific sacraments, everything in our experience is made, by us, a sacrament!

We consecrate everything in life — all day long, and all life long. How does one make something holy? Our most sacred article is the Torah scroll, which is made of parchment and contains the Five Books of Moses. Our reverence for the text, which we believe to be the inspired word of God given to our great teacher Moshe son of Amram the Levite, Moses, is what makes the Torah sacred. In the Torah we read, "And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates." [Deuteronomy 6:6-9] Thus, a Jew is instructed to pray, to thank God for each blessing bestowed upon him in his everyday activities. What is prayer? It is a conscious act of recognition of God’s involvement in our everyday life.

Prayer can be an act of thanksgiving, an act of submission to God’s sovereignty, or an act of petitioning Him for favor. Some prayers are "blessings," short statements of recognition of God’s interaction in our life. We bless the light of the candles on the eve of Sabbaths and holidays; we bless the wine we drink and the bread we eat. Other prayers are homages to God, personal thanksgiving, as when we wake up in the morning, when we say, "I thank You, a Living and Existing God, for returning to me my soul in Your great mercy through Your faith." We dedicate a specific place, a house or a room, for communion with God – and we call it a synagogue. We also consecrate our homes – by placing a mezuzah on the right door post at the entrance to the house and every room other than bathrooms.




What is a ‘mezuzah’ and why do we put it where we do? The word is Hebrew, of course, and means doorpost in English. It is placed there to fulfill the above verse from Deuteronomy 6, "And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and upon your gates." There is no rule about the ‘little box’ or whatever other container (which is called "ba’yit" – meaning ‘house’) we choose to place on the right doorposts. The important, and even essential, thing about it is that it must contain a small piece of parchment on which the verses from the Torah pertaining to the mezuzah are mentioned. Many people believe that a mzuzah provides the Jewish home with divine protection, and a sense of wellbeing. Actually, that is not the reason for the mezuzah. Rather, it is a proclamation and a promise: All who enter this abode will be treated according to the teachings of the Torah, with respect, with love, and with equanimity. It is traditional for people to kiss the mezuzah (or reach up and touch it and kiss their hand) as they enter the room. The reason this is done is (a) a sign of reverence for God and His teachings and (b) as a sign that we accept His authority over us. Children are taught the concept of consecration by being lifted up and afforded the opportunity to kiss the mezuzah.

Another act of consecration is performed in the home, and it is the keeping of the dietary laws, called "Kashrut."




"Sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy; for I am Holy" [Leviticus 11:44]


Many people misunderstand the purpose, and therefore the importance, of the Jewish dietary laws as part of the practice of Judaism. Some claim that the purpose of the dietary laws was to keep the Jews from eating what might be considered "dangerous" foods that could very likely cause illness or even death. That just isn’t so! While it is true that Kashrut makes very good sense from a health and nutrition standpoint, the purpose was, and still is, primarily religious — not gastronomic or medical.

  The primary reason for observing Kashrut is holiness. By imposing certain restrictions on food preparations and consumption we are forced to pause and contemplate the propriety of our sustenance. We distance ourselves from the animals of the field and the beasts of the forest by mitigating our need for food with forethought of what is proper to eat, what combinations of foods are proper, and what manner of serving of the food is proper. The word "Kasher" (or "Kosher"), often translated to mean "clean" should actually be translated more accurately to mean "proper."




Brought down to its most basic, Kashrut concerns the question of "does man eat to live — or does he live to eat?" Judaism answers the question with a resounding "Man eats to live!" Because most people use meat as their source of protein in a balanced diet, it becomes necessary to take the life of animals to provide for this staple. Still, we must have reverence for life and compassion for the slaughtered animal.

The Torah teaches "thou shalt kill of thy herd and thy flock..." [Deu. 12:21] and the Talmud elaborated on traditions set in Scriptural times concerning sh’khita (proper slaughter): Great care must be exercised to insure that the knife is smooth and will not tear the flesh when the cut is made that severs the arteries to the head, rendering the animal unconscious. The shokhet, (one who does the slaughtering), to preserve his own humanity, must recite prayers before committing the act, thus keeping his perspective concerning life and death. Though we must kill for self preservation, we must treat the animals with kindness and forethought to the end. In another passage, the Torah states "You shall not kill it and its young in one day..." [Lev. 22:28] giving further evidence of the need to show compassion to the animals one will use for food.

Not only are we commanded to kill with compassion — we are also warned to eat only certain animals, which are designated "Tahor" (clean) by the Torah, and these animals must be examined before and after the killing to insure that no blemish renders them unfit for Jewish consumption.

The Torah prohibits most emphatically the consumption of the blood of the animals. This is why the matter of Kosher food is not merely a question of choosing beef over pork, but also of the manner of preparing the meat we consider "proper" — draining as much of the blood of the animal at the time of the slaughter, removing the blood when cutting the meat into sections, and drawing blood out of the meat just before cooking by "kashering" it with rock salt and rinsing.

For kosher food preparation, we divide all foodstuffs into three groups: Meat, dairy, and "parve" (which may be called none-of-the-above). Not everyone knows that in the meat category Judaism places not only red meat but also fowl. Of course, only "kosher" meat purchased from a kosher butcher or meat packer may be used! This is because the meat has to be handled by Kosher rules every step of the way from slaughter to the dinner plate.

Dairy consists not only of milk and cheese - but of all foodstuff which is prepared with dairy additives: bread and pastries, desserts and salad dressing which contain milk or milk products is considered in this category. Great care must be taken to insure that we do not mix the meat and milk. The third group, parve, consists of "neutral" foods: eggs, fruits, vegetables, grains and fish (Though some observant Jews consider fish in a special category that is fish only, and must not be mixed with either meat or milk). Foodstuff in the Parve category can be used in combination with food of either the first or the second categories.






* All Vegetables and plants.


* All four footed animals that chew their cud and have split hoofs.


* All fish that have both scales and fins.


* All fowl that are known by tradition to be permitted.




* All living things that don't meet the above criteria.


* Animals, even from the above, that died of natural causes, or were killed by men or by animals except by a shokhet, ritual slaughterer.


* Any animal found to be blemished or diseased in the inspection that takes place after the kosher slaughtering.

A kosher kitchen has separate pots and pans, separate utensils, separate cutlery and separate dishes for dairy and for meat, and the two should not be mixed! When parve food is prepared either in meat or dairy dishes, it becomes a part of that group (that is to say, the food that was prepared, not the whole subgroup). To preserve the integrity of the kosher kitchen, even soiled dishes should not be mixed.

Since glassware is nonporous and does not retain the taste or oils of foods with which it comes in contact, it is considered fit for use with both categories of food, though not at the same time, of course, and provided that it will be properly purged after each use. Heat proof ceramics, such as Pyrex and Corningware, are considered in the "glass" category of dishes. However, when using glass for baking, a food residue can become encrusted or baked on the surface of the pan — and therefore such pans or dishes are allowed for use with one category only.






1. The preparation of Milk and Meat foodstuffs shall not take place at the same time.

2. Meat brought in for preparation must be certified kosher.

3. Whenever possible, non-meat foodstuffs should also have a certification of Kashrut. A number of symbols exist for food that receives supervision - such as the letter ‘U’ inside an "o" circle and "K".

4. When no supervision exists, products must be carefully investigated for their ingredients. Foodstuffs prepared with butter or milk of any sort, including whey, lactose and sodium caseinate are only proper for milk food preparation.

5. Bread prepared at local bakeries may be brought in only if a Rabbi has checked the bakery - ask your Rabbi.

6. Fish may be used if it is real fish: it must have fins and scales. No shell fish is allowed! Swordfish and sturgeon are kosher.

7. All cheeses (that do not have ‘bits’ of meat in them) are kosher. They must be bought in "block" form.

8. All gelatins are kosher.

9. All American table wine is kosher for serving at the table with food.

However, recently some wineries have been using chemicals to speed up maturation. Read the label. Some of the chemically speeded wine is actually rendered dairy by the added chemicals! For the purpose of making a blessing, kosher (preferably Israeli) wine should be used.





Again, while we don’t have a "birth sacrament" such as baptism, we do celebrate birth with a religious ceremony. For newborn males the celebration takes the form of the ritual of circumcision, called "millah," which originated in the covenant God made with Abraham before the birth of Isaac. "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. And he who is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male child in your generations, he who is born in the house, or bought with money from any stranger, who is not of your seed." [Genesis 17:10-12] Abraham performed this ritual, called "the covenant in the flesh" upon himself, his thirteen year old son Ishmael and every male in his household. He also circumcised his newborn son, Isaac, as the Scriptures states, on the eighth day of Isaac’s life. Ever since, Jews have circumcised their sons. When Jews were persecuted in Europe from the time of the Crusades to the end of the Nazi era, the perpetrators often identified their victims by forcing them to reveal their genitals. The un-circumcised were spared, the circumcised suffered for their accident of birth. Yet, still the Jews continued to live by the teaching of the Torah and continued to perform this religious task.

In the first part of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, as the health benefits of circumcision became known, many non-Jews chose to undergo this simple procedure, even as adults. During World War Two, circumcision was the most often performed surgery in the armed forces of the United States. Yet, there were always those who objected to having this "Jewish ritual" performed and fought its acceptance as "standard" for males. Here are the words of a Dr. James DeMeo, whose insight is very interesting to note: "Simply put, all forms of male genital mutilation to include infant circumcision, are ancient blood rituals associated with primitive religion and absolution of the male... The ritual has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with medicine, health, or science in practically all cases. The fact that so many circumcised American men, and mothers, nurses, and obstetricians are ready to defend the practice in the face of contrary epidemiological evidence is a certain give-away to hidden, unconscious motives and disturbed emotional feelings about the penis and sexual matters in general."

Others claim that circumcision is a barbaric "right of passage" and its pain is the first trauma in a male’s life. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not an "absolution," nor a "right of passage" - and modern brain based research has shown that an eight days old baby is not yet sensitized to the pain of the removal of a bit of skin on the edge of a tiny protrusion of their newborn body. As with all other Jewish laws, a close examination of the circumcision practice proves that this was not some kind of a barbaric rite of passage: modern medicine tells us that the operation prevents a plethora of possible diseases that can affect both the male and his female mate. As is the case with the dietary laws, however, so also this mitzvah is performed not for health reasons but for religious ones — with a positive health "side effect" as reinforcement.

Originally, the ceremony was performed by each father for his sons. Eventually, ‘specialists’ called "mohel" took over the task. There are four ‘actors’ in a Brit Millah ceremony: the mohel, the father, the ‘congregation’ and the ‘celebrant’ (usually a Rabbi). Each has a roll to play. The ancient texts, such as the first siddur of Se’ad’ya Gaon, Rabbi Amram Gaon and others teach us that the Mohel say the blessing, "Blessed are you... who commanded us concerning the millah." The father recites the prayer, "Blessed are you... who commanded us to enter him into the covenant of Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father)." All those who are present (and traditionally the ceremony was conducted in the synagogue following the morning service, so the congregation was all present, not only relatives and a few invited friends) respond to the father’s blessing by saying "as he has entered the covenant, so may he be privileged to enter Torah, Khupa (the wedding canopy) and a life of good deeds." The Rabbi recites a prayer over the wine, predicated on the knowledge of Jewish tradition and history, thanking God for His covenant, His protection and His keeping faith with us.

Since females lack the physical attribute necessary for Millah, obviously they do not go through the physical operation. This does not mean that they are somehow left out of the covenant! When a family has a newborn girl, the father (with or without his wife and other members of the family) is called up to recite the blessings of the Torah during morning services, and a special prayer is recited, giving thanks to God for the well being of the mother, and naming the girl before God and the congregation. This is not a modern tradition born of a desire to give girls a "measure of recognition" -- it has been going on for many centuries!




Judaism was the first society to give women rights! We read of women playing a role in Jewish communal life even in Scriptural times — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Miriam, Deborah, Ruth and Esther are just a few of the names that come to mind immediately. Women were judges, prophets, and, of course, matriarchs.

After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, the role of the woman was relegated to the home to prevent a conflict between the Jewish way of life and that of the people in the midst of whom the Jews lived (since the non-Jewish world considered women to be ‘property’ and unworthy of any consideration).

The role of women in modern Judaism has come full circle — particularly in the political arena and in the Conservative and Liberal branches of American Judaism — women participate in every aspect of religious life — from attending services, reading from the scroll of the Torah, to leading services as lay leaders or as Rabbis. Women may wear prayer-shawls and head-coverings (though they are not OBLIGED to do so). In fact, in the realm of religious activities, women have rights while men have obligations!. This is not to say that in the more traditional, orthodox Jewish society women are equal (or superior) to men. They are not. However, the lack of equality is not rooted in Jewish teachings!




After the "acceptance into the fold" in the first days of life of either the boy or the girl, there are no religious obligations until the child is capable of a degree of autonomy — which is to say that the child can maintain a personal hygiene and a minimum degree of social grace that makes it possible for him/her to sit with others of his/her age in a classroom. Education is an essential part of the Jewish experience. While Judaism is a birthright that one may call "accidental" — Living a Jewish life with understanding requires much study.

Some of this education is transmitted to the child "with mother’s milk," which is to say by way of life-experiences as the infant goes through in daily routine. However, when the child is old enough, formal education must begin.

Jewish education comes in many forms. The more observant send their children to parochial schools (called Yeshivot) in some of which the child will be exposed to Jewish and secular learning in about equal measure, while in others only "Jewish" education will be presented.

The majority of Jews send their children to secular (public or private) schools. Jewish education is relegated, unfortunately, to a secondary role, and takes place after school: possibly every afternoon and on Sunday, for between one to three hours, other times for fewer days and for fewer hours. This after-school education is usually divided into two categories, Hebrew and religious education.

The Hebrew education gives the child a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet to make possible reading the Hebrew text which is part of the services in smaller or greater degree in all Jewish places of worship worldwide; some children also learn vocabulary and gain some degree of proficiency in Hebrew conversation and/or an understanding of the text of prayers and the reading in the Torah.

Religious education tries to impart to the child the knowledge outlined in this booklet: Jewish history, Torah tales and old legends, a smattering of Jewish literature from Scriptural commentaries to modern Jewish prose and poetry — and if this part of the child’s education is to be of any value at all, there must of necessity be practical learning experience of "Jewish living" which is to say attendance and participation in services, and home practices.

Normally, "Jewish education" begins when the child is four or five, and Hebrew education begins no later than age eight or nine. The "Jewish clock" dictates that by age thirteen a child has enough presence of mind to be responsible for basic religious obligations. Until that age a parent is totally responsible for the child’s religious, moral and ethical behavior.

At age thirteen, the child assumes responsibility — and therefore, long before he/she reaches that age, the parent has to begin preparing the child to fulfill his/her obligations. Educating the children is one of the most important duties of a parent.




"At thirteen, subject to the mitsvot." [Mishnah, Avot 5:24]


To celebrate this "coming of age" and prove the ability to do what is necessary, the youth is called upon to perform a ‘religious rite’ in the synagogue.

There is no rule or limit to what the youth may do — it may be as little as reciting one prayer — or as much as the leading of the entire service for the congregation. Each congregation and each youth differ in what nature and scope of the celebration will be.

The term "Bar Mitzvah" means "son of the commandments." The female form is "Bat Mitzvah." The term "Bas Mitzvah" is just a variation in the pronunciation of the female term.

Some people feel that it is somehow irreverent to have a child lead the service, no matter how much or how little the child actually does. This is not really a "Jewish" attitude. The synagogue services are not the same as the offerings that were made in bygone days in the Temple at Jerusalem by the Cohanim (priests) and the Levi’im (Levites)!

As was stated before, the synagogue is a place where Jews come together to draw strength and solidarity from one another. In this kind of a setup, having a young man or woman lead services, recite the blessings over the Torah and chant the portion from the prophets can only enhance the feeling of well-being and hope in the hearts and minds of the congregants.




We in Judaism know that our tradition is very old indeed. We are also aware that our literature began with the Scriptures some thirty-five hundred years ago. We are not quite so sure about the history of the beginning of prayer. As mentioned before, in the days of the first Temple, when Jews would go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the ones who stayed behind in the village would recite words from the Scriptures at the time when the pilgrim would be making the sacrificial offering in the Temple. That is probably how prayer began.

The Talmud speaks of "Hat’fila" — "the prayer" — whose text was Scriptural and whose tradition was already ancient. The Jewish prayer book, called "Siddur T’fila," which means the order of prayer, was established some eleven hundred years ago by the great sage Se’ad’ya Gaon (882-942 c.e.).

Through the ages prayers have been added and deleted — there are also a "sepharadi" siddur & "Ashkenazi" siddur — but the basic structure remains as it was set by Se’ad’ya Gaon!




While synagogues vary greatly one from another, certain things are, in fact, common to all. Except in synagogues "in the round" where the service is conducted from a raised platform in the middle of room and seats are set all around it, the congregants usually sit facing the east — towards Jerusalem, the Holy City. In the eastern wall there is a ‘closet’ covered with cloth and/or a decorated door of some sort. This ‘closet’ is called the Holy Ark ("Aron haKodesh"), and it houses the scrolls of the Five Books of Moses, known by the Hebrew name Sifrey Torah. Above the Holy Ark one finds a light which remains ‘on’ at all times.   It is the Eternal Light ("Ner Tamid").

In synagogues of old there was a platform or lectern in the center of the sanctuary from which the services were led. In our days, it is far more common to find a "Stage" (called bima) at the eastern wall, right where the Holy Ark and Eternal Light are found. This stage is not called "the altar" — again, because only in the Temple at Jerusalem did we have an altar, where animal sacrifices were offered.

The synagogue is in actuality the "House of the People" , and it is where the present generation prepares itself for the service of God in the world — through prayer and the study of our history and our heritage In most synagogues one also finds a ‘memorial tablet’ which lists the names of congregants (or their relatives) who have passed away. Judaism places emphasis on remembering our past generations (history). People recall their departed relatives on the anniversary of their death (which is called "Yahrziet") by standing up in the service to recite the Kaddish prayer, consecrating God’s name in memory of the departed. Ours is the power of memory, through which the dead are still with us.

The ‘menorah’ — a seven branch candelabra — is fairly common in synagogues, probably in remembrance of the ‘great Menorah’ which stood in King Solomon’s Temple (and in the Tabernacle in the desert before that). The menorah has seven branches, representing the seven days of the week — with the "Shabbat" branch often raised above the other six. The seven branch menorah has often been identified as the "badge" of the Jews — it was depicted on Titus’ arch of triumph, in Rome, in the first century of the common era, and it is the emblem of the modern State of Israel, reborn almost two thousand years after Titus returned to the dust of the ages!

At one side of the bima one discerns the "Jewish flag" — a white flag with two stripes of blue and a blue star of David (the six pointed star). The flag was fashioned after the white prayer-shawl with the blue thread on its sides. The six pointed star, imposed upon the Jews as a badge of shame in Europe’s ghettos, has become a symbol of honor. It is called "the Star of David," as tradition suggests that this geometric design was used as a decoration on the battle-shield of the psalmist-king, the shepherd of Bethlehem who became the founder of the Davidic royal line.

Jewish mysticism ascribes special powers to this symbol, while others claim that its relation to King David is rooted in the "twin triangles" which were the symbol of the letter "Dalet" in ancient Hebrew (delta in Greek).




When the Children of Israel "met God" at Sinai and received the first volume of their literature, the Torah, there were no such things as "books," and words were etched in stone, literally, or at best written by hand on parchment (which is animal skin, usually cow or lamb). The Jews are very proud of their history and their ancient literature which they have given to the world as a gift. In order to create a link with the past, and as a physical remembrance of it, we still use the old-style book — the scroll.

Though the tradition is very old, we do not wish to mislead anyone by claiming that all scrolls are ancient — Torah scrolls are still being handwritten today by "specialists" who are called "Sofrim" — scribes. These men (or women) spend many years learning their vocation (usually it is passed on from fathers to sons) and eventually become scribes. They know the text of the Five Books of Moses very well, but must never write even one line, one word, one letter without looking it up in another scroll, thus assuring the continued historic integrity and accuracy of the text.

The act of reading the text of the Torah as part of the service is believed to date back to the time of Ezra the Scribe (about 500 B.C.E.) when Ezra used to read the Torah to the Jews assembled in Jerusalem on market days. Hence the tradition of reading the scroll on Mondays and Thursdays — traditional market days. Of course, we also read from the scroll on Shabbat and holidays. The reading from the scroll is done in the morning service, except for Shabbat and Yom Kippur, when we also read in the afternoon, and Simkhat Torah -- when we read from the Torah at night.

The reason for reading the Torah in the synagogue is our desire to continue the study of both text and interpretations — and its ramifications for our age and in our lives. One of the obligations of the Rabbi is to study new and different interpretations of the texts and bring them to the attention of the congregation at the time of the reading of the Torah. This kind of a talk by the Rabbi is called "Dvar Torah" - matters of Torah. A "Dvar Torah" is not the same as a sermon in Christianity. A sermon is ‘preached’ while a Dvar Torah is taught. Rabbis do ‘preach’ at times, but that activity is called "mussar" – which is understood to mean chastisement or reprimand.

It is a great honor to be called up to recite a blessing before and after the actual reading of the text of the Torah. This honor is called "Ali’ya" — climb! Of course, if one is capable of actually reading the text, it becomes part of the ‘honor’ – but if one’s knowledge of Hebrew is limited, reciting the blessings can be done, even by reading the Hebrew in Latin characters.

On Shabbat, seven people are called up; On holidays that do not fall on Shabbat, five are called; on Yom Kippur, if it is not Shabbat, six are called. On Monday and Thursday mornings, and on Shabbat and Yom Kippur afternoons, only three are called. It is permitted to call "extra" honorees to the Torah. The first to be called, (if one is present) is a descendent of the priestly (Cohen) family, the second (again, if present) is a Levite, and the remaining honors go to members of the House of Israel. After the full complement is called up, a "Maftir" (completer) is called last. This is usually the time when the Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah is called to recite the Torah blessings. After this last reading the Torah is raised for all to see, and after it is bound and put away, the reading from the Prophets is chanted by the same person who was the completer (Maftir) of the Torah reading.




The custom of reading a portion from the Prophets, which relates in some way to the subject of the Torah reading, is much less ancient than the tradition of reading from the Torah scroll. It probably did not begin until 165 B.C.E., when the Assyrian King, Antiochus Epiphanes (whom you may remember from the Hanukkah story), forbade the Jews to study (or even read) the Torah. Another theory suggests that possibly reading from the Prophets did not begin until the days of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, in the second century (for the same reason as above!)

The melody which is used in the chanting of the portion from the prophets is not a new melody, nor is it ‘just a chant’ — it is read from the text, where it is found in a form of musical notations that is very old and yet simple enough to be learned by one preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah.




When young people reach the age of eighteen, they are old enough to leave their parents’ home and hearth and make a home for themselves - which is to say that they are ready to marry. Judaism teaches that it is not good for people to live alone, and marriage is the preferred adult state of being. The origin for this teaching is in the Torah, where we read, "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help to match him." [Gen. 2:18] and further, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh." [Gen. 2:24] To be sure young people should marry and establish families and have children, fulfilling the mitzvah "be fruitful and multiply" [Gen. 1:28] – but even when we are beyond childbearing age, we still need the help-mate.

Judaism does not really concern itself with sexual activity (between consenting adults who are not close relatives or are married to others), nor is there any discussion of sexuality whatsoever — except that Judaism teaches that if people wish to live together, they ought to consecrate their commitment to one another before God, to elevate their relationship above the mundane – or in other words, get married.

The wedding ceremony is held under a canopy called "Khupa" which is usually made up of four posts and a cloth top. The Khupa has to be erected specifically for the wedding ceremony.

Before the ceremony, a marriage contract, called "k’tuba," is drawn up. The groom makes certain promises to support and maintain his bride according to a manner becoming a Jewish husband. There is a traditional text that is prepared for the couple by a "mesader kidushin" – a ‘sacrement fixer,’ usually a scribe or a Rabbi. The groom must "Purchase" (make his own) this contract in a ceremony that is called "Kin’yan" before the couple can stand under the canopy. Before he "purchases" the k’tuba he must lift the bride’s veil and verify that she is, indeed, the woman he contracted to marry. This practice is called "bedikah" – examination of the bride. This is done to avoid the "embarrassment of Jacob," who wished to marry Rachel, and woke up the morning after his nuptuals to discover that he married her sister, Leah. Once the contract is ready and the groom takes possession of it, it is signed by witnesses, and then the ceremony can begin.

The actual marriage ceremony, under the khupa consists of the consecration of the first cup of wine (called "irussin"), followed by the ring ceremony ("Harey at"), followed by the reading of the k’tuba, followed by the consecration of the second cup of wine ("sheva brakhot"). At the conclusion of the ceremony a glass is broken by the groom in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and to symbolize that there is no such thing as "perfect happiness." The Rabbi does not marry the couple – they marry each other. He is present under the canopy in order to instructs them on how to do it.




Should people who have made an agreement to live together, and consecrated it before God (which is to say married people), reach an impasse in their relation with one another — Judaism permits them to dissolve their union through divorce.

However, Judaism insists that divorce, like marriage, should be by mutual consent. The husband has to have a writ of divorce ("gett") prepared. In the presence of witnesses the wife accepts the writ and to show her consent returns to the husband the marriage contract.




The last life-cycle event for us to consider is death. Judaism is very life-oriented, and does not advocate dwelling on matters of death, life after death, heaven, or ancestor worship. This does not mean that Judaism does not have a position on these matters — but only that we ought not concern ourselves with them unduly. We have definite rules concerning the one who died — and those who are left behind.

We are instructed that disposing of the remains of the dead is one of the most important mitzvot a person can engage in. Judaism teaches that when a person dies, the soul returns to God. The body, which was the "temple" where the soul dwells, must be returned to the earth, from whence it came. Death is the "great emancipator," striking rich and poor alike, and the grave makes the tall and the short, the fat and the skinny, the handsome and the plain equal.

Therefore, Judaism prescribes a standard procedure for burial: The body of the departed is washed in a ritual of purification; it is dressed in a shroud; it is placed in a wooden coffin, and it is entombed in the ground. In many cemeteries, these days, there is a rule about a "liner" to prevent cave-ins, and Judaism does not have an issue with this practice. The preparations for burial are done by Jews. Those who volunteer to do the work are called "Hevra kaddisha — gmilat khessed shel emet" — a holy society to render true loving-kindness.

In Israel and in many countries the remains of the dead are not buried in a coffin. Instead, they are wrapped in a linen sheet and placed between two planks of wood, making death much more real to the mourners, making the "dust unto dust" happen much more quickly, and preventing exorbitant expenses.

The dead are mourned by their direct relatives: sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and parents. The relatives exhibit their mourning by rending their clothes, by sitting in mourning for a period of seven days ("shiv’a"), by restricting their activities to the necessities of life for thirty days ("shloshim"), and by reciting the "mourners’ Kaddish" for a year. The remains of the dead have to be buried as soon as possible — on the day of the death or on the morrow -- unless a close relative will be coming to attend the funeral and takes longer in transit.




Judaism forbids disposition of the remains of our dead through cremation! There are both positive and negative reasons for this ruling. Let us begin with the positive aspects:

The Talmud notes (in Sanhedrin 46b) that the Patriarchs were all buried in the Cave of Makhpelah, except for Rachel, who was buried on the road to Hebron, in Bethlehem. The Talmud says that while we cannot deduce from the text that it is absolutely necessary to bury the dead — it may have been a custom in Canaan that the Patriarchs accepted, we do know that Jacob, in Genesis 47:29, asks his son Joseph to perform an act of "Khessed v’emet" — Loving-kindness and Truth: bury him in the family burial place. Thus the conclusion is drawn that burial is a great Mitzvah.

The Mishnah [Pe’ah Chapter 1] says that there are a number of mitzvot of such importance that while a man is considered worthy in life for fulfilling them, his virtue remains for all eternity - and one of these mitzvot is "Leva’yat hamet," which means attending the dead unto the grave!

Furthermore, the Talmud (Khulin 11b), forbids the mutilation of a corpse. The Torah states "By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return..." [Genesis 3:19] We are told that even the corpses of convicts who have been executed must be disposed of with dignity and by burial!

On the negative side, there are many reasons to avoid cremation. The practice of offering human sacrifices to the heathen gods was common in the ancient world, and forbidden to the Jews. There was a relation between the holocaust offering of (live) humans and the total destruction of the remains of the dead by fire — which can be seen as a physical holocaust. Thus, to prevent any misunderstanding about why a corpse was annihilated by fire — it was forbidden.

Since the burial of corpses is a Mitzvah, the destruction of a body by fire makes it impossible for a person to fulfill this most important Mitzvah - and therefore, again, cremation is forbidden. Finally, in the Talmud (Gittin 56b) there is a story told of General Titus of Rome (who had ordered the destruction of Jerusalem!), who ordered that his body should be cremated and scattered to the winds, "to avoid the judgement of God."

Thus, to order one’s corpse to be cremated means a rejection of God’s judgement and His Grace through pardon. Indeed, by inference, it is a denial and desecration of God himself.

In our own age, Jewish scholars and sages have added another reason for avoiding the practice of cremation: During the Holocaust the Nazis murdered six million of our brothers -- two thirds of European Jewry — and then added to the catastrophe by annihilating the bodies of the martyrs by fire!

There are no cemeteries where these dead are forever resting, where their descendants -- if there are any -- can come to remember their names and recite the Kaddish. Thus, in our own age, cremation of the body of a Jew seems to add to the ashes of the holocaust. Surely we cannot allow this to take place!




As for life after death: Judaism teaches that when our span of time upon this earth is over, our spirit departs our body and returns to God. This means that there is a different kind of existence, not of this physical world, an "olam haba" — a "world to come" when we are no longer bound by our earthly limitations. This olam haba is given to those who lived by God’s teaching. Judaism does not teach of the existence of a place of punishment ("hell"). Those who are not deserving of olam haba simply die and cease to exist, their spirit terminates with the death of the body.

Beyond the concept of olam haba we also have a mystic belief in "t’khiyat hametim" -- the resurrection of the dead. No one is really sure just how it is going to work - but the theory is that in time to come, when God’s sovereignty extends over the whole earth, in the days of the coming of the Messiah, the righteous shall be revived, to assume their previous lives free of strife and fear of any human failings.

However, very few Jews really concern themselves with these matters at all. Basically, Judaism is very life oriented. It teaches us to live our lives in such a way that if we die at any time, we would not have to fear the judgement of God.




"...Not the dead shall praise the Lord, nor those who go into the nether world..." [Psalm 115:17]

There is a story in Aggada (Jewish folktale) about the creation of man: God took six days to create everything except man. God surveyed the world which He had made and judged it to be good, and He was ready to conclude his work and begin preparations for Shabbat. His angels came to Him in great agitation, and asked Him who would speak His praise for all that He had done. Immediately, God said, "Let us make man in our own image..." [Genesis 1:26]

Man was put on earth to praise God, and Judaism tells us that we need not be over-occupied with what is beyond us. We are meant to seek God, to find out what His qualities are — and get closer to Him by emulating these qualities. If You believe God to be kind and graceful — become kind and graceful! Do your best — and have faith that God will do rightly by you when you come before His seat of judgement.


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