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Frequently Asked Questions About Judaism
Orthodox Jews maintain that God gave the Torah, in its entirety, to Moses at Mount Sinai. They believe the Torah was never, and will never, be amended, and that Jews must observe all of its commandments. They recognize the rabbinic authority to interpret the Torah and establish its laws.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Reform movement reveres the Torah for its ethical and moral values but believes it was written by man, not God, and that its laws are not binding. The Conservative movement strikes a balance between Orthodoxy and Reform, deeming the Torah divinely inspired, but allowing for religious practice that evolves with changing times and values.
One of Judaism’s principal affirmations is that man is created in the image of God, and therefore has inherent dignity and value. In fact, human life is regarded as so valuable that, with the exception of extreme cases that would involve violating the prohibitions against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, Jews are commanded to transgress the laws of Torah in order to preserve their lives or the lives of others. (Whosoever saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world. --Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
Whereas Judaism and Christianity agree on the inherent value of human life, they hold different views of man. Christianity maintains that all men are inherently sinful and need God's enabling grace to be good. Sin, in other words, is part and parcel of the human condition. Judaism, by contrast, affirms that man is inherently neither good nor evil. Man has the inclination to do both good and evil, but has the free will to decide.
Anti-Semitism has been called “the longest and deepest hatred of human history,” and, indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more durable prejudice or one that has caused greater suffering.
Anti-Semitism is not just a historical phenomenon—it is alive and well in our time. Physical attacks and verbal abuse of Jews occur daily not just in the Middle East, where Arab and Muslim governments and terrorists have slaughtered thousands, but around the world.
In France, for instance, the surge in anti-Semitic incidents has been so great that, according to a recent survey, more than one-quarter of French Jews were considering emigration. In 2003, terrorist bombings against Jewish institutions in Morocco and Turkey killed scores of people and injured hundreds more. That was the same year the prime minister of Malaysia claimed that “Jews rule the world by proxy.” Even North America is not immune from anti-Semitic incidents at a Jewish school destroyed by fire in Montreal, arsonists left a note stating, “This is just a beginning.”
Anti-Semitism, which to some degree went underground following the destruction of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, is often couched in anti-Israel rhetoric. Individuals and institutions (including mainline Protestant denominations in Europe and North America) regard blatant anti-Semitism as politically incorrect, but don’t hesitate to draw comparisons between democratic Israel and Nazi Germany.Because Israel sprang from the ashes of the Holocaust, many observers believe that by demonizing Israel,anti-Semites are trying to expunge their own guilt at having murdered one-third of the world’s Jews during World War II.
More than any other people, Jews know the unspeakable horrors that can be unleashed when blind, unreasoning hatred is allowed to take root and grow unopposed. Jews and all those who love Israel and the Jewish people must remain ever vigilant against this insidious threat.
Judaism rests on the fundamental proposition that God and Israel are linked in an unbreakable, eternal covenant. Though Jews understand themselves to have a special relationship with God, their “chosen-ness” does not imply superiority; in Jewish cosmology, God remains the God of the entire universe, and of all people.
Biblical accounts tell of several covenants between God and the Jews. Perhaps the most significant and wide-reaching was the covenant in which God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that he would become the father of a great nation. The later covenant at Mount Sinai, in which God gave the Torah, or code of law, to the Jewish people, is considered a culmination of the Abrahamic covenant.
Almost 4,000 years ago, God told the patriarch Abraham to leave the comfort and security of his homeland, Ur Kasdim (modern-day Iraq), and go "to a land that I will show thee." (Genesis 12:1) This was the Land of Israel. Abraham had such faith and trust in God that he left home, reassured by God's promise that "I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will curse" (Genesis 12:3).
As part of this divine covenant, God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the land of Israel as an eternalpossession. Jewish law notes that the Abrahamic promise is unconditional as well as eternal. The land of Israel was promised to Abrahamand his descendents, and it is where the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. Jewish roots with Israel thus are rooted in God's promise, as evidenced by the many centuries of a Jewish presence in the Holy Land.
Marriage is a vitally important and sacred undertaking in Judaism, and a condition for fulfilling the biblical imperative of procreation.
A rabbi officiates at a traditional Jewish wedding, and family and close friends are honored with various roles during the ceremony. The husband-to-be (chatan) must provide a ring and a marriage contract detailing his binding obligations to his bride (kallah) and any future children, as well as conditions of inheritance upon his death. Among the most significant parts of the wedding ceremony, which takes place under the traditional canopy (chuppah), are the groom’s breaking of a glass to recall the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the couple’s seclusion in a private room for their first moments alone together.
The official naming of a girl takes place when her father is called to the Torah soon after she is born. Boys are named during their circumcision, a ritual performed when they are eight days old, in accordance with God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Pidyon HaBen, the practice of redeeming firstborn sons through payment of a token sum to a Kohen, or member of the Jewish priestly class, harkens back to the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God took the life of every first-born Egyptian while sparing the Jewish children. Because God said "the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine" (Exodus, 13:2), traditional Judaism holds that every first-born son belongs to God and that his parents must "redeem" him through this symbolic payment. The short ceremony takes place when a Jewish boy turns one month old.
The tallit is a four-cornered garment that is usually white and made either of wool, cotton, or silk. Knotted tassels, or fringes, are attached to the four corners in fulfillment of the biblical command from the Book of Numbers to envelop the wearer in God’s word.
Jewish men wear the tallit during morning prayers. Some also wear a garment called the tzitzit or tallit katan (small tallit) under their shirt all day as a reminder to observe all the commandments of the Torah. Often, the portion of the tallit around the neck and on the shoulders features a special piece of cloth woven with silver threads, called the atara, or “diadem.” On some tallitot, the benediction recited when putting on the garment is woven into the atara. Others tallitot, especially those made of silk, may be richly embroidered, with the benediction woven into the entire prayer shawl.
The menorah is a seven-branched candelabrum similar to those used in Jerusalem’s two Holy Temples. The shape of the menorah is supposed to be derived from the moriah plant.
Thanks in part to the holiday of Hanukkah, the menorah is a Jewish symbol that is familiar to many Christians. But the Hanukkah menorah is called a hannukiah, and it has nine branches. Because the seven-branch menorah has no ritual purpose at a time when there is no Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the vast majority of menorahs one might see in shops or private homes actually are the nine-branch type used on Hanukkah.
Each of the Jewish festivals has its own distinctive historical and theological motif.
The biblical festivals can be divided into three categories.
The first, which includes Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, is often referred to as the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. This refers back to ancient times, when Jews were required to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to observe these festivals. The High Holy Days, includes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, make up the second group, while the third group includes the relatively minor celebrations of Purim and Hanukkah.
These biblical holidays give meaning and character to the Jewish year. In observing them, Jews affirm that history is infused with divine purpose—that events do not occur at random or in isolation from one another, but form part of an unfolding divine plan that ultimately will culminate in the world's redemption.
For a more detailed explanation of the holidays listed below, see the Jewish Holidays section of the Rabbi’s Study.
On January 30th, Jews around the world observe the holiday of Tu B'Shvat. Tu B'Shvat occurs on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat ("Tu," by the way, indicates the number "15" in Hebrew). It is also known as "The New Year of the Trees."
Before you ask, I know what you're thinking—that sounds strange. Why do trees have their own new year on the Jewish calendar? Well, as so many things in Judaism do, it all points back to the Bible. In Leviticus 19:23-25, God gives the following command: "When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit." Thus, Tu B'Shvat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees in order to determine when their fruit may be eaten.
There are several observances associated with this relatively minor Jewish festival. One custom is to eat a new fruit, particularly one associated with Israel and mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Some people plant parsley so that it will be ready in time for the seder, the ritual meal that takes place in the Spring during the Passover holiday.
When Zionist pioneers began returning to the Holy Land in the late 19th century, Tu B'Shvat gained new prominence in Jewish life. In ancient times, the land of Israel was fertile and well forested. But over centuries of repeated conquest and destruction, Israel was stripped of its trees. These early Zionists seized upon Tu B'Shvat as an opportunity to renew the productivity and fertility of the Land of Israel.
Because of this, some people plant trees on this day, and many Jewish children collect money for planting trees in Israel. These efforts have helped restore Israel to the biblical vision that speaks of Israel as "a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing" (Deuteronomy 8:8).
Tu B'Shvat is a time to celebrate and give thanks for the natural world—and, of course to sing praises to God, the source of all life, Who created it.
Rosh HaShana is the Jewish New Year, marking the beginning of the High Holy Days, a 10-day period of soul-searching and repentance that culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The Jewish New Year is not a time of hilarity or frivolous rejoicing, but an occasion of solemnity and intense moral and spiritual introspection. According to tradition, this is the period during which God decides who will live and who will die in the coming year. Since Rosh HaShanah is preceded by days of reflection and penitence, Jews are eager to begin the New Year with a clean slate. This is why the mood is not only one of fear and trembling before judgment, but of trust in a merciful and beneficent father who desires our repentance and is eager to grant forgiveness.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It culminates the High Holy Day period.
During the 25-hour period of Yom Kippur (from sunset until about an hour past sunset the following day), Jews fulfill the biblical commandment in Leviticus 16 to fast. Taking neither food nor water, they engage in intense soul-searching and prayer for forgiveness. For almost the entire 25 hours (except for a few hours of sleep at home), Jews are in the synagogue beseeching God for forgiveness and reflecting upon the course of their lives.
One custom associated with the observance of Yom Kippur is the mikvah, or "ritual bath" in which Jews immerse themselves to fulfill the biblical command, "You shall immerse yourselves in water and be purified." This practice, from which the Christian rite of baptism emerged, symbolizes purification and regeneration, as well as new birth through repentance. It is a reminder of the frailty of human existence, and of our responsibility to act charitably and compassionately toward the less fortunate. The drama of Yom Kippur ends with a blast of the shofar, or ram's horn, and the congregation's cry, "Next year in Jerusalem!"
Each fall, Jews around the world observe Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a joyous festival celebrating the fall harvest and recalling Israel's wandering in the desert of Sinai, where they lived in temporary "booths," or sukkot. Even as Jews thank God for material blessings, Sukkot reminds them that all earthly things are transitory and impermanent, and that human life is frail. Therefore, they are called to reaffirm their ultimate dependence on God alone and not depend on material goods for happiness or spiritual fulfillment.
Hanukkah is one of the most popular Jewish holidays, perhaps because of its proximity to Christmas. And yet, it is without a biblical basis. Hanukkah celebrates two miracles—first, the victory in 165 BCE of the Maccabees, a band of Jews, over the Greek-Syrian army, who defiled the ancient Temple, prohibited Jewish observances of Torah on pain of death and tried to force Greek Hellenism on the Jewish people. On Hanukkah, we commemorate the miraculous military victory of the courageous Maccabees and their followers over their better-armed and more-numerous.
As the Jews purified the Temple following their victory, they found just one flask of pure olive oil—enough to keep the eternal lamp burning for only one day. Yet, this oil lasted for eight days and nights until new oil was found. During Hanukkah, Jews celebrate this second miracle by lighting a hanukkiah, a nine-branched candelabrum. Each evening of the holiday they light candles, beginning with one on the first night and concluding with eight on the final evening. (The ninth candle on the hanukkiah, positioned differently from the others and called the “shamash,” is used to light the other eight candles.) Hanukkah’s importance is in giving Jews yet another reason to rejoice in God's miracles and to rededicate themselves to the values of their faith.
Purim commemorates God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from one of their would-be destroyers. On this most festive of holidays, Jews are to eat, drink and be merry, to send gifts of food and drink, and to give to charity.
The origins of Purim date back to the fifth century BCE, when Haman, a Persian court official, persuaded King Ahasuerus to issue a decree for the complete destruction of the Jews on a certain day. This came about because of Haman’s outrage when Mordechai, a Jew, refused to bow down to him.
Mordechai learned of the horrible decree and called on Esther, his niece, to plead for her people. After winning the king’s love and trust, Esther exposed Haman’s murderous plot,. The king had Haman executed, and issued a decree permitting Jews to defend themselves on the day that had been selected for their destruction. The Jews thus won a great victory over their enemies, and the nation of Israel was preserved.
Passover, or Pesach, is the holy and joyous festival that commemorates Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
The story of the Exodus is a familiar one. The Jews cried out to God in their oppression and God sent Moses to deliver them. Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, so God told Moses He would visit plagues upon the Egyptians, culminating in the deaths of their firstborn. The Jews were then instructed to slay a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their houses so God would "pass over" their homes on the night of the final plague. The command to observe Passover is found in the book of Exodus: "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 'This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. . . . That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.’” Passover and the exodus from Egypt mark God's redemption and the birth of Israel as a nation. Jews the world over share the Passover seder meal to commemorate God's deliverance.
Shavuot (the “Feast of Weeks”), is celebrated seven weeks after Passover, combining historical and agricultural motifs.
Shavuot commemorates God's giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. This is based on a computation from the biblical narrative that indicates that the revelation on Mount Sinai took place exactly 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, which would place it on the very day of Shavuot. Thus, the observance of Shavuot is also called Zman Matan Toratainu in Hebrew, meaning "season of the giving of our Torah."
Shavuot also commemorates the harvest season and the bringing of the "first fruits" to the Temple. As the farmers brought the first fruits of the wheat harvest to the Temple amid great pomp and ceremony, they rejoiced before God and thanked Him for their material blessings.
Since the forced separation of the Jewish people from their homeland in the 1st century, the agricultural motif in the celebration of Shavuot has diminished somewhat. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah have become dominant.
Frequently Asked Questions About Israel
The Jews' link with the land of Israel and their love for it date back almost 4,000 years. Biblical accounts show God telling Abraham to leave his homeland, Ur Kasdim (modern-day Iraq), and go "to a land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1) Abraham had such great faith and trust in God that he left his home and community, reassured by the divine promise, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” (Genesis 12:3).
God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the land of Israel as an eternal possession. Biblically, Jewish rights to the land of Israel are eternal and unconditional, not just as a divine promise, but part of the very fabric of Creation.
Palestinian claims to sole sovereignty over portions of Israel, and particularly over Jerusalem, are illegitimate not only in light of biblical history, but in light of centuries of history in the Common Era.
Jewish identification with the land of Israel goes back almost 4,000 years to the time when God told Abraham to leave his homeland of Ur Kasdim (modern-day Iraq) and go "to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Israel became a nation 2,000 years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century C.E., and Jews have had a continual presence in the Holy Land even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
The insistence that Jerusalem can only be the capital of an independent Palestinian state is especially ludicrous. Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital since the time of King David. Even when Jordan occupied Jerusalem, the Jordanians never sought to make it their capital. Jerusalem is mentioned 700 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The holy city is the rightful capital of the Jewish State.
In the modern era, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of Arabs who fled Israel following Israeli independence were not forced out by Israelis, but left of their own accord or were encouraged to leave by Arab leaders who promised to purge the land of Jews. When this failed, these refugees were refused entry into the neighboring Arab states that had created the problem by attacking the nascent state of Israel in the first place, despite a vast territory into which they could have been settled.
Sadly, the world community as a whole has sided with the Arabs. The United Nations has issued hundreds of declarations against Israel, but is generally silent when Israelis are murdered and synagogues destroyed. Today, more than ever, Israel needs the support of its loyal friends.
To fulfill their vow never to forget the Promised Land during their exile, the Jews introduced the theme of Israel into virtually every aspect of daily life and routine. This enduring attachment to the land of Israel is beautifully expressed in the words of the Psalmist: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy." (Psalm 137:5-6)
To this day, Jews everywhere face toward Jerusalem when reciting their daily prayers. A prayer for return to Zion is part of the standard Jewish blessing over meals. The High Holy Days services and the Passover seder meal conclude with the fervent hope and promise of "Next year in Jerusalem!"
The restoration of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles are at the heart of all Jewish prayers for redemption and for the coming of the Messiah. Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile from Jerusalem with an annual day of fasting and mourning (Tisha b'Av). It is customary for the groom to break a glass with his right foot at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. Through these customs and rituals, Jews demonstrate their trust in God's faithfulness and keep alive their hope of “returning to Zion.”
The Gaza Strip is a piece of land on the Mediterranean coast where Israel and Egypt meet. The vast majority of its people are Palestinian Arabs, including many who left Israel when the Jewish State was formed in 1948. At one time Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip, then it was been controlled by Israel from the Six-Day War of 1967 until August 2005. At that time Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, supported by the majority of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) implemented a plan of disengagement, removing some 8,000 Israeli residents from the area, in an attempt to secure’s Israel’s borders and reduce its exposure to terrorist activity.
Geographically, the West Bank refers to the area west of the Jordan River, an area historically referred to as Judea and Samaria—part of the biblical land of Israel. It comprises about 2,300 square miles and has a population of more than1 million people, most of whom are Palestinians.
Israel took over the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, and the region remains under Israeli control to this day. While some point to this as the source of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this simply belies the facts. From 1950 until 1967, Jordan occupied the West Bank, and yet there was no international outcry about “occupation,” or attempts to explain away Palestinian-Arab aggression as resulting from “despair” over being ruled by an occupying power.
In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to pull out of the West Bank, while retaining key settlements of strategic importance. Whatever happens, this region likely will remain a source of great tension between Jews and Palestinians.
The flag of the State of Israel was largely the design of David Wolfsohn, who succeeded Theodor Herzl as president of the World Zionist Organization, a group that seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Israel that is secured under international law. The flag was introduced in 1891 as a symbol of the Zionist movement. Wolfsohn wanted to create a flag that would capture the essence of the problems faced by the Zionist movement and the Jewish people in the decades before the Jewish state was brought into being in 1948.
He decided to mirror the traditional design of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, represented by two blue bars on a white background. Placing the Star of David between the blue bars completed the symbolism of the Jewish people and their struggle for national identity. The flag that Wolfsohn designed was first displayed in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress, and was officially adopted as the symbol of the State of Israel in 1948.
The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes referred to as the "Wailing Wall," is all that remains of the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Roman armies under Titus in the siege of the year 70. The Western Wall wasn't even part of the Temple; it was simply a retaining wall for the whole Temple Mount. Constructed of massive stones, it is nearly 150 feet long and derives its name from its original identity as the western wall of the Temple courtyard.
From 1947 to 1967, the area of Jerusalem in which the wall is located was under Arab control, and Jews were denied access to this holy place of Judaism. But Israel gained control of this area of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War of 1967, opening the way for Jews from around the world to come to the Western Wall and pray.
The Western Wall is a powerful symbol of Jewish faith and unity. It is also a reminder of the suffering the Jewish people have undergone over the centuries, and of God's presence in the Temple.
Jews’ relationship with Israel and their love for the Holy Land cannot be fully captured by mere words. Only the person who experiences this remarkable attachment can understand it. Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel, is more than just the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants; it is the land at the very center and core of all Jewish beliefs and practices.
What does Israel mean to the contemporary Jew? It means that God has not abandoned His people, that He is true to His word. Israel’s existence for more than a halfcentury strengthens our will and determination to continue the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-- to go forward, through God’s provision, as Jews.
After the Holocaust and the loss of 6 million Jews, one-third of them children, many Jews wondered whether it was possible to continue believing in God's covenant with Israel. Like Ezekiel overlooking the valley of Sheol, they stood in the ashes of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka and asked, "Can these dead dry bones live again?"
But a miracle occurred soon after with the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. God breathed life into those bones and they came together, sinew to sinew, bone to bone. They took on flesh and spirit. They arose and were reborn in Jerusalem as the Lord comforted His people and redeemed Zion.