Birthed: Approximately 15th century BCE
Adherents: 14 million, about .2-percent of the world population
Ranking: Eighth, behind Christianity, Islam, Atheism/Agnosticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism. Nevertheless, Judaism is considered one of the "Big Five" world faiths with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Judaism is less than four percent the size of Buddhism, which has 360 million adherents. The other three have 900 million or more.
Prophets: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Joshua, Jonah, many more. All Old Testament books named after people are named for Jewish prophets.
Torah — The first five books of Hebrew scripture (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), are also called the Pentateuch.
Tanakh — Hebrew scripture, including the Torah, Prophets (scripture including God's direct messages to the Hebrew prophets), and Writings (writings of the prophets guided by God). The Tanakh is sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.
Talmud or Oral Torah — consists of two parts: the Mishnah (explanations of Torah committed to writing after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) and Gemara (centuries' worth of rabbinical questions, discussions, and commentaries on Torah).
Midrash — a body of oral and written narrative that represents rabbis' and scholars' contributions over centuries to flesh out or illuminate the stories in the Torah.
Clergy: Rabbis ("teachers" in Hebrew) are self-selected. They can prepare by a combination of private study, individual mentoring, formal education including Jewish seminaries, and work in ministry. Continuous lifelong education is expected of Jewish religious leaders. Institutionalized movements in U.S. Judaism—Reform Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, etc.—each ordain clergy; their requirements for preparation and schooling vary. Traditionally, a private gathering of three rabbis can ordain a rabbi within their own Jewish community. There is no rabbinic hierarchy in Judaism, though a large congregation may have a senior rabbi and one or more assistant rabbis.
Symbols: Star of David, menorah (seven-candle candelabra), yarmulke (male head covering), synagogue (house of worship), tallit (fringed prayer shawl)
Terms and Fundamental Precepts:
Shabbat—Jewish Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Mitzvah (plural mitzvot)—literally "commandment"—may refer literally to one of the Torah's 613 commandments or instructions to the Jewish people, or, more generally, to a kind or righteous deed.
Kosher—literally "fit"—describes food that is in keeping with Jewish law. There are laws applying to kinds of food, food combinations, slaughter, preparation, and serving.
Rosh Hashanah—Jewish New Year; begins the period of High Holy Days that concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah is observed on the first two days of the Jewish year, a time of celebration, worship focused on giving thanks and taking personal stock of how one has kept covenant with God and with others over the course of the preceding year. Jews eat sweets (in European tradition, apples and honey) in symbolic herald of a sweet new year.
Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar. A day of fasting, reflection, and prayer. Expected mitzvot for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are to "come clean," to engage in the difficult effort to make things right with those you have wronged or offended.
Channukah or Hannukah—"Festival of Lights" celebrating a miracle of Jewish history.
G-d—the way the name of the deity appears in Jewish scripture and other writings. Writing the name of God is seen as presumptuous and risky: presumptuous because we are only human, and risky because if it is written and subsequently crumpled or destroyed it would be blasphemy.
Passover—High Holy Days celebrating God's deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The term "Passover" specifically relates to God's sparing, or passing over, Jewish families in the tenth and final plague, Plague of the Firstborn, when God killed all firstborn sons in the land of Egypt. After this event, the Pharaoh allowed the Jews to leave. Passover is the most observed holiday in the Jewish calendar, frequently celebrated even by nonobservant Jews.
Exodus—Departure of Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus cannot be dated with certainty. Most commonly placed at 1440 BCE or 1290 BCE; the 15th-century date is more consistent with biblical narrative, while the later date is more consistent with archaeological findings. However, there are discrepancies in each case.
Orthodox, Conservative, Reform—Three branches of modern Judaism that vary by how strictly adherents observe Jewish law. Orthodox Jews try to live strictly within the exact, literal specifications of the commandments; Conservative Jews try to adhere to the most important commandments and to maintain the spirit of the commandments throughout their lives; Reform Jews try to uphold the spirit of the commandments to revere life without feeling they must follow the letter of the law. Interpretations can vary from a person hardly ever thinking about obeying the commandments to someone who thinks of their faith constantly and adapts every facet of their lives to keeping the commandments. There is often tension among the branches, yet always recognition of their shared cultural heritage.
Mezuzah—Hebrew blessing mounted on a Jewish household's doorframe as a reminder of the household's covenant with God and God's blessing on their home.
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Last updated on Tuesday, November 1, 2011.
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