An Introduction to Judaism

Judaism is the oldest religion of the western world and has influenced Christianity and Islam. The Hebrews were the ancestors of the Jewish people. The Hebrews were different from others of their time because the Hebrews were monotheistic; they believed in only one God.

The Hebrews believed they had a special relationship with their God and that they were God’s chosen people.

The Hebrews trace their ancestry to Abraham. Hebraic tradition says that Abraham left his home in the Mesopotamian city of Ur about 2200BCE. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, established a nation called Israel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. About 1300BCE, many Hebrews moved to Egypt to escape a famine. A famine is a great hunger. At first, the Hebrews were treated well in Egypt, but in time the Hebrews were enslaved by the Egyptians. According to Hebraic tradition, God sent ten deadly plagues to Egypt when the Egyptians would not release the Hebrew slaves. When the Hebrews did escape, tradition states that Moses, the leader of the Hebrews, parted the Red Sea for just enough time to allow the Hebrews to pass. Once the Hebrews reached the other side of the Red Sea, tradition states that the waters returned and the Egyptian army drowned. After their escape across the Red Sea about 1250BCE, God revealed Ten Commandments to Moses. The Ten Commandments formed the basis of Mosaic Law and are the model for both Jewish and Christian moral thought.

The Hebrews returned to Israel, but they were conquered by Babylon in 586BCE and were exiled, or forced from their home. The Hebrews were able to return to Israel, but the Romans conquered Israel and in 66BCE, the Romans forced the Hebrews into exile once again. The Hebrews were then forced to live as minorities in many different lands in a period known as the Diaspora. The Diaspora ended with the creation of the modern nation of Israel in 1948.

Jewish people have often faced severe mistreatment. European Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Jews also faced organized massacres called pogroms in many nations, particularly in Eastern Europe. In the last century, as many as six million Jews were murdered in what we now call the Holocaust, where the Nazi party in Germany attempted genocide. Genocide is the planned killing of a whole group of people because of their religion or nationality.

Jews worship in synagogues led by a rabbi. Rabbi is a Hebrew word that means “master.” Their holiest period is the weekly Shabbat, which lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Other important Jewish holidays include Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (a Day of Atonement or confession), Simchat Torah (celebrating receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai), Chanukah (a celebration of a military victory), and Passover (a remembrance of the time the Hebrews lived in Egypt).

The Torah is the holiest book of Judaism. The Torah is also holy to Christians, who include it as the Old Testament of their Bible. The Talmud is another holy book in Judaism. The Talmud is a collection of the laws and customs of the Jewish people.

There are approximately fifteen million Jews throughout the world. Two-thirds of the Jewish population is concentrated in the United States and Israel. Europe was once home to millions of Jewish people, but most of the survivors of the Holocaust emigrated to Israel, the United States or other nations.


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Symbols of Judaism

The Star of David (see below) and the Menorah are two symbols often associated with Judaism.

The Star of David

The most recognized symbol of Judaism is the six-pointed Star of David. Jewish legend says that a Hebrew king named David went into battle with the hexagram on his shield. Later, when Jews were minorities in Christian and Muslim nations, they were often forced to wear the star on their clothing to identify themselves.

Star of David

Today you will often see the hexagram used to represent synagogues and Jewish organizations. The symbol that was once used to separate Jews from the rest of society is now flown on the flag of Judaism’s homeland, Israel.

The Ten COmmandments

The Ten Commandments are the model for both Jewish and Christian moral thought.