Your Neighbors, the Jews

Your Neighbors, the Jews

Judaism is the oldest surviving monotheistic religion. Its founding father, Abraham, is considered the patriarch of all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Genesis 12:2, God promised Abraham “‘I will make you a great nation’” (NKJV). Because of Abraham’s lack of faith in the fulfillment of this promise, he became the father of two nations. Through Isaac, his son with Sarah, he became the father of the Jews; through Ishmael, his son with Hagar, he became the father of the Arabs. The consequences of his failure are still with us.

Those identifying as Jews today are estimated to number about 15 million. When we include those who say they are partly Jewish or have Jewish background from at least a one Jewish parent) account for 81 percent of those recognized as Jews to be eligible for citizenship in Israel under its Law of Return.


History of Judaism

Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, spent four centuries in Egypt before Moses led them in the famous Exodus (15th century B.C.) through the deserts of Arabia into the Promised Land of Canaan (Ex. 6:4). The history of Israel from their entry to the Promised Land until the Babylonian exile is recorded in the Old Testament.

After the exile, Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to Judah. A small number of Jews (fewer than 50,000 [Ezra 2:64, 65]) returned and rebuilt the temple; it was dedicated in 515 B.C. (6:15, 16). In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great Hellenized the Middle East, and many Jews began to adopt Greek culture.

In 168 B.C., Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Seleucid (Greek) king, attempted to invade Egypt. Before he reached Alexandria, his path was blocked by the Roman ambassador. Knowing that he could not wage war with Rome, Antiochus decided to withdraw. However, on his way back to Syria, he vented his rage on the Jews. He took Jerusalem by storm, desecrated the temple by offering the sacrifice of a pig on an altar to Zeus, and slaughtered eighty thousand Jews (2 Maccabees 5:11–14).

In response to Antiochus’ attempt to outlaw Jewish religious rites and traditions, the Jews, headed by the Hasmonean family, rebelled against the Syrian king. They recaptured Jerusalem and cleansed and rededicated the temple in 164 B.C. This is still celebrated every year in the Feast of Hanukkah in the month of Kislev (December). The Jews achieved independence in 140 B.C., but in 63 B.C., the Romans occupied Palestine and took control of Judea.

During the intertestamental period, the synagogue (assembly) service as a legitimate alternative to the temple service began to emerge, primarily in the Diaspora. Synagogues were consecrated spaces used for the purpose of prayer, reading of the scripture, study, and assembly. Sacrifices, however, could be brought only in the temple. Thus, the institution of formal prayer was established and given priority over worship by sacrifice. Also, during that time various sects or schools of thought developed in Judaism. The most important were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes.

Remembering that idolatry and breaking God’s law resulted in the Babylonian exile, the Pharisees (“Separate Ones”) exercised strict piety according to the Mosaic law, building a fence of new laws around God’s law to help keep the Jews from breaking it. The Sadducees were the priestly class, who embraced the Hellenistic culture. They accepted only the five books of Moses as authoritative and rejected the immortality of the soul and the resurrection, teachings held by the Pharisees. The Essenes (“Humble” or “Pious Ones”) not only renounced the world but also separated themselves physically from society and lived in a semimonastic brotherhood. They tried to hasten the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth by their own efforts. The Essenes were responsible for creating the famous Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered beginning in 1947.

A revolt of the Jews against the Romans in A.D. 66 led to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. With the temple and the sacrifices gone, the synagogue and the morning and evening prayers at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices replaced the temple service. Until A.D. 70, the focus of the religious life of Jews was the temple and its services. Following the destruction of the temple, the text of the Torah became the new focus of Rabbinic Judaism. Torah (“teaching”) refers primarily to the first five books of the Old Testament but can also mean the whole Old Testament.

Sacrifices were replaced by the authority of the rabbis with the practice of prayer, Torah reading and study, and ethical behavior. Alternative religious practices were established and activities once limited to the temple confines, e.g., the blowing of the shofar on Sabbath, were allowed to be performed throughout the land.


Modern Judaism

Modern Judaism appears in a variety of forms. Your neighbors may be secular or cultural Jews, they may belong to an orthodox, reformed, or conservative synagogue, or they may even be Messianic Jews, who have accepted Jesus as their Messiah.

Secular Jews – According to a report of the Pew Research Center, “40 percent of Jewish adults under 30 do not identify their religion as Judaism, but as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’ This is compared to 27 percent of all Jewish adults.”*

Cultural Jews – Cultural Jews do not believe in God, but they appreciate the history and culture of Judaism, and maintain some of the tradition of Judaism. They may send their children to a Jewish educational institution and celebrate some or all the Jewish feasts.

Orthodox Jews – Orthodox Judaism may be divided into ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are more conservative and reclusive, and Modern Orthodox Jews, who are relatively open to society. Both emphasize closely following God’s law in keeping the Sabbath and the kosher laws. They can be easily recognized by their black suits and hats.

Reform Jews – Reform Judaism grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment movement. It is the liberal wing of Judaism, characterized by less stress on ritual and personal observance. It regards Jewish law as non-binding and is open to external influences and progressive values, such as female and gay rabbis.

Conservative Jews – Conservative Jews affirm the authority of the Jewish law but argue that its interpretation and application change throughout history. Thus, they use the historical-critical method in their interpretation of Scripture. They represent an interesting blend of fidelity to Jewish tradition and thoughtful responses to modernity.

Messianic Jews – Messianic Judaism incorporates some elements of Judaism and Jewish tradition with Evangelical Christianity. They believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and they accept the Old and New Testament as God’s Word. This movement emerged in the 1960s, but the State of Israel considers Messianic Judaism to be a form of Christianity, not a sect of Judaism.


The Jewish Life

For observant Jews, the Jewish law guides all daily activities, providing boundaries for acceptable behaviors. Rituals and festivals are important, but the heart of the Jewish religious life is the Sabbath. It begins with a special meal on Friday evening, followed by a service in the synagogue. Other services are held on Sabbath morning and Sabbath afternoon. These services feature readings from the Torah, congregational singing, prayer, and a sermon from the rabbi. On Sabbath, Orthodox Jews avoid work related to their profession, they do not use modern conveniences like electricity and the telephone; and they avoid traveling by any method other than walking.

Prayer: Most Jewish men cover their heads with a kippa or yarmulka when praying; women use a headscarf. Observant Jews usually pray three times a day, and for the morning prayer they put on a prayer shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin), which are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. One box goes on the head, the other on the arm. Jews also put mezuzahs on their doorframes. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel!”) in Deuteronomy 4:6.

Food: Many Jewish households keep the kosher food laws in Leviticus 11. Only clean animals are to be consumed, but they must also be slaughtered correctly so that all the blood is separated from the meat. Furthermore, kosher laws do not allow mixing meat and dairy products (Ex. 23:19). Hence kosher kitchens separate dishes and utensils used for meat and those used for dairy.


1. Rosh Hashanah, literally meaning “head of the year” is the Jewish New Year, more commonly known in English as the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:23–25). It occurs in the early autumn.

2. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year (Lev. 23:27–32). During the eight days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jews are to reflect on their deeds of the previous year before God, committing themselves to righteous living.

3. Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, begins five days after Yom Kippur (Lev.23:34–36). It celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection God provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt.

4. Pesach, Passover, is celebrated in the early spring (Lev. 23:5–8). It commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. The heart of the Passover celebration is the Seder meal on Passover night. At this meal, the Exodus story is told, and symbolic food is consumed. The best-known symbolic food is matzo, the unleavened flatbread (Ex. 12:15).

5. Shabuot, the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15–21), takes place seven weeks after Passover at the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The Feast of Weeks was in celebration of the first fruits of the wheat harvest.

6. Hanukkah, usually in December, commemorates the triumph of a small Jewish force, under the Maccabees, over the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 B.C. The story is told that a portion of holy oil meant to keep the temple menorah lit for one day lasted for eight days, the time it took for the temple to be rededicated. Therefore, the Hanukkah menorah has eight candleholders.

7. Purim, a rabbinical festival in early spring, commemorates the deliverance of the Jews in the Persian Empire under Artaxerxes, as recounted in the Book of Esther. It is celebrated like a carnival with costumes and the exchange of delicacies—a full-fledged holiday feast.


People of the Book

When the Jews lost their land, their kings, and prophecy came to an end with the last prophet Malachi (circa. 450 B.C.), the focus of their identity became the Tanakh (the Old Testament). Rabbinic studies of the Tanakh produced many literary works, among them the Talmud (“learning”), made up of the Mishnah (A.D. 200) and the Gemara (A.D. 500). The Mishnah is the original written version of the oral law, and the Gemara is the record of the rabbinic discussions following the writing down of the Mishnah.

Throughout their history and still today, the Hebrew Bible plays an important part in the life of Jewish believers. They are indeed the People of the Book.

* Jewish News Syndicate, June 23, 2021. Additional sources: Isaiah M. Gafni, Beginnings of Judaism (Chantilly, Va.: The Great Courses, 2008); Mark Berkson, Cultural Literacy for Religion (Chantilly, Va.: The Great Courses, 2012).