2. Myths and theology
4. Prohibitions and regulations
6. Holy places
The Western Wall, the only remaining part of the Temple of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: James Emery.
Jews by country
Last column: % Jews of the populationAlgeria1,000<0.1%Egypt800
<0.1%Iran30,000<0.1%Iraq2,500<0.1%Israel5,500,00082.0%Lebanon2,200<0.1%Morocco5,000<0.1%1) Palestine400,0009.0%Syria250<0.1%Tunisia2,000<0.1%Turkey25,000<0.1%TOTAL *)
1) Illegal settlers with Israeli passports.
*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.
Jewish rabbi. Photo: Luxerta.
The Synagogue of King David. Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Dann Skaystal.
From the Jewish cemetary in Marrakech, Morocco.
Fourth largest religion in Middle East/ North Africa. Has close to 5 million adherents here, where more than 90% live in Israel. If the settlers living in Palestine, who have Israeli citizenship and status, are included, only 1.5% of Middle Eastern/North African Jews live outside Israel.
Central in the Jewish belief is that there is only one God, and that there is a special pact between God and the Jews. Jews are obliged to observe the Law given by God. The purpose of this pact is to bring the world forward to the point where Messiah arrives in the world, in order to recreate order and stability in the world, with Jerusalem and Israel as the centre.
Judaism is often used for the whole tradition of the religion of the Jews. This is inaccurate, as there was a drastic shift in the religion in the early 1st millennium BCE, when true monotheism was established as the truth. It is from this time that the religion got its name, from the land of the Hebrews, Judah: Judaism.
Judaism was surpassed only by the religion of Akhenaten and Zoroastrianism as the first monotheistic religions in the world. But Judaism was a religion before this, but with a more complex and purified image of deities. It has often been suggested that Akhenaten’s religion and Zoroastrianism have influenced the development of monotheism in Judaism.
There are numerous orientations of Judaism, even if these schisms have been less dramatic and profound than in some of the other important religions of the Middle East. Conflicts have been just as intense at times, but the new orientations which have differed most never grew into strong movements (see Karaism). Some of the most heated discussions have come in modern ages, where some orientations have wanted to adjust to the society, while others have claimed that the regulations of Judaism remain unchanged.
The largest community of Jews live in the USA with 5,7 million. Many live in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, and there are between 200,000 and 300,000 on the African continent.
The largest communities in the area of this encyclopaedia are in Israel and Palestine (these live under protection of Israeli occupation forces). Israel is the only Jewish state in the world.
Almost all countries in North Africa and the Middle East used to to have smaller or larger Jewish communities, but since the establishment of the state of Israel, large percentages have emigrated. Today, only Morocco, Iran and Turkey have communities of some size.
In Kurdistan, Judaism developed its own traditions. The origins here go back to Assyrian times, when Jews were deported by King Shalmaneser 3. The local Jews had many Kurds converted to Judaism. Local Jewish women enjoyed much freedom, and in the 17th century among the Kurdish Jews, the first femal rabbi emerged.
Myths and Theology
There is a rich tradition for texts in Judaism, which have been developed over a period of between 2,000 and 3,000 years. While the core texts have remained unchanged, interpretations and explanations have been added to the great body of material that should be revered by all Jews.
The central parts of all Jewish learning is the Torah, which more or less corresponds to the Christian Old Testament.
The other work of Judaism is the Talmud, which has two parts. The oral law and the interpretations of this. Talmud was completed in the middle 5th century CE.
The central theme of Judaism, is the covenant between the Jews and God. This was first made Abraham, from whom the Jewish believe they came. This covenant was renewed with Abraham’s son Isaac, and Abraham’s grand son Jacob.
The covenant was extended as Moses was given the Ten Commandments and other laws. From this, the Jews learn how they should lead their lives.
The covenant involves that the Jews are a chosen people, giving them certain rights as well as responsibilities.
The goal of the religion
Judaism is a religion of “waiting”, waiting for Messiah, the god sent ruler who will liberate the Jews and bring back justice and security to the earth. The ideas of the Messiah have gone through changes, and while some Jewish groups still wait for his coming, other groups have come to interpret Messiah as mainly symbolic. For this latter interpretation, cooperation between peoples will bring forth a Messianic age.
Judaism has a rich tradition of festivals. While the main festival is the weekly Sabbath, other festivals are performed only once a year, while some only once in a lifetime.
Daily / Prayer
According to their tradition, Jews pray 3 times a day: morning prayer is called shaharith, afternoon prayer is called minhah and evening prayer maarib. These times are set in remembrance of the schedule of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed in 70 CE.
Daily / Benedictions
Throughout the day, the Jew will recite numerous benedictions, before doing certain actions, both religious and secular. This has its background in the doctrine that everything in nature and all incidents have the origin with God.
Daily / Synangogue service
In Conservative and Orthodox congregations, there are daily services — Reform Judaism limits this to the Sabbath and festivals.
During these services, the rabbi reads a section from the Torah and prayers are chanted from the Siddur (prayer book). Over one year, the congregation will have read through the entire Torah.
The main feast for many Jews is the Sabbath celebrated from Friday afternoon until Saturday afternoon, every week. The different Jewish groups have the same core celebration, but they differ much in the level of complexity and strictness.
For some Jews, no secular activity is allowed, while others allow themselves to perform normal activities beyond the core celebration.
There are many colourful and important feasts to Judaism: All Jews are supposed to fast on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Yom Kippur is part of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most holy days through the year for Jews.
The light feast of Chanukah in remembrance of the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BCE. Chanukah corresponds in time with the Christian Christmas, and many Jews have adopted elements from the Christmas celebration in their private Chanukah celebrations.
Sukkoth and Pesach, Jewish easter, are two celebrations close in their content. Pesach is celebration in remembrance of that the Jews were allowed to leave Egypt, while Sukkoth remembers the Exodus and the 40 years of wandering in Sinai.
A third festival in remembrance of the Exodus is Shavuoth. Shavuoth remembers the giving of the Law to Moses.
The merriest Jewish festival is Purim, where the salvation from the destruction of the Persian king in the 1st millennium BCE.
Each family has their own celebrations on the anniversary of the deceased in the family. On this day they recite the prayer Kaddish and burn a candle.
When a Jewish boy is 8 days old, he is circumcised by the rabbi. This is a symbol of belonging to the pact between God and Abraham.
Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls (not celebrated by orthodox congregations) marks the entering upon adulthood for boys age 13 and girls age 12.
Marriage is not very religious in Judaism in terms of regulations, even if it considered to be sacred entity. But it is always celebrated inside the Jewish community and in conjunction with the synagogue.
When a Jew dies, he/she is buried as soon as possible. Then the family starts a 7 day mourning period called Shiva. During this period they recite the prayer Kaddish.
Prohibitions and Regulations
The main regulations for a Jew are the dietary laws, which are quite complex seen from the outside. According to the rules, pork and shellfish like shrimp and oysters cannot be eaten.
Animals are to be killed by a ritual slaughter called shehitah, who cuts the throat and lets the animal bleed to death, while being conscious.
There are also regulations on how food should be stored, like that milk and meat should be kept separately.
Food collected or slaughtered, and then prepared in accordance with Jewish law is called Kosher. Strict observance of Kosher, is considered a sign of faith by most Jews.
Judaism is not headed by a single authority. The main figure of every congregation is the rabbi, who is learned in the Torah. His or her position corresponds much to the one of priests in Christianity. The rabbi is elected by the members of the congregation. The rabbi can be a woman in Reform and Conservative congregations, but not in Orthodox.
During services, there is a cantor who chants the prayers. The cantor is often a person who has undergone special training for this position.
The congregation gathers in a synagogue, which is often both a sanctuary for religious services and a place for religious education and community activities. In Orthodox congregations, men and women sit separate, but together in Reform and Conservative congregations.
In many cases, Jews performs their rituals in the home as well. This involves daily prayers, Sabbath rituals and some of the yearly festivals.
There is no form of mission activity running out of Judaism, but the religion is open for conversion, but only under special circumstances.
There are two ways of dividing Judaism today. One is according to historical and geographical background: Ashkenazi of northern, central and eastern Europe, and Sephardi of the Iberian peninsula and North Africa.
For the actual religious life, the modern divisions are of more importance: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Reform is a very liberal and open interpretation of Judaism, and the most modern Jews will normally belong to this.
Orthodox Jews have a fundamentalist and rigid interpretation of their religion, and the Jews that are most negative towards the modern society are normally from this group.
The Conservatives have a practice that is closer to Orthodox than Reform, but their attitudes towards the modern society are marked by
Due to its discontinuation during the Diaspora, Judaism has developed relatively less holy places than Christianity and Islam. Most sacred places of Judaism go back 2,000 to 4,000 years.
Jewish mentality has become one of migration. Many Jews have felt in exile when living in especially European countries, and many have known that their future in one spot cannot always be taken for granted.
Jerusalem is clearly the totally dominating holy place in Judaism, and more important to Jews than any place are to Christians, and just as important as Mecca is to Muslims.
It is mainly because of the destroyed Temple that Jerusalem has become so important to Jewish identity. The only remaining part of it, the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall is it is also called, is the holiest place on earth.
The second most important place is Hebron, Palestine, where Abraham was buried.
The Mt. Sinai, where Moses got the covenant is also important, but not central in Jewish life.
For many Jews, the synagogue in Jerba, Tunisia, is considered the oldest synagogue in Africa and hence sacred.