Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism revolves around the belief that the Jewish people were specifically chosen to form a covenant with God.

This exclusivity has given the Jewish people extraordinary strength as a unified global community and centuries of persecution under hostile rulers.

We’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Jewish people and their fascinating religion.

What Is Judaism?

Judaism is considered the oldest monotheistic religion globally, with its roots dating back to 4,000 years ago. Jews have the monotheistic belief that there is one God who speaks to his followers through prophets. They believe that God rewards good behavior and punishes evil behavior.

In Hebrew, the synagogue, called the “house of gathering,” is the holy place of worship for Jews. Spiritual Jewish leaders, called “rabbis,” take on many roles as leaders of the Jewish community. Modern Jewish rabbis give sermons, work as religious advisors, and act as representatives of the Jewish people.

Shabbat is the holy day of prayer and rest, which usually lasts from Friday night to Saturday night. The practice of Shabbat stems from the creation story of the Old Testament, as God rested on the seventh day of creating the universe. This day is often a time of celebration and congregation for Jewish families.

The Torah comprises the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and outlines the fundamental laws of the religion. The term “Torah” can also be used to describe all of Jewish learning and literature.

There are an estimated 14 million Jews today, with most living in the U.S. and Israel.

How Old Is Judaism?

The Tanakh, the Jewish holy book, is considered the earliest recorded history of Judaism. Most stories that explain the origin of the religion have not been supported by archaeological or historical evidence. However, they are widely accepted by the Jewish community as the true history of Judaism.

In the Tanakh, Abraham is considered the first Hebrew and the father of the Jews. Around 4,000 years ago, God communicated with Abraham that he and his family were the chosen people and that his son, Isaac, would rightfully inherit Israel.

In 1250 B.C., the prophet Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after centuries of enslavement. God revealed the Torah, the five books of Moses, to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai.

In 1000 B.C. King David united the Jewish people as part of Judea. In 950 B.C., King Solomon built the First Temple, which became a central place of worship for the religion.

In 931 B.C., the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel to the North and Judah to the South. In 722 B.C., the Northern Israelite Kingdom was nearly destroyed by the Assyrians, and many Israelites were deported back to the Assyrian homeland in modern-day Iraq.

Babylonian Exile

King Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon invaded the Kingdom of Judah in 597 B.C. due to King Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, allying with Egypt and rebelling against Babylon. The Judeans kept up armed resistance against their Babylonian rulers until Nebuchadnezzar invaded the city and forced the son of Jehoiakim, King Jeconiah, and his Judean rebels to surrender.

To prevent further rebellion from Judea, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the deportation of King Jeconiah and the rest of the Judean elite to Babylonia. Many of Judea’s most valuable and sacred objects were also confiscated and brought back to Babylon.

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah told the Judeans not to rebel and wait peacefully for 70 years for the exiles to return. However, King Zedekiah did not follow Jeremiah’s advice and rebelled against the Babylonians.

In 587 B.C., the Babylonians assaulted Jerusalem and took the king as a prisoner. A few months after the assault on the city, Nebuzaradan, a Babylonian captain, burned the city and its holy temple to the ground. Thousands of Judeans were deported to Babylon, and many of the city’s royal elite were put to death.

Throughout the exile, early Judaism gradually changed due to the sudden loss of the First Temple. The traditional practices that revolved around a central location of prayer and a centralized religious leadership caused local rabbis, priests, and scribes to lead the Jewish faith.

Many of these new priests and scribes preached that the exile and destruction of Jerusalem occurred because of the city’s sinful ways and that one day the Israelites and Judeans would rebuild the temple and have a chance of redemption in the eyes of God.

The religious script written in the city at the time also transformed, as the traditional Israelite script transformed into writing that had predominantly Hebrew characteristics.

After Babylon was conquered by Cyrus the Great’s Persian armies, the exiled Judeans were permitted to return to Jerusalem. In 537 B.C., over 40,000 of the exiles made the perilous journey back to the city.

Many aspects of Babylonian religious beliefs were brought back to Jerusalem that heavily influenced the transformation of Judaism, including the concept of Satan and the complete monotheism of God.

After the return of the exiles, most of the city’s sacred sites were rebuilt, including a second temple, which was finally consecrated in 516 B.C. The completion of the Second Temple rejuvenated the unity of the Jewish people and their city. While the exile was one of the darkest periods for the Hebrew people, it also laid the foundation for modern Judaism.

In 70 A.D., the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem city and the Second Temple after a Judean rebellion. Thousands of the city’s inhabitants were killed during the assault on the city. Furthermore, most of the survivors were sold into slavery.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 A.D. marked a defining moment in the history of the Abrahamic religions. Many Christians began to distance themselves from the Jews, as they believed that the destruction of Jerusalem was a divine punishment by God.

The destruction of Jerusalem also created a global diaspora of Judaism as the Jewish people fled their homeland. Without the presence of the centralized place of worship and prayer that the temple provided, localized synagogues became the main places of prayer for the Jewish people.

Inquisition and Expulsion

The Inquisition was a series of pogroms carried out by the Catholic Church against Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. It is believed that over 32,000 people were killed during the Inquisition. While the overwhelming majority of the Inquisition occurred in Spain, it had its roots in countries throughout Europe, including France, Germany, and Italy.

The inquisitors were given the job of finding the “heretics” hiding amongst European populations and carried out brutal measures to obtain confessions of heresy from the accused. Those who were suspected of heresy were not given proper counsel, and false accusations were rampant.

Upon taking the power of the Spanish monarchy in 1478, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella declared that the Spanish Catholic Church had been infiltrated and degraded by Jews who were pretending to be Christians. Jews were accused of everything from starting the plague to abducting the children of Christian families.

In 1478 Spanish Jews in Castille and Seville were forced into ghettos, sparking a mass exodus of the remaining Jews from the country. In the year 1481 alone, 20,000 of the accused confessed to avoid being put to death.

In 1492 the Spanish monarchy issued the Alhambra Decree, which formally expelled all Jews from Spain. There was a mass panic amongst the remaining Jews living in the country, as many hastily sold their property and fled to other European countries.

The Ottoman Empire gladly took in many of these expelled Jews, and its capital of Istanbul gained a flourishing Jewish community.

The brutal torture methods used by inquisitors came to be the lasting legacy of the Inquisition. Burning at stake was also a common execution method used on those who were sentenced to death. Throughout the 16th century, the Inquisition began to focus on persecuting Protestants in Europe and the newly discovered Americas.

The Inquisition came to an end in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Spain, though King Ferdinand VII would attempt to reinstate it in 1814.

During this tumultuous period, the Jews that fled Spain became known as “Sephardic Jews” and created Jewish communities worldwide. While Spain’s Jewish population would never recover after the end of the Inquisition, in the early 20th century, both the Spanish and Portuguese governments offered full citizenship to all Sephardic Jews of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry.

The Holocaust

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, European antisemitism towards the Jewish people began to take on a more racial element, as Jews began to be targeted and persecuted as an ethnic group rather than a religion. In Russia and other countries, persecution caused a large wave of Jewish immigrants that moved to the United States during the late 19th century.

The Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933 and began implementing new policies and laws in the country that persecuted the Jewish population. Nazi leaders increasingly spoke out against the “Jewish problem” throughout the 1930s, instigating mass-Antisemitism throughout the German population.

In late 1938 a Polish Jew shot and killed Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat stationed in Paris, in response to the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. The day of vom Rath’s death coincided with the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, a failed Nazi coup headed by Adolf Hitler was considered a patriotic event in the Nazi party.

The German government used the incident to rally violent antisemitism amongst the German population. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda, ordered that while the Nazi party would not carry out anti-Jewish demonstrations or violence explicitly, it would not suppress or try to prevent them.

Despite this order, remnants of the party, including the Hitler Youth, went on an anti-Semitic rampage throughout Germany’s cities. Jewish businesses and neighborhoods were looted or damaged, and many Jews were beaten, robbed, or imprisoned.

The rioters explicitly targeted synagogues and Jewish educational institutions, and local firefighters were ordered only to intervene if the burning synagogues spread flames to neighboring structures.

Hundreds of Jews died during the riots, and the SS rounded up 30,000 male Jews for deportation to concentration camps. Kristallnacht laid the groundwork for the genocide against the European German population for the next seven years.

Soon after the riots, many anti-Jewish laws were passed, including the prohibition of owning businesses, driver’s licenses, and attending German schools.

The 1939 German invasion of Poland marked the beginning of the Holocaust, where Jews throughout Nazi-controlled territory would be forcibly sent to ghettos and concentration camps.

During the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, specialized killing squads were sent behind the frontline units. These killing squads were tasked with killing political commissars, partisan fighters, and Soviet Jews.

From 1941 to 1945, extermination centers were built throughout Poland and systematically killed European Jews. They transported Jewish communities to these death camps in horrid conditions on cattle cars.

Upon arriving at these camps, the prisoners would either be chosen for forced labor or immediately sent to gas chambers to be killed. The largest of these camps, Auschwitz, killed 960,000 Jews throughout its operation.

It is estimated that around six million Jews died during the Holocaust.

Zionism

The Zionist movement, which revolved around the creation of a separate Jewish state in the Hebrew homeland of Israel, had been spreading around Europe since the late 19th century.

The movement was fueled by the centuries of Jewish persecution throughout Europe. Proponents of Zionism argued that the only way the Jewish people could survive was the creation of a separate Jewish ethnostate.

After the German surrender in May 1945, the world discovered the true horror of the Holocaust. This act propelled the Zionist movement, and in 1948 the nation of Israel was declared an independent state.

In the year 1949 alone, 249,000 Jews from throughout Europe and elsewhere migrated to Israel. The creation of Israel led to a large Palestinian refugee crisis and decades of military conflict and tension with neighboring Arab countries.

Holidays

Passover commemorates the freedom of Jewish slaves in Egypt. It is celebrated from the 15th to the 21st of March or April. Eating bread made with leaven is forbidden, and Jews are expected to eat a form of unleavened bread called “matzo.” The matzo is meant to symbolize the hardships that the Hebrew slaves endured before gaining their freedom.

Both the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are part of the “Days of Awe,” a ten-day period when Jews reflect and celebrate their lives. Rosh Hashanah, also known as Jewish New Year, celebrates the creation of the universe. It is a time of reflection for the Jewish people. The ten-day period is concluded with Yom Kippur, which is a time for Jews to reconcile their sins with God.

Hanukkah is celebrated annually in December for eight days. During each day, a candle is lit as a symbol for the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. In Israel, Hanukkah is a national time of celebration, as schools are closed, and numerous festivities are conducted throughout the country.

In predominantly Christian countries like the U.S., many Jews incorporate elements of Christmas into their celebration of Hanukkah, such as the exchange of gifts.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is the largest type of Judaism, as 35 percent of the Jewish population consider themselves Reform Jews. Reform Judaism largely revolves around combining Jewish beliefs with modern values.

Reform Jews tend to be politically progressive and champion ethical human rights while allowing their people to choose how strictly to worship their religion.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Jews tend to be in the middle of the spectrum between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. While they may deviate from some Jewish practices like driving on the Shabbat, they attempt to stay within the parameters of strict Jewish beliefs, such as eating kosher.

Orthodox Jews strictly follow Jewish law and its rabbinic traditions. The Haredi Orthodox Jews can be further broken down into two categories: Hasidic and Yeshivish. Hasidic Jews are largely descendants of Eastern European Jews, and the Yeshivish focus on religious intellectualism, namely rigorous studying of the Talmud.

Conclusion

We have covered many aspects of the Jewish religion. Let’s review the main ideas:

  • Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, dating back to 4,000 years ago.
  • The religion revolves around the Hebrew people’s covenant with God, monotheism, and living a virtuous life in the eyes of God.
  • The Jewish people experienced centuries of persecution throughout Europe and the Middle East.
  • In 1948 Israel was declared an independent ethnostate for the Jewish people.

From God’s revelation to Abraham to the creation of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people have shown extraordinary resilience and strength despite centuries of persecution.

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