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    The Judaism Guide – from Shabbat to Shul and everything in between

    The history of Judaism dates back over 5000 years to the Bible.

    In a somewhat dramatic moment, Abraham, at the age of 99 entered into a covenant with God and became Jewish after circumcising himself – he was chosen as the first Jew because of his righteousness and so began the religion and its many customs, traditions and laws. Years later came Moses, one of the other righteous men of note, who was given the opportunity by God to receive his commandments. While most people remember the Ten Commandments, when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving them he actually received 613. These commandments shape the Jewish faith today.

    Jews believe that there is only one God, and that the Bible, known as the Tanakh, consists only of the Old Testament. Of that the first five books – known as the Five Books Of Moses, or the Torah, are the most important.

    In previous centuries, Jewish communities lived mainly in ghettos, as they were not allowed to live among other communities by order of the governments in the countries where they lived. The first major ghetto was in Venice. However, after many hundreds of years of persecution and suffering, Jews were finally able to integrate themselves more into secular life in the 19th Century due to countries becoming more tolerant, but despite this six million Jews across Europe were killed during the Holocaust (1939-1945), which virtually eradicated large Jewish populations in such countries as Poland.

    Nowadays there are approximately 12 million Jews in the world, and around 300,000 living in the UK – the majority live in such cities as London, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Gateshead/Newcastle and Glasgow. Areas such as Brighton, Bournemouth and Eastbourne have traditionally been popular places for Jews to retire to. Other countries with a large Jewish population naturally include Israel, as well as the USA and Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.

    The different levels of Judaism

    All Jews fall into one of two categories, depending on their family origins; Ashkenazi Jews are of East European extraction, while Sephardic hail from Spain, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. However, there are many different movements within Judaism, all of which interpret and adapt the traditional laws and customs in contrasting ways. The main movements are listed below.


    This is one of the world’s biggest Jewish movements. Orthodox Jews regard the Torah and the Talmud (Jewish laws) as being given directly to them by God, hence they are held in the highest authority.

    Within Orthodoxy, there are different strands. These include: Ultra Orthodox, who follow the religion very strictly and may remove themselves as far as possible from the modern world. Some even steer clear of television and newspapers due to the influence that these may have on their social standards and moral viewpoints. They may also live in separate communities from other Jewish people and follow their own customs, which could include specific dress codes.

    Modern Orthodox: These Jews will usually participate in social and secular activities, such as going to a sports game or watching TV, provided it does not conflict with Jewish laws or impact on their religious life. On a religious level, they will observe the Sabbath, festivals, dietary laws (kashrut) and other Jewish commandments. The basic principles of Orthodox Judaism have not changed since Biblical times.

    Reform: This movement was founded in Germany in the 19th Century after Jews were liberated from their ghettos and began to integrate themselves more into society – the feeling was that the religion would lose members if it did not move with the times.

    Members of the Reform movement take a more modern approach towards Judaism, while seeking to retain its traditional principles and morals. Unlike Orthodox movements, women can be ordained as Rabbis, men and women sit together in the synagogue (place of worship) and on death, cremation is allowed.

    Liberal: The Liberal movement, like Reform, adopts a modern approach to Judaism. Liberal Jews believe that the Torah was God-inspired and is an interpretation of his words. They do not observe the faith in the same way as an Orthodox Jew would, for example Orthodox Jews will always have a head covering, usually a kippah or yarmulke, which shows respect for God. Liberal Jews do not believe this is necessary.

    They may also not be as stringent when it comes to keeping food laws – some will eat meat from animals which are not kosher, which Orthodox Jews will not. For them, dietary laws and many other Jewish rituals that Orthodox practice, are not as important to them. However, some Liberal Jews will follow the laws of Kashrut – in this Jewish movement the emphasis is put on personal choice.

    The Importance of the Jewish Sabbath

    A man holding a challah
    Shabbat is a chance to rest from the week’s work

    The Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), commemorates God’s resting on the seventh day of creation after he had spent the previous six days creating the heavens and the earth, and is considered by Jews to be the holiest day of the week. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until sunset on Saturday night, and during that time Jews are prohibited from doing any form of work which could be seen as changing the world from how it was before the start of the Sabbath.

    Taken in a modern context, orthodox Jews generally refrain from such activities as cooking, driving, watching television or using other electronic equipment, switching lights on and off, handling money and carrying anything outside of the home, even in their pockets (very religious Jews will generally attach their front door keys to an item of clothing). Jewish shops and businesses are also closed on the Sabbath.

    As well as attending the Friday night service at synagogue, Jews traditionally welcome the Sabbath by lighting candles and making Kiddush (traditional Friday night blessings over wine and challah bread), bestowing special blessings upon any children in their household, and eating a celebratory meal. After a further synagogue service on the Saturday morning, during which a portion of the Torah is recited (known as the Reading Of The Law) and seven male congregants are called up to the reading and blessed, the day’s formal religious proceedings are over, but the remainder of the day is traditionally spent resting or spending time with family members.

    At sunset on Saturday night, the Sabbath is brought to a close with a ceremony known as Havdalah, which is performed at the evening service in synagogue but can also be performed at home – this involves making blessings over wine and a special plaited candle with a double wick, and is concluded by extinguishing the candle in a saucer of the wine. Following this, normal activities may be resumed.

    Jewish Festivals

    The Jewish calendar is full of festivals and special days, either commemorating a major event in Jewish history or celebrating a certain time of year (such as Jewish New Year). Festival days are known as Yom Tovim and many of these days are marked by Jews refraining from working – however, unlike the Sabbath cooking (for the day ahead only) and carrying items outside of the home are both permitted. Except where stated, all of the following festivals are guided by these laws.

    The main festivals are as follows:

    Purim (Festival of Lots)

    This one-day festival takes place four weeks before Passover and usually falls in February or early March. It recalls the story of Esther, a Queen who foiled a plot by one of her advisors, Haman, to kill all the Jews. As well as the story being read in synagogue in a book called the Megillah, it is a day for parties and celebrations, and fancy dress is traditional. Pastries called Hamentaschen are also eaten – these are triangular (the same shape as Haman’s hat, supposedly) and filled with poppy seeds, jam or fruit.

    Normal work and activities are permitted on Purim.

    Pesach (Passover)

    Four wine cups and a pile of matzo
    Pesach is one of the year’s highlights

    This takes place around March/April time, and commemorates Moses freeing the Israelites from their enslavement under the Pharaoh in Egypt. The festival lasts for eight days and during that time no ‘leavened’ food (i.e food containing wheat or any type of grain) may be consumed (including bread, cereals, whisky and beer) – Jews who come from the Middle East, known as Sephardi Jews, will eat rice and pulses, but European Jews won’t. The reason for eating no leavened food is to remember when the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to prepare proper food for themselves – their bread did not rise in time and so was considered ‘unleavened’ and tasted more like crackers. This is symbolised on Pesach by eating Matzah – unleavened bread.

    On the first two nights, a service known as a Seder (order) is held at home – this tells the story of the Passover and the Jewish exodus from Egypt, chronicled in a book called the Haggadah. The service is traditionally a relaxed affair – it is customary for those attending to lean to their left to show that they are no longer bound by the restrictions of slavery imposed by the Pharaoh of Egypt and may sit however they please. Four cups of wine are also drunk during the service, and a celebratory meal is eaten.

    After the first two days, a four day period follows when normal work activities may be resumed, although leavened food is still forbidden. The final two days of the festival, like the first, are Yom Tovim. The festival finishes at sundown on the eighth day.

    A great deal of preparation is required for Passover as not only are Jews not allowed to eat leavened food (known as chametz), they are not allowed to own it either, and must clear their houses of it before the festival begins. These days, people will get a rabbi to sell on their chametz for a token sum of money to a non-Jew, which can be redeemed after the festival is over. It is also customary to use different crockery, cutlery and cookware, which has not been used to cook foods containing chametz, for the duration of the festival.

    Shavuot (Pentecost)

    Shavuot takes places seven weeks after Passover (usually around late May/early June) and commemorates Moses being given the Ten Commandments by God following the Exodus from Egypt. The festival lasts for two days and requires relatively little advance preparation compared to some of the other Yom Tovim; however, it is traditional to eat dairy products, as when the Jews were awaiting the arrival of their commandments and were unsure as to what their new dietary laws would be, they ate only dairy products and vegetables, to avoid eating the meat of any animals which might be forbidden. Cheesecake is a particular favourite at this time of year, and many people steer clear of meat altogether. The synagogue is decorated with flowers for the festival’s duration in celebration of the giving of the commandments.

    There are few other customs associated with the festival, although some ultra-orthodox Jews often stay up all night on the first night to study the Bible.

    Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)

    The Jewish New Year takes place around September/October, and is considered one of the most important and serious holidays (or High Holy Days) in the Jewish calendar. As well as being a time for celebration it is also a time for reflection and repentance for sins committed in the previous year. In synagogue, people pray to God to forgive them for their wrongdoings and to give them a good year – during the service a Shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown, to alert congregants to the seriousness of the festival and the fact that God is deciding their fates for the coming year – which will be sealed on the Day Of Atonement ten days later. This period is known as The Ten Days Of Repentance and is traditionally a solemn time.

    However, Rosh Hashanah is also a time for celebration – other traditions include eating apples dipped in honey in the hope that this will lead to a sweet year.

    Yom Kippur (Day Of Atonement)

    The Ten Days Of Repentance end with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day Of Atonement, which is the day on which the fates of all Jews are sealed for the coming year. This High Holy Day is the most solemn and serious day in the Jewish calendar, which involves praying for forgiveness for sins and afflicting oneself as punishment for those committed in the past year. Jews fast (refraining from any food or drink) for 25 hours from sundown on the previous evening until sundown the next night, and are not allowed to work, bathe or wear leather shoes. The fast begins with a special evening service known as Kol Nidre (All Vows), and synagogue services last for the whole of the following day until the Fast ends.

    Although it is a solemn day, Yom Kippur is also thought of as a happy day because it is the time for Jews to cleanse themselves of wrongdoings and reach a spiritual high. Fasting is not only done as a means of affliction but also because nothing is supposed to detract congregants from their prayers on the day. However, children below Barmitzvah or Batmitzvah age, pregnant women and diabetics are discouraged from fasting, as is anybody whose health is likely to be seriously affected by the 25-hour abstinence.

    Succot (Tabernacles)

    This festival begins five days after the end of Yom Kippur and commemorates the booths the Israelites constructed in the wilderness and lived in after their exodus from Egypt. During the eight-day festival, Jews are supposed to live in a similar booth known as a Succah (dwelling) – the walls are made of wood and the ceiling of greenery to leave the stars visible. In countries such as Israel where the climate permits, many people sleep in the Succah, but elsewhere it is used mainly for meals only.

    In synagogue, each congregant says a blessing over four different species of plants – a palm branch (lulav), citron (esrog), myrtle branch and willow twig – which are representative of the four different types of Jewish person.

    The middle four days of the festival are regular working days – although the fourth of these, Hoshana Rabba (Save Us), is treated as one final chance to purge the soul of sins committed in the previous year. The eighth day of the festival is called The Eighth Day Of Solemn Assembly (Shemini Atzeret), when a prayer for rain is said during the synagogue service.

    Simchat Torah (Rejoicing Of The Law)

    Following immediately on from Succot is Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the reading of the Torah, in synagogue – and the fact that it can now be read from the beginning again. This is one of the happiest festivals in the Jewish calendar – it is celebrated by making seven circuits of the synagogue which are punctuated with dancing and singing of traditional Hebrew songs. Children are given flags to hold on the circuits, and many synagogues hold parties after the service.

    Chanukah (Festival of Lights)

    A Chanukah menorah against the backdrop of a city
    Chanukah is a time for parties and celebrations

    Another eight-day festival, which takes place in December. The story of Chanukah hails back to a period in history when, Jews were forbidden to follow their faith and many were forcibly converted or killed for not converting. Eventually a band of Jews called the Maccabees gathered an army and revolted against the Greeks and won the battle, although their temple and way of life was all but destroyed. This band of men sought to clean up the temple and restore the faith, but in order to light the temple the special seven-branch candleabra (Menorah) was needed, and only enough oil could be found to keep it alight for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the Menorah continued to remain alight for seven days on only one day’s supply of oil until new oil could be made to keep the light going.

    Traditions of Chanukah include lighting candles on a Menorah every night for eight nights in the home, eating food cooked in oil (doughnuts, potato pancakes etc.), giving presents, holding parties and celebrations, and playing games with a dreidel, a traditional spinning top.

    As with Purim, normal work and activities are permitted on Chanukah.

    Synagogue Etiquette

    Orthodox Jews generally attend synagogue daily for morning services (Shacharit), afternoon (Mincha) and evening (Maariv), although the latter two are frequently recited together. They also attend these on the Sabbath and festivals. Those who are less orthodox may attend less frequently. A minimum of 10 men over Barmitzvah age (13) is required to conduct a service – this is known as a Minyan.

    Synagogue etiquette varies depending on the denomination of Judaism to which a person belongs. In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately – the women’s area often consists of an upstairs gallery, or they will sit in a different part of the building closed off by a curtain. Men wear the traditional head covering (kipah or yarmulke) – married women also cover their heads with hats or scarves, and are expected to dress modestly. At Reform and Liberal synagogues men and women will often sit together.

    Keeping Kosher

    The Jewish dietary laws, known as kashrut, cover the way in which meat is ritually killed and prepared as well as which foods can and cannot be eaten.

    For an animal to be kosher, the Torah dictates it must chew the cud and have cloven hooves – as such Jews may eat beef, lamb and any other products from cows or sheep, but pork, bacon and other pig products are prohibited as a pig does not meet these requirements. Most poultry – including chicken, turkey, duck and goose – is permitted, but birds of prey are not.

    Animals killed for meat are ritually slaughtered by a specially trained person known as a schochet – and are done so in the quickest and cleanest way possible. Jews are not permitted to consume the blood of an animal, so the meat has to be ‘koshered’ – to have all the blood removed – which is normally done by the kosher butcher selling the product. Poultry is killed and prepared in the same way. Fish do not have to undergo any specific treatment but for a fish to be kosher, it must have fins and scales – and no shellfish is permitted.

    Jews are forbidden to consume milk and meat in the same meal; according to the Bible; “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”. Many Jews wait until three hours after eating meat or poultry before consuming any dairy products, although some ultra-orthodox may wait up to six hours. Foods which contain neither meat nor dairy products are referred to as parev.

    Other animal by-products – such as eggs and dairy products – are all permitted, provided they come from an animal which is kosher, although more religious Jews may only consume the latter if they have been made with milk from a supervised kosher dairy. If a speck of blood is found in an egg it is considered non-kosher and must not be used. Jews should also be wary of animal products in processed foods i.e animal rennet in cheese or gelatine in cakes, puddings or jellies.

    To accommodate Jewish people, manufacturers produce ranges of products that are specially supervised. These cover such basics as bread through to frozen meals. Without recognised supervision, Orthodox Jews will not consume the product, hence if a product is marked as ‘vegetarian’, while it may be vegetarian, not having supervision means the food cannot be traced to its origins e.g it may be made on the same factory line as something that is not kosher e.g shellfish, and so Orthodox Jewish people would refrain from eating it.

    When it comes to eating out, special care and attention is placed on establishments that are specially supervised. Just like pre-made food, restaurants need to have supervision. Many Orthodox Jews will only eat out in a restaurant which is supervised by a Jewish authority; however less Orthodox Jews may feel comfortable eating in a restaurant which is not supervised provided they are not offered any product which conflicts with basic dietary laws.

    The Jewish Life Cycle

    As well as festivals and Sabbaths, the life of a practising Jew is marked by certain other key events which are steeped in tradition. These are the most notable.

    Brit Milah (Circumcision)

    Baby boys are circumcised when they are eight days old, in accordance with the covenant made between God and Abraham in the Bible. This is done by a specially trained person known as a mohel (who has special medical training), and is often accompanied by a party or celebration. The baby is also officially named and given their Hebrew name at this ceremony. If the child is premature or unwell, Brit Milah may be carried out at a later date.

    Bar Mitzvah

    A Jewish boy officially becomes a man on his 13th birthday – in other words he is now old enough to form part of the Minyan in synagogue and also to be called to the Reading Of The Law on Sabbath and festivals. This is a big event in many families – in synagogue the boy will be called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath closest to his birthday, and the ceremony will be marked by parties and celebrations afterwards.

    Bat Mitzvah

    The female equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah. As a rule, girls are not called to the Reading Of The Law in synagogues (although within Liberal and Reform movements this is possible), but still take part in a special synagogue ceremony to honour their own coming-of-age – again, parties and celebrations are also traditional but they may be lower-key than those held for Bar Mitzvah boys. A Bat Mitzvah usually takes place when the girl is around 12 years old.


    Married couples have to sign a special document called a Ketubah

    Jews are married underneath a special canopy known as a chupa, and traditions associated with the ceremony include the bride circling the groom, and the groom smashing a glass with his foot (wearing shoes) as a symbol to never forget that while this is a happy time, we are still sad that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

    Jewish Wedding Music

    Music plays an important part in the Jewish life cycle, and no more so than when it comes to weddings – and although the concept of Jewish wedding celebrations may conjure up images of the folk tunes and Russian dancing seen in Fiddler On The Roof, there’s more to it than that.

    These days, the music used at Jewish weddings tends to lean more towards contemporary, secular songs and tunes, but the vast majority still include some traditional Jewish music and dancing. However, the ceremony itself remains the part of the wedding where Jewish music is most likely to feature. There are a number of different tunes which are used to mark the entrance of the bride; the most popular include a choral song, Baruch Chaba (which translates as: ‘blessed is he’) and the instrumental piece Eshet Chayil (translated as ‘a woman of valour’). Other religious music may be used, often sung by a choir or a Chazan (cantor). However, the Wedding March which is commonly used by other religions is generally avoided as its composer Wagner was well-known for his anti-Semitic beliefs.

    How much Jewish music is used at the wedding party depends largely on the couple; however, it is traditional to include a section of Hebrew music and dancing known as a ‘Hora’. This generally comprises a medley of popular Jewish tunes, including Hava Nagila (‘come let us be glad’), and Siman Tov U Mazleltov (‘may good luck come to us’).

    During this section of the dancing it’s also traditional for the guests to dance together in a big circle, with the newly married couple hoisted into the air on chairs – they then hold opposite ends of a handkerchief and ‘dance’ with each other. The more Orthodox (religious) the wedding, the more traditional Jewish music and dancing is used; at more religious weddings men and women still dance separately, on opposite sides of a curtain. However, a less Orthodox wedding may use very little Jewish music and may not include a Hora. Another custom popular in American Jewish weddings is a mazinka, a traditional Jewish dance performed at weddings where one of the newly-weds is the youngest child in their family. The parents of both sit in the middle of the dance floor wearing headdresses made out of leaves, while guests greet them and dance round them to traditional music.

    Although DJs have become more popular in recent years, bands have always taken centre stage when it comes to Jewish wedding music – usually they are of Jewish origin themselves, meaning they are familiar with both traditional Jewish songs as well as contemporary music. Other types of music used at weddings include klezmer – a traditional type of Jewish folk music which is currently undergoing a revival.


    Jews are buried quickly, usually a day or so after death takes place. In the event of the death of a close relative (parent, child, brother or sister), the mourners enter a seven-day period known as shiva – they are not allowed to leave the house (except to go to synagogue) or engage in any work for seven days, and must sit on low chairs to receive visitors. Mirrors must also be covered up. This is a solemn and dignified time, both for the deceased, and also their family. Jews in mourning also display their grief by tearing an item of clothing which they will wear for the entire seven day period.

    After the initial week is finished, a longer mourning period begins, lasting 30 days in the case of a sibling’s death, or 12 months in the case of a parent, child or spouse, during which time many Jews will not attend parties or celebrations; men are not allowed to shave for a minimum period of 30 days although many will not shave for the entire year. After a year the official mourning period ends, but the person’s death is remembered on each anniversary by lighting a memorial light known as a Yahrzeit candle.

    Jewish Terms

    The following is a guide to the most common Jewish terms and phrases;

    Shalom – Hello, goodbye, peace

    Mazel ‘Tov – congratulations, well done

    Mitzvah – good deed

    Tzedakah – charity

    Chutzpah – cheek

    Nachos – joy (often used when congratulating someone on the birth of a child, “may you have much nachos from them”)

    Kosher – fit for consumption

    Shabbat Shalom – traditional Sabbath greeting

    H’ag Samaech – greeting traditionally used on festivals

    Ashkenazi – European Jews

    Sephardi – Jews from the Middle East

    The Jewish Calendar

    The following is a list of months in the Jewish calendar and when each occurs in the Western calendar, together with notable festivals that month. Although it neither concurs with the start of the Jewish or Western New Year, the months are traditionally listed in this order.

    • Nissan (Pesach – March/April)
    • Iyar (April/May)
    • Sivan (Shavuot – May/June)
    • Tamuz (June/July) Av (July/August)
    • Elul (August/September)
    • Tishri (Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur/Succot/Simchat Torah – September/October)
    • Cheshvan (October/November)
    • Kislev (Chanukah – November/December)
    • Tevet (December/January)
    • Shevat (January/February)
    • Adar (February/March)

    In leap years, an extra month, called Adar Sheni, is included.

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