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Judaism can trace its roots back to about 2000 BC when Abraham walked the Earth. Many would date the founding of Judaism to the days of Moses around 1500 BC. (Hinduism is often dated to both 2000 BC and 1500 BC as well…so as far as which came first, it depends on what you call the starting point.) Today, Judaism is the 6th largest religion in the world.


Abraham (believed to have been born around 1802 BC) made a “covenant” or agreement with God. Jews promise to keep God’s commandments in exchange for God’s blessing. His “nation” was renamed the “Israelites” after his grandson Jacob (or “Israel”), father of the 12 tribes of Israel. The term “Judaism” can be traced back to the name of Jacob’s fourth son, Judah. Fast forward to the birth of Moses around 1394 BC. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt (“the exodus”) and received God’s commandments/the Torah. Fast forward again to Joshua. After the death of Moses, God commanded Joshua to lead the Israelites to the “Promised Land.” The Israelites later fought the Canaanites for their territory and, under Saul, came to control Palestine. Under David in 1000 BC, Jerusalem was made the capital of the Israelite kingdom. It was around this time that the first temple in Jerusalem was created.

Around 920 BC, the Israelites began to splinter into different kingdoms and sects. In 586 BC, Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Jews were sent into exile. This began the Jewish Diaspora, in which Jews dispersed across the world and began to see themselves as a people permanently in exile, permanent nomads searching to return to their homeland.

In 516 BC, the temple was rebuilt. Jews lived peacefully under Roman rule for a number of years until 70 AD, when the second temple was destroyed during a revolt against the Romans. After that time, Jewish authority was moved from the main temple to local houses of worship (“synagogues” or “temples”) and their local teachers (“rabbis”). Like other religions, we could go on forever about historical events in the common era. But we would be remiss not to mention the 20th century: the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis during World War II, and Zionism (explained below).

Many Jewish holidays commemorate events from history. Learn more about Jewish holidays on Religion Transcends.


Jewish beliefs can be traced back to two major sacred texts: the Torah and the Talmud. The Torah (part of the Tanach) contains the five books of the Hebrew Bible, which Jews believe God dictated to Moses. The Talmud contains Jewish law (“Halakhah”) including the Mishnah (written text of oral law).

  • God: Jews believe in one God, a just and good God. Out of reverence, Jews do not spell out or state the name of God; so in Jewish texts, you may see the word “G-d” in place of “God.” Jews do not believe Jesus was God because they do not believe God can be subdivided. Jews do not believe Jesus was the Messiah (or redeemer of the world) predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures because they do not believe he fulfilled prophecy (which states the Messiah will usher in an era of peace).
  • Law: God gave Jews the laws they must keep in order to remain holy and worthy of the covenant. This includes, for example, dietary laws (“kosher” law).
  • Worship: The Jewish Sabbath (or “Shabbat”) begins Friday at sunset and ends Saturday at sunset. It is a day for rest and a day to go to temple for worship.
  • Conversion: A Jew can be a Jew without being religious. A person is considered a Jew if his or her mother was a Jew. That said, even if one is not ethnically Jewish, a non-Jew can actually convert to the religion of Judaism. It’s an intense process that involves study, circumcision (if male), ritual bath, and lifestyle changes – all resulting in becoming a full member of the Jewish people and faith.
  • Branches

    There are several sects and movements within (and without) Judaism.

  • Orthodox Jews observe Jewish laws and practices strictly and pay special attention to their history, particularly that spelled out in the Torah. For them, all laws needed throughout life were given to Moses. Hassidic Jews are Orthodox Jews who place special emphasis on deeds and devotion (making their way better or equal to that of the scholarly Jews). Hasidism can be traced back to Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov in Eastern Europe in the 18th century.
  • Progressive Jews can be broken into Reform Jews and Liberal Jews. Reform Jews seek to combine Jewish law with the facts of modern life. Many see themselves as more current and relevant than Orthodox Jews. For them, laws can change and new laws can be revealed as time goes on. Liberal Jews seek to combine Judaism with modern society.
  • Conservative Jews fall in the middle between Orthodox and Reform. They follow traditional Jewish law but will accept changes that jibe with that tradition.
  • Reconstructionist Jews may observe the Jewish religion’s rituals and practices, but mostly because it’s part of the Jewish identity. They don’t believe in God as a personal God who chose the Jews as His people.
  • Humanistic Jews follow Jewish cultural practices but do not pay much attention to the Jewish religion, sometimes believing God doesn’t exist at all.
  • Messianic Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah and are therefore more often regarded as Christians by Jews. Yet Messianic Jews still maintain terms like “rabbi” and take part in some Jewish rituals and holidays including Passover.
  • Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism – a set of teachings concerned with experiencing unity with God. Various sects incorporate Kabbalah, but Kabbalah is more concerned with the experience of meeting with the divine than with traditions.
  • Israel vs. Palestine

    As noted in the history above, Jews were exiled from Israel in 586 BC. This began the Jewish Diaspora, in which Jews dispersed across the world and began to see themselves as a people permanently in exile, permanent nomads searching to return to their homeland. At the end of the 19th century, a group of Jews called “Zionists” formed, seeking to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. On May 14, 1948, the United Nations agreed to formally divide the sought-after land between the Jews and the Arabs – thereby establishing both a Jewish-governed Israel and an Arab-governed Palestine all within the same country.

    The division led to war between the two states, with eventual peace agreements and new land divisions. Israelis and Palestinians still hold separate portions of Israel. Some Israelis want portions of Israel/Jerusalem back; the same holds true for Palestinians. And so the fighting continues. While it may seem about military and land, with Jews and Muslims on both sides of the fence, there are certainly religious implications and underpinnings.

    Find news related to Judaism on Religion Transcends.

    Created by Religion Transcends, 2009. Most information is general knowledge. You must seek permission to reuse this wording.

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