World Religions & Cultures

The Mezuzah, with the star of David, Israil's greatest king
God and His Laws
Special Holy Days

 Different Approaches:
Orthodox Conservative Reformed Hassidim Secular
The Mezuzah is a tiny parchment scroll inscribed with biblical exts and enclosed in a case.  Traditionally, Mezuzahs are fixed to the door-frames of Jewish homes.  They usually contain the words of the Shema from the Bible, which calls God's people to love him totally.  (Langley 43)

God and His Laws
For all Jews, God is both utterly transcendent, "wholly other," yet near to His creation, in particular His creature, Man.

God is a moral being, as the paradigm of ethical conduct: a holy, just, and merciful being.

The people are the instrument of God, His chosen vessel to bear witness to Him for all humans. The covenant is the alliance or pact between God and his people. It is the alliance to which He will be utterly faithful, no matter how faithless the people might be. The idea of covenant starts with Adam, goes through Noah, but "The Covenant" is the promise God made to Abraham, who becomes the first Patriarch of the Jewish religion (a role he plays in Christianity and Islam as well).

      Torah, "instruction" or "revelation," is the way of imitating God and becoming holy like Him. The Torah (using the article) is the Holy Book of Judaism and is comprised of first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).  They are also called The Pentateuch.

Left: A scroll containing the Torah, the 'Five Books' supposedly written by Moses.  The Jews are traditionally known as the people of the Book .  The Jewish Museum, New York.
(Parrinder 393)


The Talmud are the authoritative interpretations of the texts of the Bible and interpretation of oral traditions.
Kosher (kashrut) is a set of dietary laws governing Orthodox Jews. Forbidden foods include pork, shellfish and scavengers, the separation of meat and dairy products, and the manner in which food is prepared.
The sabbath or holy day for Jews starts at sundown Friday and runs till sundown Saturday. Jews will sometimes go to temple for services led by the rabbi, or spend time with family. Orthodox Jews are forbidden to work on this day and take this rule seriously -- no cleaning, school work, cooking (foods are prepared the day before), travel. It's a time for God and family.


At prayer in the synagogue.  This man wears phylacteries bound to head and arm, containing portions of the scriptures, and a tallit or prayer shawl.  (Parrinder 415)
Special Holy Days
Passover (Pesach) is an eight-day celebration commemorating the flight from slavery in Egypt. The story is told in the Book of Exodus. There are special foods eaten and the special dinners are called seders. Since the date is based on a lunar calendar it's not fixed, but it usually occurs in early April. 

Left:  A Jewish family gathered together for the seder or Passover feast.  On the table can be seen the unleavened bread which commemorates the hasty way in which the Israelites left Egypt.(Parrinder 406)

Lighting the last candle of chanukkah. The eight branches of the candlestick commemorate the eight days for which a miraculous supply of oil lasted during the re-dedication of the temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  (Parrinder 415)
Chanuka (also Hanukka or The Festival of Lights) celebrates a military victory and the miracle of the temple lights burning for eight days when there was only enough oil for one. Jews light the menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum, have special dinners, give small gifts, play games and sing songs. This usually falls sometime in December and because of that is sometime called "Jewish Christmas," but that's a totally misleading misnomer. 
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. It usually falls in mid- to late September and is a time of joy and feasting.

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) This is the holiest of holy days for Jews. It occurs two weeks after the New Year, and it's a day of fasting, mourning and prayer for forgiveness of sins. It's a somber and serious day, but also one of joy, since God is merciful and forgives sins.

Different Approaches
Orthodox Jews usually prefer the term Traditional Judaism. They adhere to the traditional way of Torah, regarding both scriptural and traditional expression of Torah as binding, shaping daily life according to its teaching. This group keeps kosher, separates men and women during worship, and prays exclusively in Hebrew. The dress of women is also highly regulated (collarbones, elbows, and knees covered, and for married women, their hair as well) and men as well have special ritual clothes that should be worn.

A more moderate approach which emerged during the 19th century, this form stresses the need to be as faithful as possible to the way of Torah. It continually reassesses its particular directives in the light of present-day needs, adapting the traditional teachings in order to make prophetic Judaism come to life in a unique way.

This form also emerged in the 19th century. It broke with tradition in its attitude toward the binding authenticity of Biblical and Talmudic interpretations of Torah, stressing, instead, the ethical dimensions of Judaic faith. Since this group does not regard Jewish law as divine in origin, it sees no need to follow them. Non-morality based laws are ignored. They also allow women full equality in religious matters.


A sect of ultra-orthodox mystical Jews which originated in Eastern Europe in the 18th century and have since settled in large numbers in Brooklyn, NY, but they are in other places as well. Their way of life and style of dress has changed little since the 19th century. They are often portrayed in movies as something "different," and are easily seen when visiting New York City as many work in the diamond market, though they work in many fields as well.  
Photo: Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem.(Parrinder 416)
    A panel of rabbis study the marriage contract at a unique Hasidic wedding in New York.  The bride came from a line of miracle-working rabbis. (Parrinder 416)

This is a more modern usage. People use this term to culturally ally themselves with Judaism, but to say that they don't have any religious ties to Judaism.

Picture source:
1. Parrinder, Geoffrey, ed.  World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present.  New York: Facts on File, 1971.
2. Langley, Myrtle. Religion  (Eyewitness Guides.)  New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996. 
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World Religions