Section: Judaism and Jewish life

Jewish religious practice

© 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The Jewish religion expects the highest standards of personal and moral behaviour. There are several rituals distinctive to Jews, including observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.

Jewish rules are not just to be found in the Bible, but also in discussion and commentary on the Bible. The teachings of the Torah have been debated for centuries including discussions on how to apply these ancient laws to modern situations.

What is Shabbat?

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest as told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It starts on Friday at sunset and finishes on Saturday at nightfall. This is a day of worship, celebration and family; many Jewish families celebrate Friday night together over a festive meal.

Shabbat starts with the lighting of two candles. This is followed by a blessing over a cup of wine, and the sharing of bread together.

The blessings and prayers, which are said around each of these rituals, highlight the religious Jew’s awareness that these gifts come from God. In addition, they are carrying out ancient commandments from the Bible. Shabbat is a regular reminder that, according to the Torah, God created the world and rested on the seventh day.

In this part of Joel’s Journey, a Blue Peter special, Joel goes to a family home where he takes part in a re-enactment of a Sabbath meal and learns more about Shabbat.

The Jewish home

© 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Many Jewish homes will have a fine goblet, often made of silver, from which they will share the cup of wine at Shabbat and festive meals. There will be a pair of Shabbat candlesticks, possibly passed down through the family. There will also be a Menorah to be used at the festival of Chanukah.

You may notice a Mezuzah on the right hand doorposts of a Jewish home. This is a small box, about as big as a finger, containing a handwritten text from the Torah. It proclaims that there is only one God and commands that “you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gate”.

There may be prayer books and other religious books in Hebrew (the language of the Bible), which will open from right to left (in the opposite direction to the way English books are printed).

The importance of family

© 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Much more Jewish life goes on in the home than in the synagogue. It is easier to describe the Jews as a huge family than as a religious group. The first name given to the Jews in the Bible is ‘The Children of Israel’ or the ‘Israelites’. In this case, ‘Israel’ does not refer to the country, but is another name for the patriarch Jacob. So even there, the Jews were originally identified as the descendants of one man, the grandson of Abraham.

One of the 10 Commandments is ‘Honour your father and your mother’. ‘Honouring’ is not necessarily obeying them, but a child should always be concerned about their parents’ well-being and dignity. In Jewish teaching, it is equally important that parents treat their children in such a way that they do not provoke them to lose respect and that they bring them up fairly and well.

The Torah also commands that Jews respect elderly people.

What do Jewish people eat?

Kosher food
Kosher food

Kosher is the word given to the whole set of Jewish food laws, which are found in the Torah. These laws have been developed by rabbies through the ages.

While there are many kosher rules, the two most obvious ones are the avoidance of certain kinds of meat and seafood, and the need to keep meat and milk products separate.

There are many forbidden foods, including pork, rabbit, horse, frogs and shellfish. All of these, and many others, are not kosher.

All kosher meat from permitted animals, like cows and sheep, must be slaughtered in a special way so that the animal suffers as little as possible. The method used also ensures that the maximum amount of blood is drained from the meat, since blood is not kosher either. Even a blood spot in an egg makes that egg non-kosher.

Milk and meat products are kept completely separate in a kosher home. A kosher kitchen will have separate cutlery and crockery, drawers and shelves, pots and pans for meat and dairy.

In a kosher restaurant, you will only be able to eat either dairy dishes or non-dairy dishes. In a kosher restaurant that serves meat, for example, you will not have ice cream desserts or milk in your coffee.

Of course, how Jews will cook the kosher food they are allowed to eat will largely depend on the local cuisine.

Rites of passage: birth

When Jewish babies are born, in addition to their first name, they are given a Hebrew name. This name is used when Jews are called to do a reading of the Torah in synagogue. It is also the name used on their marriage and divorce certificates as well as on their tombstone.

A baby girl is named publicly in the synagogue, usually on the first Shabbat after she is born.

A baby boy is named at his circumcision. According to the Bible, all Jewish boys should be circumcised on the eighth day after birth.

Rites of passage: bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah

A Jewish girl becomes responsible for her own religious and moral behaviour at the age of 12. This is called bat mitzvah; this is Hebrew for daughter of the Commandments.

A boy reaches this age of responsibility at 13. This is called bar mitzvah – son of the Commandments.

Besides their general Jewish education, boys and girls have special additional studies in the year leading up to the bar or bat mitzvah. During this period they will learn various skills, including leading services, carrying out various rituals correctly, and learning to read the appropriate section of the Torah, which they will then read at their coming-of-age ceremony.

Depending on their level of observance, the ceremony can vary. In some Jewish communities, girls wait until they are 13 to celebrate their bat mitzvah. In other Jewish communities, boys read from the Torah, and perhaps lead part of the service. Girls may teach the congregation something they have learnt in their studies leading up to the ceremony.

In this video Joel goes to a bat mitzvah. He watches the service and takes part in the celebration that follows.

Rites of passage: marriage and divorce

The signing of a ketubah (marriage certificate)
The signing of a ketubah (marriage certificate) Image Wikimedia Commons public domain

In Jewish thought, marrying is desirable and bringing up a family is considered to be one of the most important things someone can do. Jewish weddings take place under a canopy held up by four poles known as a chuppah. This represents the home they will create (the centre of Jewish life), which should be open to guests and outward-looking.

A Jewish wedding can take place anywhere and does not need to happen in a synagogue, but is always a religious ceremony. A wedding cannot happen on Shabbat or festival days. During the ceremony, a ring is given, the marriage contract is read and a cup of wine is shared.

The ceremony, whilst often conducted by a rabbi, is simply a contract between two individuals and is thought to be blessed by God.

Divorce is possible in the Jewish religion, although it is not taken lightly given the importance of family in the Jewish tradition. It is necessary that both partners agree that the marriage is over. Once they have agreed to this, a document of divorce is given by the Beth Din (House of Judgement) to the man, who then gives it to the woman. They are then free to remarry religiously.

Rites of passage: death

When someone dies, the body is carefully washed, dressed in simple linen and placed in a plain coffin. Jewish tradition prefers that bodies are buried within 24 hours. Some non-orthodox Jews allow cremation, but most Jews bury their dead.

After the funeral, immediate family members return to one of their homes, which becomes the house of mourning (Shiva) for the next week. During that week, the mourners sit on low chairs to symbolise how they have been ‘brought down’. They sit in mourning whilst other members of their family and the look after them.

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The importance of family

The importance of family

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