The word Judaism comes from the hebrew word Yehudah(meaning”The praised”)
Yehudah (sometimes called Judah) was the founder of a tribe of people. This tribe took his name and eventually Judah became the name of a Kingdom and a new state. One cannot look at the word Judaism only as a description of a religion, it is more than that. Judaism is linked by three elements, the union of a God, a people (Israel) and a country (the Holy Land).
The Torah (the Five books of Moses that begin the Hebrew and Christian bible) states that the Hebrews are descended directly from Abraham. Abraham was alive around 2000 B.C.E. and he was raised in the religion of the time which worshiped the moon and other natural gods. Over time, Abraham began to believe that there was really only one God, he decided to no longer worship idols with his family and community. God rewarded him for this wisdom and made a promise to him and said: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…..And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8) Abraham left his family and travelled to the land of Canaan. It is believed that in Canaan, God entered into a covenant (an agreement held to be the basis of a relationship of commitment with God) with Abraham, promising to give the land to his descendants and to make them a chosen people as an example to the other people of the world. The rite of male circumcision on all the male children in Abraham’s line sealed this covenant and this rite is performed by Jews to this day.
Abraham’s son Isaac became leader of the Hebrews after his father. Isaac’s son Jacob continued on his father’s death. Jacob fathered 12 sons who were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. They all settled around the Nile valley around 1700 B.C.E.
The Hebrews lived well and peacefully until approximately 1580 B.C.E. when the Theban Pharaohs began to persecute them. The Jews became threatening to the Pharaohs because of their large numbers. One method of persecution was to kill all the Jewish male babies.
According to the Old Testament, the mother of a man called Moses determined to save him from this infanticide and she hid him in the rushes by a stream. The Pharaoh’s daughter found him and he was raised in the royal court. When Moses was a man, God came to him (in the form of a burning bush) and said: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…..and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians….and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God…..who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord” (Exodus 6:2-8). Moses then rescued Israel by helping people to escape the Egyptians by parting the water of the Red Sea for them. The children of Israel wandered the desert for forty days until they came to the wilderness of Sinai. It was there that the Jews believe that God entered into a new covenant with Moses. It was a wider and new covenant than the one before, it was made with the people as a whole, and it demanded that the Israelites offer great sacrifice and total dedication to their God. The covenant consisted of 613 commandments; 365 referred to forbidden things and 248 to things that had to be done. He gave Moses a complete and detailed system of rules by which his people were to live. The most important were the first Ten Commandments or Decalogue). These commandments are some of the most important spiritual pillars in Judaism and represent the heart of the Law in Jewish tradition. Here is an abridged version of this Decalogue:
- I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
- Thou shalt have no Other Gods before Me…..
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy……
- Honour thy father and mother…..
- Thou shalt not kill
- Thou shalt not commit adultery
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbours wife, nor his man-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbours. (Exodus 20:2-17)
It is worth noting that these same commandments have a very important role in some other religious traditions as well, particularly Christianity.
Around 1500 B.C.E., the Israelites returned to the holy land of Canaan to start what they believed would be a peaceful existence for generations hereafter. Over time, struggles and jealousies broke out among the leaders of the Israelites and eventually the nation became divided. The Jews are said to have stopped living by the required standards which God had given them. The Lord, according to the Scriptures, used the Assyria and Babylonia nations as tools to punish the Hebrews. From 721 to 586 B.C.E. the Israelites were embattled, overcome and exiles. In 586, the Babylonians burnt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and held the people there captive for approximately 50 years.
The Hebrew prophets of the time put together the Old Testament. These prophets also presented the concept of a Messiah (Saviour). They believed that the Messiah would be a king who would not be divine, but he would be called the son of God and this man would unite Israel and lead it to the Kingdom of God.
The destruction of the Temple marked a turning point for the Jewish community. Exiled and with communities separated from one another, this period of their history is called the Diaspora. The prophets believed that the Jews themselves were to blame for their misfortune and that God would offer forgiveness in time if they returned to the ways of the Covenant with Moses. This is a period when the centre and driving force of Jewish life became the synagogue. In the seventh century B.C.E. the centre of Judaism was returned to Jerusalem. However, this did not mean that there was a complete unity among the Israelites, because the Diaspora, caused Jews to develop differently. Three great parties emerged from this period: The Suddacees, the Pharisees and the Essenes.
In about 25 C.E., a man named Jesus of Nazareth became important in the region. He was heralded to be the Messiah by some Jews and these Jews became the first Christians.
From 66 to 135 C.E., the Jews began a war against the ruling Romans. Towards the beginning of this war the Romans burnt the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. That event was considered to be the beginning of a new period of suffering and it was so important that the Jews began to date events from that time.
With the destruction of the temple, Jews were pressured to preserve their heritage at any cost. The only sacred things left to the Israelites were the Torah, the Oral law and the teachings of scholars and Rabbis. The teachings of the scholars were put into writing and became what is called the Talmud. The Talmud is one of the most important works in Judaism. The Talmud explains the relationship between man and the land, lists man’s duties in observing religious rites, and explained other Jewish laws and practices.
In the middle of the 7th Century C.E. Judaism was revitalized by the rise of Islam. It benefited both spiritually and economically. This period ended around the 10th Century. During the Christian Crusades, the Jews were forced to emigrate. They faced harsh treatment in Europe and were treated badly. By the sixteenth century some countries forced them to live in special districts called ghettos, some countries had simple expelled them and others were restricted in occupations and movements. The sixteenth century also saw the rise of a Jewish mystical movement called Cabala.
In the eighteenth century, the discovery of the New World, the economic and political revolutions in Europe and the internal split in the Christian church combined to make the world outside of the Jewish Ghetto more accessible to the Jews. This period saw increased rights and more equal footing for them with other Europeans. As a result of the increased Jewish assimilation, the Jewish Reform movement began in Germany in 1840. The reform movement was attacked by the Jewish traditionalist (counter-reformists), this created a split in Judaism which remains to this day.
The Jewish community then experienced the near annihilation of the race in Germany and Eastern Europe. Between 1940 and 1945 the Jews were violently and almost completely exterminated by the German Nazis.
In 1948 the British army, who were occupying Palestine since the end of World War 1, gave control of the area to the Jews. Jews from all over the world left approximately 74 countries and arrived in Palestine to begin a new life.