JudaismA person is considered to be a Jew if their mother was Jewish, in the Orthodox tradition, or if either parent was Jewish, in the Progressive tradition. People may also convert to the faith. The mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah encompass every aspect of daily life. Prayer and study of the Torah are central to religious life. Special times are set aside for celebration and devotion. The world and one's fellow humans must be treated with respect because they are creations of God. Jews should act with love, justice and compassion.
Within Judaism, the Orthodox tradition believes that scripture contains the unchanging words of God and gives it full authority in determining law, life and religious practice. It does not allow women to become rabbis, although they can teach in the synagogue. Progressive Jews believe the Torah was inspired by God but written down by humans and open to revision. They seek to make Judaism more relevant to the modern world and place less emphasis on rituals. Other traditions link to one or both of these main strands.
A traditional belief is that one day a special person - a Mashiach ('Anointed One') or Messiah - will reveal himself, gather the Jewish community from around the world and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. Today this is interpreted in different ways.
What do Jews do?Shabbat is a weekly day of worship, rest and peace, celebrated from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. During this time Jews are forbidden to do anything considered to be work. Traditions differ on what counts as work: for instance, Orthodox Jews do not drive cars but Progressive Jews do. Shabbat is a time to be with the family, and also to worship at the synagogue. There are services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Larger synagogues have services every morning and evening. They are places for social activities and education too. Inside are a range of symbols and objects, including the menorah. There is a raised platform from which the Torah is read, and usually also a pulpit where the sermon is preached. The Holy Ark is an alcove or cupboard containing the Torah scrolls, with a lamp hanging in front as a reminder of the presence of God. The scrolls are hand-written on parchment, kept in a cloth cover and treated with great respect. In the Orthodox tradition men and women sit in separate areas. Men and married women cover their heads during worship as a sign of respect to God. (Some Jews keep their heads covered all the time.) Orthodox services are conducted in Hebrew, except for the rabbi's sermon. Progressive services use more English, and sometimes musical instruments; men and women sit together. One of the 54 portions of the Torah is read each Shabbat. The rabbi of an Orthodox Synagogue must be male but the rabbi of a Progressive Synagogue may be female.
There are several rules about what is kosher ('proper') to eat, which people observe with varying strictness. For example sheep, cows, deer, chickens (and their eggs) and fish with fins and scales are acceptable; but pigs, rabbits, horses, birds of prey and shellfish are not. Animals must be killed and butchered by a qualified person. Milk and meat foods may not be mixed, so separate utensils are used and they are not eaten at the same time. Fruit and vegetables are always acceptable.
Young people become adults with responsibility for following the commandments in a special ceremony: the Barmitzvah at 13 for a boy and Batmitzvah at 12 or 13 for a girl. They read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew at the synagogue, and there's often a celebration afterwards.
Dates of ImportanceJews use a lunar calendar, so festival dates can vary. Here are some of the major ones. Rosh Hashanah in September, or October is the New Year, beginning ten days of repentance which end on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a 25-hour fast. Sukkot, also in early autumn, recalls the Israelites' wandering in the desert. Hanukah in December marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem: candles are lit and kept burning over 8 days, and sometimes there are gifts for children.
Pesach in March, or April, also known as Passover, commemorates the Exodus, the liberation from slavery in Egypt.One of its main features is the Passover meal or 'Seder' when Jews recount the story of the Exodus and eat special foods such as unleavened bread or 'Matzah'. Shavuot in early summer commemorates the giving of the Torah and pledging allegiance to God.