I could spend the rest of my natural life writing about the history, traditions and culture of Judaism but that is outside of my scope. I have instead chosen to write this article in a Q & A format to address common questions I am asked.
What is the Jewish Bible?
The Jewish Bible is the same collection of books that make up the Christian Old Testament. It is called the TaNaKH for Torah, Nevi’im and Kethuvim and breaks down as follows:
Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
Nevi’im (the prophets): Joshua, Judges, I &II Samuel, I & II Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malach
Kethuvim (the writings): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles)
What do Jews do for forgiveness now that they don’t have a temple to conduct sacrifices?
The concept of sacrifice isn’t “killing for sin” as generally thought. The Hebrew word is qorbanot which means ‘sacrifice’ or ‘offering’ but not in the sense of loss, it is in the sense of ‘drawing one closer to God’.
One of the elements of qorbanot is the giving of something you have. Sacrifices (the giving of an animal) were replaced with good deeds (mainly charity), the giving of ones time or possessions.
Today, the animal sacrificial system is seen as largely symbolic and with the exception of Orthodox Jews (which make up less than 10% of world Jewry), Jews as a whole are not clamoring to bring the practice back.
Sins could never be forgiven on the basis of the sacrifice alone – that would be “buying forgiveness”. Repentance is the key element to atonement. For example, sacrifice (or charity) is considered “useless” (for lack of a better word) if there is no prior repentance and no offer of restitution is made to the person wronged.
(In other words, you can’t rob someone and then think that a simple offering on its own will be enough to ‘clear’ you).
You may have heard of the annual Holy days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? They are 10 days apart and usually occur in Sept/Oct on the western calendar. The days in between are called the “Days of Awe”. You may also hear this period referred to as the High Holy days.
Rosh Hashana (RH) is known as the Jewish New Year and it begins the period of introspection where people look back to the mistakes of the past year and plan for the new year (not unlike “new years resolutions” in a way). It is held that your fate for the coming year is written on RH. This is a time to repent and atone for any misdeeds in the past year that you haven’t already accounted for.
The Days of Awe (introspection) that follow RH give a chance to appeal to the mercy of God to change your fate for the year, written on RH but not sealed until Yom Kippur. This is done by repentance, prayer and charity (or other good deeds).
Yom Kippur is the annual day of judgment where the Lord seals the fate on the sins from the previous year. This day is the last appeal to affect the judgment, to show repentance and to make amends before your fate for the past year is sealed.
Are there denominations in Judaism?
There are five main denominations in practicing Judaism. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Kaballistic. The most notable split in these denominations is acceptance of Torah and the Oral Law and religious observance.
The Orthodox (including Chasidic and Modern) are Torah observant and follow the letter of the law to the best of their ability. They believe that both the Torah and the Oral Laws are of divine revelation.
Conservatives are less strict than the Orthodox. While they believe the Torah to be of divine inspiration, they hold that the Oral Laws are of man. They believe in adapting the laws and traditions to reflect the times but not at the rapid rate that the Reform movement does.
Reform Jews do not believe that the Torah was divinely inspired, they hold that it was written by man and therefore changes to it can and should be made whenever necessary. They do not hold to the Oral Law.
Reconstructionists are at the most liberal end of the scale of normative Judaism. They hold that if there is something in the Torah that you do not agree with, then you are right and Torah is wrong.
Finally, many may argue that Kaballism is not mainstream Judaism and I agree. Kaballism is new age Judiaistic mysticism. They believe that each man can become his own Messiah via spiritual perfection.
Who is Hashem?
HaShem means “The Name” in Hebrew. It is commonly used by Orthodoxy to refer to God.
Why do Jews write G-d and L-rd?
As a means of respect and to preclude any hint of violating the commandment not to use the name of the Lord in vain.
Is a Rabbi like a minister?
Yes and no. Rabbi means “teacher” and they are responsible for instructing people in the laws of the Torah. With no more priests, Rabbis have also taken on the responsibility of interpreting the law. A Rabbi is a role in much the same way anyone’s role is viewed. For a question on secular law, you see a lawyer. For a question on halacha (religious law), you see a Rabbi. No one role is esteemed any higher than another – it is merely one’s job.
Catholics claim that their observance of purgatory is based on Judaism – is this true?
No, it is not. The Catholic interpretation of purgatory is the place that a soul goes after death to atone for their sins. They hold that only those who are ‘saved’ get this opportunity and that purgatory is merely the place for this atonement to be made, not to obtain salvation that wasn’t already obtained in life. It is held that through indulgences, the living can affect the time spent in purgatory. These indulgences include prayers, mass, and cash donations to the church.
This couldn’t be further from Jewish thought.
In Jewish tradition, there are elements to the soul. Upon death, thenaranchi (Acronym for ruach, neshomoh, chayah, and yechidah) goes to the Realm of Souls for continued spiritual growth. The soul stays in the Realm of Souls, studying Torah until Torah is understood. Thenaranchai is not affected by the person’s physical life like the RCC interpretation. It is affected by the person’s focus. It is the sincere attempt to attain and do the spiritual that makes a person spiritual.
Additionally, nothing done by the living can effect this time. Not prayers, not cash donations, nothing – as it is a spiritual time, not one of paying for sins and refining into a sinless state.
Where this gets confused is the tradition of the Kaddish prayer. Kaddish is recited for 11 months by the bereaved. According to Jewish tradition, the soul must spend some time purifying itself before it can enter the world to come. The maximum time required for purification is 12 months, for the most evil person. To recite Kaddish for 12 months would imply that the deceased was the type who needed 12 months of purification! To avoid this implication, the Sages decreed that the bereaved should recite Kaddish for only eleven months.
Unlike the Catholic definition of indulgences, Kaddish is not recited to ask the Lord to forgive someone and allow them into heaven (or in quicker). The purpose is that one would expect a person to lose faith in God, or to cry out against God’s injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, in a minyan and reaffirm their faith in God despite this loss.
Here is the translation of the Kaddish prayer:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great Name throughout the world, which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire house of Israel, speedily and soon and say Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world and say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel, and say Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel and say Amen.
This is not praying for an “outcome”, it is affirming:
 God is the Creator;
 Everything—this world, this new set of circumstances, as well as the old, familiar one—is an expression of His will.
 “A person’s will is his glory”, Therefore, saying Kaddish, declaring and accepting God’s will, glorifies God.
“v’yamlikh malkhutei” (and may reign be given to His kingship)
Why is this done? The mourner is distressed by his relative’s absence. It is an attempt to console by gently reminding him of God’s presence: “Your beloved is in a new place with God; you, too, are in a new place, with God”.
How many commandments are there?
There are 613 commandments – 248 positive and 365 negative. The full listing can be found here.
And the laws?
Jewish tradition holds to the oral laws as mentioned above. In order to keep people from getting too close to breaking the laws, the priests and later the rabbis added to these laws, the additional laws referred to as the fence laws. The logic is that if you don’t break the fence law, you are not in danger of breaking the commandment.
What is kosher?
“Kosher” refers not only to what can and cannot be eaten, but how it must be prepared in many cases. Koosher is not a style of cooking and there is no such thing as “kosher-style” food. Chinese food can be kosher if it is prepared in accordance with Jewish law. Traditional Jewish foods like knishes, bagels, and matzah ball soup are all non-kosher if not prepared in accordance with Jewish law. When a restaurant calls itself “kosher-style,” it usually means that the restaurant serves traditional Jewish foods, but the food is not actually kosher.
The kosher laws are extremely extensive. Judiasm101 compiled a “master list” that is very descriptive:
- Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
- Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law.
- All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten. Salting can also used to remove blood.
- Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.
- Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).
- Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food.
- This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.
Many people know that pork is not considered kosher. What may not be known is that any product that contains pork is considered non-kosher as well. For example, pig parts are used in the making of gelatin. Therefore, jello, soft candies, and anything that may contain gelatin is not considered kosher, just as bacon is.
What does keeping kosher mean?
“Keeping kosher” means adhering to kosher standards. To be considered Orthodox kosher, one needs to have three sets of everything. One for meat foods, one for dairy, and one for Passover. This includes dishes, utensils, pots, pans, hotmitts and many people even have two dishwashers.
Do all Jews keep kosher?
You would have to ask them individually. The more stringent the observance, the more people adhere to the laws governing food and cooking. Some view a pork-free hotdog as kosher, others would not accept this unless the hotdog was prepared with approved meat from an animal that was killed in an approved way.
Why don’t Jews eat meat products and dairy products together?
This is part of the kosher fence laws or kashrut. In Exodus 34:26 is the admonission to not boil a goat in it’s mothers milk. The original meaning of this verse is believed to refer to the Lord prohibiting the Jews from participating in the pagan fertility ritual associated with this practice. Over time, the fence laws were extended to interpret this passage to mean that you shouldn’t mix meat with dairy as a means of insuring that you do not combine a child’s meat with a mother’s dairy. The prohibition on mixing meat and dairy is one of the most well known traits of kashrut. Rabinnical interpretation will differ on the timing, but it is generally accepted that 6 hours in between eating meat and dairy is sufficient to clear the body and not violate the law.
What does Jewish law say about abortion?
Judaism permits abortion in certain circumstances and in some cases (such as the life of the Mother being in danger), it requires it. An unborn child holds the status of “potential human life” until the majority of its body is outside of the Mother. Once the child is in the process of birth, this is no longer allowable because at that point, it becomes a choice between two lives and that is forbidden.
What does Jewish law say about homosexuality?
The practice of homosexuality is expressly forbidden.
What do Jews think of Jesus?
This will vary depending on who you talk to. Some Jews hold that He was a great Rabbi that the gentile nations mistook for being the Messiah. Others hold that He was the gentile Messiah, but not the Jewish one.
Are Jews still waiting for the Messiah?
Yes and no. Typically, you will see a split along denominational lines on this. For example, the Orthodox are indeed looking to a future fulfillment of a physical Messiah where the Reform movement is not. They are looking for the Lord to usher in a Messianic Age without a particular person at the helm.
For those who are looking for a Messiah, what traits do they expect him to have?
He is said to be a great political leader descended from King David, a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example, a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel, a great judge, who makes righteous decisions. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and Torah observant. He will teach the world how to revere truth, and they will all return to God (though not necessarily to Judaism). It is believed that above all, “he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being”. The messiah is held to be a mortal man, born of a normal man and woman. He could be divorced and have failed math in college for example, as he is not expected to be perfect, just a normal man leading a normal life that is chosen by the Lord to lead Israel.
When is he expected to come?
Although some scholars believed that God has set aside a specific date for the coming of the messiah, most authority suggests that the conduct of mankind will determine the time of the messiah’s coming. In general, it is believed that the messiah will come in a time when he is most needed (because the world is so sinful), or in a time when he is most deserved (because the world is so good). For example, each of the following has been suggested as the time when the messiah will come:
- if Israel repented a single day;
- if Israel observed two Shabbats (Sabbaths) in a row properly;
- in a generation that is totally innocent or totally guilty;
- in a generation that loses hope;
- in a generation where children are totally disrespectful towards their parents and elders;
What will he do?
“The messiah will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing the Jews back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15)”.
How does Jewish thought interpret:
They attribute this passage to King Hezekiah, calling him “the mighty God” because this name is a sign that foretells God’s defense of Jerusalem through the miraculous sudden mass death of Sennacherib’s army.
Judaism holds that although the Hebrew word alma used in this passage can mean ‘virgin’, that the correct usage should be ‘young woman’.
Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22
These are the “Suffering Servant” passages. Judaism attributes the Suffering Servant to the nation of Israel in some cases and the Jewish people in others.
Tradition holds that this passage is not to be interpreted because it tells of the timing of the coming of the Messiah. In researching however, I did find one explanation attributing the anointed one in v.25 to be Cyrus (516bc), who is given credit by God for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and in v.26 to be Alexander Yannai (76bc), who was known for his animosity against the Pharisees and his rejection of the Oral Law.
This passage is believed to be yet future, its fulfillment to be in the Messianic Age.
Why are there so many variations on the English spelling of Hebrew words?
That is because of transliteration – the practice of spelling something how it sounds. The Hebrew aleph-bet does not directly mirror the English one which is why you may, for example, see Q and K interchanged. Neither spelling is wrong.
What are those dots and dashes sometimes seen in Hebrew words?
There are no vowels in the Hebrew aleph-bet. The dots and dashes under the letters denote the vowel sound that is used following the letter.