One of the oldest religions in the world, Judaism today has around 15 million followers. It was the first religion to believe in only one god and to have the concept of a covenant between believers and God. The Jews are often referred to as ‘The Chosen People’.
The Origins of Judaism
Jewish belief attributes the birth of Judaism to a man called Abram, who lived in the city of Ur. He was spoken to by God, who told him to change his name to Abraham and move to Canaan to start a new religion. Angels taught Abraham a new language, Hebrew, which remains the language of Judaism. Abraham’s grandson Jacob used the name Israel, and Jews are often called the ‘Children of Israel’. After moving to Egypt, due to famine, the Hebrews returned to Canaan and founded the country of Israel. They were made up of twelve tribes, one of which was the tribe of Judah, from where the term Jew comes.
The kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Roman Empire, who in 70 AD destroyed the capital city, Jerusalem, and sent the Jews into exile. This scattering of Judaism is called the Diaspora. With no country of their own, the Jewish people settled in other countries, often living in ghettoes and suffering persecution. Those who lived in Russia, Germany and Poland were known as Ashkenazi Jews. They developed their own customs and a language, Yiddish, which was taken to the United States by emigrants and is still used by many Jews today. Today, about 80 percent of the world’s Jews are Ashkenazi; the rest are Sephardic Jews, whose culture and language came from those who settled in Spain and Portugal.
Holy Books and Worship
The books on which Judaism is based are the Bible and the Talmud. The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, and are believed to have been dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, and brought down from there together with the Ten Commandments. The Talmud is a collection of writings by early Rabbis, the religious leaders and learned members of Judaism. In the Talmud they discuss Jewish ethics, laws and customs. The Covenant instructed believers to regularly worship God, and this is done both at home and in a synagogue. Synagogues are used for communal prayers, study and special events.