Judaism and Judaica

Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Judaica are the objects and text used in the Jewish religion and produced by Jewish culture. In this guide, we shall present articles describing major beliefs and practices of the Jewish religion, and discuss objects of Judaica and how they are used in the Jewish religion and culture.

A Religion and a People

The Jewish religion, unlike Christianity for example, is inseparable from the Jewish people and is center and starting point for all Jewish culture. According to Daniel Boyarin, the underlying distinction between religion and ethnicity is foreign to Judaism. This is because Judaism evolved in the east, before the concept of a religion separate from nationhood evolved in the West. Boyarin claims that “Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension.” Therefore, in a wider sense, Judaism includes the study of all things and ideas that are Jewish or produced by Jews and that are related to Jewish religious, community or national life, and is not confined to religion.

Origins and evolution of Judaism

Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, and the oldest one in existence today. It is the precursor of both Christianity and Islam, which borrowed many concepts from Judaism. Judaism has evolved and diversified in both space and time, reflecting the vicissitudes of a people twice exiled from its homeland, and cut off from its national center and center of worship in Jerusalem. The commandments of the Torah, the oldest book of law, were modified by the later oral tradition embodied with the Mishnah, and modified again with the destruction of the temple and codified in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. Jewish law was further elaborated in the Shulkhan Aruch and the writings of Maimonides and others. Judaism underwent further transformations with the coming of the 19th century enlightenment, and the return to Zion in our own time. Scattered to the four corners of the globe, the Jewish religion developed two major streams of practice: Ashkenazic and Sephardic, that nonetheless strived to remain united despite the vast distances that separated them, and the diverse cultural influences upon them. They evolved a common liturgy in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as common customs for holiday celebrations, sacraments and life cycle events.

The People of the Book

The Jews are the known as “the people of the book.” The book is the Old Testament Bible, or Tanach which is a record of the history of the ancient people of Israel up to the first exile, viewed in terms of the relation of the Jews to God. To this book, which also defined the laws given to the Jewish people, were added a codification of Oral law, the Mishnah, and an amplification and redesign of customs following the destruction of the Jewish temple, the Talmud.

Elements of the Jewish faith

Throughout the centuries, Judaism as a religion maintained a unity of faith and practice centered around the following elements:

• Monotheism – a belief in one spiritual non-anthropomorphic God, who has no intercessors and who cannot be pictured.

• The centrality of Jerusalem and the land of Israel to Jewish religious and national life.

• Belief in the Messiah and in collective salvation as well as in an afterlife.

• The observance of the major holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, with the addition of Hanukkah and Purim.

• Observance of Kashrut (dietary laws).

• Observance of common liturgy.

• Marriage within the faith and the Jewish people.

• Belief in the sanctity of life as an over-riding concern.

• Observance of the 613 commandments of the law (“Taryag Mitzvot”) as codified in the Babylonian Talmud.

The Jewish Confession of Faith

The Jewish confession of faith, equivalent to the Muslim Shehada and the Catholic Credo, is the ancient Shema Yisrael prayer:

“Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Articles of Judaica

Jewish handicrafts and decorated religious articles typically utilize characteristic symbols such as the Jewish star and lion of David. Designs are constrained by the religious stricture against drawing a human figure that might be considered the image of God. Articles of Judaica include anything that is used in Jewish worship, study and religious observances, and may include anything that is a product of Jewish culture: articles of apparel and religious dress such as a Kippah (yarmulkeh) or Tallit, Sabbath candlesticks, Shofar, Megilat Esther, prayer books, volumes of the Tanach, Talmud and other books, Mezuza and Hannukiya, Jewish Jewelry incorporating Jewish symbols and various products of Israel.