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Historic Judaism teaches that Jews are the ‘chosen people’ through whom God has spoken to the world and revealed how to live in accordance with his laws. They are a nation in the sense that a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother, and they therefore form a distinct ethnic group. But in addition to this ethnic identity, an observant Jew chooses to follow the laws given by God to Moses, and thus is a religious Jew.

Abraham, said to have lived around 1900 BCE, is regarded as the father of the Jewish people. The Jewish scriptures tell how God made a covenant, or agreement, with Abraham that his descendants would be God's chosen people. The people's part in this covenant was to keep God’s laws. The laws were given to the Jewish leader and prophet, Moses, as he led the people out of captivity in Egypt.

At Mount Sinai God called Moses to the top of the mountain and gave him the laws on tablets of stone. The best known of these laws are the Ten Commandments, but there are many more that Jews follow in daily life. Although there are Jews living all over the world, the history of Judaism is rooted in the land of Israel, the land promised to Abraham in the Bible. This was the land to which the Jewish God led the people on their journey of exodus from Egypt. The city of Jerusalem, capital city of David, Israel’s greatest king, is especially important to Jews. David’s son Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times, but was finally destroyed in 70 CE. The site of the Temple is an important place of pilgrimage, celebration and prayer for Jews, as is the single remaining wall of the last Temple.

Promised Land
At first the Israelites were ruled by prophets known as judges. Later they were led by kings, beginning with Saul, followed by David, to whom many of the psalms in the Bible have been attributed. David's son Solomon then ruled, but after his death the kingdom of Israel split into Judah and Israel. Both were eventually conquered by foreign powers.

In the centuries that followed, the Israelites endured exile to Babylon and although many returned they experienced further periods of invasion. In 63 BCE the Romans conquered the land and named it Palestine. The Jews rose in revolt against Roman rule in CE 66 but were defeated. The Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, was finally destroyed in CE 70.

Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the last remnant of ancient Israel was swept away. The people were carried off into exile in Babylon. The exile lasted until around 550 BCE, when the Jews were allowed back to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The exile is one of the most dramatic points of transition in Jewish thinking and is comparable to the experience of the Holocaust in the 20th century.

The Covenant
Abraham is the only person in the Bible to be described as God’s friend. Their relationship was one of debate, even argument. The Covenant marked the beginning of a special relationship that according to Jewish belief will continue until the coming of the Messiah. The relationship entailed privilege but also responsibility; the Bible describes how the people suffered the consequences for breaking the Covenant. At first the Jews believed, like other nations, that each people had its own god. But gradually the understanding developed that their god was God of all the world. To quote Jewish blessings: ‘Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah.’

Hebrew Writing
The language of the Torah is Hebrew, and in most Jewish traditions it is read in the original Hebrew. It is also the language of modern Israel. Many Jews outside Israel learn Hebrew in order to understand the readings and prayers during worship, although some follow them in a parallel text giving both Hebrew and their native language.

Study of the Hebrew Bible is one of the most important religious duties for Jews. It is a collection of texts, written at different periods of Jewish history, which fall into three different types of books: the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.

The Torah
The most important section consists of the first five books of the Bible, regarded as having been revealed by God directly to Moses. These five books are known collectively as the Torah, or by the Greek term, the Pentateuch. They contain stories of Creation, the Patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt and details of the Jewish law. The word ‘Torah’ is also sometimes used to mean the whole Hebrew Bible.

The Prophets
A prophet is a person who speaks or acts on behalf of God. The early books of the Prophets record the history of Israel and Judah, forever bound up with the words and deeds of such great prophets as Deborah, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. Later books are often a detailed record of particular prophecies. For example, Isaiah speaks of a new form of covenant to replace the broken Covenant.

Much of the Hebrew Bible is poetry. The best known poems are the psalms, many of which are credited to King David. They are songs that express every shade of emotion: love, anger, despair, triumph, repentance. The Song of Songs, sometimes known as the Song of Solomon, is a love poem, while the Book of Job explores the question of suffering. The Book of Esther tells how the Jewish wife of a foreign king took great risks to protect the Jews whose lives were threatened while they were in exile in Babylon.

Jewish scriptures promise that God will send a Messiah. He will be chosen by God and herald a new age. At a time determined by God, the Messiah will be born and will be the wisest of all the prophets whose line began with Moses. As God’s representative on earth, the Messiah will bring a time of peace, justice and unity that will create the Kingdom of God on earth, and war and violence will cease.

Basic Beliefs and Traditions

At the heart of Jewish belief is the Shema, the first commandment: Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart; and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The Law
The Law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Its main principles are the Ten Commandments, but more detailed laws are given elsewhere in the five books of Moses, and these laws are worked out in further detail for changing circumstances in the Talmud. Jews of different traditions differ as to how literally the Law is to be interpreted, but they agree that a Jew’s first duty is to live according to God’s law.

For Jews, the Law is God’s merciful provision of guidelines, without which it would not be possible to remain in the covenant relationship with him. Study of the Law is an important part of Jewish life.

The Sabbath
The fifth commandment lays down that no work must be done on the seventh day of the week, the sabbath, or shabbat. The sabbath begins at dusk on Friday and ends at dusk on Saturday. Jewish families welcome the sabbath with the best food, clothes, singing and celebration. Saturday may be spent visiting friends and family, relaxing or reading the Torah. The synagogue holds services on Friday night and Saturday morning.

A ceremony called havdalah (separation) marks the end of the sabbath on Saturday evening. The family gathers round, a candle is lit, and a box of sweet smelling spices is passed round.

The Ten Commandments

- You shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself graven images; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.
- Honour your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- Neither shall you commit adultery.
- Neither shall you steal.
- Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
- Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife or anything that is your neighbor's.

(Extracts from Deuteronomy 5:6-22).

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