Judaism For Dummies
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Judaism, a religion that focuses far more on deeds than on beliefs, is a practice, too. Because Judaism is a set of practices, it's called a Way of Life. These practices, particularly when they are vehicles through which an individual connects more consciously to God, are called mitzvot (mitz VOTE; plural of mitzvah).

The word mitzvah means "commandment," or "religious act." Mitzvot consist of ritual as well as ethical acts, and they follow from the codifications of principles from the Torah. Some practices fall under the category of minhag (custom), like wearing the head covering (kippah or yarmulka).

Undoubtedly the most famous mitzvot are those called "The Ten Commandments" or the "Decalogue." The Bible never refers to them specifically as "commandments," perhaps because they were seen as so basic and fundamental to the community. (The ten principles, when numbered according to Jewish tradition, differ slightly from the Christian numbering.)

For traditionalists, the answer to the question "Why perform mitzvot?" is easy. They say the commandments of the Torah represent the Will of God. However, even traditionalists make exceptions in life-threatening situations, when one is required to let go of the mitzvot and save life. The exceptions to that exception are the mitzvot prohibiting idolatry, murder, and adultery (or incest.)

Going to shul/synagogue/Temple

You may have heard people talk about "going to Temple" to pray or worship. However, most Jews don't call the house of worship "Temple," preferring instead to reserve that word for The Temple in Jerusalem (the one that was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt and then destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.). Some Reform congregations still use "Temple," but it's becoming rare. Today, English-speaking Jews tend to call the Jewish place of worship a "synagogue." Many people also use the Yiddish word shul (from the German word for "school").

Every synagogue is different in physical style, attitude, and even practice. You can find similarities, however, such as where the Torah is kept and what sorts of clergy you'll find there. In every synagogue you usually find the following three items:

  • The Aron Kodesh is the ark that holds the Torah scrolls. In Western countries, it's always on the east wall (so, facing it, you're facing Jerusalem).
  • The Ner Tamid is the "eternal light," which often burns above the ark. This symbolizes the menorah from the ancient Temple.
  • The bimah (a raised platform), where the Torah is read and the service is led.

Synagogues, for the most part, reflect the sanctuary style of the dominant culture. For example, many synagogues in the Middle East look almost like mosques, and those in England tend to look more like churches. However, you rarely see statues of animals or people in a synagogue because of the commandment "Thou shalt not make graven images!" (One notable exception is the often-seen "Lion of Judah," the insignia of the ancient Kingdom of Judea.)

Who's who at shul

Many people behind the scenes help make worship services run, but the focus is usually on two people: the rabbi and the cantor.

The rabbi

While a rabbi is not necessary to conduct religious services, most congregations do employ one. The rabbi is also an educator, a counselor, and the officiator at life-cycle events like baby-namings, Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. It generally takes over five years of post-graduate work to become a rabbi.

The cantor

In a traditional synagogue, the cantor (chazan in Hebrew) actually leads worship services. In most other synagogues, the cantor performs solo musical prayer selections and leads community singing. Cantors bring great musical and liturgical depth to the community. There are specific training programs for cantors, usually associated with the various rabbinical schools.

A brief guide to what's kosher

The word kosher is so well-known that it's become part of the common English language, meaning something that's allowed, legal, or proper. However, in Judaism, kosher almost exclusively relates to food: what Jews are and are not allowed to eat.

The Jewish dietary laws are called kashrut, and they're so complex that whole volumes have been written on them. Following is a sampling of these rules:

  • Animals with cloven hooves that chew their cud are kosher, including cattle, sheep, goats, and deer. Other mammals, like pigs, camels, and hares, aren't kosher. Not only are they not to be eaten, but no products that derive from them are kosher.
  • Certain procedures must be followed to ensure a humane slaughter. For example, the animal's throat must be cut by a trained ritual slaughterer, using a single slice of an extremely sharp knife that has no nicks.
  • Certain parts of animals aren't kosher, like the sciatic nerve in the hindquarters. Unfortunately, not only are these parts difficult to remove, they also include some of the choicest cuts, which is why it's rare to find kosher filet mignon, rump and sirloin steaks, leg of lamb, or London broil.
  • Seafood is kosher as long as it has fins and scales. Shellfish like lobsters, oysters, shrimp, octopus, clams, and crabs are forbidden. Some fish, like swordfish and sturgeon, have scales that are questionable, so they're usually considered not kosher.
  • Domesticated fowl — chicken, turkey, quail, Cornish hens, doves, geese, duck, and pheasant — are kosher, but birds of prey (like eagles and hawks) are not.
  • All reptiles, insects, and amphibians are not kosher. Note that some food additives and colorings are made from insects, so those items are prohibited, too.

Kashrut laws extend to any item that Jews eat, or that touches the food that Jews eat, so you may even hear of kosher aluminum foil or plastic bags, which ensure that the manufacturer used only kosher organic oils in the process of pressing the foil or making the bags. Similarly, most hard cheeses contain rennet, which is often obtained from the stomach linings of non-kosher animals, making the whole cheese non-kosher.

The reasons behind kosher

Everyone loves to conjecture why or how these laws came about. Some say they're for health reasons — because under-cooked pork can carry disease, for example — but this explanation is unlikely. Here are a few possibilities to chew on. First, maintaining specific dietary regulations strengthens and defines the integrity of a group. A community that shares requirements for eating tends to stay together. Similarly, eating practices can help identify the line between one tribe and another. For example, some scholars believe the prohibition against eating pork resulted from the desire to be different from the neighboring tribes.

Kashrut also forces Jews to be forever thoughtful of what they put into their bodies. Many meditative traditions encourage mindful eating, but Judaism turns it into a law. In this way, Jews show that humans can make choices from free will rather than catering to every desire. Kashrut is a discipline, a practice, that many Jews believe elevates eating to a religious ritual.

Jewish tradition recognizes that all life is holy, and no animal should be killed carelessly or painfully.

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