Jewish Heritage: Explore the Cultural Roots and Traditions

What Is Meant by Jewish?

The term Jewish is connected to a specific religion, Judaism. This religion is an Abrahamic and ethnic faith which comprises collective religious, cultural and legal traditions. The faithful of Judaism became known as the Jews and the cultural identity of their descendants became Jewish.

Origins of Judaism

Judaism has its roots in the Middle east during the Bronze Age. It is widely accepted that Judaism as we know it today originated from the ancient faith of Yahwism. This was a polytheistic faith from the Iron Age. Centered around the land of Canaan (later Israel) Yahwism’s main deity was Yahweh.

The early practices of Yahwism would include festivals, sacrifices, vow-making, private rituals, and the adjudication of the law. This faith would form the basis for the creation of the ancient text known as the Tanakh said to be an account of the Israelites' relationship to God. It traces from their earliest history until the building of the second temple around 535 BC.

The Tanakh became the Hebrew Bible which in turn also became the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. In this text Abraham is hailed as the first Hebrew and thus the father of all Jewish people. Abraham's act of faith in God as the only deity is said to have seen him rewarded by allowing his second son Isaac to inherit the land of Canaan (Israel).

This would lead into a vast history of the Israelites (Isaac's descendants) being enslaved by Egypt, freed by Moses and led back to the land of Israel. A period of slow decline would take place allowing the Philistines to threaten the Israelites. This as the story goes led to them requiring a king to unite them which came in the form of Saul the first monarch of the United Kingdom of Israel.

Saul would be followed by King David and then King Solomon and the capital of the Jewish world would be Jerusalem.

Characteristics and Principles of the Faith

In the ancient Near-East monotheism was more common which made Judaism slightly more unique. Its system of a single God that did not have other deities that it interacted with allowed them a more personal connection to their deity. The Hebrew God interacted with the people they created leading to a belief of a deity concerned with the actions of mankind.

With God’s perceived interest and gift of Israel to the people came an expectation to only worship this one deity. The faith then requires adherence to the laws and traditions laid out by the religious texts which are essentially stories of the communications made between God and the numerous mentioned prophets.

Jewish Diaspora

The ancestral home of the Jewish according to tradition was Israel but today the faith is most certainly global in nature. But where did its expansion begin? It was during the Assyrian conquest around the 7th century BC that Hebrews of Israel began to be pushed out. This would continue under the Babylonians who exiled the tribe of Judah to Babylonia.

Forced to flee or taken as captives the Jewish people began to spread around the Middle East. With the Romans' arrival and through both slavery and general migration people of the Jewish faith spread throughout the empire.

These were just the beginnings of Jewish migration outside of Israel and ultimately the faith and the peoples would spread around the world. As the faith spread it would become more varied as would the cultural identity of the Jewish people.

Jewish Denominations

Also known as streams, movements or branches the Jewish faith has seen numerous denominations over the centuries. As the religion has spread different sects have arisen with differences mainly based on their philosophical approaches and degree of adherence to the faith.

There are three main groups around the world: the Reformists, the Orthodox and the Conservative sects.

Conservative Judaism

Known as Conservative in the United States it is otherwise known as Masorti (traditional) Judaism. This group sees Jewish religious law as obligatory. They are considered a mid-point between the more severe orthodox Jewish and the more relaxed Reformists.

This denomination will bend but not break the rules as long as they benefit the observance of the faith. As an example they might drive to synagogue on Shabbat but will not drive anywhere else on that holy day.

The tradition in Conservative Judaism is to observe kosher rules and not promote intermarriage with other faiths. There has been a more relaxed attitude however in recent times with intermarriage becoming more accepted although conservative rabbis are still not allowed to perform intermarriage ceremonies.

Around 18% of American Jews identify with this denomination.

Orthodox Judaism

As the name suggests this is the more orthodox adherent form of the faith holding onto the older traditions. Adherence to the teachings and rules of Judaism which in modern times preclude such things as driving, working, turning electricity on/off or handling money on the Shabbat.

This denomination observes kosher laws very closely but is considered the smallest group within the United States with just 10% of Jews adhering to orthodox views. There are several other subdivisions of orthodox which include:

Haredi (Ultra) Orthodox which includes Hasidic and Yeshivish Jews. This is the group of strictest adherence.

Open Orthodox which is slightly less stringent about the rules allowing women a greater role in the faith.

Reform Judaism

With roughly 35% of the United States Jewish faith being practitioners the Reform denomination is the largest group in the US. The movement emphasizes Jewish ethical tradition rather than obligations to Jewish law.

This denomination came about in an effort to help the faith adapt to more modern sensibilities and sees itself as comparatively progressive politically speaking. It places more emphasis on personal choice with regards adherence to faith.

Genetic Jewish Regions

Those taking an ethnicity estimate DNA test might find they have connections to one of two main European Jewish groups. These are the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.

Ashkenazi Jews

The Ashkenazic Jews are heavily associated with Europe even being described as Germanic Jews. As early as the 3rd century BC Jews migrated from the Middle east settling in the Aegean islands around Greece. Doing so likely offered new opportunities for commerce and trade.

In later centuries the Romans likely took Jewish prisoners as slaves bringing them back to Italy and other parts of Europe. Eventually earning their freedom Jewish settlements were founded in these regions.

Over the centuries Jewish communities developed throughout Europe due to extensive migration. As they spread through Europe their skill in trade and commerce did not go unnoticed and often brought envy.

Derived from the ancient biblical figure Ashkenaz, a great grandson of Noah, in the Middle Ages German and French Jewish groups were referred to as Ashkenazi. It would eventually become a common term for all European Jews and a group unto itself.

Sephardic Jews

This particular group is a smaller and geographically more limited group. They originated in the same way as all the other European Jewish but they settled on the Iberian peninsula. It was during the late 15th century that Catholic rulers in Spain passed laws that resident Jews must either convert, leave or be executed.

Some stayed and converted while many left settling in North Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. They became known as Sephardic which was a Hebrew locational term for Spanish.

Jewish Holidays

As part of the Jewish faith there are holidays or festivals which relate to the faith. They include religious, cultural and national elements as derived from the various holy texts of Judaism. These holidays take place on the same day each year based on the Hebrew calendar which itself is dependent on the cycles of both the Sun and the Moon.

The most frequent holiday in the Jewish faith happens weekly and is known as Shabbat or Sabbath. It starts just before sundown on Friday and ends at nightfall on Saturday. Traditions for its start and end are adhered to as are rules to what is acceptable activity during that roughly 24 hr period.

Holidays observed may include:

  • Passover
  • Rosh Hashanah
  • Yom Kippur
  • Sukkot
  • Shavuot
  • Purim
  • Hanukkah
  • Yom Hashoah
  • Tisha B’Av
  • Tu BiShvat
  • Lag BaOmer
  • Simchat Torah
  • Yom Ha’atzmaut
  • Shemini Atzaret
  • Yom HaZikaron
  • Jerusalem Day
  • Tu B’Av
  • Fast of Gedalia
  • Shushan Purim
  • Tenth of Tevet
  • Pesach Sheni
  • International Holocaust Remembrance Day
  • Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

Death Traditions

In traditional Judaism the rituals surrounding death are simple but meaningful. These are:

  • The body of the deceased is to be washed thoroughly.
  • The deceased is to be buried in a simple pine coffin.
  • The deceased should be buried wearing a simple white shroud known as tachrichim.
  • The body is to be guarded or watched from the moment of death until after the burial.
  • Prior to the beginning of the funeral, the immediate relatives of the deceased tear their garments. This may also be done by the rabbi. Torn into black ribbons these are then handed to the relatives to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss.

Upon hearing about a death, a Jew should recite the words, “Baruch dayan emet,” Blessed be the one true Judge.

There are rules regarding short term and long term mourning practices which may apply to certain Jewish holidays such as no public mourning on Shabbat.

No Postmortems

According to Jewish laws the body should remain uncorrupted which precludes the practice of autopsy in the more orthodox adherences of the faith. There are exceptions however if the autopsy being performed can save the life of someone else.

What Is Kosher?

Food plays a large part in Jewish tradition and faith and there are some pretty clear rules laid out regarding it. Jewish food needs to be created and cooked in specific ways so as to remain kosher. This can be extremely complex and includes some seemingly unusual practices. These however are important to the observance of the faith.

There are specific animals that are precluded from the Jewish diet these are the hare, hyrax, camel and probably most well known the pig. The Torah says that only the land animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves may be eaten.

In terms of creatures with wings, birds of prey, fish eating water birds and bats are strictly off the menu. Chicken, geese, quail, dove and turkey are all acceptable.

Non-kosher seafoods include shellfish like clams, oysters, crabs and shrimp. In terms of fish they must have fins and have easily removed scales. A fish such as sturgeon which is hard to descale for example is not kosher.

Final Thoughts

The Jewish faith builds its traditions around the laws laid out in their religious texts. The adherence to this may vary depending on the denomination. There are millions of Jewish people around the world and they have various levels of practice in terms of their faith. They all however trace their heritage back to the beginning of Judaism and ultimately based on their texts Israel.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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