What Every Jew Should Know: A Comprehensive Introduction to Jewish Observance
To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life
Judaism is one of the oldest and most influential religions in the world. It is also a rich and diverse culture that has shaped the lives of millions of people throughout history and today. But what does it mean to be a Jew in the contemporary world? How can one embrace the timeless heritage of Judaism and apply its laws and customs to daily life?
To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life
What does it mean to be a Jew?
To be a Jew means to belong to a people that traces its origins to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible. It also means to follow the Torah, the sacred teachings that God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Torah contains 613 commandments (mitzvot) that cover all aspects of human behavior, from ethical and moral principles to ritual and ceremonial practices. To be a Jew means to accept these commandments as binding obligations and strive to fulfill them with love and devotion.
How to become a Jew?
There are two ways to become a Jew: by birth or by conversion. A person is born Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish, regardless of the father's status or the child's upbringing. A person can also become Jewish by undergoing a process of conversion that involves studying Judaism, accepting its beliefs and practices, undergoing circumcision (for males) or immersion in a ritual bath (for both genders), and appearing before a rabbinical court (beit din) that confirms the sincerity and readiness of the convert.
Jewish practices and customs
Judaism is not only a religion but also a way of life. It encompasses a wide range of practices and customs that express the values and ideals of Judaism in everyday life. Some of these practices and customs are obligatory, while others are optional or customary. Some are universal, while others vary according to different streams (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.) or communities (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc.) within Judaism. Here are some of the most common and important Jewish practices and customs:
Shabbat: The day of rest
Shabbat (Sabbath) is the most sacred day in Judaism. It is observed from sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. It commemorates God's creation of the world in six days and His rest on the seventh day. It also celebrates God's liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
How to observe Shabbat?
To observe Shabbat, Jews refrain from doing any work or creative activity that involves manipulating or altering the natural world. This includes cooking, writing, driving, using electricity, and many other activities. Instead, Jews devote the day to rest, prayer, study, family, and joy. Some of the main rituals of Shabbat are:
Lighting candles before sunset on Friday to welcome Shabbat.
Reciting blessings over wine (kiddush) and bread (hamotzi) at the beginning of the evening and morning meals.
Eating three festive meals, usually with family and friends.
Attending synagogue services on Friday night and Saturday morning, where the weekly portion of the Torah is read aloud.
Singing songs (zemirot) and reciting poems (piyyutim) that praise God and Shabbat.
Reading or studying Jewish texts, such as the Torah, the Talmud, or the Midrash.
Spending quality time with loved ones, playing games, taking walks, or enjoying nature.
Havdalah: A ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. It involves lighting a braided candle, smelling spices, and blessing wine.
Why is Shabbat important?
Shabbat is important for many reasons. It is a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is a reminder of God's creation and redemption. It is a source of spiritual and physical renewal. It is a time to connect with God, oneself, and others. It is a taste of the world to come, when peace and harmony will prevail.
Kashrut: The dietary laws
Kashrut (kosher) is the set of dietary laws that govern what Jews can and cannot eat. These laws are derived from the Torah and interpreted by the rabbis over the centuries. They are based on the principle of holiness and separation, which means that Jews should avoid eating anything that is impure, unclean, or harmful.
What are the basic rules of kashrut?
The basic rules of kashrut are:
Only certain animals are permitted for consumption. These include mammals that have split hooves and chew their cud (such as cows, sheep, and goats), birds that are not birds of prey or scavengers (such as chicken, turkey, and duck), and fish that have fins and scales (such as salmon, tuna, and herring). Animals that do not meet these criteria are forbidden (such as pigs, rabbits, camels, eagles, owls, sharks, and shellfish).
Permitted animals must be slaughtered in a humane and ritual manner (shechita) by a qualified person (shochet). The blood must be drained from the animal or removed by salting or broiling. Certain parts of the animal, such as the sciatic nerve and the fat around the vital organs, are prohibited.
Meat and dairy products must not be mixed or eaten together. This means that Jews must have separate dishes, utensils, pots, pans, and sinks for meat and dairy foods. They must also wait a certain amount of time between eating meat and dairy products (usually between one and six hours).
Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, and honey are generally permitted, unless they are contaminated by insects or other forbidden substances. They must be checked and washed before consumption.
Wine and grape juice must be produced by Jews or under Jewish supervision to ensure that they are not used for idolatrous purposes.
Food products must have reliable certification (hechsher) from a recognized rabbinical authority that verifies their compliance with kashrut standards.
How to keep kosher?
To keep kosher, Jews must follow these steps:
Learn the rules of kashrut from reliable sources or consult a rabbi if in doubt.
Buy only kosher food products from reputable stores or online vendors.
Check the labels and ingredients of food products for kosher symbols or indications.
Keep separate sets of dishes, utensils, pots, pans, and sinks for meat and dairy foods. Mark them clearly or use different colors or patterns to avoid confusion.
Clean and kasher (make kosher) any new or non-kosher items before using them for kosher food preparation or consumption.
with the melodies (niggunim) or tunes (nusach) that accompany some of the prayers.
Stand up or sit down according to the instructions of the leader or the congregation. Some prayers require standing, such as the Shema and the Amidah, while others require sitting, such as the Psalms and the Aleinu.
Respect the sanctity and decorum of the synagogue. Avoid talking, texting, eating, or doing anything that may distract or disturb others during the service.
Participate in the communal aspects of the service, such as greeting others with "Shalom" (peace), shaking hands or hugging, passing around the Torah scroll, or joining in the kiddush (blessing over wine) or oneg (refreshments) after the service.
Enjoy the experience and feel free to ask questions or seek guidance from the rabbi, the leader, or other members of the synagogue if you are unsure or curious about anything.
Holidays: The celebration of Jewish history and values
Holidays (chagim) are special days in the Jewish calendar that commemorate significant events in Jewish history or express important values and ideals of Judaism. They are occasions for joy, gratitude, reflection, and renewal. They are also opportunities for learning, performing mitzvot, and strengthening Jewish identity and community.
What are the major and minor Jewish holidays?
The major Jewish holidays are:
Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year that marks the beginning of a 10-day period of repentance and renewal. It is celebrated by blowing a ram's horn (shofar), eating sweet foods (such as apples and honey), and praying for a good and sweet year.
Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement that concludes the 10-day period of repentance and renewal. It is observed by fasting, praying, confessing sins, and seeking forgiveness from God and others.
Sukkot: The Feast of Tabernacles that celebrates God's protection and provision for the Israelites during their 40-year journey in the desert. It is celebrated by building and dwelling in temporary huts (sukkah), waving four species of plants (lulav and etrog), and rejoicing with God.
Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah: The Eighth Day of Assembly and the Rejoicing of the Torah that mark the end of Sukkot and the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. They are celebrated by dancing with the Torah scrolls and starting a new cycle of reading.
the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days in the rededicated Temple. It is celebrated by lighting a nine-branched candelabrum (menorah), playing with a spinning top (dreidel), eating fried foods (such as latkes and sufganiyot), and giving gifts.
Purim: The Feast of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the evil plot of Haman in the Persian Empire. It is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther (megillah), dressing up in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity (matanot laevyonim), and having a festive meal (seudah).
Pesach: The Passover that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It is celebrated by removing all leavened products (chametz) from the home, eating unleavened bread (matzah), holding a ritual meal (seder) with special foods and symbols, and retelling the story of the exodus.
Shavuot: The Feast of Weeks that marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is celebrated by staying up all night to study Torah, eating dairy foods (such as cheesecake and blintzes), and reading the Book of Ruth.
Tisha B'Av: The Ninth of Av that mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history. It is observed by fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations (eichah), and refraining from joyous activities.
The minor Jewish holidays are:
Tu Bishvat: The New Year of the Trees that celebrates the renewal of nature and the connection to the land of Israel. It is celebrated by planting trees, eating fruits, and holding a special meal (seder) with four cups of wine and various fruits and nuts.
Purim Katan: The Minor Purim that occurs in leap years when there are two months of Adar. It is a day of joy and celebration, but without the usual customs of Purim.
Pesach Sheni: The Second Passover that occurs one month after Pesach. It is a chance for those who missed or were unable to observe Pesach to offer the Paschal lamb and eat matzah.
Lag B'Omer: The 33rd day of the Omer that marks the end of a plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. It is a day of joy and celebration, especially for children. It is celebrated by lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, cutting hair, and visiting the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Tu B'Av: The 15th of Av that marks a day of love and romance in ancient Israel. It is a day of joy and celebration, especially for couples. It is celebrated by wearing white clothes, exchanging gifts, and expressing affection.
How to celebrate each holiday?
To celebrate each holiday, Jews must follow these steps:
Learn the history, meaning, and customs of each holiday from reliable sources or consult a rabbi if in doubt.
and etrog, costumes, etc.
Follow the specific rules and rituals of each holiday, such as lighting candles, reciting blessings, reading special texts, performing symbolic acts, etc.
Enjoy the festive aspects of each holiday, such as eating special foods, singing songs, playing games, giving gifts, etc.
Share the holiday spirit with family, friends, and community members. Invite guests to your home or join others in their celebrations.
Reflect on the lessons and values of each holiday and how they relate to your life and the world around you.
Lifecycle milestones: The marking of Jewish identity and continuity
Lifecycle milestones (simchot) are significant events or stages in a person's life that mark his or her Jewish identity and continuity. They are occasions for joy, gratitude, recognition, and commitment. They are also opportunities for performing mitzvot, honoring tradition, and strengthening family and community bonds.
What are the main Jewish rituals for birth, naming, circumcision, adoption, conversion, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, divorce, death and mourning?
The main Jewish rituals for lifecycle milestones are:
Birth: The arrival of a new life into the world and the Jewish people. It is celebrated by announcing the birth to family and friends, reciting blessings and prayers for the health and well-being of the mother and child, and giving charity in their honor.
Naming: The bestowing of a Hebrew name upon a child that reflects his or her personality and heritage. It is done by the father (for a boy) or both parents (for a girl) in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of ten adult males) during a synagogue service. The name is usually chosen after a deceased relative or a biblical figure.
Circumcision: The removal of the foreskin from the penis of a male child on the eighth day after birth (unless medically delayed). It is a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. It is performed by a trained person (mohel) in the presence of family and friends. It is followed by a festive meal (seudat brit).
Adoption: The legal and religious process of taking a child who is not biologically related as one's own. It is done by fulfilling the civil requirements of adoption and giving the child a Hebrew name and a Jewish education. If the child is not born Jewish, he or she must also undergo conversion.
Conversion: The voluntary and sincere acceptance of Judaism by a person who is not born Jewish. It is done by studying Judaism, accepting its beliefs and practices, undergoing circumcision (for males) or immersion in a ritual bath (for both genders), and appearing before a rabbinical court (beit din) that confirms the sincerity and readiness of the convert.
the meaning and relevance of the Torah portion. It also involves taking on the responsibilities and privileges of a Jewish adult, such as observing the commandments, participating in the minyan, and contributing to the community.
Marriage: The union of two individuals who commit to love and support each other in accordance with Jewish law and values. It is done by signing a marriage contract (ketubah) that outlines the rights and obligations of the couple, exchanging rings under a canopy (chuppah) that symbolizes their new home, reciting seven blessings (sheva berachot) that praise God and celebrate the joy of marriage, and breaking a glass to remember the destruction of the Temple and the fragility of life. It is followed by a festive meal (seudat nisuin) and a week of celebrations (sheva berachot).
Divorce: The dissolution of a marriage that is no longer viable or harmonious. It is done by delivering a bill of divorce (get) from the husband to the wife in the presence of two witnesses and a rabbinical court (beit din) that oversees the process. It also involves dividing the assets, arranging child custody and support, and seeking counseling and healing.
Death: The departure of a soul from the body and the world. It is marked by reciting the Shema and confessing one's sins before dying, closing the eyes and mouth of the deceased, covering the body with a sheet, lighting a candle near the head, reciting psalms and prayers for the soul's ascent, washing and dressing the body in white shrouds (tachrichim) and a prayer shawl (tallit), placing the body in a simple wooden coffin, escorting the coffin to the cemetery, burying the coffin in the ground, reciting the mourner's prayer (kaddish), and comforting the mourners.
Mourning: The process of grieving and honoring the memory of a loved one who has passed away. It involves observing different stages of mourning, such as aninut (the period between death and burial), shiva (the first seven days after burial), shloshim (the first 30 days after burial), and yahrzeit (the anniversary of death). It also involves following certain customs, such as tearing one's garment (keriah), sitting on low stools or chairs, covering mirrors, refraining from work or entertainment, receiving visitors (shiva callers), lighting a memorial candle, visiting the grave, donating to charity, and studying Torah in honor of the deceased.
How to perform each ritual?
To perform each ritual, Jews must follow these steps:
Learn the rules and customs of each ritual from reliable sources or consult a rabbi if in doubt.
the necessary items, such as candles, wine, bread, matzah, lulav and etrog, rings, ketubah, shrouds, coffin, etc.
Follow the specific steps and procedures of each ritual, such as reciting blessings and prayers, performing symbolic acts, exchanging vows and rings, breaking a glass, burying a coffin, tearing a garment, etc.
Enjoy the celebratory aspects of each ritual, such as eating special foods, singing songs, dancing, giving gifts, etc.
Share the ritual experience with family, friends, and community members. Invite guests to your home or join others in their celebrations or condolences.
Reflect on the meaning and significance of each ritual and how they relate to your life and the world around you.
Summary of the main points
In this article, we have explored what it means to be a Jew in the contemporary world and how to observe Jewish practices and customs in daily life. We have learned that:
To be a Jew means to belong to a people that traces its origins to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to follow the Torah that God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.
To become a Jew means to be born Jewish or to convert to Judaism by studying Judaism, accepting its beliefs and practices, and undergoing circumcision or immersion and appearing before a rabbinical court.
Jewish practices and customs include Shabbat (the day of rest), Kashrut (the dietary laws), Prayer (the connection with God), Holidays (the celebration of Jewish history and values), and Lifecycle milestones (the marking of Jewish identity and continuity).
To observe Jewish practices and customs means to follow the rules and rituals of each practice or custom, to enjoy the festive aspects of each practice or custom, and to share the practice or custom with family, friends, and community.
Call to action for further learning
seminars, etc., by visiting synagogues, museums, cultural centers, etc., and by talking to rabbis, teachers, mentors, friends, etc. who can guide you and answer your questions. Judaism is a living and evolving tradition that welcomes and invites you to join its journey of discovery and fulfillment.
Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Jewish observance in contemporary life:
Q: Do I have to observe all the Jewish practices