Judaism, the religion of the Jews (or Yahudis), is believed to found its roots in the land of the Kingdom of Judah. Aging over 4,000 years, it is believed to be the oldest monotheistic religion of the world, tracing back to the Babylonian Era (538 BCE) and ancient Roman and Greek empires.
The Jewish culture we know and see today was formed in ancient Israel and evolved through the different ages and reigns. The teaching of the Bible holds the center stage of cultural briefs and ideology of Jewish Culture – relating the life experiences and social cultures to an all-powerful God and his teachings.
What is Jewish culture?
Jewish Culture is the way of life, beliefs, values, and ideology of the Jews. The culture that originated and grew in Israel and its neighboring regions. The relation of the Jews to the culture isn’t just related to religious beliefs; but also their linkage to the land of Israel, the teachings of Jewish text, and their history.
The culture that is made up of its literature, art, beliefs, and practices as well as their social customs. Thus, Jewish culture and traditions involve an element of religion alongside that of practice and life.
Furthermore, the Diaspora history of the Jews, especially those followed by the Roman Empire, has significantly contributed to shaping the culture as it is today.
Being scattered across various geographical regions and exposure to varied cultural and social dynamics, Jewish culture evolved into multiple versions of itself, unique to each community and geography.
The Jewish culture in regions like the Middle East and other parts of Asia share the characteristic Jewish attributes but differ slightly from Jewish communities of Israel, Europe, and America.
Jewish culture has had quite an extensive life and lived eras. Furthermore, the culture has experienced some major historical events and cultural changes, leaving behind stories to tell and facts to quote
Facts about Jewish culture
The Jewish culture reflects the ideas of Judaism and how the Jews mold their lives around such beliefs and practices. Having a lifetime of extravagant incidents and eventful history, the branches of Jewish culture has spread across, creating a biome of its own. Here are some essential aspects and Jewish cultural facts.
Five Torah Pentateuchs
The foundation for Jewish culture is rooted in a set of 5 books of Moses – Torah. The Torah introduces and talks about the core values and ideology of Judaism, which, in turn, transforms into the beliefs and practices of Jews.
According to the Hebrew relics, the Torah (written Torah) was passed on to humanity by God through his Prophets along with the oral teachings – Mishna (as oral Torah). The written instructions, along with the oral teachings, enlighten the path of life and peace.
613 commandments of God
The Torah defines the way to live – leading the path to the divine. According to the books, there are 613 commandments of God, known as ‘mitzvahs,’ laying the deeds and direction for the Jews.
At the age of 12 and 13, Jewish children (girls and boys, respectively) commit themselves to the practices of mitzvahs and step into Jewish adulthood. Itis is accompanied by ceremonies, Bar Mitzva for boys, where the boys read a section from the Torah and Bat Mitzva for girls, where they are celebrating their adulthood.
One Jewish people
All the different sects – Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews are all the same Jewish people. According to the preaches of Judaism, God revealed himself to Abraham and introduced the principles of monotheism. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was renamed as Israel, descending into a family of Israel. Later, the people of the tribe of Judah recognized themselves as Yehudim – hence the Jews are often referred to as Yehudi.
Slavery in Egypt
According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people formed into people during the slavery period in Egypt. According to the texts in Exodus, the early Jewish people served as slaves to the Egyptians. Soon after, God (through Moses) freed the Jews of their distressful condition. As per Jewish values, this experience propagated the sentiment of charity and empathy to the less fortunate and laid the Torah’s community ethic of ‘tzedakah’.
Simultaneous religious and national identity
Jewish identity is a national identity but can also exist regardless of geographical location. Rather, being it is related to one perceiving oneself as a Jew and relating to Jewish beliefs. According to Jewish laws, any child born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew, irrespective of their beliefs or following Jewish customs. But also, people from other social sects and religions can convert into Judaism.
The Jewish community accepts the converts through a lengthy conversion process and ceremony performed under the observation of a Rabbi. It includes instructions of the commandments of the Torah, an immersion into water, and acceptance of the commandments before a rabbinical court.
Jewish symbols and rituals
Jewish worship uses many sacred objects, some of which are daily use, such as items that need to be worn. Some are used once a year on one of the holidays, like a Seder plate, and some are used once in a lifetime, such as Ketuba, the written marriage agreement between the husband and his wife. Traditional Jewish art has evolved around sacred objects such as scripture, wine goblet, menorah, Seder Haggadah, and other items. The art of the Jewish holy objects is called Judaica.
The Mediterranean cuisine
The Mediterranean cuisine from the Middle East has always been known to offer some of the healthiest and yet delicious food items. Israel is no exception. Residing in the Mediterranean crescent, the Israeli diet is considered among the most nutritious diets from around the world.
Jewish Cuisine and food customs
The Jewish Torah defines the laws of kashrut – the Jewish dietary laws. These laws are structured around what is seen as ‘fit to eat,’ thus establishing kosher (‘Kasher’ in Hebrew, which translates to ‘fit’). For those who follow a kosher diet are required to adhere to the rules of the kashrut.
Although not many Jews follow these rules strictly – how should it be produced or slaughtered (in case of animals) or how it is prepared; they follow the directions to respect their culture while keeping up with the external changes.
Jewish food presents various similarities to different cuisines because of their constant migrations and their tradition of adapting other cultures and cuisines into Jewish form. Jewish cuisine, as we know it today, is shaped over decades, driven by kashrut, the diasporic history, and the influence of an adaptation to different regions and traditions on the Jews.
Ever since the early days, bread has been an integral part of a Jewish diet. It was complemented with agricultural products like grains, vegetables, and milk. Fruits, nuts, and meat were consumed occasionally or on special occasions.
Over time, new products like rice, barley, millet, fish, and a wider variety of fruits were added to the table. During the Greeks and Roman eras, furnished meat like chickens, pheasants, etc. also got their place. However, all through these shifts, the Jews upheld their traditions and culture. They transformed each of these ingredients and their dishes to adhere to the laws of kashrut.
Over recent years, Jewish cuisine has undergone hybridization, while bringing in elements from different Middle Eastern cultures and dishes. At present, the Jewish Israeli cuisine showcases a fantastic blend of different flavors and overlapping techniques from different cultures, creating a fusion cuisine while being authentically Jewish. These are some of the traditional Jewish culture dishes:
1. Gefilte Fish
The Oral Torah defines the food traditions for Shabbat, and the gefilte fish (stuffed fish) fulfills all the rules necessary. This traditional dish is highly popular during the Jewish festival of Passover or Rosh Hashana.
It is made by pressing minced fish into a deboned and intact fish. It is finally being cooked in fish stock. The deboned fish is an essential element of this dish as it is religiously prohibited to pick bones on the table during Shabbat. Check out for the Gefilte fish recipe here.
This baked snack is highly popular among the community. The traditional version of knish includes dough stuffed with mashed potato, kasha, and cheese followed by baking or fried. Some variants of knish are also loaded with black beans, spinach, or sweet potatoes. Again, these are available in different shapes and sizes. Check out for Knish recipe here.
3. Pastrami Sandwich
A unique Jewish American creation, Pastrami Sandwich is loved by the Jews across all geographies. For this dish, the pastrami is slow-cooked with broth and corned beef for low heat. Sandwich bread slices are prepared with mustard, coleslaw, and cheese while sandwiching the cooked pastrami mix between them. Check here how to make your own Pastrami.
This Israeli pancake is a lovely delicacy. Most of the favorites, like chocolate, meat, rice, mashed potatoes, and cheese, are rolled into a pancake blanket. Though the Blintz is not associated with any religious event, these cheese-filled rolls are in high demand during Hanukkah. Check out this recipe for tasty Blintz.
Challah is a beautiful braided and special Jewish bread that is often served during Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. The name is derived from the mitzvah, which refers to separating a portion of bread after braiding. This portion of dough is kept for the Kohen (priest).
The preparation of the bread starts with a dough of eggs, flour, water, sugar, yeast, and salt, and sometimes complemented with raisins and nuts. These are then rolled into ropes and braided. Finally, to be baked. Try this Challah recipe at home.
The melodies of Jewish music
The Jewish music has flourish and branches out of the lands of Israel for centuries. It is spreading across the Middle East – to Iran, the Mediterranean, parts of Africa and Europe, and even further to the Americas.
The community has nurtured music in its early days, creating some fantastic musical pieces and admirable works. However, due to some uneventful incidents of their history, instrumental music was excluded. Only what stayed was vocal tradition, including a melodic recitation of the Torah for religious services.
There are various citations in the Talmud about the use of musical instruments like trumpets, harps, timbrels, etc., at momentous occasion’s festivities. However, after the hardships suffered under the Babylonians and the fall of Jerusalem under the Roman Rule, instrumental music would only remind the community of the suffering and sorrow.
During these times, the traditional synagogues were purely vocal. Different forms of music were born for religious service and ceremonies – piyyutim (poems), Pizmonim (traditional melodies to praise the god), zemirot, baqashot, and nigun. The instruments played in harmony with the Jewish vocals later, when the Jews reunited in Zion and started to rebuild themselves as a community.
The influence of other musical cultures and forms
For years, Jewish music resisted the music of other cultures and regions, trying to preserve their culture and identity. However, with the winds of time eroding the essence of Jewish music, the Jewish people have started to mingle with the tunes of other cultures.
There are three different streams of Jewish music, each connecting Jewish music to other cultures.
- Ashkenazi is the western stream that originated in the west, from Europe and the Americas.
- Sephardi forms a connection with the Mediterranean roots – Spain, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey
- Mizrahi is the music of the Jews and the one from the east – Arabic cultures.
Jewish traditions and customs
The Halakah, a part of the Jewish Torah, lays a framework of rules and traditions, defining the way of life for the Jews. The Halakah influences not only the religious practices but also the Jewish experience in general. Halacha encompasses all aspects of life and guides the Jew on how to behave, what to eat, what holidays to celebrate, and how, prayers, and more.
From a general perspective, Sabbath is looked like a day of the week when Jews cannot work. However, according to Jewish tradition, it is a day of joy, peace, and rest. As per the Jewish literature, the 7th day of the week is made holy by God and is set aside as ‘a day for rest. In Exodus, it states that God completed the ‘Creation’ in 6 days, and resting on the 7th.
Exodus strictly prohibits work on Sabbath, while Leviticus mentioned that one should not work on a festive day to contribute towards the festival. Daily activities like cooking, washing, repairing, writing, etc. are also prohibited on Shabbat. Although the rules of Sabbath are quite definitive, Orthodox Jews adhere to them diligently, while the Conservative Jews follow them to a certain degree.
2. 613 Commandments
The Jewish Torah lists 613 Commandments that every Jew must follow and is believed to lead the path to the divine. Out of the 613, 248 rules are favorable and encourages the Jews to perform certain activities. These include following certain religious practices, ways to celebrate festivals, and serving humanity.
The remaining 365 commandments are negative and strictly prohibits the Jews from performing those activities or sins. These include not having a negative emotion or ill thoughts towards others, having illicit relationships within certain relations, defines some social responsibilities, and construct and guidelines for certain religious activities.
3. Jewish Naming rituals
After the birth of a child, the 1st Shabbat marks an important day. On this day, the infant’s father recites the aliyah (part of Shabbat morning prayer) and seeks god’s blessings for the mother and the child. For a girl child, the naming ceremony is held on the same day, while for a boy child, it is performed after eight days of the birth, after the child has been circumcised. There are no limitations or rules for names, and bear no religious significance. Therefore, the name can be from any language or culture.
4. Jewish culture death
Unlike other cultures, death is considered an essential and sacred event in Jewish culture. In Judaism, life holds a too high standard. When there is a death in a Jewish family, there are extensive rituals associated with the mourning of the person.
According to Jewish tradition, the burial of the dead must not be delayed, and the dead should be buried that day. The treatment of the deceased is called the purity of the dead. It includes cleansing the dead person, an internal and external cleansing of the body, as if the dead person still feels, sees, and hears.
Men care for deceased men, and women tend for deceased women. Each organ of the dead body is washed and cleaned separately. This activity holds excellent value in Jewish culture.
Cremation is not practiced in the Jewish culture. During burials, open caskets are strictly prohibited. Instead, the body is wrapped in a linen shroud; all are equal, rich or poor, and placed on the ground itself, not inside a closet. There are burial ceremonies in Kibbutzim and Villages that carry burial inside a Coffin, but this is a small minority. Most of your burial processes in Israel are performed according to Jewish tradition.
The Literature of the Jewish Culture
Literature is an essential component of any culture. It presents a means to understand the ideas of the culture, the knowledge, their history, and unveil the lost past. The Jewish culture has such a long and eventful past; the literature is quite sizable too.
When we speak of the literature of a culture, how do we relate which literature belongs to which culture? It is based on the language of the text or is decided by the culture of the author? Or does the content plays that role?
By either of these definitions and probably even various other aspects, the Jewish literature is vast, contributing some of the greatest literary works and producing fabulous authors. The literary works of the Jewish culture spread across various themes – religious holy books, social, ethical, philosophical, history, and fiction are some of the prominent ones. The Jewish literature includes Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Jewish American literature under its umbrella.
The Yiddish literature originated in the 19th century in parts of Eastern Europe. The modern Yiddish literature has contributed considerably and some of the great Yiddish authors of those times. Writers like Abraham Sutzkevar, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and others were popular publish in the late 19th and early 20th century. Isaac Singer was also awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.
During the early 19th century, Hebrew wasn’t spoken or accepted by the masses. And, so Hebrew Literature experienced some hiccups in its early days. However, soon by the mid and latter half of the 19th century, the literary movement was catching pace, and Hebrew was gaining popularity on the secular and religious fronts.
With more and more writers and poets using Hebrew in their works – fiction, romance, religious texts, poems, and many other forms. Hebrew literature soon transformed from being merely a nationalistic ideology to being a popular and experimented literature.
Jewish holy books
Jewish history is quite extensive and old and has evolved over numerous historical events and turning points. There are multiple sacred and historical texts and oral teachings that have been passed on for ages and between generations.
The Hebrew Bible forms the center of various Jewish beliefs and faith. The written Torah is derived as an extract from the Bible along with the oral Torah – Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash, supplementing the learnings and messages of God.
These books define the way of life and the commandments for the Jewish community. According to Jewish tradition, God revealed his message and commandments to Moses in the form of written and oral Torah so he could pass it on to humankind and help them find their path to the divine. The Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are believed to be written by Moses as dictated by God.
Each of these books contributes to lay the foundation of Judaism. Each of Moses’s books describes the divine pasts and events from the early times, explaining the ideas of God while laying down thee commandments for the Jewish living. They also describe the formation of the Jewish people according to the Torah, the way of life of the patriarchs of the nation, and various significant events that shaped the Jewish people at the beginning.
These Jewish culture books also encourage the Jews to nurture the sentiments of love, forgiveness, and empathy. Further describing for the Jews how they should observe their lives, categorizing actions into sins and activities towards divinity. It also talks about festivals, celebrations, and special events on human life and how these should be celebrated.
Jewish culture in Israel
The Jewish Culture of Israel has cultivated and evolved over an elongated time. Influenced by various rules and external cultures, the Jewish culture, as we see today, is slightly different from its original form. For a considerable period, the Jews were scattered over other parts of Europe while adapting to the local cultures along with their Jewish descend.
These diasporic times brought a cultural mix into Jewish traditions, only to undergo a fusion when these communities returned together to their homeland, giving birth to the fusion culture of Israel, which contains parts from the western European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Arabic cultures.
Today, the philosophy, art, music, literature, and festivals of the Jews in Israel express an essence of different cultures, seamlessly fused into Jewish traditions at the core.
Jewish culture in America
In the United States, the Jews are seen as religious, as well as an ethnic identity. With a significant share of Jews in the population, the American Jewish culture is widely recognized and observed.
The Jews in America share a similarity to the Jewish culture of Israel; however, here the observation of the commandments and practice of the religious rituals is less diligent. But, they share a common value, and the core values of Judaism are strong among the American Jews.
The Jewish Culture in America is a little more relax and influenced by the western cultures of America and thus creating an observable difference in the art, customs, and literature of the Jewish culture.
Can Jewish people drink?
In the Jewish culture, there is adequate segregation when it comes to alcohol. While wine is considered an essential part of various Jewish practices and religious ceremonies, there are no mentions of other alcoholic beverages. The Torah defines and speaks a lot about Jewish customs, and there are numerous mentions of the use of wine at different events.
Wine is symbolized as God’s way to bring joy to the man. Hence, it is used at many Jewish holidays like Shabbat, Passover seder, and other religious activities, and its consumption is encouraged. Therefore, the wine (red and white) holds a special meaning in the Jewish culture.
However, there are no rules or restrictions around the consumption of other alcoholic drinks.
Can Jewish people eat shellfish?
In Jewish culture, kosher is essential. It describes the eating cultures for the community, defining what is permitted and fit for consumption. It also prescribes the ways by which certain ingredients should be cooked to fulfill the kosher rules.
When it comes to seafood, any water animal that has fins and scales are considered kosher. According to Leviticus, any water animal that lacks these features is deemed to be impure. Therefore, shellfish is not kosher, and hence religiously, it is not permitted for a Jew to consume shellfish.
Can Jewish people eat shrimp?
The Jews have strict dietary laws, defined in the Torah. These laws, Kashrut, describes what foods are permitted or fit for consumption for the people of the Jewish community. Furthermore, it describes how food should be prepared. Hence defining kosher, and shrimps are not considered kosher.
According to Kashrut, kosher seafood should have scales and fins. Since shrimps do not fulfill those criteria, they are not considered kosher.
Can Jewish people eat pork?
According to the food laws of the Jewish community, Kashrut, consumption of certain food products and animals is strictly prohibited. Furthermore, if the food is not prepared in a certain way, it is considered unfit for Jewish consumption. In many Middle Eastern cultures, including Jewish, consumption of pork is highly discouraged and strictly prohibited in some cases.
According to the rules, an animal is kosher if it chews its cud and has split hooves. While pigs fulfill the criteria of split hooves, they don’t chew the cud. It is making them non-kosher food.
Can Jewish people get tattoos?
According to one’s understanding of the Torah, tattooing is considered unbefitting in Jewish culture. One of the texts suggests that the human body is creating God and mutilating or changing that creation unless it is essential for a greater good. It is considered as an insult to ‘His Creation.’
One may argue that circumcision is also a mutilation of the body. However, this practice has a greater meaning from a religious and philosophical viewpoint.
Are Jewish people a race?
There is a significant difference in race, a religious entity, an ethnic group, or other social sects. Being a Jew is attributed to a sense of belongingness and beliefs. The Jewish culture is formed out of ideology and feeling connected to the land of Israel. The Jewish community is created by people – descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the people of Israel (often referred to as the Children of Israel), and other members who relate to the ideas and are committed to the beliefs of Judaism.
Are Jewish people circumcised?
In Jewish culture, circumcision is a critical practice. According to the Hebrew Bible and Genesis, circumcision is a religious ritual. Considering it as the commandment of God, all Jewish males are required to be circumcised. After a male child is born, there is a religious ceremony on the 8th day of his birth, and the child is circumcised, followed by the blessings and naming ceremony. Also, there are numerous mentions of circumcision and its importance in the 5 Books of the Jews.
What are the different types of Jews?
Jewish history is over 4 thousand years long and has been quite an eventful past. Surviving the difficult times and celebrating the good times, passing through various reigns and kingdoms, the Jewish culture evolved and grew. The diasporic history of the Jews and exposure to different cultures led to diversity in the community.
Religious groups – the Jews have three religious groups – Kohanims (priests), Levites (people of the Levi tribe), and Israelis (people from other tribes of Israel). Ethnic groups – Ashkenazi (Jews from parts of Eastern Europe), Sephardic (Spanish Jews), and Mizrahi (Jews that originated in the Middle Eastern parts – Iraq, Persia, Yemen, etc.)
Who is the God of the Jews?
Judaism is a monotheistic religion and believes in one God. The God who freed the Israelis from under the rule of Egypt, the one who gave them the Torah and culture. In Judaism, God is known by various names, but God is Yahweh (as described in the Bible).
Are Jews an ethnicity?
The Jewish identity is far beyond the definitions of being a religious, ethnic, or social group. Being a Jew incorporates elements from these division definitions, making it a little bit of everything, yet not any of those.
Being a Jew is about believing in the ideas of the Torah and observing a life driven by the commandments. It is about feeling connected to the homeland (Israel and the various tribes). It is more about feeling it in oneself than being a religion or practice forced upon an individual. Therefore, making Judaism and Jewish culture an ethnic religion.
Who do the Jews believe in?
The Jews believe in one God and his commandments. According to their beliefs, God came in the human form to free them of their sufferings and to show them a path of the divine. The Jews show acceptance and obedience to the laws of the Torah and the ideas of the five Holy Books of the Jews.
What are the 3 main sects of Judaism?
The Jews are divided into sects/ groups that differ from each other on various attributes. These include their understanding of the laws of the Torah, their dedication, and the extent to which they observe these laws and more. These sects are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews.
Why do Orthodox Jews have curls?
The Jewish side curls (called Payot in Hebrew) bears a cultural significance and is a unique element of the Jewish culture. Many Orthodox Jewish men and boys can be seen having the side curls. It is primarily driven by the Biblical verse which instructs the Jews to not to shave/ remove the corners of their head. Different communities follow different styles and customs to grow and handle them. Mainly to distinguish themselves from others.
Do Orthodox Jews drink alcohol?
Jewish food laws are quite complex and influence everything a Jew can consume. While alcohol is an essential element of the Jewish culture, certain types of alcohol don’t fit the equation. The wine holds a unique position among all alcoholic beverages. During festivals and special ceremonies, drinking wine is promoted.
However, for other alcoholic drinks, like beer, whiskey, etc., they must be kosher. According to Jewish cultural beliefs, the food, ingredients, and the preparation together contribute to making the food kosher for a Jew.
Why do Jews wear Yamakas (Kippah)?
Wearing Yarmulkes is an old Jewish tradition that symbolizes the act of respect for God. In ancient times, it was worn to express respect, but soon became a normative part of the attire. Although it started as a formal behavior to show respect, it was transformed into a rule of the Halacha. Different groups of Jews opt to wear these at other times, and it is, more importantly, respect to God above them than being an obligatory practice.
Do Orthodox Jews work on Friday?
Shabbat is one of the most critical days in Jewish cultural traditions and involves some rules that must be followed. It is the 7th day of the week (at sundown on Friday) that God described as the day of rest and no work. The commandment strictly prohibits any work. Only under certain circumstances, the Torah permits some kinds of work.
The Orthodox Jews are highly particular of these regulations and follow them diligently. Therefore, Orthodox Jews do not work on Fridays till Saturday evening, when you can see three stars in the sky.
What can Jews not eat?
The Jewish laws for food are quite elaborate, and the community is very particular about what they eat. Jewish food is often attributed to Kosher – the food that is fit for consumption. On the other hand, certain products are restricted.
If the land animal doesn’t have hooves and doesn’t chew the cud, it is non-kosher. Similarly, all fishes without scales and fins cannot be eaten. Furthermore, the meat cannot be consumed along with the milk of the same animal. For example, a Jew cannot eat beef that is cooked in or served with cow milk. No reptiles and amphibians are permitted in Kashrut.
What is forbidden in Judaism?
Judaism and the Jewish culture is driven by a set of rules and commandments of the Torah. While some of these commandments encourage specific activities and actions, others forbid the Jewish community to undertake some actions.
The food laws of Kashrut forbid the Jews from consuming pork, or any land animal that does not chew the cud and don’t has hooves. Water organisms without scales and fins are also forbidden. Furthermore, pulling bones out of the meat on the table is strictly frowned upon. Consumption of Non-Kosher food is not allowed.
The Jews are forbidden to work (primarily the work for the living/earning) on Shabbat and other festive days. The Torah forbids individual relationships, which are considered socially incorrect. Intimate relationships with Non-Jews are not permitted. Sexual relations with one’s family – mother, father, siblings, brothers, and sisters of one’s parents, children of one’s siblings, primarily with anyone within the blood relations.
A Jew is forbidden to mutilate their body unless necessary for one’s survival and/ or accepted by the community. Of the 613 commandments of the Torah, about 300 rules prohibit or oppose performing certain actions.