Judaism (the Jewish Religion) is defined as the totality of beliefs and practices of the Jewish people, as given by G‑d and recorded in the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and subsequent sacred writings of Judaism (Talmud and Kabbalah).

Basic Jewish Beliefs

The Jewish people believe by definition that G‑d is the single creator and animator of the world. He has no helpers, no children and no rivals.

G‑d is everywhere and has no properties (for that matter,G‑d granted humanity the gift of free choice neither is He really a “he.”) In Jewish belief, G‑d is the invisible force behind everything that happens and knows everything, past present and future.

G‑d granted humanity the gift of free choice. When people follow His ways (as outlined in the Torah), G‑d rewards them. These rewards can be in this world, as well as in the World to Come, which comes after death.

Just as every individual works hard toward achieving personal perfection through following G‑d’s ways, so is the entire world heading toward a time of eternal peace and plenty. This time is known as the era of Moshiach (or Messiah). During this time, Jews will return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (see below). A most amazing feature of this time is that death will cease, and the dead will be brought back to life. Read more here.

Read: 14 Facts About Jews and Judaism Every Person Should Know

How Did Judaism Begin?

The story of the Jewish people begins with G‑d creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh. Then, He chose Abraham and his children to become His special nation who would dwell in a special homeland (Israel).

After a 210-year stint of slavery in Egypt, G‑d took His people to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them instructions for life.

After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites entered the Promised Land. In time, they built a Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, where they could offer sacrifices and connect to G‑d.

The Holy Temple was eventually destroyed by Roman invaders, and the Jewish people went into exile and were scattered all over the world (galut).

But the story is not over yet. We believe that the time will come when we will once again be gathered in our homeland with a rebuilt Temple in a world that will be peaceful, G‑dly and perfect.

Where Does the Term Judaism Come From?

There are three names for the descendants of Abraham:

The Torah refers to Abraham as a Hebrew (read what that means here), and that name is most commonly associated with the language of his descendants.

His grandson, Jacob, was given a second name of Israel, and that name has become closely associated with Israelite homeland (which you can read more about here).

Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Judah had the role of leadership. At one point, he was the dominant tribe among those living in Israel (read what happened to the others here), and the entire nation became known as Jews, and their creed, Judaism.

The Torah - Sacred Texts of Judaism

Moses—the leader who led the Jews out of Egypt and to whom G‑d communicated in the presence of the people at Mount Sinai—recorded the story of creation and the history of Abraham’s family up until his time in what became known as the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. In addition, the Torah also contains G‑d’s instructions for personal and communal life.

Prophets and Writings: In addition to the Torah, there are 19 other books that are sacred to the Jewish people. They are grouped into Neviim and Ketuvim, (Prophets and Writings). They contain the history of the Jewish people for several hundred years from after Moses’ death, as well as prophetic communications from great leaders of the Jewish people.

Read the entire Torah, Prophets and Writings here.

Oral Torah: Alongside the Divine traditions that Moses recorded in the Torah, there were many details and commandments from G‑d that were communicated and preserved orally. As time went on, the sages of each generation discussed the Torah and elaborated on its principles. These discussions were eventually written down, becoming the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash.

Read the history of the Oral Torah here.

These texts are still being studied, explored and expanded on as we speak. In addition to individual scholars and study groups, there are academies (yeshivahs) where people study these traditions. In many places, Jewish children attend private schools where they can learn Torah in addition to their secular education. Some children may attend Hebrew school, where they learn about Judaism outside of their regular school hours. Since 1994, Torah study has been accessible online through Chabad.org and other sites.

Find a Hebrew school anywhere in the world here.

What Jews Do

The Torah contains 613 instructions, called mitzvahs. While some of these mitzvahs pertain to the Holy Temple, others are applicable to day-to-day Jewish life. Here are some of the basics.

Shabbat: Remember that G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh? He commanded His people to do the same. Every seventh day (Friday night to Saturday night) Jewish people feast, pray and enjoy a break from everyday life. The Shabbat is ushered in with candlelighting late on Friday afternoon. Read more here.

Holidays: There are numerous Jewish holidays. You can read more about them below.

Kosher: In the Torah G‑d sets forth a special diet for His people. Only certain species of animal may be eaten (no pork or shellfish), meat must be slaughtered in a special way, and meat and dairy are kept completely separate. Read more here.

Prayer: Jews pray regularly to G‑d, often communally in a synagogue. The backbone of the prayer service is a line from the Torah called the Shema, which reads: Shema Yisrael A-donai E-lohainu A-donai Ekhad. In addition to being said every morning and night, this prayer is also said as a Jew prepares to pass on to the next world. Read more here.

Tallit and Tefillin: Jewish males are enjoined to wear certain “adornments,” which are most often donned during prayer. The tefillin are leather boxes that are strapped to the head and arm. They contain sacred scrolls, which contain snippets of the Torah, including the Shema. Read more here.

The tallit is a four-cornered garment (often white with black stripes) worn draped over the shoulders. When we look at the fringes (tzitzit) on each corner, we are reminded of G‑d and His commandments. Read more here.

Mezuzah: Mezuzahs are placed in the upper right-hand side of doorways in Jewish homes. The mezuzah case contains a scroll with the Shema written on it. Read more here

Jewish Holidays

In the fall there are the high holidays: Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), which is celebrated with prayers, hearing the blasts of the shofar (ram’s horn) and feasts, which include the traditional dish of apples dipped in honey; Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when Jews gather to pray and don’t eat or drink for 25 hours; and Sukkot, celebrated by dwelling in special huts called sukkahs, and taking the four kinds.

These are followed by Chanukah, in the winter, which is celebrated with lighting a candelabra called a menorah (or chanukiah) for eight consecutive nights, and Purim, which is a joyful holiday toward the end of winter.

In the spring, Jews celebrate Pesach (or Passover), during which we get rid of all leaven (dough that has risen). Instead, matzah (a flat cracker-like food) is eaten. This is followed by Shavuot, which marks the day of the Divine revelation at Sinai, when we received the Torah.

Watch the "What Is Judaism?" Video

The Language of Judaism

The Torah and most of the Writings and Prophets are in Hebrew, the language that G‑d used to create the world. In time, Jews began to speak Aramaic, and that became the language of the Talmud.

As Jews migrated to Europe, they began to speak special dialects of Spanish and German. Those became known as Ladino and Yiddish, respectively. There are also Jewish dialects of Arabic.

Sacred Places of Judaism

The Land of Israel is the sacred birthright of the Jewish people. The holiest city is Jerusalem, which is the place G‑d chose for His presence to dwell in. The holiest place in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, where the two Holy Temples stood. Since Jews can no longer go there, the Western Wall, which hugs the western embankment of the mountain, has become the central place for Jewish prayer. It is also known as the Kotel (“wall”).

(Read more about the Kotel here.)

All over the world, Jews gather regularly to pray in synagogues (also called shuls). In the front of the synagogue (in the direction that faces Jerusalem), is the Holy Ark, a cabinet in which the Torah scrolls (each one handwritten on parchment) are housed.

(Read more about the synagogue here.)

But Jewish worship can happen anywhere, and every place can become a holy place. Do something nice and make G‑d proud somewhere, and you’ve made that place a sacred spot.

Who Is Judaism For, and Is Judaism a Religion?

Judaism is the automatic religion of every Jew. And a Jew is someone who was either born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism with a bona fide rabbinical court. There are some Jews who (for whatever reason) haveJewish worship can happen anywhere lapsed in their practice of Judaism. Some may profess to believe in another religion or have no beliefs at all. They are still Jewish, and the Torah and its teachings remain their eternal birthright.

Non-Jews are not bound by most of the Torah. They are, however, enjoined to live in accordance with the Seven Noahide Laws, which set the groundwork for a moral and just society.

(Learn more: Should I convert to Judaism?)

Are There Different Kinds of Jews?

Every Jew has equal access to G‑d. The more mitzvahs you do, the more Torah you study, and the more you work on refining your character, the closer you come to G‑d. No individuals or organizations hold the keys to heaven.

In ancient times, there were twelve tribes of Israel, each one of whom had a different territory in the land. The tribe of Levi was selected to be G‑d’s servants. They taught Torah to the people and cared for the Holy Temple. Within Levi, there were the kohanim (priests), who offered sacrifices in the Temple.

Today, most Jews do not know which tribe they are from. However, the exception is the Levites and Kohanim, many of whom have preserved their tribal identity.

Rabbis are learned Jews, who are proficient in key areas of the Torah. Like a doctor is qualified to give medical advice and prescribe medicine, someone who has been conferred the title “rabbi” can be relied upon to be a trustworthy and accurate conduit of Jewish tradition, belief and practice.

Judaism FAQ

What is the definition of Judaism?

Judaism (the Jewish Religion) is the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people, as given by G‑d and recorded in the Torah and subsequent sacred writings.

Read: 14 Facts About Judaism That Every Person Should Know

What are the basic Jewish beliefs?

G‑d willfully brings all things into being, crafts each one with purpose and meaning, and continues to direct the world. All humans are responsible for their moral decisions. The Jewish people were appointed to keep a special set of laws and given the Land of Israel. Eventually, through our good deeds, the world will enter into an era of wisdom and peace for all peoples.

Read: What Are Jewish Values?

How Did Judaism Begin?

Abraham, the father of Judaism, introduced Monotheism to the world, and G‑d promised to give his descendants the land of Israel. Those descendants became enslaved by the pharaohs of Egypt until G‑d sent Moses—and many miracles—to free them. They journeyed out of Egypt towards the promised land, stopping at Mount Sinai, where G‑d made a covenant with them. The Israelites accepted the Torah (all its requirements and prohibitions) and became the Jewish people—G‑d’s nation.

Read: Who Were the Founders of Judaism?

Where does the term Judaism come from?

There are three names for the descendants of Abraham: Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews. The Torah refers to Abraham as a Hebrew. His grandson, Jacob, was given the second name Israel. Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Judah had the role of leadership. At one point, he was the dominant tribe among those living in Israel, and the entire nation became known as Jews, and their creed as Judaism.

Read: Who Are the Jews?

What are the sacred texts of Judaism?

The most sacred texts of Judaism are the Torah—the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. The unfolding of Torah continues to this day, with works from every generation that have been accepted by Jews as part of the Divine teaching.

Read: 10 Sacred Texts of Judaism

What do Jews do?

Jewish people observe G‑d’s laws as outlined in the Torah and Oral Tradition, including: Giving charity regularly, observing the kosher dietary laws, immersing in the mikvah, putting mezuzah scrolls on the doorposts, daily prayer (during which men wrap tefillin), and Shabbat—a weekly day of rest. Marriage and procreation are considered sacred acts, and children attend Jewish classes from a young age to study the Torah and its application.

Read: What Do Jews Do?

What are the Jewish holidays?

The major Jewish holidays are Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, and Purim.

More: Jewish Holidays and Festivals

What is the language of Judaism?

The sacred texts of the Jews are written almost entirely in Hebrew, with some Aramaic sections (Aramaic was the language of the Jews during their exiles in Babylonia). Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic are also valued as uniquely Jewish languages.

Read: 10 Facts About the Hebrew Language

Which places are sacred to Judaism?

Israel is the holy land of the Jews. Its sacred cities are Jerusalem and Hebron Within Jerusalem, the most sacred spot is the site of the ancient Temple, laid waste by the Romans. All that remains standing of that Temple today is one of its retaining walls, the Western Wall, where Jews flock to pray.

Read: 22 Facts About the Land of Israel

Who is Judaism for?

Judaism contains wisdom and ethics for all people. The vast majority of its mitzvahs and practices are specifically for Jews, and non-Jews are under no obligation to keep these. They are, however, enjoined to live in accordance with the Seven Noahide Laws, which set the groundwork for a moral and just society.

Read: The 7 Noahide Laws—Universal Morality

Are there different kinds of Jews?

There are as many kinds of Jews as there are individuals. Originally, there were 12 tribes, but today, almost all Jews are of the tribes of Judah, Levi or Benjamin. Jews are also sometimes grouped ethnically: those originating from central and eastern Europe are called Ashkenazim, while the descendants of the exiles from Spain are called Sephardim. Often, all Jews from Arab lands are called Sephardim.

Grouping by level of practice, affiliation, or ideology is much more difficult, and often artificial and unhelpful.

Read: Orthodox Judaism and Unorthodox Jews