Judaism can be summed up 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).

There are so many things that people believe about Judaism, which are either untrue or just partially true. Here are some of the greatest and most persistent myths about Judaism and the Jewish people:

1. Myth: Jews, Israelites & Hebrews Are Different People

The Torah refers to our people mostly as “Sons of Israel” (Israelites) and occasionally as Hebrews. On the other hand, most English speakers today refer to us as Jews. This has led some people to believe that the Jews are not the same people as G‑d’s chosen people in the Bible.

Fact: The Terms Have Been Interchangeable Since Biblical Times

These names were given to our people one at a time. Abraham, the founder of our nation, was referred to as a Hebrew. His grandson, Jacob, was also known as Israel, and his descendants were thus referred to as Israelites. During the First Temple period, Israel was further divided into two kingdoms, and those living in the area ruled by the descendants of Judah (the Davidic House) were known as Jews. This was already the case in the time of King Hezekiah and included members of other tribes living in the kingdom.

In today’s modern English, we are known mostly as Jews. But this is not the case in other cultures. For example, in Russian and Italian, we are known as Yivrei and Ebrei (both variations of “Hebrew”), and in formal settings—such as the names of institutions—Israelite is often preferred in German, Spanish and French. Even in English, just a few generations ago, both Hebrew and Israelite were common alternatives to Jew.

So what changed? It may be that Hebrew was avoided so as not to be conflated with the Hebrew language, and Israelite dropped in popularity for referring to Diaspora Jews when the term “Israeli” came to mean residents of the newly formed State of Israel.

Read: 14 Facts About Jews and Judaism

2. Myth: Mitzvah Means “Good Deed”

One of the most common words one hears from Jewish people is mitzvah, which is commonly translated as “good deed” or “act of kindness.”

Fact: Mitzvah Means “Command”

It is true that in the ancient tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud, the word mitzvah was used to refer to giving charity. However, the word mitzvah means “command” and refers to any of the 613 things we are told to do (or not to do) in the Torah. This includes acts of kindness (such as relieving an overloaded donkey and issuing interest-free loans) but also many things that have nothing to do with kindness (such as fasting on Yom Kippur and not lighting fires on Shabbat).

It also includes harkening to the ordinances of our sages on those occasions when they all agree that it is necessary to establish a practice in order to strengthen the foundations of Torah practice. G‑d, in His Torah, after all, also commands us to follow their decisions. That makes things like Chanukah, Purim, and washing hands before bread also mitzvahs.

So, while every act of kindness is (probably) a mitzvah, not every mitzvah is an act of kindness.

Read: What Is a Mitzvah?

3. Myth: There Are Different Denominations of Jews

A person may sometimes say, “I don’t need to do this mitzvah or celebrate that holiday because I am [insert name of denomination here],” perpetuating the myth that there are different classes of Jews for whom different sets of rules and traditions apply.

Fact: Denominations Are Made Up

All Jews were present when G‑d spoke at Sinai and struck a covenant with us. He would be our G‑d and we would be His nation, living in accordance with His wishes—all of them.

In the wake of the European Enlightenment, certain people sought to adapt a G‑d-given Torah to the current Western sensibilities. As some introduced modifications to their beliefs and practices and others maintained fealty to tradition, they split into various groups which have been termed “denominations.”

Nevertheless, beneath all those artificial barriers, all Jews are equally Jewish, gifted with the same responsibility and merits that come along with being part of G‑d’s people.

Read: Saying Goodbye to Denominational Labels

4. Myth: David Invented the Star of David

The six-pointed star (hexagram) is often associated with Jews and the Jewish religion. Referred to as a Magen David (“Shield of David”) it is a favorite decoration on synagogues, Jewish gravestones, and jewelry. In times past, antisemitic regimes (most notoriously the Nazis) forced Jews to wear these stars as a mark of shame. Judging by its common name, people think the star has been with us since David’s time and has deep Biblical significance.

Fact: Its Origin Is Unknown

While there is some meaning ascribed to the six-pointed star, and it does seem to have been associated with our people for a very long time, there is little reason to believe that it has been with us since David’s time or that it is central to Jewish belief, observance, or culture. Simply put, a Jew can live a rich, fulfilling Jewish life without ever wearing, handling, or even encountering the six-pointed star.

Read: 13 Jewish Symbols to Know

5. Myth: The Jewish G‑d Has a Long Beard and European Accent

Many Jewish (and probably non-Jewish) children grew up with the image of G‑d being an old man with a long white beard, peering down from a jewel-encrusted throne in the sky, keeping tabs on our deeds and rewarding and punishing us accordingly. Perhaps taking its cue from the archetypical rabbi or cantor of previous generations—seen as G‑d’s de facto gatekeepers or expositors—this fantasy further imposes a Yiddish accent onto this imaginary Father in Heaven.

Fact: G‑d Has No Form (and Neither Is He a “He”)

The third of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith is that G‑d has no form. In fact, He is entirely beyond time and space, which He Himself created. So imagining Him looking in a certain way and being in a certain place is wrong. G‑d is entirely beyond anything we can possibly imagine—including gender.

On the topic of G‑d’s (non-)gender, many people would be surprised to learn that according to Kabbalah, G‑d connects with us in both masculine and feminine modalities. After all, G‑d is both beyond all things and within all things. In the totally transcendent and lofty mode, G‑d is called “Him.” In the thoroughly immanent, nurturing, life-giving mode, G‑d is called “Shechinah,” which is feminine and means “indwelling.”

Read: Who Is Shechinah and What Does She Want From My Life?

6. Myth: There Are 613 Mitzvahs to Do

Another common deterrent for fully embracing Jewish practice is that people feel overwhelmed by its magnitude, claiming that 613 commandments are far too many for any person to observe.

Fact: The Majority of the 613 Are Not Actionable

The first thing to bear in mind is that the commandments are not a burden. They are opportunities to connect with G‑d and bring Him into our world.

That said, it is still important to note that most of the 613 commandments are pertinent to the Holy Temple service, which is completely non-actionable since the second Holy Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago.

Even the mitzvahs that do remain are often specific to certain people. Some mitzvahs are just for men, some are just for women, and others may be specific to married couples, priests, farmers, judges, employers, etc.

Furthermore, even the mitzvahs that do apply to you are often quite easy to keep track of. For example, there are multiple mitzvahs forbidding marriage between close family members. As long as you don’t marry a close relative, you have little to worry about.

Read: How Many Commandments Apply Today?

7. Myth: You Can Be Half-Jewish

The child of only one Jewish parent will often refer to him/herself as “half-Jewish.” Such a person may sometimes also practice a hybrid of Jewish traditions meshed with the religion of their non-Jewish parent.

Fact: If Your Mom Was Jewish, so Are You

Judaism is determined solely by the mother. So if your mother was Jewish, you are as Jewish as Moses, King David, and the taxi drivers of Tel Aviv. Conversely, if your mother was not Jewish, you are non-Jewish, just like your mom. Children of Jewish fathers who wish to embrace the religion of their paternal family are in a position of choice to convert to Judaism or simply remain wonderful human beings with a valuable mix of Jewish heritage.

Read: To the Child of a Jewish Father

8. Myth: Jews Don’t Believe in Heaven

Scripture says virtually nothing about the afterlife, and there is a commonly repeated refrain that Judaism does not believe in the afterlife.

Fact: It’s One of the 13 Principles of Faith

There are several passing mentions of life after death in the Hebrew Scriptures. Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and other texts fill in and elucidate these terse references, providing a rich image of the afterlife, in which our souls are rewarded for our efforts and continue to grow in our awareness of the Divine—ultimately returning to this world to enjoy the perfection to which we collectively brought it. In fact, the resurrection is one of the 13 principles of faith outlined by Maimonides.

Read: Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?

9. Myth: Judaism Is a Race

The blight of social Darwinism upon the 20th century culminated in the Nazi attempt to purge the imaginary Aryan race of perceived malignant strains of humanity. Jews were defined as one such undesirable race, and, despite their enormous contribution to German culture, science, and civilization, were systematically extracted and eliminated by inhumanities previously inconceivable—and this, by the most educated and supposedly progressive nation of its time, the cradle of ethics, philosophy, music, science, and genius that continues to dominate our society.

Fact: Jews Can Be of Any Race

It is true that many Jews share common genetic markers, and the majority of Jews today appear Caucasian, sometimes with characteristics associated with Jewish people, such as curly brown hair and dark eyes. Nevertheless, they certainly cannot be defined as a race, or even as a genetic cluster.

The original Children of Israel most likely had facial features common to peoples of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Since then, over the past 2,500 years, Jews have lived in every climatic region of the world and have both adapted and attracted to their ranks a complement of varied colors and features—especially due to the lofty, non-Jewish souls who chose to join the Jewish people.

Today, one can easily see black Jews, Japanese Jews, Inuit Jews, and Filipino Jews, reflecting the kaleidoscope of humanity. In short, Jews are held together not just by genetics, culture, geography, or language, but by a divine covenant and a common responsibility to keep the mitzvahs of the Torah.

Read: Are Jews a Race?

10. Myth: People With Tattoos Cannot Be Buried Among Jews

(This one is a favorite of people who like to expose myths, and we are including it in our list mostly to save them the effort of writing comments pointing out the omission. So here goes:)

It is often said that Jews with tattoos may not be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

Fact: There Is No Such Law

Some facts that will lend context:

a. Jewish law forbids tattoos, clearly and unequivocally.

b. There is a Jewish tradition of not being buried near a sinner, and cemeteries thus have the right to restrict who is buried there.

That said, any cemetery that would accept a person who regularly ate non-kosher food or transgressed Shabbat should have no issue with someone who disregarded the prohibition against tattoos. So may a Jewish person get a tattoo? The answer is a resounding no! But can a Jewish person with a tattoo be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Most often the answer would be yes.

Read: Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?

11. Myth: Yiddish Is the Same as Hebrew

Until a generation or two ago, the majority of Jewish people (certainly those in Northern Europe) spoke Yiddish (which means “Jewish”). Since Yiddish was the common language of the Hebrew people, some people have erroneously conflated it with Hebrew.

Fact: They Are Two Different Languages

Hebrew is the language of the Bible, which our nation spoke for the first 1,000+ years of our existence. In time, it was replaced with Aramaic, and then Arabic, French, German, Persian, and the many languages spoken by the nations around us.

In each case, they made these languages their own by infusing them with Hebrew words, Talmudic phrases and more. The Jewish dialect that developed alongside what has become modern German is known as Yiddish.

Does it contain Hebrew phrases? Yes! Is it written in Hebrew characters? Yes! Is it, in fact, the same as Hebrew? Not at all!
Read: Why Do Jews Still Speak Yiddish?

12. Myth: Women Are Oppressed

There is a common belief out there that observant Jewish women are repressed and restricted by a male-dominated religious and social establishment that limits their roles to pushing out babies and baking babka.

Fact: It’s Not True

Human life is highly complex and that is mirrored in the relationship between men and women. Torah provides guidelines to assist us in dividing the tasks while empowering each individual to use their potentials to the fullest.

The best way to counter the myth of the Torah-repressed female is to visit a Jewish community, whether it’s a micro-community built around a Chabad couple or a large center of Jewish life in or near a major metropolis. Speak to the women about their religious, social, and professional lives. Come back and tell us what you found.

Read: Are Women Second-Class Citizens in Traditional Judaism?

13. Myth: Kosher Is a Health Diet

Eating kosher food is a basic element of Jewish life and observance. There is a persistent belief that the kosher laws, which require that only healthy animals be eaten, strict separation be maintained in the kitchen, and “dirty” animals like pigs be eschewed, were put in place to help the primitive ancient Hebrews maintain hygiene. Thus, the argument goes, kosher is no longer relevant in the era of pasteurization and refrigeration, when we can easily avoid spoilage in other ways.

Fact: Kosher Is a Divine Precept

There may be certain health benefits that come along with keeping kosher, and there is no doubt that pigs are generally dirty (and probably not that healthy). However, that is not the reason we keep kosher. We keep kosher solely because G‑d commanded us to do so. This mitzvah is classed as a chok, something beyond our limited understanding, which we do whether or not it makes sense to us.

Read: 14 Kosher Myths and Facts

14. Myth: It’s All or Nothing

Embracing a full Jewish life is a big deal, affecting every aspect of life, from what you eat, when you work, to how you spend your time. This can lead someone to say, “If I am not yet ready to stop working on Shabbat morning, I may as well skip Friday afternoon candle-lighting as well.” Or, since I’m currently sharing a kitchen with non-Jewish family members, I may as well purchase non-kosher meat.”

Fact: Every Mitzvah Has Infinite Worth

No one said, “Since I am not a millionaire I will leave that $100 of mine on the floor to get swept away with the trash.” And neither does it make sense to reject a mitzvah opportunity just because there are others we are not yet ready to make our own.

Judaism is a ladder, which we climb in our lifelong effort to get closer and closer to G‑d. If you are currently able to add a mitzvah to your life—add it! And once that one becomes a habit, go ahead and add something else. Slow and steady wins the race.

Read: Is It OK to be a Hypocrite?

15. Myth: All Jews Are Rich

This one is especially dangerous since it has been used to justify atrocities as huge as the Holocaust and as small (seeming) as a professor giving a Jewish student a harder time. Perpetuated for centuries by people within the Christian church who cynically used it to incite the peasantry against the Jews, it took on new life in the 20th century with the rise of powerful peddlers of hateful nonsense such as Henry Ford and his ilk.

Fact: It Would Be Nice But…

It would be nice if everyone in the world was rich, but, like everyone else, Jews are a mix. For much of our history, Jews were primarily a mercantile class, functioning as the glue between the various parts of their host societies and facilitating trade. Like the rest of society, there have always been some Jews who are well off, and others who suffer poverty, with most falling somewhere between the two.

Read: How Does Judaism View Wealth?

16. Myth: Only the 10 Commandments Matter

As discussed above, the Torah has 613 mitzvahs. Of those, just a small portion were communicated by G‑d during the dramatic covenant at Sinai. Perhaps due to Christian influence, these 10 sayings (the Torah never refers to them as “commandments”) are seen as obligatory, while everything else is optional at best.

Fact: It’s All From G‑d

The same G‑d who told Moses that we must not worship idols and keep Shabbat holy also commanded that we treat our workers fairly, celebrate Sukkot, and refrain from farming during the 7th year, etc.

These 10 things are certainly singled out for being fundamental, and perhaps even sweeping guidelines in which many other commandments are included, but the others are no less binding.

Read: The 10 Commandments

17. Myth: Ashkenazi Jews Descend From Khazars

For more than a thousand years, Jews (and non-Jews) have been enamored by talk of the Khazars, a tribe of warmongering Turkic people, whose nobility converted to Judaism. In the 10th century, the Spanish-Jewish statesman Hisdai ibn Shaprut attempted to forge diplomatic relations with them, and Judah Halevi places them at the center of his book, Kuzari, in the 12th century.

In recent decades, there have been some who have asserted that most of today’s Ashkenazim are descendants from this tribe of converts.

Fact: This Has No Merit

Geneticists, linguists, and historians are virtually unanimous in rejecting the notion of Khazars contributing significantly to the ancestry of today’s Jews. Rather, modern genetics have made it abundantly clear that, by and large, Jews from Russia and Jews from North Africa all share the same common Middle-Eastern ancestors.

While Khazars are a fascinating footnote in Jewish history, it does not appear that they are much more than that.

Read: Who Were the Khazars?

18. Myth: Biblical Justice is Draconian

Feeding right into the Christian-generated myth of the “vengeful god of the Old Testament [sic],” there are some who claim—based on a superficial reading—that the Jewish justice system, as outlined in the Torah, is harsh, vengeful, and unbearably cruel. To support this, they may cite the command that the Torah demands “an eye for an eye,” etc.

Fact: Context and Nuance Are Crucial

Contrary to what some would like to claim, the phrase was never understood or applied in the literal sense. Rather, according to the Oral Torah, this is a directive for monetary compensation to the injured party.

As for the descriptions we find of G‑d, they are mostly about His deep affection and concern for His creatures. The Hebrew word for love appears in some 221 instances and the word for compassion over 300 times. G‑d is described in Exodus as a concerned father, in Song of Songs as a passionate lover, by the prophets as a protective husband, in the Psalms as a caring shepherd, all to emphasize that the Creator of this world is good and desires only good for all His creatures.

Read: What Does “Eye for an Eye” Really Mean?