Ways of Expressing Meaning

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.


Stories of Faith

Judaism is a religion of story and tradition.

The Jewish Scriptures are one of the greatest collections of stories in the world.

It is difficult to say which are the most important and central stories of the faith. The stories are sacred because they are part of the revealed word of G-d and, at least to Orthodox Jews, are therefore divine truth.

The stories of the Jewish Scriptures are the essential accounts of G-d’s developing relationship with his people. They demonstrate G-d’s love and care for his people and his righteousness and righteous judgement. They also show the fallibility of humanity which, despite its promises and undertakings, goes against G-d’s wishes and disobeys the commandments again and again.

The key stories might be considered as:

– The Creation and the Fall (Genesis 1-3)
– Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)
– Noah and the flood (Genesis 6-9)
– The Covenants with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15 & 17)
– Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22)
– Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-27)
– Joseph (Genesis 37-47)
– The Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai Covenant (Exodus)
– David and the building of the Temple (1 Samuel16 – 1 Kings 2)
– Jonah- Job- Ruth

This is simply a selection and anyone might produce a different list from a faith with so many stories to tell. They are all important because they show the developing relationship between G-d and the children of Israel and help Jews to understand how that relationship evolved.

Of course, many of these stories might be read as myths and interpreted accordingly but for many Jews they are true accounts of events in the life of the chosen people.

These stories are read in the synagogue, studied by Rabbis and told to young children. They are central to an understanding of the faith.

Symbols of Faith

The requirements of the second commandment and its strict interpretation by Jews: –

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them (Exodus 20:4-5a).

– means that much Jewish symbolism tends to be abstract in nature.

The key symbols of Judaism:

– The Magen David (Shield or Star of David). The oldest example of this dates from the seventh century BCE. In the synagogue at Capernaum the hexagram is next to a pentagram and a swastika so it appears to be simply a form of decoration. By the 6th century CE it was called the ‘Seal of Solomon’.
– In 1354 Charles IV allowed the Jewish community in Prague to have its own flag with the symbol on it and this became known as ‘King David’s flag’.
– The Magen David is on the flag of Israel but the symbol of the country is the Menorah: a menorah is a seven-branched candlestick representing the one which stood in the Temple.

You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-32).

– The Lions of Judah are often on the curtain in front of the ark:

Judah is a lion’s whelp;

On prey, my son, have you grown.

He crouches, lies down like a lion,

Like the king of beasts-who dare rouse him? (Genesis 49:9).

– There is also a crown (Keter Torah) – for the Torah is the crowning glory which G-d gave to the world.

These are the physical symbols of Judaism which express Jewish beliefs about G-d and the Torah as well as Jewish history.

Creative Expression

In the Jewish Scriptures symbol and analogy are often used to say something about G-d. For example, Psalm 8 says: When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers (Psalm 8:4a).

Elsewhere G-d is described as a ‘Warrior’, ‘King’, and ‘Judge’ as well as a craftsman making the world. The relationship between G-d and the Jews is made clear when G-d appears as a father-figure looking after the erring children of Israel. But the Jewish scriptures also use the feminine to describe G-d: providing water for the people, just as women fetch it for their families; providing for the children just as mothers feed their household; being a mother and nurse for her wandering children during the time of the Exodus; crying out like a woman in child birth and acting as a comforting mother in times of distress.

Because of the second commandment there is little figurative religious art in Judaism. However, work such as the Chagall stained-glass windows of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Hadassah Hospital of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Centre in Jerusalem demonstrates how it can have a part to play in Judaism.

The music of the Temple appears to have been chanted by the priests to the accompaniment of an orchestra. After the destruction of the Temple, music in the synagogues became the task of one person. The accompaniment of musical instruments was forbidden, particularly on the Sabbath as it constituted work. Responses to the prayers were sung by the entire male congregation. As new forms of music and chanting were developed the post of chazan, or cantor, was established during the early Middle Ages.

The Synagogue

The principal Jewish place of worship is the home but the central place for community worship is the synagogue. In Hebrew a synagogue is called: Beth ha-tefilla (house of prayer), Beth ha-knesset (house of assembly), Beth ha-midrash (house of study). Synagogue is a Greek word (a meeting or an assembly). The Yiddish word shul (German Schule, ‘school’) is also used for a synagogue.

A synagogue is an assembly house for communal prayer, study, and meeting; and is the centre of the community. Synagogues are generally plain buildings often with no more decoration than the Magen David (Shield or Star of David) to show their use.

The synagogue must have windows:

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God, as he had always done (Daniel 6:11).

There are no pictures or statues in a synagogue in accordance with the second commandment.

In the eastern wall – mizrach (the wall facing Jerusalem) is the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark.

Above, or to the sides of the ark are two tablets bearing the first two words of each of the Ten Commandments. Above the ark is the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light which represents the lamp which burnt in the Jerusalem Temple. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately. There is a mejizah – a partition screen, separating the women’s and men’s areas. Sometimes the women sit in an upstairs gallery (Weibershul). In most Progressive synagogues, men and women sit together.

Mikveh: Every synagogue should have a ritual bath or mikveh which is a pool of natural water in which people can bathe to be ritually pure. The mikveh must contain at least 40 se’ah, (between 250-1,000 litres) of natural water. Women must visit the mikveh after the end of the monthly period to cleanse themselves before they can resume normal sexual relations with their husbands.

Expressing Faith through Worship

There are three daily periods of prayer:

– early morning – shacharit- afternoon – mincha- evening – ma-ariv.

All prayers are said facing east towards Jerusalem. Each period of prayer consists of readings from the Torah and prayers praising G-d. Jews may also pray spontaneously at any time when they feel that they want to speak to G-d.

The main synagogue services are on the Sabbath: Friday night and Saturday morning. For a service to take place there must be a minimum of ten adult males (minyan). In an Orthodox synagogue the service will be almost entirely in Hebrew. The service consists mainly of prayers and the central reading of the Torah.

Worship at home: The Jewish home is central to worship and prayer life.

Every door except for the bathroom has a mezuzah. The mezuzah is a small cylinder fixed to the top of the right-hand doorpost. It contains a piece of parchment on which is written the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:31-21; Numbers 15:37-41) – the central statement of Jewish belief. As they pass through the door Jews touch the mezuzah and take their fingers to their lips.

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).


When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Jews visited three times a year to offer sacrifices for the harvest on Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot. These are known as the Pilgrim or Foot festivals. However, there has been no Jewish pilgrimage since the destruction of the Temple in 70CE.