Ways of Living

Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;


Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.


Guidance for Life

Being Jewish impacts on every aspect of Jewish life.

In leading an halakhic life, Jews are always conscious of the obligations to G-d, to their families and to others.

Much of Jewish life is centred on worship and it is possible to argue that, in fact, all Jewish life is worship.

Religious Practice

Judaism requires separation from the non-Jewish world whilst still living very much within it. In order to follow the laws of kashrut, Jews will normally eat together, they wear clothes which are modest and which follow the laws of shaatnez (wool and cotton may not be mixed in a garment), and the laws of the Sabbath require all work to stop by sunset on Friday and for Saturday to be devoted to the worship of G-d until sunset is reached again.

This idea of separation from the non-Jewish world is not associated in any way with any notion of Jews being better than others or not wishing to have contact with others, simply with Jews having been born with more obligations to G-d which must be observed.

These beliefs can lead to very tight-knit families and communities and in some ways can be seen as Jews shutting themselves off from the world. This is not surprising in view of the results of anti-semitism in the pogroms and Holocaust. However, this is not the intention it is merely that living entirely within the world poses a significant challenge to the preservation of Judaism and the living of an halakhic life.

In worship Jews show their respect for G-d and the Torah. Traditionally, the ark is placed on the east wall of the synagogue so that, when facing the scrolls, Jews are facing Jerusalem.

When praying in the synagogue, Jews stand to face the Ark. In respect to G-d, male Jews cover the heads with a yamulkah or kippah – a skull cap.

During worship the Sefer Torah is taken out of the Ark and is carried through the synagogue before eventually reaching the Bimah (reading desk). After being undressed the scrolls is held high above the head and rotated so that everyone can see the writing on the parchment.

Reading and Interpreting the Scriptures

The Jewish sacred texts are the Torah – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.

Both the Written and Oral Torahs were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and were taught to the Jews during their forty years wandering in the desert. The Oral and Written Torah have existed for nearly three and a half thousand years and both are necessary to understand Jewish teaching and thought.

The handwritten Torah Scrolls are called the Sefer Torah. The Torah is treated with great respect by all Jews. It is handwritten on large pages of animal skin and placed on large rollers. The scrolls are carefully copied by hand by a specially trained scribe using a turkey or goose feather.

The scrolls are decorated with covers, bells, breastplates and other decorations. When not in use they are kept in a cupboard in the synagogue called the Aaron Hakodesh(the ark). The ner tamid (eternal light) burns constantly in front of the ark.

When they are being read they are not touched by hand but a yad (pointer) is used so that the reader can follow the text.

The respect given to the Torah and the mitzvot (laws) which it contains show its great importance to Jews as a document which contains the truth about G-d and about their relationship with him.

The Sefer Torah contains only consonants, there are no vowels, punctuation or musical notation. Hebrew is written from right to left across the page.

Portions of the Torah are read during worship on Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, fast days and every Monday and Thursday. Readings are at the end of morning worship and during the afternoon service. The lectionary (pattern of readings) means that the whole of the Torah is read during the course of the year, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah.

The texts of the Jewish Scriptures are enlarged upon by the Talmud but as the Torah is the revealed word of G-d it is not open to critical comment.

Torah reading is an essential part of synagogue worship. The teamim or signs which show how the Torah should be read and chanted were developed in the period 400-1000 CE by Masorete scholars and are found in printed versions.

There are parts of the Torah where the text is unclear and difficult to understand but

tradition has provided an explanation of these in the Oral Torah. When a piece of text is unintelligible but can be understood if one word is corrected a rule called keri (read) and k’tiv (written) is used. The ‘correct’ word is read in place of the one which is actually written.

The Journey of Life

The key rites of an individual Jew mark their passage through life from birth to death.

Life itself lies at the centre of Jewish existence with the toast L’Chaim – to life.

The first two rites of passage are, at least within Orthodox Judaism, for the male.

At eight days old (or as soon as possible afterwards if the child is ill) a Jewish baby is circumcised – Brit Milah. This ceremony welcomes the child into the faith and gives them the physical mark of the Jewish male.

Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son): G-d instructed the Israelites that every firstborn child was to be given to his service. So every firstborn male child (without the woman having had a miscarriage after three months of pregnancy or the birth being by Caesarean section) has to be redeemed by a Jew who is a member of the Cohen tribe (a Jew of priestly descent). The child is bought back for five silver shekels.

On the first Sabbath after the birth of a girl, her father will be called up to the bimah to offer a blessing:

He Who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, may He bless the mother xxxx and her new-born daughter, whose name in Israel shall be xxxx; May they raise her for the marriage canopy and for a life of good deeds, and let us say Amen.

The Jewish initiation ceremony is called Bar Mitzvah but it is not a mitzvah as there is no requirement for the boy to go through such a ceremony. Traditionally, when a boy reaches the age of thirteen he is responsible for his own actions and can be fully responsible for fulfilling the commandments. This only applies to his religious life. Bar Mitzvah means Son of the Commandment.

Before the ceremony the boy is taught how to put on or ‘lay’ tefillin and to read Hebrew and he prepares his ‘portion’. This is a passage of the scriptures that he will read in the synagogue.

After the synagogue service his father says: ‘Blessed be He Who has released me from the responsibilities of this child.’

There are similar services for girls in Progressive communities.

Kiddushin – marriage: The Jewish family and home are at the centre of religious life and marriage is therefore very important. The marriage service can take place anywhere provided that the couple are married under a chuppah or canopy. Weddings can take place on any day of the week except for the Sabbath but many Orthodox Jews still choose to be married on a Tuesday because in the Biblical account of the Creation of the world the sentence ‘And G-d saw that it was good’ is said twice for the day.

Before the ceremony, two male witnesses sign a contract or ketubah saying what duties each partner will undertake as husband or wife.

The groom is then taken to where the bride is waiting and lets the veil down over her face. The groom is now sure that he is marrying the right woman. The Rabbi or chazzan says the blessing which was said to Rebecca before she married Isaac:

O sister!

May you grow

Into thousands of myriads;

May your offspring seize

The gates of their foes. (Genesis 24:60).

The groom stands under the chuppah facing Jerusalem while the bride walks around him seven times. There is a blessing over wine followed by the marriage blessing:

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us regarding forbidden unions; Who forbade betrothed women to us, the permitted women who are married to us through canopy and consecration. Blessed are You Hashem, Who sanctifies His people Israel through canopy and consecration.

The groom puts a plain gold ring on the first finger of the bride’s right hand and says: ‘Be sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel.’

There are then seven blessings – Sheva berachot. A glass is wrapped in a cloth and the groom smashes it under his foot. The bride and groom now go to a private room where they are alone together for the first time as husband and wife.

These three rites of passage all serve to strengthen the faith of a Jew by establishing their place in the community and history of Judaism.

Death is the final rite of passage. Judaism is concerned with life rather than death and lacks any clear teaching on the purpose of death or what follow it. In this respect it is very different from religions such as Christianity and Islam and also from those which teach reincarnation.

As they are dying, Jews try to say the Shema. After a death Jews say kaddish which is often described as a mourning prayer but is actually a prayer praising G-d. If possible burial should take place on the day of death but if not then on the following one. The body is washed and dried and then dressed in a simple white shroud. Men are wrapped in a tallit – prayer shawl – from which the fringes have been cut to show that he is now freed from the religious laws that bound him on earth. The body is buried in a plain wooden coffin. There is a very simple service with no flowers as everyone is deemed equal in death.

After the funeral the family will go home to sit Shiva ‘seven’. For seven days a candle is kept burning and the mirrors in the house are covered while the mourners do not leave their home. Kaddish is said three times a day.

Sheloshim is the period of thirty days after the burial when the bereaved do not go out for pleasure and continue to mourn.

For the next eleven months (but no longer), called Shanah, Kaddish is said every day.

Holy Days and Celebrations

Judaism is a religion of many festivals.

The weekly celebration of Shabbat (Sabbath) is sometimes seen as the most important. It takes place both in the home and the synagogue and the major requirement is that no work should be undertaken from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.

This has its origins in the book of Genesis:

On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done (Genesis 2:2-3).

And its observation is repeated in the book of Exodus:

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements (Exodus 20:8-10).

Probably the next most important events are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah – Head of the Year – the first and second days of the seventh month, Tishri is the Jewish New Year festival.

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded (Numbers 29:1).

The preceding month of Elul is a time of repentance.

Rosh Hashanah has several meanings:

– Tradition says that it is the anniversary of the Creation.
– The Rabbis named it Yom Hadin – the day of judgement.
– Tradition also says that on Rosh Hashanah G-d forgave Adam his sins.

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are known as the High Holy Days. In Hebrew they are Yamim Noraim the days of awe or the ten days of penitence Aseret Yemai Teshuvah.

Yom Kippur: Yom Kippur ends the ten days of repentance on 10 Tishri. On this day the decision which G-d makes about a person’s behaviour during the past year is said to be sealed in the Book of Life. The final sealing is believed to take place ten days later on Hoshanah Rabbah. Yom Kippur is also called Shabbat Shabbaton – the ultimate Sabbath.

Yom Kippur was the one day of the year on which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple and begged forgiveness for the people’s sins.

The festivals instructed to be observed in the Torah are generally seen as the most important. In addition to those above, they include the three Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot:

– Pesach – barley harvest
– Sukkot – the ingathering of the crops
– Shavuot – wheat harvest

Then there are the rabbinic festivals of Hanukkah and Purim and later observances such as Yom HaShoah.

All these days serve to bring the Jewish community together in worship and to remind people of their history, heritage and tradition.