O level Notes : FRS - Indigenous religion - Judaism

Judaism is a religion which originated with Abraham and was perpetuated by the patriarchs. It is a religion which believes in one God called Yahweh.

As an Abrahamic religion, Judaism has unique rituals, religious practitioners and sacred places. This chapter discusses Judaism by focusing on rituals, identifying religious practitioners, explaining roles of religious practitioners, identifying sacred places and describing the importance of sacred places.


A ritual can be defined as a religious ceremony or ceremonies that are often repeated in the same form. Judaism has elaborated religious ceremonies that are based on the Jewish law “halakhah” which is the path one has to follow in Judaism. Rituals are guided halakhah as it stipulates what is supposed to be eaten and put on when performing  rituals. Furthermore, rituals in Judaism  help in expressing  gratitude, exhibiting Jewish identity and bringing  in the sacredness of God in daily life. As such, there are rituals associated with birth, worship, prayer and death in Judaism.  Rituals in Judaism are in two categories namely, daily rituals and life cycle rituals.

1. Daily rituals

These are rituals which are done daily and they include prayer in the morning, afternoon and evening. Prayer encompasses recitation of Kadoish which reaffirms faith in God. God is at the centre of Jewish life and should be worshipped  wholeheartedly.  Morning prayers (Shacharat) are held every day, early in the morning, normally during the first three or four hours of the day. The afternoon prayers (Minchah), are held by mid-day and there are also evening prayers (Maariv). These prayer rituals are adhered to by all Jews in Judaism.

Importance of the daily prayer ritual

  • Ritual prayer  services  are  substitutes   for temple sacrifices (Tamid).
  • Prayer  rituals   were   introduced    by    the Patriarchal fathers of the Jewish nation. Morning,  afternoon  and   evening   prayers were commonly  done by Abraham (Genesis 22:3), Isaac (Genesis 24:63) and Jacob (Genesis 28:11).
  • Daily   prayer  rituals  are  in   keeping   with the  Torah  expectations,  as  Jews  are  strict followers of the Torah.

2. Birth rituals (Leviticus 12)

The first ritual in Judaism is the birth ritual in which the child is given a name and blessed in the synagogue. According to Genesis chapter 1:28, when a child is born in a Jewish family, there is jubilation that comes with the, “be fruitful and multiply” instruction from God (Yahweh). In Judaism, the birth of a child is celebrated joyously in accordance with the dictates of the Torah that Jews should increase in numbers. The born child is given a Hebrew or a Jewish name or is named after his or her family ancestry.

The name of the child is supposed to connect with the people, events and stories of the time. Most male children are named after their male forefathers. The newly born child is usually taken into the synagogue for prayer and thanksgiving, including  offerings, conducted by the Priest. The woman who has given birth is ritually unclean for 40 days for the birth of the son and 80 days for the birth of the daughter.

Importance of the birth ritual

  • Usually the birth ritual is done to accept the child into the Jewish community. Upon birth, the child becomes a member of the community, hence, the joyous rituals carried out at birth.
  • The naming of the child gives him or her a Jewish identity. The child is identified with the Jewish genealogy.
  • Presentation of the child in the synagogue by a priest is a way of blessing the child. The prayer and the offering are a way of thanking God for the child.
  • Naming is done to convert the newly born child to Judaism.


(a) Circumcision (Brit Milah)

Circumcision  is the removal of the foreskin of the male sexual organ.  It is a sign  of identity that one is a Jew. Therefore, all Jews who are descendants of Abraham, believe that they are God’s elect through the covenant made between God and Abraham in which Abraham was made to circumcise himself by God (Genesis 17:10-11) are circumcised. Every male child is circumcised  on the 8th  day from the day of birth.

This circumcision  is carried out by  a mohel which means  a  circumciser  who  is  pious  and  educated Jew in the law and surgical  techniques.  When the circumcision  is done, the child is held by a person called a sandek which literally means a godfather who is usually a grandparent or a family rabbi.  During circumcision, various blessings are recited and the child is given a formal Hebrew name. Circumcision is the initial phase which makes one part of the Jewish religion.  In some Jewish communities, the ritual of male circumcision is done together with the naming of the child. In Judaism, uncircumcised males are forbidden to take part in all religious activities, let alone, participate in the temple services.

Circumcision is a binding legal requirement for both the father and the son. If the father fails to make his son circumcised, it is the duty of the son to make sure that he fulfils this religious obligation by being circumcised. The person who fails to be circumcised is guilty of the sin of kareit meaning spiritual excision.

Importance of the circumcision ritual in Judaism

  • The ritual is done to signify that the child is a true son of the lineage of Abraham who introduced the traditional rite of circumcision.
  • Circumcision marks entry by the male child into the Jewish community, hence, the ritual is a form of identification for the child who has to be identified with the rest of the Jews.
  • The ritual of circumcision in Judaism  has become  law for all Jews to follow.  Jews are very strict observers of the Torah and therefore, adhere to all statutes including the circumcision ritual.
  • Since the circumcision ritual was first performed by Abraham as part of his covenant with God, it is done as a sign that the Jews are God’s chosen people, descendants  of Abraham. The ritual of circumcision is seen by the Jews as a mark of distinction between the Jews and other nationalities.
  • So that the child can be given a Jewish name.

(b) Redemption of the first-born son

In Judaism, the first and best things belong to God. As such, first born children belong to God. It is widely believed that the first son would serve as a priest and temple religious practitioner. This made first sons sacred and therefore belong to God.  First sons in the line of Aaron and the Levites are supposed to take full time jobs as temple attendants. When a first born son is 31 days old, it is normal practice for the father to,

‘buy back’ or redeem the son from the temple by paying a silver coin or a shekel as according to the Torah as stated in Numbers 18:15. The first born son is predestined to serve in the temple as a priest (kohen), a family representative to the Holy Temple (Exodus 13:1-2).

The father has to redeem the first-born son in order to retain him instead of leaving him to be given to the temple as full-time temple attendant. In Judaism, this ritual practice is called the ‘Pidyon Haben’. After paying a price for the first-born son, the father then recites two blessings for the boy. The shekels or silver coins are taken by the priest who then places them on the boy’s head and blesses the boy.

Importance of the Redemption of the firstborn son

  • The redemption of the first-born son is important to the Jews as it is a reminder of the Exodus events when God spared the Hebrew first born sons from the wrath of the tenth plague that destroyed the Egyptian first-born sons.
  • All first born Jewish sons, therefore, belong to God and the father of the son has to ‘buy him back’ from God.
  • The ritual is also done as a gesture of love for the first-born son.
  • The first-born son receives some blessings from the Priest in the temple.

(c) Bar mitzvah (Son of Commandment)/Bat – mitzvah (Daughter of commandment)

This ritual is done for boys and girls upon reaching the age of 13. Bar means, ‘Son of Commandments or the law’, therefore, bar mitzvah means, ‘Son of the law.’ For girls, bat stands for ‘Daughter’, meaning, ‘Daughter of the law.’ At the age of thirteen (13), both boys and girls are considered responsible for their actions. It is at this age that boys can start to participate in ritual law, ethics and traditions in Judaism.

Preparation for marriage begins  at this stage. They can begin to possess property. Boys, at this age, are eligible  to wear the tallith, showing  that they are now bound by the law and also eligible to read the Torah in the synagogue. The boy undergoing this ritual has to attend a minimum  number  of prayer services, (Shabbat)  and  studies  in the synagogue. After all these processes, the boy or girl can take on charity and community service projects.

Importance of the ritual

  • The ritual is a process of preparing boys and girls for adulthood.
  • The ritual enables boys and girls to be responsible after going through the maturation process.
  • The boys and girls begin to participate in community services as adults.
  • They would be grown up to the stage where they can read the law in the synagogue  and even attend the Passover commemorations.


3. Marriage ritual


Marriage rituals are so many in Judaism and these include circling the bride, veiling of the bride, betrothal and wedding ritual.

(a) Veiling the bride (Bedeken)

This is done only for a bride’s first marriage. The bride is veiled in the morning before the evening wedding. It was done by the groom and in some cases where the groom is not present, the rabbi ceremonially veiled the bride. The practice of veiling is derived from the Bible. According  to Genesis 38:14, Tamar veils herself before Judah approaches. The purpose of veiling is hidding the identity of the bride from her father in-law. The other example is that of Rebecca who veiled herself as she was told that Isaac is approaching  (Genesis

24:64). According to the Jewish custom, veiling is not a mere social formality but a legal requirement which is a concluding procedure before the wedding. A veil carries various symbols like being a symbol of being married as well as a symbol of unapproachability  to others and a symbol of modest.

(b) Betrothal (Kiddushin)

According  to the Jewish law, marriage is a two-way process.  The first step is kiddushin (betrothal) and the second is nisuin (actual wedding). Betrothal rendered the bride and groom as full-fledged husband and wife. The groom betroths the bride by giving  her a ring and this is preceded by a blessing from the priest recited by the rabbi.  When the two are betrothed, they cannot divorce because they are considered  as husband  and wife. The two are not allowed  to engage  in a sexual relationship  before the second step (nusuin) is completed.

Since  rituals in  Judaism  emanate  from the Torah, marriage  is considered  an important  ritual in line

with Genesis 1:20-28 where instructions regarding the union of male and female were given to the Jews by God during the Adam and Eve era. The marriage ritual is usually done in the synagogue  and conducted by a priest. It begins with the recitation of the sheva Brachot (seven benedections). The bride circles the groom seven times, a ritual of blessing denoting the seven days of God’s creation. The bride and the groom sign the ‘ketuba’, a contract of responsibilities for both parties who are wedding. The wedding  concludes with the groom breaking the glass.

Importance of the marriage ritual in Judaism

  • The ritual is carried out in respect of God’s command in Genesis 1:28, ‘be fruitful and multiply.’
  • The marriage ritual secures a union between male and female to share life experiences such as pleasures, hardships and the rearing of children born within the wedlock.
  • Families are joined together through the marriage ritual.
  • The blessings  conducted  by a Priest in the synagogue  during the marriage ritual offer protection from evil for the newly weds.
  • Marriage is done within the Jewish community, not outside, the practice maintains Jewish culture and identity.
  • Marrying a foreigner, that is someone from another tribe, brings foreign beliefs and practices that are forbidden in Judaism, a monotheist religion and so cannot be part of the ritual.


4. Menstrual purification ritual for women (Leviticus 15)


The ritual, which is called, ‘Mikvah’ in Judaism, is a bath ritual done after a woman’s menstrual cycle. The ritual bathing takes place one full week after the menstruation has stopped. It is also called ritual immersion done to achieve ritual purity. ‘Mikvah’ is a pool for dipping  by a woman at the end of a menstrual period. The Torah commands a woman to purify herself after a menstrual period. Women are regarded as unclean when they are in their menstruation period and there is need for ritual cleansing.


Importance of the ritual


  • The bath ritual is to cleanse the woman before she could, once again, sleep with her husband.
  • The ritual is a ceremonial cleansing in keeping with Jewish customs that have to be adhered to.


5. Passover rituals (Numbers 28:16)


Events of the Passover commemorations  are rituals carried out in Judaism. Lambs are slaughtered  and roasted meat is consumed as part of peace offerings. Unleavened  bread  is consumed  during  the  ritual. Jews also take wine and some bitter herbs as part of remembrance  of the exodus  events when  God delivered them from Egyptian bondage to the promised land of Canaan and the hardships which they encountered during the exodus wanderings.


Importance of the Passover rituals

  • Remembrance of the crossing over of the Red sea.
  • The Passover rituals are a reminder of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt.
  • The rituals are part of thanksgiving to their God for being the chosen people of God and God’s offer of the Promised Land.

Pentecost rituals (Numbers 28:26 and Leviticus 23:15)


The rituals are done every fifty days after the Passover ceremony. These are rituals that are done during the harvest of the first and last fruits of crops. The ceremony is marked with offerings of portions of one’s crop yields to the disadvantaged  and the marginalised such as the poor, the widows and orphans. Offerings are also done to the temple.

Importance of the rituals


  • Rituals are done as part of thanksgiving for the harvest and good yields.
  • The rituals are part of offerings to the needy, where one gives out part of one’s yield.


7. Death and funeral rites


In Judaism, death is accepted as reality, hence, there are preparations that are done for this ultimate reality, death. The dead body is cleansed by the ‘Holy Society’, an organisation of volunteers from the community known as, ‘Chevra kadisha’. The Jewish custom is that burial of the dead takes place in less than 24 hours. Mourning the dead goes on up to a week, normally by the relatives of the deceased.

(a) Tearing of the garment

When a Jew dies, a custom of tearing the garment is done. This is because tearing of the garment is an expression of pain and sorrow over the passing on of a close relative or beloved one. It is part of the mourning process. This tearing of a garment has a deeper meaning. Death is viewed as tragedy in Judaism and a loss shows the feeling of separation. The Jews mourn for seven days followed by a year of mourning. Tearing of the garment is done with a dual symbolism. Firstly, it shows great loss and that the hearts of the mourners are torn. Secondly, the body is a garment which the souls wears and death strip off the soul of its clothes hence the tearing of the garment to show the separation of the body and the soul.

(b) Shiva ritual

Shiva is a seven days period of mourning  for close relatives like parents, spouses, children and siblings of the person who has died. It is the third stage in the stages of mourning  in Judaism. It’s a stage where individuals within the family can start to discuss the loss and accept the comfort of others. At the funeral, mourners wear an outer garment or ribbon that is torn during the procession (keriah). This garment is worn throughout  Shiva and mourners remain at home while friends and relatives visit mourners to pay their condolences and give them comfort. Shiva is a ritual which allows mourners to express their sorrow, discuss the loss of their beloved one and provide the opportunity to join the wider society.

(c) Shloshim ritual

The period of thirty days following the burial and period of mourning by all relatives other than the father and mother is called Shloshim. During  this bereavement period, the mourner is not allowed to marry or attend a religious festival meal. Men are also not permitted to shave or have haircuts during this period. During Shloshim the following practices are done:

  • sitting on a low stool.
  • remaining indoors.
  • wearing non-leather shoes.
  • abstaining from marital relations.
  • prohibition of work.
  • prohibition of the studying of the Torah.

(d) Shaving of the hair ritual

Shaving hair is a ritual that is conducted in Judaism. When mourning the loss of relatives who are not parents, haircuts are not permitted until the end of the Shloshim while mourning of a parent prohibits the cutting of hair for twelve months. The non-removal of hair in Judaism is a sign of mourning.

Importance of death rituals


  • Death rituals are done to give a befitting send-off to the deceased.
  • Jews believe that death rituals sustain the spirit of the bereaved.
  • Rituals are done in anticipation of the resurrection.


Religious practitioners are leaders of a particular religion. In Judaism, religious practitioners date back to the period of the prophets such as Moses, the founder of the Israelite (Jewish) prophecy. Modern Jewish religious practitioners are found all over the world where they are representatives of the Jewish community there. They are referred to as ‘Rabbis’, which means teachers of the Torah. Judaism worldwide is comprised of several different religious practitioners. However, the branches of Judaism active today are not the same as those seen in the Bible especially during the Old Testament period. The religious practitioners have to be understood separately noting the stages in Jewish history. There are early Jewish religious practitioners and late Jewish religious practitioners.

(a) Rabbi

A Rabbi is a teacher who teaches matters of religious law. He had a special authority in overseeing matters of religious law. A rabbi is simply a teacher who is educated in halakah and is responsible for answering questions  and resolving  problems  arising  from religious  law (Halakah). A Rabbi  performs a number  of responsibilities, among them providing education to both young and adults, interpreting the Torah for the ordinary Jew, conducting  religious ceremonies and rites, leading in charitable works and match making of boys and girls because marriage is an arranged process in Judaism. Rabbis are role models to the Jewish community through their conduct and deportment.

(b) Chazzan (A cantor)

Is a person who leads the congregation in prayer in Judaism. He is supposed to be a person with good moral character and have knowledge  of prayer and songs of praise so that he could lead prayer in temple and

synagogue. In smaller congregations  he can serve as both a chazzan and a Rabbi. A chazzan would lead a Sabbath service and would also conduct weddings and funeral services. He could also visit sick congregants and teach adult education classes.

(c) Gabbai

The term “Gabbai” means a caretaker or man of all work.  A Gabbai  is a lay person who volunteers to perform various duties in connection with the Torah and also religious services. A Gabbai is a person who is thoroughly  versed in the Torah. A Gabbai volunteers to perform duties that have to do with the Torah at various religious functions. He chooses the right people to read the Torah and reciting blessings over it. Though it is voluntary to work as a Gabbai, serving as a Gabbai is considered a great honour as one has to monitor the reading and chanting of the Torah by a selected reader.

Functions of Gabbai


  • Choose people who receive an Aliyah (the honour of reciting blessings over a Torah herding).
  • reads the Torah.
  • To stand next to the person who is reading from the Torah checking the reader’s pronunciation and correcting any mistakes in the reading.
  • Maintains a Jewish cemetery.
  • Manages financial affairs at a local synagogue.

(d) Kohein (High Priest)

These were descendants of Aaron. Aaron was a High Priest by virtue of having  been chosen  by God to perform animal sacrifices and rituals in order to atone for the Golden Calf incident. They were responsible for receiving  sacrifices offered by  the people  and performing  rituals in the temple. Priest performs a lot of Rabbi duties including  receiving an Aliya task of reciting  a blessing  over a Torah reading  or over a congregation  at certain times of the year. He also kept Urim and Thumim, officiated at sacrifices and was also a leader of the Sanhedrin council.

(e) Levites

These were descendants  of Levi. They were responsible  for helping  priests. They were responsible  for dressing a high priest and maintain order in the temple. A Levite is known to serve particular religious duties in Judaism. They also carry out some educational responsibilities as well. In return, Jews pay them through tithes. Originally, Levites were assistants to priests who assigned them to choral music in the temple and being temple guards.


(f) Prophets


Prophets were religious practitioners of Judaism  as they acted as intermediators between God and the Israelites. They acted as custodians of God’s sacred laws as well as foretelling the future.



In Judaism, there are places that are considered holy because of their religious significance. These places are as old as the Old Testament times but Jews still treat them with a lot of reverence and respect. The places remind the Jews of their origins, history, covenants and punishments from Yahweh their God. All these form the basis of their existence.


1. The Jewish Temple


The Jerusalem temple is considered as sacred in Judaism. This is where the tabernacle or the ark of covenant in which the Ten Commandments  were stored in the Holy of holies found in the temple. Jerusalem has a historical, religious and spiritual significance  for Jews. It is the holiest structure in Judaism  where Jews perform sacrifices at least three times a year in fulfilment of the commandment  of God.  It is a place where Jews had direct communication with their God. This temple was built by Solomon after his father had been instructed not to build the temple by Prophet Nathan.

Structure of the temple

(a) castle of Antonia

This is an apartment where the High Priest’s robes were kept.

(b) Court of gentiles

This is the court which was open to all races. It also acted as a market place.

(c) Court of women

It was open to Jewish women. Women were not allowed to go beyond this court.

(d) court of Israel

This is the place which was open to ordinary Jewish men who were not priests. They were not allowed to go beyond this court unless if there was a festival.

(e) Court of Priests

This was open to Jewish priests and the main alter was in this place. The court of priests had an altar of incense and an altar of burnt offerings. Sacrifices were conducted in this court.

(f) Holy of Holies


This was the most sacred part of the temple. Jews had a strong conviction that Yahweh their God was found in this place because of the Ark of the Covenant which was housed in this place. It marked the distinction between the holiness of God and the sinful people. The High Priest entered into this place once a year on the Day of Atonement. The place was covered by a curtain which demarcated the inner most court and the Holy of Holies.


2. The Western Wall


The  Western Wall  was  constructed  as  a  support wall of the Temple Mount. It surrounded the Jewish temple  which  was  built  by  Herod  the  Great and later destroyed  by  the Roman  legions  in  A.D. 70. The wall is commonly  referred to as the, ‘Wailing Wall’, a remnant of the destruction inflicted by the Roman legions  that left the Jews wailing  for their sacred  place,  the  temple.  Jews  strongly   believe that the temple  is the holiest  place  on earth, the divine presence did not leave the place even after the destruction. The Western Wall was built by poor people  who gave  their whole to put it up despite lack of resources and this is why it is regarded as a sacred place in Judaism.

Importance of the sacred Western Wall

  • The Western Wall has become a famous world religious tourist destination. Jews across the world gather there as part of their pilgrimage.
  • The wall has become a focal point for prayer which is uniquely holy. All prayers throughout the world are believed to ascend to the Western Wall first before ascending to heaven.
  • According to Genesis 17:7, God promised the Jews divine protection against their enemies. Jews were regularly attacked and even exiled, but never destroyed just like the Western Wall that remained intact despite efforts to destroy it. The wall also signifies protection of God on the Jews.
  • Despite it being the, ‘Wailing Wall’, the Western Wall has become a symbol of devastation and hope.

Pilgrims get there to weep over their afflictions with the hope and belief that they will be redeemed.

  • Angels of God are believed to have spread their wings in protection of the wall duringthe destruction.

It is for this reason that the wall is endowed with everlasting sanctity even when desolate.


3. Synagogue


A synagogue is a house of prayer in Judaism which is consecrated. This means that it is a holy place as sacred texts are read in this house as well as worshiping. Sacred items like the skull cup and prayer shawl are put on when entering into the synagogue. This is done to show reverence to God and to show that God is sacred. All this points to the sacredness of the synagogue. Unlike the temple, the synagogue  is found in every community as a place of prayer. It was built where Jewish men are found.


4. The Temple Mount


This place is also called the Noble Sanctuary which is within the Old City of Jerusalem. It is considered one of the holiest sites in Judaism. It is believed to be the location where Adam was created. It is the same place where Isaac was bound for sacrifice by his father Abraham. This is where the first and the second temples stood. Jews skirt around the mount to avoid getting closer to the Holy of Holies of the temple which houses the Ark of the Covenant  that contains the Decalogue. To the Jews, the Holy of Holies is God’s place of residence.

Importance of the Temple Mount


  • The Temple  Mount  is  regarded  as  God’s choice of divine presence in Jewish belief.
  • The Mount is sacrosanct due to the Holy of Holies of the temple where there is the Ark of the Covenant, which is the epicentre of the Jewish belief.
  • The  temple   Mount  is  considered   noble, hence the title given to it – Noble Sanctuary.
  • It is at the Temple Mount where Jews turn to during prayer.


5. Israel

The name of the nation of Israel was derived from Jacob who had wrestled with an angel. Jacob cried for blessings from the angel before its departure from the wrestling scene. Israel became the nation comprising all the twelve tribes of Jacob’s sons, blessed by God. The land of Israel is now the Promised Land, a land of the covenant given to them by God. Jews believe that they are the chosen people of God, blessed with the land of Israel. That is why Israel is considered a sacred and holy place.


Importance of Israel


  • Israel is a holy land, given to the Jews by God, from the period of the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  • Israel is home  to  the  chosen  people  of God,  who  are highly  blessed  through  their covenant relationship with God.


Mount Sinai


The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. A cloud (Shekinah) symbolised God’s divine presence. God is known in Exodus 19 to have descended to speak to the Israelites (Jews). For that reason, Jews consider Mount Sinai as God’s place of visit and therefore, sacred. God regularly talked with Moses on Mount Sinai, holding  face-to-face dialogue. Moses is one among a few who could claim that he

‘saw’ God and lived, for Jews believe that no one can see God and live, because Moses was shown God’s back at Mount Sinai. That is why Mount Sinai is considered sacred to this day.


Importance of Mount Sinai in Judaism


  • It was a meeting place for God and Moses, who was a great prophet for the Jews. This is where the Ten Commandments were received by Moses, and the covenant between God and Israel sealed. As such, it shows the origin of when the Jews were chosen to be God’s people.
  • Mount Sinai, to the Jews, is God’s dwelling place.