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The Geography of Judaism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Traditionally, by Moses approximately 3,300 years ago. The patriarch Abraham is also considered the founder of the Jewish people. Many modern scholars believe Judaism coelesced from various associated tribes in Palestine approximately 3,000 years ago.

Adherents: Although Judaism is primarily an ethnic religion, it does have some universalizing elements. In the Second Temple era (approximately 2,000 years ago) there was active proselytization. However, the political atmosphere of the times eventually led Jewish leaders to discourage further proselytization. However, converts have made significant contributions to the faith.

Jews are scattered throughout the world in a diaspora. Jews are divided into two major ethnic groups. These are the Ashkenazi, whose ancestors originate from eastern Europe. These Jews have traditionally spoken a German dialect known as Yiddish. The second major group are descended the Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were present during the "Golden Age" of Moorish Spain, lasting from 900-1300 CE. The Sephardic Jews were then expelled from Spain in 1492 after Christian King Ferdinard had conquered the last of the Muslim strongholds in Iberia. Refugees then settled in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Holland. These Jews have used a Spanish dialect known as Ladino.

The major liturgical language is Hebrew. It is used in scripture, Jewish liturgy, and prayers. Hebrew was revived as a living language by Eliezer Ben Yehuda starting in the 1870's when the first modern settlements of the land of Israel were attempted by Jews. Aramaic was the language used in Babylon during the compilation of the Talmud. The use of Aramaic is important today by observant Jews in the study of the Talmud.

There are arguably two other major groups of Jews. One of these are known as Oriental Jews, found scattered in countries with ancient Jewish communities such as India and Yemen. They often have their own dialects. Another group which recently received the world's attention is Beta Israel, often disparagingly called the Falashas. This ancient group is descended from Jews settling in Ethopia as early as the days of Moses and use the Ge'ez tongue.

Distribution: Currently, the major concentrations of Jews are found in the United States and Israel. Russia has traditionally had a sizeable population of Jews, historically in the western part of the Russian empire known as the eastern Pale, but has in recent years lost Jews through emigration to the United States and Israel.

There are also significant Jewish communities in South Africa, Latin America, and central Asia. The distribution listed below for Jews is from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America1,092,0000.2%
Northern America7,003,0002.5%

Until the second World War, Europe, especially in eastern Europe, had a much larger number of Jews than we find today. However, during the years from 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany organized and conducted a systematic deportment, concentration, and murder of millions of Jews, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, Gypsies, political dissenters, and other persons considered undesirable by the Nazi state. The goal of this "final solution" was the extermination of all of the world's Jews. It is estimated that approximately 6,000,000 Jews perished during this time, now known as "the Holocaust". Whole previously established communities disappeared from the earth. For further information on the Holocaust, please see the Holocaust links below.

Major Teachings: Judaism was the first major monotheistic religion. This monotheism eventually gave birth to two other world religions; namely, Christianity and Islam. The Jewish people were given the mission by God in the Hebrew Bible (referred to as the "Old Testament" by Christians) to be a blessing to the world. The three major tenets of Judaism are God, Torah, and Israel.

Scriptures and Significant Writings: The books of the Tanakh, or the "Old Testament" is recognized as canon. Tanakh is an acronym for the three Jewish divisions of the Bible: Torah, the five books of Moses containing the Jewish Law; Nevi'im, the books of the prophets; and Ketuvim, the books more commonly known as "the Writings" such as the Psalms and the Proverbs. The Torah takes central stage in Jewish doctrine and way of life: it contains the 613 commandments that God gave to Israel. The Talmud Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, is also seen as authoritive. Various works on Halakhah, or Jewish Law, such as the Shulkhan Arukh are held in high regard.

Symbols: The most recognized is the Magen David, or the shield of David, the six pointed star pictured on this website's button. A more ancient symbol of Judaism is the 7 branched candelabra which belonged in the holy place of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. This symbol was depicted on coins and was even depicted on a Roman monument to the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus.

Major Divisions: Today, Judaism is generally divided into three major branches: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. A smaller, yet significant branch is Reconstructionist. Orthodoxy can be further subdivided into the Mitnaged and Chassidic groups. Some division can be observed between the "modern" Orthodox disciples of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the "ultra" Orthodox.

Major Holy Days: These include Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles), Simchat Torah (rejoicing of the Law), Channukhah (feast of Dedication), Purim (feast of Lots), Pesach (the Passover), and Shavuot (feast of Weeks).

The Details about Judaism

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Whether you take the orthodox approach to Judaism, or a more modern approach, you will likely see that Judaism is a religion which evolved from simple origins. Avroham Avinu, or Abraham our father, made a covenant with the one God and became the father of many nations. His covenant passed down through his children Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve tribes. When their descendents emerged from Egypt, they were a nation.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, this nation heard the voice of God. They were given the everlasting law as part of a covenant to make them a peculiar people, taken out of all the nations of the world. It is keeping this law, or Torah, which sets them apart. It is how this torah is interpreted and kept which now separates the differing branches of Judaism today.

Orthodoxy is based on strict observance of Halakhah, or the body of Jewish law based on the Taryag Mitzvahs, the 613 Commandments given in the Torah; that is, the 5 books of the Pentateuch given to Moses by God. Reform Judaism is based upon the Haskalah, or "German Enlightenment" which started in the late 1700's. It is felt that observance of the commandments is designed to evolve and to meet the current conditions. Conservative Judaism, though not as strict in observing Halakhah as Orthodoxy, nevertheless places a high value on tradition. The emphasis of Reconstructionism is that of evolving a Jewish civilization, rather than strict observance of Torah.

In the Second Temple era, a large numbers of sects arose. Readers of the New Testament would be familiar with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also records several other sects including the Essenes and the Zealots. Various schismatic and messianic movements arose throughout its history. Christianity originated from the messianic hopes of the Second Temple era in Roman dominated Judea. By 400 CE, Halakhah was codified in the collation of the Mishnah (the Oral Law) and the its corresponding Gemara (commentary on Mishnah). Together, Halakhah and Gemara form the Talmud, coelescing the knowledge and traditions preserved by the Pharisees. As a result, all of Judaism today is descended from the Pharisees.

Many great teachers, or rabbis, arose during the long history of Judaism. Many were recorded in the Talmud. Others came after the compilation of the Talmud and are famous today for their teaching on the Torah. One of the more famous of these was the RAMBAM (an acronym), or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. His most famous book was on the 613 commandments of the five books of Moses. He also compiled the Thirteen Principles of Faith which now act as a creed for observant Jews today.

The Geography of Judaism

A Lament

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps
upon the willows
in the midst thereof.

For there they
that carried us away captive
required of us a song;
and they that wasted us
required of us mirth,
saying, Sing us
one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing
the Lord's song
in a strange land?

If I forget thee,
O Jerusalem,
let my right hand
forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
let my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem
above my chief joy.

-- Psalm 137:1-6

The earliest teachings of Judaism revolved around eretz yisrael, or the land of Israel. In the Hebrew language of the "Old Testament", whenever the scriptures speak of a Jew entering the land, he "ascends". Whenever a Jew departs, he "descends". The Torah threatens exile from the land as the punishment for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28). Until the last 2,000 years of exile, the land was essential to the religion. Many of the laws of the Torah are only applicable when Israel is in the land. To emphasize the importance of the land to the fathers, each Pesach, or Passover is ended with the exclamation, "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Judaism has this orientation because it is primarily an ethnic religion. According to the Torah, the patriarchs dwelt in Palestine. The scriptures records an era of rule by judges, then of the first Israelite kingdoms. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was divided between Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Eventually, both kingdoms suffered exile by the invading empires of Assyria and Babylon.

Since the time of the first exile, Judaism has had to deal with the question of the importance of the land to the overall theology of Judaism. Even today, the land is the cause of great disputation between opposing sides. Furthermore, Judaism has had to deal with a far flung diaspora of adherents throughout the world.

The oldest Jewish communities of the diaspora were probably in Ethiopia and on the Nile River. The Babylonian exile created the first large Jewish settlements outside of the land of Israel. Eventually, Babylon became a major seat of Jewish scholarship. When the exiles started to return to the land of Israel, they came under Greek influence. Jewish settlements appeared throughout the Mediterranean. Trade spread Jewish settlements as far away as North Africa and Yemen.

Anti-semitism has led to some of the unusual migrations and settlement patterns found in Jewish history. The eastern Pale of Settlement was the only area within the empire of Catherine the Great in which Jews were allowed to settle. Jews were forbidden to settle in Russia. Within the Pale, Jews were forced to live in small villages known as Shtetlach. Although hard, shtetl life preserved the Jewish faith and community life.

The greatest concentrations of Jews today are found in New York City and in Israel. Although surrounded by controversy and in conflict with the goals of others, Israel again became a nation after an absence of nearly 2,000 years. The ancient liturgical language of Hebrew again became a living language, and the desert again began to bloom.

The center of Jewish life is the city of Jerusalem. It was first conquered by King David, who made it his capital city. His son Solomon built the first permanent temple within the walls of Jerusalem. The city became the center of the temple cult which sanctified the city. Jerusalem was the focal point of the two pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Sukkot. By the time the Second Temple was built, Jerusalem had become much more of a cosmopolitan city. Jews of every persuasion walked the streets and people from across the known world were to be found.

Eventually, foreign armies ruled the land. Eventually, after continual revolts against the Roman Empire, Jerusalem to Titus in the year 70 CE. After the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 CE, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and Jews were forbidden to reenter the city upon pain of death. Thus began the latest galut, or exile.

The Torah provided many practices which affected the land. For example, the prohibitions against animals classed as unclean, such as pigs, affects what animals are raised in the land. The very strict separation of meat from dairy products affects the handling and distribution of food products. Historically, the Torah mandated a total rest of all farmland throughout Israel every seven years. In fact, the failure to observe this mitzvah, or commandment, is cited by the rabbis as being one of the contributing reasons for the first exile.


Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, Understanding Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1991. This book is now available in video which can be viewed on the internet at Six Thirteen Dot Org.

Cahn-Lipman, Rabbi David E., The Book of Jewish Knowledge. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1991.

Donin, Rabbi Hayim HaLevy, To Be a Jew. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1972.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Steinberg, Milton, Basic Judaism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1975.

Links for More Information

The number of websites relating to Judaism is growing rapidly, including good commercial sites. The reader is encouraged to use web search engines to find the newer pages as they come online.
General Links
Havienu L'Shalom ( tour a virtual synagogue with clickable graphics)
Aish HaTorah International
Jewish Communication Network
Navigating the Bible by ORT
Shamash: The Jewish Internet Consortium
The Hypertext Halacha (Jewish law)
Jewish Communities of the World
Online audio and videos from Six Thirteen Dot Org (awesome!)
The Jewish Music Network
The Ultimate Jewish/Israel Link Launcher Page

Modern Orthodox
The Orthodox Union

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Union of American Hebrew Congregations

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Read a Story
Breslov Research Institute
Chabad (Lubavitcher)
A Guide to Chabad Literature
Unofficial Satmarer page
ThinkJewish International (Chassidic online classes and music)

The Temple
The Temple Institute
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Ritmeyer Archaeological Design (fantastic illustrations!)
The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement (highly controversial group)

Benai Noach
Chavrurath B'nei Noach
Emmanuel Study Centre
B'nai Noach of Tyler, Texas
The Seven Noahide Commandments

Jews for Judaism
Outreach Judaism
The Holocaust
Shamash's Holocaust Page
Cybrary of the Holocaust
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yad Vashem (Jerusalem)

Virtual Jerusalem
Live Cam on the Kotel or "Wailing Wall" of the Second Temple
Version 1.1 dated 07.06.98

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