Who are the Jews, and what is Judaism? In the simplest terms:
we Jews are the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel. We’re Israelites – בני ישראל, Bnei Yisra’el.
Judaism – Yehudid יהדות – is the religious civilization of the Jewish people. It is our beliefs, way of life, holidays, liturgy, musical, literary, and artistic heritage, language and history, all in one.
Jews in Biblical times
Our ancestors lives as the 12 tribes of Israel: Reuben (ראובן), Simeon (שמעון), Levi (לוי), Judah (יהודה), Issachar (יששכר), Zebulun (זבולון), Dan (דן), Naphtali (נפתלי), Gad (גד ), Asher (אשר), Benjamin (בנימין ), and the tribe of Joseph (יוסף). The tribe of Joseph was later split into two half-tribes – Ephraim (אפרים) and Manasseh (מנשה).
This is where our ancestors lived in אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.
So now we have another way to define the Jews: The Jews are the people indigenous to Eretz Yisrael.
In ancient times Jewish people lived there as a free and independent people. In some ways the focus of our religious and communal life was observed at our Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
We lived in our land for a long time, and today we still learn the stories of our people during Biblical times, during the reigns of Kings like Saul, David, Solomon.
But after the churban חורבן – the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, the occupying Roman empire ethnically cleansed most of our ancestors.
Our Scripture – the Torah and Tanakh
The core of our scripture is the Torah (five books of Moses) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In synagogues today we still see the Torah still written in the traditional way, in a scroll made of animal parchment.
Understand that the Torah is part of a larger work – the Hebrew Bible. This includes the books of Joshua, Kings, Pslams, Isaiah, Amos, and many others.
In Hebrew we call our Bible the Tanakh תָּנָ״ךְ or Mikra מקרא, (“that which is read.”)
We also call our Bible the “written law” – Torah she’bikhtav, תורה שבכתב.
Jews usually call it the Hebrew Bible to distinguish it from the later Christian Bible, which adds many newer books.
Judaism depends on our oral law
Our Bible, by itself, isn’t enough to describe Judaism. It is self-evident that some oral law always existed alongside the Torah. Many terms used in the Torah are undefined; it clearly assumes that the Israelites already had some information, even for the most common of activities
Any anthropologist would tell you that in order to understand what a sacred scripture means then one has to learn from the people that wrote it.
Our people’s understanding of the Bible is contained within what we call the Torah she’be’al peh תורה שבעל פה – the oral law.
As the name suggests, it was transmitted orally for quite a long time. The first written compilation of it is the Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה written circa 200 CE.
-> Also see Judaism isn’t just based on the Bible alone.
The Development of rabbinic Judaism
Due to the Roman occupation of our land, many of our people were exiled to the east, to Babylon.
Yet even centuries after the Roman conquest, many Jewish people still lived in our homeland, especially in Tiberias and the Galilee area.
In these places, at this time Jews were farmers and artisans, wine makers and fishermen, tradespeople and scholars.
It was in the first 400 years of the common era (1 to 400 AD) that rabbinic Judaism developed into its modern form in ancient Israel – then called Syria Palaestina. Roman occupiers had renamed Israel after their conquest in an attempt to disconnect it from its indigenous people.
It was here in our ancestral homeland that the first Talmud developed.
The rabbis struggled to adapt to a world in which the Temple no longer stood, and in which we no longer had our own nation. The rabbis grappled with questions of belief and doubt, ethics and economics – and saw that our way of life could continue without our central Temple.
Our kitchens, homes, places of work, and prayers in local, smaller houses of worship – synagogues – became our Temple. A meal with bread and salt became holy by eating food that was kosher and offering a brachah (blessing); farming was made holy by treating workers with fairness and leaving the corners of the field as offerings to the hungry; commerce and business transactions became an opportunity for holiness by having just weights and measures.
Their conclusions and questions became the basis of Talmud Yerushalmi תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, the Jerusalem Talmud. This is not a book per se, but rather a multi-volume, encyclopedic compendium of centuries of discussions.
It was redacted in Israel sometime between 400 to 500 CE, although editing continued on for centuries afterward.
Jews in ancient Babylon
The largest Jewish community at this time was in Babylon; this area today is part of Iran and Iraq.
Just like in Israel, the Babylonian rabbis adapted Judaism to a world in which the Temple no longer stood. They grappled with the same questions that their counterparts in northern Israel dealt with. Over time they often come to differing conclusions, or they extended the reasoning to cover new areas.
Over time their work was compiled as Talmud Bavli, תַּלְמוּד בבל, the Babylonian Talmud. It was redacted by 550 CE, further editing continued into the 800s.
How the diaspora led to today’s Jewish groups
In our diaspora many Jewish families went to the east, to regions that today we call Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Jews of this region became known as Mizrahi Jews ( יהודי המִזְרָח) or Edot HaMizrach (עֲדוֹת-הַמִּזְרָח), “[Jewish] Communities of the [Middle] East.”
Others made their way through the Caucasus, to Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and to Great Britain. The Jews of Eastern and Central Europe eventually became known as Ashkenazi אַשכּנזישע Jews.
The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) became known as Sephardim (“Spanish Jews”) סְפָרַדִּים.
Some of our ancestors were exiled to northern Africa, a region sometimes known as the Maghreb (المغرب al-Maghrib, Arabic for “the west”)
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE, many went to north Africa, or to countries of the Arab middle east. Their culture often strongly impacted the already-present Maghrebi and Mizrachi Jewish communities. So much so, in fact, that many north African and middle-eastern Jews eventually became called Sephardim סְפָרַדִּים as well!
To distinguish between those Sephardic Jews who maintained their distinct Spanish and Portuguese style, and the rest of Jews in north Africa and the middle east, we eventually developed new, modern terms:
Western S&P Jews – A group of less than 20,000 Jews today, retaining the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish customs.
MENA Jews – The largest Jewish group in the world, the Jews of the ME (Middle East) and NA (north Africa,); the majority of Jewish people living in Israel today.
What are some characteristics of the Jewish faith?
Religious Jews – whether more or less believing, more or less observant, generally understood that to be a Jew meant living the Jewish way – following the laws of the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmuds.
The laws and customs became known as Halakha, הֲלָכָה. This is a Hebrew word meaning “the way to go”. Often translated as “Jewish law” (although many point out that this translation is too narrow.)
The values, beliefs, and folklore of the Jews were often referred to as Aggadah, אַגָּדָה. These are the non-legal parts of rabbinic literature.
Some part of Jewish people engaged in mystical inquiry. They studied the works of Kabbalah, קַבָּלָה – Jewish mysticism. There’s an entire history of what Kabbalah was and how it developed over time, from books like the Bahir up to the Zohar and later commentaries.
Similarly, some Jews studied classical philosophy, science, math, and logic, and thought about how these issues may be compatible with Judaism. During the medieval era this was known as Chikirah, חקירה (“investigation”.) Today it is sometimes called Jewish philosophy (פילוסופיה יהודית.) This worldview is called philosophical rationalism, and it is similar to what Christian call Scholasticism.
And realistically, most Jewish people weren’t mystics or philosophers, but just lived a life based on the Bible and rabbinic literature, along with the culture of the nations that they lived in.
What are the Modern Jewish denominations today?
What is Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism, and what are the other Jewish groups? You can read about them here at Jewish denominations.