Jewish Life and Religious Practices

There is a wide variety of acceptance and observance of the following practices by denominations and individual Jews.

Jewish life is guided by its annual and life cycle calendars. The annual calendar is a lunar calendar with approximately 354 days in one year on a 12-month cycle, with an extra month (Adar II) added occasionally to compensate for the difference between the lunar and solar calendars.

Mishneh TorahThe Sabbath has been a cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times and is frequently mentioned in the Torah. The other holidays mentioned in the Torah include the Jewish New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the three festivals on which pilgrimages were made to the Temple in Jerusalem: Passover or Pesach (marking the Exodus from Egypt), Shavuot (marking the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai) and Sukkot (the feast of tabernacles, a harvest holiday). The minor holidays of Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B’Av were added later to commemorate events in post-biblical Jewish history. Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom ha-Atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) are 20th century additions to the Jewish holiday calendar.

Sephardic synagogue in BerlinThe weekly observance of the Sabbath, commencing on Friday evening at sundown and concluding 25 hours later, is a cornerstone of Jewish religious practice. The Sabbath is a time for slowing down, spending time with friends and family and at synagogue, and disconnecting from the daily demands on our time.

The Torah is read ritually in synagogue three times a week, on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, following a yearly cycle through the entirety (or a third, depending on community) of the Five Books of Moses. Additionally, on holidays, special sections are read in synagogue that tie to the themes or origin story of the holiday being observed.

Jewish prayer services are conducted in the Hebrew language in the more traditional denominations of Judaism, and include varied levels of English (or the native language of the community’s Jews) in denominations such as Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal. A rabbi can lead services but is not required. On weekdays, daily prayers are recited three times—morning, afternoon, and evening—with a fourth prayer service added on the Sabbath and holidays. While many prayers can be recited individually, certain prayers and activities, such as the reading of the Torah, the mourner’s prayer (the kaddish), require a minyan or quorum of ten Jewish adults. As with the distinctions regarding English in the prayer service, some traditional denominations only count male adults in a minyan, while others count all adults.

Other central aspects of Jewish ritual observance include the dietary laws (laws of kashrut) which forbid consumption of certain foods (like pork or shellfish), prohibit the mixing of milk and meat, and prescribe special rules for the slaughter of meat and poultry. Denominations and individual Jews may or may not follow these dietary laws strictly.

Major life-cycle events in Jewish tradition include the brit milah (ritual circumcision on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life), Bnai Mitzvah (a ceremony marking the passage from childhood to adulthood, at 12 years for a girl and 13 for a boy), marriage, and death.

Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the synagogue (derived from a Greek word meaning “assembly”), or Jewish prayer and study house, became the focal point of Jewish life. The role of the priesthood, so central to the Temple service, diminished, and the rabbi (literally, “my master”), or scholar versed in Jewish law, rose to a position of prominence in the community.

After the Holocaust

Before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Europe had a vibrant and mature Jewish culture.

European Jewish population distribution, ca. 1933

By 1945, after the Holocaust, most European Jews—two out of every three—had been killed. Most of the surviving remnant of European Jewry decided to leave Europe. Hundreds of thousands established new lives in Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, South America, and South Africa.

As of 2016, there were approximately 15 million Jews around the world. About 85% of world Jewry lives in Israel or the United States.