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Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC)


Judaism: A Brief Account


The earliest of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism believes in an incorporeal God who is the universal creator of all that exists. Orthodox Judaism believes that God revealed both the text and the oral interpretation of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to Moses, and has communicated with the Jewish people through inspired prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Judaism does not distinguish between the status of ethical and ritual obligations, seeing both as mandated by God, and actions are regarded as being more important than personal beliefs. Judaism believes in a force of evil, generally conceived as an individual’s ‘evil inclination’, but also that people have freedom of choice, and will be rewarded or punished by God according to the manner in which they exercise it. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not believe in original sin.

The Torah tells of the Divine promise to the Jewish people of the land of Israel, and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty and the ingathering of the exiles to Zion are central to Jewish prayer. The modern political philosophy that underpinned the re-establishment of a Jewish state in its ancient homeland is known as Zionism. 

Although not mentioned in the Torah, canonical Jewish belief includes an ‘end time’ or Messianic Age, when a Messiah will establish an era of global peace, and bring about the return of Jewish exiles to Israel and the resurrection of the dead.

Judaism accepts but does not seek converts, believing that non-Jews should follow their own path. Tradition identifies 613 commandments in the Torah for Jews to follow, of which only seven, including obligations relating to social justice, sexual morality, and animal welfare, are regarded as applying to non-Jew.




The Bible, written in Hebrew, consists of three parts of which the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is the most important. The others are the Prophets, and the Holy Writings.  The word ‘Tanach’ is an acronym for the Hebrew names of these three. It is obviously inappropriate to refer to the Tanach as the ‘Old Testament’ since this suggests that it is seen not in its own right, but merely in the context of the Christian ‘New Testament’.  (Jewish perception of Jesus varies: some think of him as a great teacher, and others view him as one of many false claimants to be the Messiah, but there his no disagreement that his teachings are not included in the Jewish Bible).

The Talmud, which was compiled in its present form between 100 and 400 CE in Babylon and Israel, is in many ways the central text of Judaism, as it is based on oral traditions ascribed to Moses. It is mainly a record of rabbinic debates on Jewish law and the interpretation of the bible, and forms the basis of traditional Jewish law. The Shulkhan Aruch is the main codification of this law, dating from the 16th century.




Jewish tradition counts dates from the Creation, so that 2008 CE is the year 5768. Since we cannot know the length of the 'days' of the creation described in Genesis, many regard this as being compatible with modern science.

As described in the Torah, Abraham left his family in Mesopotamia, and settled in Canaan, modern Israel, which he was promised in perpetuity by God. Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (also called Israel), are referred to as the Fathers of Judaism, and their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah as the Mothers. The descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel.

One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was abducted to Egypt, and subsequently rose to the position of Viceroy. Jacob took the rest of his family to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan, but the Israelites were later enslaved by the Egyptians for 210 years, before being led to freedom by Moses. After receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai, Moses led them on a 40-year journey through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land of Israel. They then crossed the River Jordan under his successor, Joshua, who divided the land amongst the twelve tribes.

During the subsequent 300 years the Israelites were led by a succession of judges and prophets. These included Deborah, who defeated the Philistines, and Samuel, who anointed Saul, and later David, as king.  David established his capital in Hebron.  Later, some 3000 years ago, he moved it to Jerusalem, and it was here that his son, Solomon, built the Temple. After Solomon’s death, the northern tribes seceded, establishing the kingdom of Israel with its capital at Shechem, while Jerusalem remained capital of the southern kingdom of Judea. Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the people were sent into exile.  Judea survived a further 135 years until Jerusalem was captured and the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

After the fall of Babylon a group of exiles led by Ezra and Nehemiah returned to join the small Jewish community that had remained in Judea. They built the second Temple, which survived until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. To eradicate even the memory of the Jewish kingdom, the Romans renamed Judea ‘Palestine’ and dispersed the Jews around their empire.  Large Jewish communities grew up in North Africa, Mesopotamia, Italy, and Central Europe, although significant numbers remained, especially in the Galilee.

Mediaeval Jewish communities in Europe suffered greatly during the murderous antisemitism of the Crusades and the Inquisition; Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306, and even from Spain in 1492, where an earlier ‘Golden Age’ had yielded many literary and scientific masterpieces. Some found refuge in Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and the Netherlands, from whence a few eventually came to Britain when Jews were formally re-admitted by Cromwell. However, most of the British Jewish community came from Germany or the Russian ‘Pale of Settlement’ to escape the economic privations and pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century, or fleeing the Holocaust during the Nazi era of 1933-45, in which six million Jews perished.

Small Jewish communities have always remained in Israel, principally in Tiberias, Safed, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, since pious Jews have always sought to end their days there. However political Zionism was only born in 1897, when the First Zionist Congress at Basle endorsed the proposal of the Viennese journalist Theodore Herzl for a state in the biblical Promised Land in which Jews could escape persecution and achieve self-determination. After the First World War, Britain was given the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and, following the United Nations resolution in November 1947, which called for its partition into Jewish and Arab states, the modern State of Israel was founded when Britain withdrew in May 1948.




Despite their shared belief, the ethnic origins of Jews are diverse, and there are three principal groupings:

Sephardim – properly of Iberian origin, although the term is often used to include those of other Mediterranean, Arabian and North African origin. Ladino is a Hispanic language with Hebrew admixtures which was common to many Sephardim especially from the Balkans and Turkey. Eastern Communities – sometimes also loosely referred to as Sephardim, with origins in Asia or the Arabian Peninsula and including smaller groups such as the Jews of Ethiopia, and the Bnei Israel and Cochin Jews of India.

Ashkenazim – whose ancestry is in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Yiddish is a Germanic language with Slavic and Hebrew admixtures which was widely spoken by Eastern European Jews.

Although there are more Sephardic than Askenazi Jews in Israel, the reverse is the case worldwide, as the Jewish communities of the USA, Canada, and the UK are substantially Ashkenazi.

Cutting across these ethnic groups there are distinct denominations that have different understandings of the status of the Torah and of Jewish law:

Orthodox – The principles of Orthodox Judaism have not changed significantly since Biblical times, since they presuppose that the Torah as interpreted in the Talmud was given directly by God. Within Orthodox Judaism there are two main groupings: the Charedim, or so-called ‘Strictly Orthodox’, and the Modern Orthodox. The latter participate more in secular activities than do Charedi Jews, but are nevertheless faithful to traditional religious practices. The Charedim are one of the largest and most conservative movements, with several subsections including various groups of Chassidim. They tend to reject many aspects of modern life, and, for example, generally wear traditional clothing, whereas the Modern Orthodox engage more with the modern world, for example by entering secular employment. 

Reform – The Reform movement rejects much of Orthodox practice while retaining many of the underlying teachings of Judaism. Unlike Orthodox movements it allows women to be ordained as rabbis, permits men and women to sit together in the synagogue, and regards cremation as acceptable.

Conservative – known in Britain as Masorti (Traditional): This movement began as a reaction to Reform Judaism in the United States, and although based on a more Liberal understanding of traditional texts, it still retains many Orthodox practices.

Liberal – Liberal Judaism views the Torah as a product of its time rather than as the literal word of God, and therefore subject to change. Liberal Jews do not attach great significance to traditional codes for dress and diet but regard them as a matter of choice.

In addition there are a number of Jews who regard Judaism as having less to do with faith than with cultural identity, but many of these still identify very closely with the Jewish community and observe its cultural traditions.



Shabbat and Festivals

Shabbat – The Sabbath is the weekly day of rest, beginning at dusk on Friday and lasting until it is completely dark on Saturday night. It commemorates the fact that God rested on the seventh day of creation, which Judaism regards as part of creation itself, and is observed with varying degrees of strictness by the different Jewish denominations. 

In traditional Judaism there is a clear code that determines which activities are permitted and which are forbidden on Shabbat. Generally, creative work is prohibited, so that the Sabbath is a family and home based festival, free from mundane concerns. The prohibition on making fire includes turning on any electrical apparatus, such as lights, television, and telephone. The prohibition on cooking means that Shabbat meals are prepared beforehand and kept warm from Friday afternoon. Carrying, travelling, and writing are also prohibited. It is not permitted to ask a non-Jew to do anything one could not do oneself, except in an emergency, when any prohibition must be set aside if life is in danger. As individual levels of Sabbath observance vary, it is always wise to ask people individually, in order to determine their needs.


The principal festivals are also observed from dusk to nightfall, and are generally subject to the same rules as Shabbat. They are:

Rosh Hashanah – New Year is a two-day festival (usually in September). This begins a ten-day period of contemplation and repentance culminating in Yom Kippur. The centerpiece of the synagogue service is the blowing of the ram’s horn (shofar).

Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement is marked by an entire day spent in worship, contemplation, and fasting.

Sukkot – Tabernacles is an autumn festival, five days after Yom Kippur, that, together with Shemini Atseret and Simchat Torah, lasts eight days (seven in Israel and for non-Orthodox groups). Orthodox Jews build a sukkah or tabernacle, a temporary hut roofed with vegetation, and eat in it during the festival, to commemorate the nomadic lives of the Israelites after leaving Egypt.

Shemini Atseret, the Eighth Day, and Simchat Torah, the Celebration of the Torah – are the days after Sukkot, when the annual cycle of readings from the Torah is concluded and immediately recommenced.

Pesach – Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The calendar is adjusted to ensure that it falls in spring (March-April), and it lasts eight days (seven in Israel and for non-Orthodox groups). The ceremonial Seder meal eaten in the home on the first two nights includes many elements symbolising the escape from slavery and the foundation of the Jewish Nation. Matzah replaces bread for the entire week, and many Jews are more than usually meticulous about avoiding prohibited foods. Seven weeks, known as the Omer, are counted from the second night of Pesach leading up to Shavuot.

Shavuot – ‘Weeks’ or Pentecost lasts two days in June (one in Israel and for non-Orthodox groups) and commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Observances include studying throughout the night.

Other Festivals, on which the prohibitions of Shabbat do not apply, include:

Chanukah – Festival of lights in December, commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees, following its desecra-tion by the Greeks. It is marked by some by the exchange of gifts.

Tu b’Shvat – New Year for Trees is the beginning of the growing season in Israel (February) once the start of the tithing year, now often observed by eating fruit dishes.

Purim – Festival in early spring marking the deliverance of the Jews in ancient Persia following the intervention of Queen Esther; celebrations include fancy dress, charitable giving, and exchange of gifts.

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Day is observed a week after Pesach.

Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day – These are now established as festivals marking the anniversaries of these important events in modern Jewish history, in May 1948 and June 1967 respectively.

La’G b’Omer – The 33rd day of the Omer marks the date when the plague that killed most of Rabbi Akiva’s students, who are mourned between Pesach and Shavuot, ended. It is a popular date for weddings, and is marked by bonfire parties.

Tisha b’Av – A mid-summer fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

In addition, there are several minor fast days each year commemorating significant historical events.




Synagogue practice depends on the denomination of the worshipper. In Orthodox synagogues traditional dress code is observed and men and women sit separately, whereas in Reform and Liberal synagogues they may sit together. Shabbat services involve prayers, reading from the Torah, and generally a sermon. Orthodox Jews pray in Hebrew (with some Aramaic – the language of the Talmud), while Reform and Liberal Jews use varying amounts of English. The synagogue also operates as a community and education centre, and one of its roles is generally the teaching of Hebrew and Torah studies to children.

Home and family are central to Jewish life and are frequently regarded as being more significant than the synagogue. Traditionally women play an important role in raising children, giving them a religious education and creating a kosher domestic environment, but they often also have responsibility outside the home in both community activities and paid employment. Orthodox Jews place a mezuzah, a small scroll containing passages of the Bible, on all doorways (except the bathroom and toilet) in fulfilment of a biblical command, whilst others place them only on their front door.

Men are required to pray three times daily – morning, afternoon, and at night, but the obligation on women is more flexible. More generally, women are exempt from most obligations for which there is a fixed time.




Jewish dietary laws, kashrut, dictate what constitutes kosher food. There is a popular misconception that the production of kosher food requires the performance of some ‘ritual’. This is false. Kosher food is simply food that is supervised by someone competent to ensure that it complies with Jewish religious law. Neither is kosher food ‘blessed by a rabbi’, as is sometimes thought. According to the Torah, meat is only kosher if it is from an animal that chews the cud and has cloven hooves. Domestic poultry and fish with fins and scales are also permitted. Meat and poultry must be killed in accordance with the Jewish Laws of shechitah. This is carried out by a skilled and ordained Shochet, who has an obligation to cause the animal the least possible distress. The consumption of blood is prohibited, and this is removed during shechitah and the subsequent process of salting and washing.

Other animal by-products are permitted provided they come from a kosher animal. Foods prepared for the general market, such as cheese made with animal rennet, cakes, jellies and puddings made with gelatine, and biscuits made with animal margarines are obviously not kosher. Some people may find vegetarian versions of these more acceptable in that the animal component is left out, but the more Orthodox will only eat food prepared under supervision since that is the only means of being certain that it is, in fact, kosher.

Meat and milk products are not eaten in the same meal, or even directly after one another. In Britain most Orthodox people wait three hours after a meat meal before taking dairy products, although the strictly Orthodox wait six. As meat and dairy products may not be cooked or prepared together, kitchens have separate preparation areas, utensils, towels, and cutlery for each.




Jewish boys are circumcised at eight days of age. This is regarded by almost all Jews as a central assertion of their identity, and is almost universally observed.

Jewish girls become responsible for their own religious lives at the age of twelve and boys at thirteen. In all denominations, a boy’s Bar Mitzvah is a time of celebration when he is called up in the synagogue to read from the Torah for the first time. Modern Orthodox, Reform, and Liberal Jews also celebrate a girl’s Bat Mitzvah, and for Reform and Liberal Jews the ceremony takes the same form as a Bar Mitzvah.

Jewish Marriage is a voluntary contract between the parties, and need not be solemnised by a rabbi, although it generally is. It is marked by the husband giving the wife a ring, and undertaking to provide for her needs by accepting a formal contract, the ketubah. The ceremony takes place under a canopy, chuppah, representing a symbolic home, and concludes with the breaking of a glass to symbolise that no celebration can be completely joyful since the destruction of the Temple. In the UK and most other western countries, a Jewish marriage is recognised as simultaneously constituting a civil marriage.

Divorce is also a contractual matter between the parties, although it is supervised by a Beth Din because of the seriousness with which remarriage without divorce is viewed. In the absence of agreement between the parties, however, no court can impose a divorce, with the result that they are unable to remarry under Orthodox auspices. Consequently even after a civil divorce, a separate religious divorce or get is required. The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 recognises this necessity, and permits the civil courts to delay the completion of the civil divorce until after the religious divorce has taken place. Reform and Liberal communities have relaxed these rules to enable marriages to be dissolved and one party to remarry without the consent of the other.

Burial should take place as soon as possible after death, generally within 24 hours where possible. The human body must be treated with utmost respect, and most Jews do not permit cremation. Following the funeral, the parents, children and siblings of the deceased observe a week of formal mourning (‘sitting shiva’) during which they do not go out and prayers are held in the home. They say special prayers (kaddish, which is often described as a memorial prayer, but is in fact a hymn of praise to God) for the rest of that year and on the anniversary thereafter.




Traditionally girls and women behave and dress modestly, and Orthodox women wear sleeves covering the elbows and skirts reaching well below the knees. Nudity may be an issue for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, for example where public changing and showering is required, and some Jews do not approve of mixed swimming, or of revealing swimming costumes. Tattoos and piercing are regarded as desecrations of the human body, although many women wear earrings.

Orthodox men wear a square garment (tallit) with fringes (tzitzit) under their shirt, as well as a skullcap (kippah or yarmulke). Charedim generally wear rather formal clothes, including hats. The Magen David (Star of David) has no particular religious significance but has been associated with Judaism for more than 2000 years, and is often worn as jewellery as a statement of an individual’s identity.




A child is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish, but the name used in most religious contexts is the individual’s Hebrew name, followed by ‘daughter/son of’ and the father’s name. Naming customs do, however, vary, and a less traditional family may choose to include the mother’s name as well. Many Jews also have an ‘English’ name, which they use at school or work.




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