Judaism is the religion, thought, and way of life of the Jews, a people who lived in the ancient Near East, and who were ruled by the Romans after A.D. 6. Judaism was characterized by monotheism*, observance of the Sabbath*, purity laws that govern the ritual use of holy objects, and a strict prohibition against intermarriage with non-Jews.

Judaism’s requirement that people worship only one God is what initially set it apart from other religions of the ancient world. Although there were many temples in which the Jews worshiped, the Temple in the city of Jerusalem was the most important one and the central focus of Jewish religious observances. Before 587 B.C., intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) had been accepted. Then, in 458 B.C., the Babylonian-Jewish priest Ezra demanded that Jews divorce their non-Jewish wives. This proposal greatly angered wealthy Jews (including priests), and Ezra was removed from office. Several years later, however, Nehemiah, who governed Judaea from the mid-400s B.C., enacted and enforced the proposal that Jewish men divorce their Gentile wives. He furthermore closed markets on the Sabbath and imposed his ideas of ritual purity on the priesthood. Nehemiah’s reforms strengthened the Jewish community, and Judaism became the religion of Judaea, as well as of Jews living abroad.

* monotheism belief in only one God

* Sabbath day of the week set aside for rest and worship

The first great work of Jewish religious thought appeared around 400 B.C. This was the final edition of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament, originally ascribed to Moses. The Pentateuch consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it relates the history of the Jews from the creation of the world to the death of Moses. The main theme of the Pentateuch is the migration of the Jews, their captivity in and their deliverance from Egypt, and their entrance into the Promised Land.

During the Hellenistic* period, Jewish writers and scholars debated the permissibility of relations with surrounding non-Jewish peoples, the observance of Jewish law, and the special holiness and significance of the Temple of Jerusalem. Several writings from this period emphasize the strict observance of the ancient Jewish law and warn against mixing with non-Jews. The Book of Daniel, which dates from around 165 B.C., contains prophecies regarding the course of world history.

A sect* within Judaism was the Essenes, an ascetic* group who rejected pleasures as evil and advocated the sharing of possessions. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in A.D. 1947 helped scholars understand more about the Essenes and their teachings. Some scholars have suggested that the Essenes influenced the founding of Christianity.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism during the reign of the Judaean king Herod the Great. Its founder was a man called Joshua ben Joseph, who lived from about 4 B.C. to about A.D. 30. He is known in history as Jesus of Nazareth.

Despite Jewish civil wars and internal disputes that preceded the takeover of Judaea by Rome in A.D. 6, Jewish religious tradition survived. The Pharisees, a group of religious scholars of Judaism, urged Jews to remain faithful to traditional beliefs, such as strict dietary rules and the separation of Jews and Gentiles. The Pharisees were among the most learned of the many religious factions within Judaism. They accepted the writings of the Hebrew prophets and the Torah*. They were also guided by a large body of oral law. Rabbis taught the law and applied it to existing conditions. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Pharisees reestablished rabbinical schools and thus ensured the survival of Judaism as a religion.

From about A.D. 70 to 200, Jewish scholars began writing down the traditional Jewish laws and teachings that had been passed down orally since the 1200s B.C. This statement of laws and teachings became known as the Mishnah. From about A.D. 200 to 500, interpretations of the laws and teachings were collected in the Gemara. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud, the second most sacred and influential book of Judaism, after the Bible.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* sect religious group separated from an established church, usually due to its more extreme beliefs

* ascetic referring to a person who rejects worldly pleasure and follows a life of prayer; poverty, and rigorous self-discipline

* Torah sacred wisdom of the Jewish faith, especially the first five books of the Bible


Hillel, who lived from around 70 B.C. to A.D. 10, was one of the most learned Jewish scholars of his day. For 40 years, he served as president of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court. Hillel recognized the need to simplify the huge body of Jewish law so that it could be studied more easily. Accordingly, Hillel took the 600 categories of Jewish law and reduced them to 6. His headings became the 6 divisions of the Talmud. Hillel stated the meaning of Judaism in simple terms: "Whatever is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man: this is the whole Law, the rest is mere commentary"

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