Understanding Jewish Practices, Terms, and Traditions

By James M. Rochford

In order to better understand and connect with our Jewish friends, it is helpful to be at least a little conversant regarding common practices, terms, and traditions within Judaism. We will consider several of these here:

Jewish Events

Coming-of-age: The entrance of the youth into the adult community is celebrated at age 13. This is called bar mitzvah (for boys) and bat mitzvah (for girls).

Weddings: Jewish weddings are celebrated under a canopy (called the chuppah). They smash a glass wrapped in a cloth to symbolize the destruction of the Temple.

Funerals: During a funeral, the family will practice sitting shiva (which means that they mourn for seven days or fewer).

Sabbath: Traditional Jews abstain from work on this day, which is on Saturday.

Tefillin: These are also called phylacteries, which are small black boxes containing Scripture. These are placed on the arm or forehead. This is only practiced in traditional (orthodox) Judaism.

Mezuzah: This is placed on the doorpost. It is a small box that contains Scripture.

Kosher: This is the practice of not mixing meat and milk in the same meal. This is also only practiced in traditional (orthodox) Judaism.

Jewish Holidays

Rosh ha-Shanah: This is the Jewish New Year.

Yom Kippur: This is the Day of Atonement, where they pray for forgiveness. It is sometimes accompanied by fasting.

Sukkot: This is the biblical Feast of Booths.

Hanukkah: This is the holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian armies of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 B.C.). Here the practitioner light a menorah lampstand for eight days. They also spin the dreidels for fun and eat latkes.

Purim: This annual practice is taken from the book of Esther, which celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the Persians.

Passover: The Jewish Passover is taken from Exodus 12, where the family will have a seder (or dinner), where they remember the Exodus from Egypt.

Jewish Scriptures

Besides the Hebrew Bible, Jewish people appeal to other extrabiblical books such as the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah was compiled around AD 200. It consists of legal rules and the like. Likewise, the Gemara elaborates on the Mishnah. It was compiled later, around 550 AD. The Gemara is not binding on a Jewish practitioner, but it is seen as helpful in understanding the law.

Types of Judaism

There are three major types of Judaism today: orthodox, conservative, and reform.

Differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews[1]






Orthodoxy dates back to the days of the Talmud (second to fifth centuries AD). It was the only form of Jewish practice prior to the eighteenth century and the emergence of Reform Judaism. Orthodoxy today seeks to preserve classical or traditional Judaism

Conservative Judaism is an American movement with roots in nineteenth century Germany. It arose as a reaction to what some viewed as the extreme assimilationist tendencies of Reform Judaism. It tried to be a middle ground, attempting to maintain basic traditions while adapting to modern life.

Reform Judaism emerged following the emancipation from ghetto life in the late eighteenth century. It sought to modernize Judaism and thus stem the tide of assimilation threatening German Jewry. It was thought that Jewish identity could be best maintained by modernization, but others saw this as in fact contributing to assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity.

Other Terms

Traditional or Torah Judaism

Historical Judaism

Liberal or Progressive Judaism

View of Scripture

Torah, meaning essentially the teaching of the Five Books of Moses, is truth. A person must have faith in its essential, revealed character. A true Jew believes in revelation and the divine origin of the oral and written Torah. “Oral Torah” refers to various interpretations of the written Torah believed to have been given to Moses along with the written Torah. The Torah is accorded a higher place than the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

The Bible, both the Torah and the other books, is the word of God and man. It is not inspired in the traditional sense, but rather dynamically inspired. Revelation is an ongoing process.

The Bible is a human document preserving the history, culture, legends, and hopes of a people. It is valuable for deriving moral and ethical insights. Revelation is an ongoing process.

View of God

God is spirit rather than form. He is a personal God—omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and compassionate.

The concept of God is nondogmatic and flexible. There is less atheism in Conservative Judaism than in Reform, but most often God is considered impersonal and ineffable.

Reform Judaism allows a varied interpretation of the “God concept” with wide latitude for naturalists, mystics, supernaturalists, or religious humanists. It holds that “the truth is that we do not know the truth.”

View of Humankind

Humanity is morally neutral, with a good and an evil inclination. He or she can overcome his or her evil bent and be perfected by his or her own efforts in observance of the Law.

This group tends toward the Reform view, though it is not as likely to espouse humanism. Perfectibility can come through enlightenment. Humanity is “in partnership” with God.

Humanity’s nature is basically good. Through education, encouragement, and evolution he or she can actualize the potential already existing within him or her.

View of the Tradition of the Law

The Law is the basis of Judaism. It is authoritative and gives structure and meaning to life. The life of total dedication to Halakhah (body of Jewish law) leads to a nearness to God.

Adaptation to contemporary situations is inevitable. The demands of morality are absolute; the specific laws are relative.

The law is an evolving, ever-dynamic religious code that adapts to every age. It is maintained that if religious observances clash with the just demands of civilized society they must be dropped.

View of Sin

Orthodox Jews do not believe in “original sin.” Rather one commits sin by breaking the commandments of the Law.

Conservative Jews do not believe in “original sin.” The individual can sin in moral or social actions.

Reform Jews do not believe in “original sin.” Sin is interpreted as the ills of society. Humanity is sometimes held to have a “divine spark” within.

View of Salvation

Repentance (belief in God’s mercy), prayer, and obedience to the Law are necessary for a proper relationship with God. “Salvation” is not considered to be a Jewish concept, inasmuch as Jewish people presume a standing with God.

Conservative Jews tend toward the Reform view, but include the necessity of maintaining Jewish identity.

“Salvation” is obtained through the betterment of self and society. It is social improvement.

View of the Messiah

The Messiah is a human being who is not divine. He will restore the Jewish kingdom and extend his righteous rule over the earth. He will execute judgment and right all wrongs.

Conservative Jews hold much the same view as the Reform.

Instead of a belief in Messiah as a person or divine being, Reform Jews favor the concept of a Utopian age toward which humankind is progressing, sometimes called the “Messianic age.”

View of Life After Death

There will be a physical resurrection. The righteous will exist forever with God in the “World to Come.” The unrighteous will suffer, but disagreement exists over their ultimate destiny.

Conservative Jews tend toward the Reform view, but are less influenced by nontraditional ideas such as Eastern mysticism.

Generally, Reform Judaism has no concept of a personal life after death. It is said that a person lives on in the accomplishments or in the minds of others. Some are influenced by Eastern mystical thought, where souls merge into one great impersonal life force.

[1] Chart taken from Halverson, Dean C. The Compact Guide to World Religions. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 124-126.