Judaizm [Latin < Greek < Hebrew] – Mosaism, the Mosaic faith, the religion of Jews as well as the complex of beliefs, ethical values and attitudes derived from the tradition and customs of the Jewish nation. The term “Judaism” was used in the ancient times among the Greek-speaking Jews (Greek: ioudaïsmós); however, since then this term has been absent from the Jewish tradition until the modern period; in rabbinical tradition the term Torah is used instead, referring both to the entierty of the religious heritage of Jews and – in the narrower sense of the word – to the basis thereof, i.e. the first five books of the Bible.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world – and one that continues to thrive. It is based on two fundamental tenets: 1) monotheism – faith in the one and only God, the Maker and Lord of heaven and earth, who expects a responsible and morally sound conduct from his people; and 2) the belief that the Israelites have a special calling under the covenant that God had made with them, a people chosen to bear witness. God expects Jews to lead a life in a manner which shall keep the memory of God’s revelations alive and gives the Jewish nation the status of a “priestly kingdom”. The covenant between God and the Jewish nation is of immense significance for entire humanity, since when the Messiah comes, he shall bring not only freedom for Israel, but also everlasting peace, whereupon the glory of the Lord shall be revealed to the entire world and the role of Jews shall finally be acknowledged by all. This prophecy demonstrates the universal dimension of Judaism, as does the possibility to accept the faith in the one and only God and the fact that any man can choose to convert to Judaism. It is upon the foundations of Judaism that the two other great monotheistic religions – Christianity and Islam – were built.

The development of Judaism remains inextricably linked to the history of the Jewish nation; its origins are described in the holy book of Judaism  — The Hebrew Bible (referred to as the Old Testament by Christians). According to the Hebrew Bible, the origins of Judaism can be traced back to Abraham, the patriarch, who was the first to proclaim the existence of one God, invisible to the human eye, who wants men to become right and righteous. Abraham is believed to have arrived from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan by the Mediterranean Sea in the early 2nd millennium B.C. The patriarch’s descendants, known as Hebrews or Israelites, have subsequently taken up residence in the land of Egypt, where, after some time, they were subjugated into slavery. Led by Moses, the Israelites departed from Egypt, bringing the period of “Egyptian enslavement” to an end; these events most likely took place in the 13th century B.C. and, according to the Bible, have been the result of God’s direct intervention. This fact, the subsequent 40-year journey through the desert to Canaan – the “land of Israel” that God had promised as well as – first and foremost – the Revelation on Mount Sinai (referred to as Moses’ Mountain in Christian tradition), the covenant with God and the gift of the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue) made to Moses form the cornerstone of both the history and the identity of Judaism.

The forms of cult practiced in Judaism originated from the beliefs and practices of the nomadic Semitic tribes (one of which were the ancient Hebrews) which remained under the influence of the religions of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt. A distinguishing feature of Judaism was the renunciation of polytheism, which had been the norm at that time, and the replacement thereof with the faith in one, invisible God, the king of Israel, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob”, whose name, written in the form of the YHWH tetragrammaton which could be read as a Hebrew word that meant “My Lord”, was never to be spoken aloud.  It is not known how would this word be spoken by the high priest at the only time and place that religious laws permitted it to be spoken – on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem; according to The Bible, the meaning of the word was explained to Moses as “I am that I am” or “I shall be what I shall be” (I shall become what I choose to become).

From a historical perspective, Judaism can be divided into Biblical Judaism and Rabbinical (Talmudic) Judaism which exists to this day, having also spawned modernised variants during the 19th century. Biblical Judaism came into being around the 10th century B.C., at the time of the rise of the kingdom of David, whose son, Salomon, erected a temple in the holy city of Jerusalem (the Temple in Jerusalem) which housed the Ark of Covenant. The Temple became the main religious centre for Jews, remaining under the care of a relatively large group of priests who would conduct sacrificial rituals there.

Throughout many generations, Judaism remained in conflict with the constantly resurging polytheistic practices as well as the cult of many local deities (such as Baal). The religious reforms of Josiah (7th century B.C.) brought about the centralisation of religious activities in Jerusalem; from now on, no sacrificial rituals would be performed outside the Temple. The prophets played an important role for the development of Judaism, making calls upon the Israelites and their rulers to honour the covenant made with God, to abide by His commandments and to strive towards justice. It is because of the prophets and the priests who acted as the guardians of old traditions that the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent period of Babylonian enslavement (late 587/early 586 B.C. – 539 B.C.) did not bring about the fall of Judaism; instead, Judaism became a religion that could be practiced regardless of the territory in which its followers lived. Compliance with religious obligations, such as circumcision, dietary rules, rules on ritual purity, refraining from work on the seventh day of the week – the Shabbat) went hand in hand with the reinforcement of the Messianist hopes that the kingdom of Israel would one day be rebuilt. After the period of slavery ended, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was built, while Judaism – a religion based on The Law – became the central component around which the life of the Israelites revolved.

During the Hellenistic period (4th century B.C. – 2nd century A.D.), Judaism was characterised by the coexistence of a number of groups which differed in their attitudes towards the Greek culture and, subsequently, towards the political dominance of the Roman Empire and towards the authority and binding force of laws transmitted orally from generation to generation. Since the Maccabean Revolt (165-162 B.C.), the imperative of becoming a martyr for one’s religious beliefs has been an important component of Judaism. A number of political and religious groups such as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots were also active during that period. Historians believe that the final codification of the two first parts of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah or, in the narrower sense, the Pentateuch of Moses) as well as historical and prophetic books (book of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others) took place in the 5th or the 4th century B.C. Alongside the written Torah, various additions and interpretations thereof, known as the oral Torah were also being transmitted from generation to generation; according to the traditions of Judaism, both Torahs are one, having originated from Moses himself. The codification of the oral tradition as the Mishnah by Judah the Prince (also known as Rabbi) took place around 200 A.D.

The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 70 A.D. after then Jewish uprising directed against the Romans was quelled resulted in Jews becoming scattered all over the known world (the Jewish diaspora, also known as the galut). Learned men, teachers of the Torah – the rabbis – have gathered in Yavne (Jamnia), where they have most likely agreed upon the canon of the Hebrew Bible and the principles of the functioning of Judaism without its Temple. The era of rabbinical Judaism has begun. The distinguishing features thereof are discipline and compliance with ritual practices in everyday life, the role of the synagogue as a religious centre and the replacement of sacrificial practices with prayer. Among all forms of Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael and the Amidah (Shmoneh Esreh) have become crucial parts of Jewish liturgy. The public reading of the Torah at a synagogue forms an important part of the celebration of the Shabbat.

Rabbinical Judaism is also known as Talmudic Judaism due to the fact that the teachings of individual rabbis have been included in the Talmud in the form of commentaries to the Mishnah (theGemara), the Talmud itself having been written down in during the period between the 5th and the 7th century, in two versions: the more extensive and more authoritative text known as the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud. The Talmud was written by sages and commentators of the Jewish tradition known as the Tannaim (such as Hillel the Elder – 1st century B.C., Akiva ben Joseph – 2nd century A.D.), whose teachings are included in the Mishnah, as well as the later rabbis known as the Amoraim, whose thoughts were incorporated into the Gemara. The Talmudic iteration of Judaism was accepted as binding by virtually all Jews; the only group which refused to accept the Talmud had been the Karaites; see Karaite Judaism). Among the many strands of Judaism which existed at the beginning of our era, only rabbinical Judaism has survived until this day, with Christianity having developed into a separate religion in its own right. Rabbinical Judaism thus became the basis of all subsequent variations of the Mosaic faith.

During the Middle Ages, there were two main types of Judaism: 1) Sephardic Judaism which developed among the Jews living in the Mediterranean Sea basin, remaining under the influence of the Arabic and Muslim civilisations, with a centre in Muslim Spain; 2) Ashkenazic Judaism which developed in those areas where the Jewish population remained under the influence of the Christian (Latin) civilisation; Ashkenazic Jews lived mostly in the territory of France and Germany and have subsequently (from the 16th century onwards) started to move to the east, with most of them taking settlement in Poland, where the largest Jewish community has formed. Many Sephardic rabbis formed part of the erstwhile social elite and became actively involved in the pursuit of scientific knowledge (e.g. Judah Halevi, Maimonides – 12th century). Following the exile of Jews from Spain, an important centre of Jewish life was formed in Safed in Palestine (Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, Isaac Luria – 16th century). The Ashkenazic tradition, stemming from the works of rabbis such as Gershom ben Judah or Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki), who lived in the 11th century, initially retained its connections with the Sephardic community (e.g. Moses Isserles – Cracow, 16th century), although later its development took a path of its own (e.g. Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon – 18th century). The Talmud, the codes of religious laws (including the most influential code – the Shulchan Aruch) and other religious writings remained common to all Jews; because of this, their dispersion across vast territories and their immense cultural diversity did not destroy the unity of Judaism as a religion.

The 613 commandments of the Talmud (248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments, adapted to the ever-changing living conditions, remain the foundation of the everyday discipline of the followers of Orthodox Judaism. Apart from the obligation to love the Lord and one’s neighbour as well as to spread righteousness and justice (which is described in greater detail with respect to the internal relations within the Jewish community), these commandments also refer to obligations of a ritual nature such as prayer (prayers spoken three times a day, collectively, at a synagogue, or individually), fasting, refraining from work during the Shabbat, elaborate dietary regulations (kosher), celebration of holidays (such as the Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the so-called Pilgrimage Festivals – the Pesach, the Shavuot and the Sukkot, during which, back in the ancient times, every Jew was supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple). Jews living in the diaspora organise their own communities (which were known as the kahals in Poland), with the rabbi remaining the main authority in religious matters. The rabbi is not a priest, but a man learned in religious laws and the holy books as well as a teacher of Judaism.

The descendants of the priests of the Temple (the male descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses) remain conscious of their heritage, yet they serve virtually no liturgical functions apart from granting a blessing to those in attendance during certain prayers. In some countries (United Kingdom, France), a chief rabbi, recognised by the government, is appointed. Separate Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis are appointed in Israel. These rabbis are not recognised by some of the most traditionalist groups, the most radical of which also deny the existence of the Jewish state as such due to the fact that it was founded by men and not by the long-awaited Messiah. The followers of Judaism believe that every pious Jew should study religious writings (this obligation has traditionally applied only to men) – both in order to learn of the traditions and rituals of Judaism and to enhance one’s moral standing through virtues such as kindness towards the weak, mercy and spreading justice and peace between men.

Various groups and streams have emerged in Judaism during the diaspora; the mystical movement evolved into the Kabbalah which in turn spawned both transient sects such as the Sabbatean movement, Frankism (Frankists) as well as the lasting religious movement known as Hasidism (Hasidic Judaism) which began with the teachings of Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. The distinguishing features of Hasidism include the role of the tzadikim, who, in a sense, have – in contradiction of traditional Judaism – become intermediaries between God himself and their followers. The conflict between the followers of Hasidism and traditional Judaism has gradually died down, having ultimately been superseded by the joint resistance against secularisation and the efforts towards religious reform.

During the 18th century, the ideas of the Haskalah, also known as the Jewish enlightenment, were gaining popularity in the west; introduced by M. Mendelssohn, they combined the practices of Judaism with modern rationalism so that adherence to religious laws was accompanied by the recognition of the achievements of science. The Haskalah movement spawned the so-called Reform Judaism; in an attempt to mitigate what was believed to be excessive radicalism in religious reform, another movement known as conservative Judaism has also appeared. Both of these movements came into being in the 19th century in Germany (A. Geiger, Z. Frankel), although their main centres are now in the United States. The common feature of both these variants of Judaism is liturgical egalitarianism (i.e. the absence of the traditional separation of men and women) as well as recent developments in the form of allowing women to perform all traditional religious functions, including the function of the rabbi. In addition, Reform Judaism abolished most ritual laws such as the regulations relating to diet, shortened the liturgy and allowed for local languages to be used so that the liturgy could be understood by all. Initially, Reform Judaism remained opposed to Zionism (having adopted the principle that being a Jew is a private matter only); in the United States, Reform Judaism often takes the form of social, as opposed to religious, involvement in the life of the community.

Conservative Judaism, on the other hand, maintains and emphasizes the crucial role of religious laws (the Halakha), albeit in a slightly modified form of certain ritual commandments (e.g. allowing Jews to drive a car to the synagogue on the Shabbat); conservative Judaism never went as far as challenging the role of the Hebrew language in liturgy (as well as in Judaism as such) or the role of the Promised Land. In the United States, M. Kaplan created a splinter of conservative Judaism known as Reconstructionist Judaism. Having accepted – much like other reformers of Judaism did – the achievements of modern science, he attempted to create a description of God that would not include any supernatural references whatsoever – something that nobody before him ever attempted. He referred to Judaism as a limited religious civilisation and believed that the concept of the chosen people should be abandoned altogether; however, his ideas have failed to gain a substantial following. The American Reform Judaism (unlike the conservative branch) has also made it possible to inherit Jewishness after one’s father and not only after one’s mother, as has traditionally been the case.

This has been the source of one internal tensions among Jews, much like the issue of recognition by the conservatives of conversions to Judaism accepted by the more liberal groups. Among the dozen-odd million Jews alive today (mostly in the USA, Israel, France, United Kingdom, Russia and the Ukraine), a dozen-odd percent are the followers of Orthodox Judaism, which practically carries over the principles of rabbinical Judaism. This type of Judaism can be subdivided into the ultra-orthodox variant (which includes Hasidism) whose members believe that Jews must comply with the age-old rules pertaining to clothing as well as the stringent rules as to the relations between the sexes (the Hasidim are forbidden to even shake hands with a strange women and should refrain from looking at them) as well as the orthodox variant created by S.R. Hirsch in the 19th century, which combines the ritual rigorousness of everyday life with modern education and full participation in social life and the life of the nation (this movement is now common in Israel and is also present in the United States). Due to their growing concern that modernity may threaten traditional religion, ultra-orthodox groups adopted the view that “The Torah forbids all that is new” (Chatam Sofer, 19th century). The works of modern religious philosophers such as H. Cohen, F. Rosenzweig, M. Buber, A.J. Heschel and E. Lévinas also has an influence on some religious Jews today.

For entire millennia, Judaism was the single factor that made it possible to determine who is a Jew and who is not; however, throughout the last two centuries, a growing number of Jews have come to believe that their membership of the Jewish community hinges on their nationality or their culture and not on their religious views. Most, however, admit that they recognise the fundamental categories of the Jewish vision of the world contained in the traditions of Judaism. The fundamentals in question are the relations between man, God and the world, including, in particular, the links between God, Israel and the Torah. Judaism contains no binding dogmas, yet religious Jews mostly accept the 13 principles of faith formulated in the 12th century by Maimonides, although some choose to construe them literally while others apply their own interpretation thereof. According to these rules, there is one God, incorporeal and eternal. God is the creator; only God may be worshipped; He is the God who spoke through the prophets, the greatest of them all being Moses who received the gift of the Torah, the contents of which may never change. God is omniscient and repays each man according to his or her deeds. Jews await the coming of the Messiah and believe in the resurrection of the dead.

All versions of Judaism share a common creed: “ Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6,4). Another shared feature is the anti-mythological attitude of the Jewish religion, which has consistently rejected, among others, the sacralisation of the forces of nature, the tolerance of pagan deities or their subsequent incorporation into Jewish rites as well as the creation of dramatic works in which any incarnations of the divine may appear. Another common trait has been the renunciation of magic, even though, historically, Judaism contained many magical elements similar to those shared by societies among which the Jews lived. Traditions of Judaism contain no express visions of an afterlife, with its various visions being differentiated from the messianic era, which is understood to mean a radically better life on Earth. Some less orthodox variations of Judaism maintain this longing for the messianic age, even though they relinquish the faith in the Messiah himself.

Poland played an important role for the development of Judaism. From the 16th century until 1939, one of the most significant and largest centres of Judaism existed here, the earliest ones having been established in Cracow and Lublin, followed by other centres in Vilnius, Brest, Warsaw and others. Both Hasidic Judaism and the Misnagdim – a movement initiated by its opponents – remained popular in the Polish territories, with Reform Judaism failing to attract a substantial following. After World War II, orthodox Jewish communities have been recreated (the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, with registered office in Warsaw), although most members thereof have long abandoned traditional Judaism.


  • W. Tyloch Judaizm (Judaism), Warsaw 1987;
  • A. Unterman Żydzi, wiara i życie (Jews, their Faith and their Life), Łódź 1989;
  • A. Unterman Encyklopedia tradycji i legend żydowskich (Encyclopedia of Jewish Traditions and Legends), Warsaw 1994;
  • A. Cohen Talmud, Warsaw 1995;
  • N. Solomon Judaizm (Judaism), Warsaw 1997;
  • J. Eisenberg Judaizm (Judaism), Warsaw 1999;
  • S.Ph. de Vries Obrzędy i symbole Żydów (Jewish Rituals and Symbols), Cracow 1999.

Stanisław Krajewski

The content of this entry has been prepared on the basis of the source materials provided by the Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN)

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