1. Give me the bottom line: what do Jewish people believe?
I hope you’ll read more than just this answer, but if you only have a few minutes, this is a great place to start! This question might seem simple, but it’s complex because Jewish people really don’t have formal ideas that one must absolutely believe in order to call themselves Jewish. Most Jewish people simply strive to adhere to the 10 Commandments, but perhaps the best list of beliefs adhered to by most religious Jews are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith. Rambam, more commonly known as Maimonides, was a 12th century Jewish scholar who is responsible for writing the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish religious law. The 13 Principles are:
- God is one and is unique.
- God is immaterial.
- God is eternal.
- Prayer is to be directed to God alone.
- The words of the prophets are true.
- Moses’ prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets.
- The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament) and Oral Torah (teachings in other Jewish holy books) were given to Moses.
- There will be no other Torah.
- God knows all of the thoughts and actions of people.
- God will reward the good and punish the wicked.
- The Messiah will come. (Jesus was not the Messiah.)
- There will be a resurrection of the dead.**
**George Robinson, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 416-417; www.jewfaq.org.
2. Why do some people call themselves Jewish, even if they don’t believe in God or go to temple? Is Judaism a religion or an ethnicity?
We and our kids need to realize the difference between Judaism as a religion, and Judaism as an ethnicity. Jewish people can be one, or the other, or both. Many people today who claim to be Jewish do so because they were born into a Jewish family (more commonly known as ethnic Jewish people). Some ethnic Jewish people do not practice Judaism as a religion. For further clarification about this, let’s look at the U.S. population of Jewish people. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, more than 5 million people in the U.S. self-identified as Jewish, but more than 1 million considered themselves Jewish only by birth (not in a religious sense).
This distinction is important because religious Jewish people follow Jewish law and participate in Jewish holy days, while many ethnic Jews (non-religious Jews) do not. It is possible, and likely, for Jewish people to be both ethnic and religious. It is also possible for someone to be non-Jewish ethnically, but to have converted to Judaism religiously. It is not required that a person have a particular ancestry to convert to Judaism.
One clarification we should make, though: Judaism is not a race in the way that we commonly think of race. This is because it is not required that everyone have the same ancestry in order to be a Jewish person. For example, a person may be born Asian, and they cannot change their race. A person may have Jewish ancestors, but Judaism is not in their blood. You can convert to Judaism, but you cannot convert to Asian. (Or at least you couldn't in the past. Nowadays with the whole "live your truth," people are arguing to identify as basically anything they want. Just for giggles, click here to see a video of a short, white, man convincing college students that he's a 6'5" Chinese woman. Their response? "Good for you!")
3. Why do Jewish men wear little hats?
The question you might hear from your kids on this one is, “What is that hat he is wearing?” The hat is called a kippah, which means “dome” in Hebrew. It refers to the domed cap that observant Jewish men wear to cover their heads, although there is some debate whether they need to wear a kippah at all times. A kippah is primarily worn by Jewish and non-Jewish people while at synagogue or other Jewish religious ceremonies as a sign of respect. The custom comes from the Talmud, not from the Bible. The Talmud explains the purpose of the kippah: “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for Divine mercy.” Another name for a kippah is the Yiddish word yarmulke, which is pronounced yah-mah-kah.
4. What is the purpose of a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah?
Your pre-teen or teenager might come home with an invitation to a bar/bat mitzvah, a very exciting time in a Jewish child’s life. A bar mitzvah (Hebrew for “son of the covenant”) is a rite of passage for Jewish boys, and a bat mitzvah (“daughter of the covenant”) is the female equivalent, though the requirements of each may be slightly different depending on the denomination of Judaism. Both occur when the child reaches 12 or 13. For context, though not a direct comparison, the ceremonies can be likened to the confirmation process in Christian churches. The celebration is like a quinceañera in Hispanic cultures or debutante balls for girls like the ones shown in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. (Admit it, you all wanted to go to one after watching the movie...)
Prior to the bar/bat mitzvah, the parents are responsible for the child’s actions. Upon reaching this milestone, the child (now a young adult) bears the responsibility for their own actions. Leading up to the bar/bat mitzvah, the child must take a year of extra classes and attend Hebrew school. Once completing the necessary requirements, the child becomes a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, now responsible for carrying out its traditions and rites on their own. The celebration may culminate with a party.
5. What is the Wailing Wall? Why are Jewish people wailing?
The Wailing Wall, more commonly called the Western Wall by Jewish people, is located in Jerusalem, and it is probably one of the most famous spots for prayer in the world. But what is it? The wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount and is believed to be what remains of the Temple following its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. It spans about 1,600 feet. Jewish people mourn the loss of their Temple, which resulted in the reference of the Wailing Wall by primarily non-Jews. Further, Jewish people believe that God's presence never left the Temple, despite its destruction, so they travel to the Western Wall to pray. Jewish people are not allowed to go into the Temple Mount because it is currently thought to be in a state of ritual impurity. The Western Wall is the closest they can get. It is also common to place written prayers in the cracks of the Wall.
6. Why do we say "Jewish people" instead of "Jew?"
There is nothing wrong with the title "Jew," but unfortunately it has been so misused, that the phrase "Jewish people" is now preferred. Shakespeare used “the Jew” as a derogatory phrase in Merchant of Venice when referring to the character Shylock. Hitler often referred to Jewish people as “the Jews” in order to dehumanize them, as if "a Jew" were an entirely different kind of human. Even today, people use the phrase “Jew him down” as a reference to bargaining. That being said, “Jew” is not as offensive to some as to others. In our Mama Bear articles about Judaism, we’ve used the term “Jew” sparingly in an effort to avoid unnecessary offense.
7. Why can’t Jewish people write out God’s name?
It’s not so much that Jewish people are forbidden to write out God’s name (in fact, there is no Jewish law stating they can’t), but that the more God’s name is written out, the greater the chance for it to be defamed, erased, or thrown away. The key is that God’s name is supposed to be revered. Many Jewish people see it as a sign of disrespect to write God’s name, so they will abbreviate it “G-d.”
8. Do Jewish people believe Jesus is the Messiah?
No, Jewish people don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah (the mashiach). Mashiach means “the anointed one,” not “the messiah.” Although Jewish people anticipate a messiah as God promised in Hebrew Scripture, they don’t believe that Jesus was the one because they don’t think He met the requirements. Basic beliefs about the mashiach are that God promised one who would lead the people of Israel into a time of peace and that the messiah would be a descendant of David.**
According to Christian belief, Jesus was descended from the line of David (Matthew 1:1), but this is disputed by many Jewish people. Jewish people also do not believe Jesus fulfilled the promise of peace because He wasn’t a war leader. Ultimately, there is no official Jewish position on Jesus, but most orthodox Jewish people will reject the notion of Jesus as the messiah.
The Christian response is that Jesus is the Messiah and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 9:6; John 5:39, 46; Matthew 5:17-18). Jesus is the Son of God (John 3:16), and His death and resurrection made it possible for humanity to be saved (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2; Romans 5:2).
**For more about Jewish beliefs regarding the messiah, visit http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm (last accessed April 3, 2018).
9. How do Jewish people think they are saved from their sins if they don't believe in Jesus?
Atonement for sin used to be in the form of a sacrifice at the temple, but modern-day Jews consider prayer, repentance, charitable acts, and justice as acceptable forms of atonement because they are selfless acts done with a sacrificial heart.
Some Orthodox Jews believe that they are disobeying the commandments of the law by neglecting the sacrificial system. However, these sacrifices were commanded to take place in the temple, the first and second of which were destroyed in the 6th century B.C. and 70 A.D., respectively. A third temple is part of end-times prophecy in many Christian circles.
10. Why do Jews and Christians disagree about hell if they both get their beliefs from Scripture?
If you have read through the Old Testament, you may have noticed a couple of different words used for hell, like Sheol or Gehenna. It sure can be confusing when trying to explain what hell is to your children, right?
Responding to the hell question is somewhat difficult because some Jews do not believe in an afterlife, and the Old Testament has several verses with different words for hell, including Sheol (Psalms 88:3, 5) or Gehenna (Joshua 15:8, 2 Chronicles 28:3). There are also references to Gehenna in the New Testament (e.g. Jesus refers to Gehenna in Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29-30, and Matthew 10:28), but keep in mind that Jewish people do not include the New Testament in their holy Scriptures.
Traditional Jewish teaching says that all souls will pass through Sheol after death, where they will be judged based on their actions while they lived. Purified souls go to Gan Eden (Genesis 2:9, Genesis 3:24, Ezekiel 28:12-19), with God, while nonredeemable souls go to Gehenna for punishment and purification. Gehenna is a temporary place according to Jewish tradition.
Jewish teachings note that there will be a resurrection of the dead during the messianic age. The wicked will not be resurrected. The spiritual afterlife is referred to as Olam Ha-Ba, which means "the world to come" in Hebrew.
It is important to note that Jewish beliefs about the afterlife generally come from the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic opinions, and not Scripture. This is one of the reasons why it seems that there are differences between Jewish and Christian views of the afterlife. This is not an instance of contradiction within Scripture because their views about the afterlife do not come from the Bible.
11. What are all the Jewish holy days, and what happens on them?
Some of the information below will be much more than you ever wanted to know about the particular Jewish holy day, but this should help you give a well-rounded answer to your child if you are asked about a specific one. You might be wondering how the Jewish calendar works. It is not the same as the Gregorian calendar (the type you probably have on your wall or in your day planner), so even though the dates of Jewish holy days or festivals may shift on the Gregorian calendar, the dates remain fixed on the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar uses a somewhat complicated system made up of earth rotation, the moon's revolution around the earth, and earth's revolution around the sun. It is not a strictly lunar calendar.
“Rosh Hashanah” means “head of the year” in Hebrew, and as the name suggests, it is celebrated at the start of the Jewish calendar year, usually in late September or early October. It is a two-day festival and is 10 days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Yom Kippur (also known as the Day of Atonement)
There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the key day of repentance in Judaism and occurs during September or October. Observance of this holy day typically includes 25 hours of fasting and prayer.
Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication)
This is the one most kids will know about because it is referenced in media frequently. “Hanukkah” comes from the Hebrew verb "חנך,” which means “to dedicate.” Hanukkah is a festival celebrated over eight days and nights in winter to commemorate a miracle in Jewish history, the Jewish revolt against Syria, and the purification of the Temple by the Maccabees. According to tradition, the Maccabean priests only had enough oil for one day, but the cleansing ceremony was supposed to last eight days. Miraculously, their oil lasted the entire eight days. Hanukkah is a kind of re-enactment of the ceremony. One branch of the chanukiah, a nine-branched menorah, is lit each night of Hanukkah until each branch is lit on the final night.
In Western cultures where Christmas is celebrated, some Jewish people exchange gifts on each night of Hanukkah. Children’s games, including those using a dreidel (a spinning top), are also played. Keep in mind, though, that Hanukkah is just one of many festivals Jewish people celebrate, and it is considered “major” typically only because of its proximity to Christmas.
“Purim” is the Hebrew word for “lots,” and each year in late winter or early spring, Jewish people commemorate being saved from extermination. The story of Purim is chronicled in Esther, which records that a Jewish woman Esther and her adoptive father (and cousin) Mordecai saved the Jewish people from Haman, an advisor of King Ahasuerus.
In celebration of Purim, the Book of Esther is read publicly in the synagogue on the evening and morning of Purim. It is also suggested that Jewish people complete acts of charity, send a gift to at least one friend, and share a festive meal with friends and family.
Passover, also known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread, is usually in March or April and commemorates the events of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It is a celebration of how God showed the Israelites mercy by passing over the houses of the Hebrews in Exodus 12, when all of the Egyptian first-born sons were killed as a sign of judgment. Passover lasts seven or eight days, depending on whether or not the person lives in Israel. It has two major symbols: matzo (unleavened bread also called matza or matzah) and a Seder meal (a meal that takes place on the first or second night of Passover which consists of very specific foods like bitter herbs, lamb, and wine). Before Passover begins, all food containing leaven (yeast) is removed from the home.
Also known as the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot typically falls in May or June and celebrates the harvest and giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot lasts two days during which work is not allowed, and the Torah, as well as the Book of Ruth, is studied.
Sabbath is a weekly day of rest and worship to commemorate the day of rest after the six days of creation, and for Jewish people, it is from Friday evening at sundown to Saturday evening.
12. Why don’t Jewish people celebrate Christmas?
The quick answer is of course that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and only Messianic Jews believe that Jesus was the messiah.
Actually, a few Jewish people do celebrate Christmas, but not in the same way Christians do, and it’s still pretty rare. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, about 30% of Jewish respondents had a Christmas tree in their home. Usually this happens when there is an interfaith family or when the Jewish person is not practicing as a religious Jew.
This isn’t to say that Jewish people across the world are attending Christmas services and celebrating the birth of Christ, but don’t assume that your Jewish friends wouldn’t come over for a Christmas Eve meal with you. For them, it would be more of a cultural celebration, but it can still be a celebration. It would be best to ask them directly if it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas” or if they are interested in participating in Christmas celebrations with you.
13. What is a menorah?
Menorah is the Hebrew word meaning “candle.” A menorah has seven branches. Another candle, a Chanukiah, has nine branches and is most commonly used during Hanukkah. This is probably the type of candle you see most in photos or at stores. During Hanukkah, one branch is lit each night during Hanukkah to remind Jews of the miracle of the Maccabees (see the question about Jewish holy days for more details about Hanukkah). The center candle (the “shamash”) of the Chanukiah is the helper candle that is used to light the other eight. For Scripture detailing the use of a lamp stand in Jewish history, see Exodus 25:31-36.
14. What is the Shema?
The Shema is one of two prayers required in the Torah, and it is supposed to be recited each morning and night. The Shema consists of three parts: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The first two words of the prayer, “Shema Yisrael,” are Hebrew for “Hear, O Israel.” Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service. The prayer is a call to obedience. It is also quoted by Jesus when he said to "love your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." You can listen to the Shema here.
15. Why do Jewish people have a stick on their doors?
Your child might ask you about the “stick” his or her Jewish friend had on their door. The stick is called a mezuzah, which is the Hebrew word for “doorpost.” It is a small tube that is placed outside the door of a Jewish home, which contains a copy of Deuteronomy 6:4, 9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (two sections of the Shema) on a scroll. As a Jewish person enters or leaves the home, they are supposed to touch the mezuzah and kiss his or her fingers as a reminder of the Shema. Traditionally, a mezuzah is placed in the doorway of each living space within a Jewish home. It can be ornate or quite simple.
16. Have Jews ever been persecuted by Christians?
Unfortunately, the answer to this is yes, and it often happens on the schoolyard - which is why we are including it here. We were originally going to have this question be, "Are Jewish people responsible for killing Christ?" but we didn't want people to just read the heading, and not the answer.
This is clearly a more complex question than some of the others addressed in this article, but it needs to be considered because as we researched this article, we heard stories of a common type of bullying that occurs to Jewish children at the hands of Christian children where the Jewish children are accused of being “Christ killers.” Our aim here is to help with any misunderstanding kids might have about the Jewish role in the crucifixion of Christ. The charge comes from Matthew 27:24-25, which states:
"When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” (NIV)
This passage is sometimes called the “blood curse.” The term “Christ killer” has been used in modern-times as an anti-Semitic slur to encourage violence against Jewish people, including during the Holocaust and by White supremacists. Most Christian denominations have repudiated the claim that this is a charge against all Jewish people or somehow applies to all Jewish people, but there are still a minority of people who subscribe to the idea that all Jewish people, past and present, are to be held responsible for Christ’s death. Sometimes kids get confused and say that Jewish people killed Jesus. This is not something we as Christians should be promoting, and you should encourage your children to avoid such language.
And just so we are clear, Mama Bear Apologetics does not hold to any sort of "replacement theology" which states that the promises made to Israel have now been transferred to Christians. We believe that when God said that He made a covenant with Israel forever, He meant forever (Genesis 17:7, Jeremiah 32:40, Genesis 17:19, Luke 1:55).
17. What does it mean to be kosher?
If you're like me, you probably thought that kosher had something to do with pickles and hot dogs. I mean, I understand hot dogs, but pickles? What makes a pickle kosher, anyway?**
Understanding what kosher means is important to know if your child invites a kosher Jewish child over for a play date and you have to plan snacks or dinner. Kosher foods are those that conform with the dietary rules in the Torah. The rules are long, but a list of acceptable and forbidden foods can be found in this article by Live Strong. For people who keep truly kosher, all utensils, pans, and ovens need to be kashered before the food within them could be Kosher. Kashering is typically done by boiling the utensils in water or by placing the objects in fire. Prepackaged food that does not need to be cooked would probably be best if you are having a meal with Jewish people who keep kosher.
**If you want to find out more about kosher pickles, here's an interesting article about the topic.
18. What is Messianic Judaism?
Messianic Judaism is a sort of blend of Judaism and Christianity, with the biggest distinction being that Messianic Jews recognize Jesus as the messiah. Messianic Jews are often referred to as a sect of Christianity, but many consider themselves to be a sect of Judaism, particularly because many of them are ethnic Jews, born into a Jewish family. I have a Messianic friend who notes that it might be best to refer to them as Messianic believers. They believe they are saved by grace, but still practice many of the Old Testament or Jewish laws, such as maintaining a kosher diet. They recite the Shema and several other traditional Jewish prayers, but they also have their own Siddur, which contains prayers that reference Jesus as the Messiah.