World History Project - Origins to the Present
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- WATCH: Christianity from Judaism to Constantine
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- WATCH: Islam, the Quran, and the Five Pillars
- READ: Judaism
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- Development of Portable Belief Systems
Judaism is a monotheistic faith that developed among the Hebrew people and was first written down in the first millenium BCE. Never a large community, its ideas were highly influential for later belief systems and were spread over a large geographic region by a series of diasporae.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.
First read: preview and skimming for gist
Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!
Second read: key ideas and understanding content
For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What is the Torah?
- What was the Covenant the Hebrews believed they had with Yahweh?
- How did life for the Hebrews change as they shifted from pastoral to settled farming?
- How did the Hebrews rule themselves following the defeat of the Philistines?
- How did the Hebrews maintain cohesion after their exile from Canaan?
Third read: evaluating and corroborating
At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
- Judaism created both a large community and an extensive network of believers. What do you think was new or different about Judaism as a community? What about as a network?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.
Painted depiction of many people pressing their faces against a very large stone wall.
By Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Judaism is a monotheistic faith that developed among the Hebrew people and was first written down in the first millennium BCE. Never a large community, its ideas were highly influential for later belief systems and were spread over a large geographic region by a series of diasporae.
In the first millennium BCE., traditions and ideas that had earlier been handed down orally were often written down for the first time in many places around the world. Among these written traditions are those created by the Hebrews, a group of people who briefly established two small kingdoms in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River known as Canaan. Politically unimportant when compared with larger empires in the area such as the Egyptians or the Babylonians, the Hebrews created a new form of religious belief. This was a monotheism based on the worship of an all-powerful god they called "YHWH", generally spelled "Yahweh" in English.
Beginning in the late 600s BCE., the Hebrews began to write down their traditions, laws, history, and ethics, which were edited and brought together in five books known as the Torah. More history and traditions, and other types of works—advice literature, prayers, hymns, and prophecies—were added, to form the Hebrew Bible. Christians later adopted this and termed it the "Old Testament" to parallel specific Christian writings they called the "New Testament." These writings became the core of the Hebrews' religion, Judaism. The word, Judaism, comes from the Kingdom of Judah, the southern of the two Hebrew kingdoms and the one that was the primary force in developing religious traditions.
A painting of a man holding his arm out, holding a wide-eyed expression
Most of the information about the early Hebrews comes from the Bible, some of which has been supported by archaeological evidence and other written documents. Extensive research into everything the Bible discusses has continued for centuries, with enormous controversies among scholars and believers about how to interpret these findings.
Fundamental to an understanding of the Jewish religion is the concept of the Covenant, an agreement that people believed to exist between themselves and God. According to the Hebrew Bible, God appeared to the tribal leader Abraham, promising him that he would be blessed, as would his descendants, if they followed God. (Because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all regard this event as part of their origins, they are referred to as the "Abrahamic religions.") The Bible recounts that Yahweh next appeared to a charismatic leader named Moses when the Hebrews had been enslaved by the Egyptians. Moses led the Hebrews out of enslavement, and God made a covenant with the Hebrews: if they worshipped God as their only god, he would consider them his chosen people and protect them from their enemies. Early leaders such as Abraham and Moses and later individuals such as Jeremiah, Ezekial, and Isaiah who mediated between God and the Hebrew people were known as "prophets." Much of the Hebrew Bible consists of writings in their voices, understood as messages from God to which the Hebrews were to listen.
According to the Biblical text, God also gave the Hebrews a series of rules of behavior, the Ten Commandments. These related to worship and ethics, requiring certain kinds of religious observances and actions and forbidding others, including stealing, lying, killing, swearing, and wanting things that belonged to others. From the Ten Commandments a complex system of rules of conduct was created and later written down as Hebrew law. This included rules about eating and food preparation, holy days, menstruation, sexual actions, marriage, and many other aspects of life. It is not clear how these rules were followed during the biblical period. As with any law code, it is much easier to learn about what people were supposed to do according to Hebrew law than what they actually did.
Jews engaged in rituals through which they showed their devotion, including prayer, communal worship, study of sacred texts, and household rituals. They also were to please God by living up to high moral standards, and by treating others fairly and justly. Goodness was understood to come from God, a single transcendent god who became the sole focus of worship. Religious leaders were important in Judaism, but personally following the instructions of God as recorded in sacred texts was the central task for observant Jews in the ancient world.
Society and family life
The Hebrews were originally nomadic pastoralists following their herds of sheep and goats. They were organized into tribes, each tribe consisting of numerous families who thought of themselves as related to one another. They adopted settled agriculture in Canaan, and some lived in cities. Over time, communal use of land gave way to family or private ownership, and devotions to the traditions of Judaism replaced tribal identity.
The development of urban life among Jews created new and more specialized economic opportunities, especially in crafts and trade. People specialized in certain occupations and, as in most ancient societies, these crafts were family trades. Women worked in the fields alongside their husbands in rural areas, and in shops in the cities.
Family relationships also reflected evolving circumstances. Marriage and the family were fundamentally important in Jewish life. Celibacy was frowned upon, and almost all major Jewish thinkers and priests—who all were male—were married. As in other ancient cultures, marriage was a family matter, too important to be left solely to the whims of young people. The bearing of children was seen in some ways as a religious function. Sons were especially desired because they maintained the family bloodline while keeping ancestral property in the family. A firstborn son became the head of the household upon his father's death. Mothers oversaw the early education of the children, but as boys grew older, their fathers provided more of their education. Later as formal schooling developed among Jews, boys might also study religious texts in schools or synagogues, places for study and prayer.
A grey, white, and red mosaic shows a menorah, a candelabrum used for worship, along with two of the plants used to observe the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Political developments and the spread of Judaism
When the Hebrews settled in Canaan, they faced spiritual, military, and political challenges. Not surprisingly, at times they worshipped the agricultural gods of their neighbors, despite warnings from the prophets that they were not to do this. In this they followed the common historical pattern of newcomers by adapting the culture of an older, well-established people.
The Bible reports that the greatest military danger to the Hebrews came from a group known as the Philistines, who had established a kingdom in Canaan. The Hebrews found a leader in Saul, who with his men fought the Philistines. Saul subsequently established a monarchy over the Hebrew tribes. Saul's work was carried on by David of Bethlehem, who captured the city of Jerusalem, which he made the religious and political center of the realm. In the tenth century BCE., David's son Solomon launched a building program that the biblical narrative describes as including cities, palaces, fortresses, and roads. The most symbolic of these projects was the Temple of Jerusalem, intended to be the religious heart of the kingdom, a symbol of Hebrew unity and of God's approval of the Hebrew state.
This state did not last long. At Solomon's death his kingdom broke into political halves. The northern part became Israel, and the southern half was Judah, with Jerusalem as its center. War broke out between the northern and southern halves, which weakened both. Stronger neighboring kingdoms conquered both, sometimes exiling the Hebrews, and the area became part of the larger empires that ruled this area, including the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. Jews did not again have their own state until the foundation of Israel in the twentieth century.
Political and military developments led Jews to scatter widely in a diaspora, first throughout the Mediterranean and then beyond. Jews maintained their cohesion as a group through intermarriage, shared rituals, and devotion to a sacred text. They only rarely actively sought converts. Judaism thus became widespread geographically, but never very large in terms of numbers of adherents when compared with other world religions. Today the Jewish population of the world is estimated at about 15 million.
Primary source: The Book of Psalms
Hebrews believed that God punished people, but also believed he was a loving and forgiving god who would protect and reward all those who obeyed his commandments. A hymn recorded in the book of Psalms of the Hebrew Bible captures this idea:
Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Lo, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel! (Psalms 128:1–6)
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and currently the president of the World History Association. She is the author or editor of thirty books that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.