By the time you consider religious law, rabbinic orders, sectarian recommendations, and community and family preferences – the list of Jewish traditions is overwhelming. Furthermore, the traditions of many Jewish groups were impacted by the culture in which they assimilated during the Diaspora. (The Diaspora is the distribution of Jewish people throughout the world – outside Israel.) However, there are some core holidays, traditions, and habits that generally apply to most individuals identifying as Jewish.
How Jewish Traditions Developed
A list of Jewish traditions might make the religion appear humorously nitpicky to non-Jews. A sort of magnified and glamorized portrayal of this is the musical Fiddler on the Roof with the song “Tradition.” Despite the Jewish adherence to sometimes painstaking ritual, the underlying philosophy is actually quite big-picture in scope: The object is to connect with God in as many areas of life as possible, even the most mundane.
(Interested in Jewish language and civilization? Read here an article on how you can better reach this goal.)
A perusal of the first 5 books of the Old Testament – or Torah, in Judaism – shows that the office of the priest and the rite of animal sacrifice were the most important components of ancient Jewish practice. However, today, this is no longer the case. Around the 1st century AD, groups that did not follow the priest’s authority cropped up and gradually gained authority to the point of becoming the dominant voice of the faith.
The Pharisees were leaders in this movement. Their object was to give more authority to rabbis (teachers), leading to the Rabbinic Judaism of the past two millennia. Historically, rabbis had an authoritative and/or advisory role in all areas of life, not just in the synagogue – consistent with the Jewish devotion to remembering the Lord in all areas of life.
Nevertheless, many Jewish acts of reverence are reminiscent of the original priest-led worship. Torah scrolls are commonly kept – each scroll held in elegant dressing – on the east wall (symbolically facing Jerusalem) of synagogues in a special cabinet with a curtain, reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant. An official reader takes a scroll from this cabinet to a prayer desk to commence the reading.
The historical adversities of the Jewish people – the multiple exiles that caused the Diaspora, slavery, and persecution, along with occasions of divine providence and redemption – drive most of their religious practice. There might be variations in the details, but ultimately all Jews take time to thank God for saving them, beg forgiveness for wrongdoing, petition for greater wisdom to do right, and remember the times when the Jewish people historically went astray and were made to suffer at the hands of the unfaithful.
Custom and Law in Jewish Tradition
Halacha is the Hebrew term for religious law: rules of Halacha are derived from the Torah and the Talmud (rabbinic prescriptive writings which are themselves Torah-inspired). In contrast, custom (Minhag in Hebrew) refers to behaviors done ritualistically or habitually that are not formally prescribed by any religious authority. In some cases, the line between Halacha and Minhag is blurred.
One could argue that there are 3 types of Halacha: the first is gezeirah – rules to help one avoid breaking more serious rules; the second is takkanah – rules to further some important part of worship; a third, sort of gray-area category could be minhagim (plural of minhag) that have become so entrenched in Jewish life that they more or less serve as rules for living.
To complicate matters further, minhagim are not always truly Jewish in origin. During the Diaspora, Jews assimilated customs and ideas from the people of their surrounding culture; these approaches were gradually incorporated in their worship. This partially explains the variation in practice among different Jewish groups.
One of the most popular examples of a Jewish custom that is so entrenched as to almost seem like Halacha is the smashing of glass by the groom at the end of a Jewish wedding. The groom steps on a glass object – the breakage viewed as representing lament for the Temple’s destruction, or remembrance of other kinds of suffering in the world, or possible adversity in the future lives of the bride and groom.
Many aspects of the Jewish worship service are minhag-driven. CertainTorah readings are scheduled for certain days in order to get through the Torah within a year. However, there is no scriptural prescription that readings be chanted or performed in a certain order or physical position; also, some Tanakhic (same as Christian Old Testament) readings are customary for certain times and occasions, but there is really no law about this – yet all Jewish groups adhere to various rituals in these areas.
Major Jewish Holidays
Hanukah is the most famous Jewish holiday in the West, mostly because its date tends to fall within the Christmas season. Christians tend to mistakenly view it as a Jewish counterpart to their biggest holiday, but ironically, it is not such a major holiday in Judaism.
In reality, Hanukah is a period of 8 days to commemorate the victory of the Jews over an oppressive 2nd century BC Greek regime that acted to oppress their religious expression. On a certain occasion, the Greeks mostly depleted the Temple of oil appropriate for keeping the candles lit, but a mere day’s worth of oil miraculously kept the candles bright for 8 days.
The hallmark tradition is the lighting of the menorah, accompanied by blessings (berakhot). Because oil is a Hanukah theme, fried foods like latkes are eaten during this time. Also, the dreidel game is played – an allusion to gambling games played to disguise Torah education during times of Greek oppression.
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the true biggest holiday for Jews – in fact, many otherwise relapsed Jews will still observe this important date of penitence, rest, and fasting. The resting and fasting requirements are strict – Jews take time off from work for the day, cannot eat or drink, and cannot perform some acts of basic hygiene. Yom Kippur prayers beg God’s forgiveness for sins.
Another truly important Jewish holiday is Pesach (or Passover); like Yom Kippur, this time is celebrated even by very relaxed Jewish worshippers. Pesach is the Jewish holiday with which Christians are most conceptually familiar, because of its connection to Easter. However, unlike Christians, Jews spend the week of Passover, avoiding any form of bread leavening, as God commanded the Exodus Jews to do as they prepared to escape Egyptian slavery.
A last major Jewish holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. A hallmark feature of Rosh Hashanah celebration is the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn trumpet, in the synagogue. Another tradition of this day is eating apples dipped in honey – symbolizing the wish for sweetness, in all forms, in the coming year.
Less Prominent Jewish Holidays
Christians ought to be familiar with Purim, since its origins are straight from the Book of Esther in the Old Testament, but ultimately most are not so familiar with this relatively minor Jewish holiday. It commemorates God’s saving the Jews from annihilation at the hands of the Haman, a Persian dignitary, during the time of Persian dominance. Therefore, it is a joyous holiday. Jews are to enjoy this day by dressing in fun costumes, eating sweet fruity foods, and engaging in other lighthearted activities.
Soon after Yom Kippur, there is Sukkot, a period of 1 week in which Jews live in sukkot, or booths, which are built by the scriptural specification. This celebratory time period remembers the Jewish people’s 40-year, post-exile wandering period in the desert.
Shavuot, or Festival of Weeks, is a day of thanksgiving for God’s gift of the Torah. Accordingly, it is a day of rest and Torah study. Also, it is customary for Jewish people to have at least one meal with dairy products during Shavuot. However, it is unclear what milk is to symbolize – possibly God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.
Shavuot, Sukkot, and Passover all have agricultural underpinnings, coexisting with their strictly religious meanings. Shavuot is also a festival of first fruits – historically, the first fruits picked in a season would have been presented for sacrifice. Passover kicked off the growing season, and Sukkot marked a thanksgiving for the harvest (along with for the Torah). This is just another way that Jews remember their ancient history.
A List of Jewish Traditions: The Most Prominent
The three major Abrahamic religions all have a weekly Sabbath – a day of rest and devotion to God. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism’s Sabbath (Shabbat) is on Saturday. The underlying goal of Shabbat is to put mundane concerns aside and connect with God. Also, Shabbat symbolically follows God’s example during creation – He rested on the 7th day.
Another Torah-ordered tradition is frequent Shema prayers. There are many different Shema prayers, each intended for a different occasion, time, or activity; but they all start with Deuteronomy 6:4-9—“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” – emphasizing the ultimate oneness of God, a pervasive theme of Jewish theology.
Most non-Jews have heard of Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means “Son of the Commandment,” but there is also Bat Mitzvah, “Daughter of the Commandment,” for girls. (The same terms refer to both the ceremony and the celebrated youth.)
The ceremony is for the spiritual coming-of-age of a young boy or girl – usually at age 13 for boys and 12 for girls. The young person takes on the role and rights of an adult in the synagogue. This is actually a relatively recent custom, and it is not ordered by the Torah. However, the combination of scripture readings and personalized secular festivities make it an ideal way to celebrate a young person’s advancing maturity.
Other Prevalent Jewish Traditions
Jewish marriages involve a wedding – reminiscent of the Christian wedding – plus sort of pre-marriage phase known as Kiddushin. More recently, these two celebrations occur back-to-back, and the traditional financial promises the groom made for kiddushin have become more symbolic gestures.
Nevertheless, the ketubah, or marriage contract, is of central importance in these ceremonies and is remembered throughout the Jewish marriage. Opposite to Christian weddings, the Jewish groom actually puts the veil on his bride: this is taken as a symbolic attempt to avoid what happened to Jacob – he married Leah, believing her to be his beloved Rachel.
Jewish funerals are to happen as soon as possible after death. The most prominent aspect of Jewish funereal tradition is the Shiva (or mourning) period of 1 week after the funeral. The Jewish faith looks positively on those who pay someone in Shiva a respectful visit.
Lunisolar (moon- and sun-based) timekeeping impacts a large list of Jewish traditions. The Jewish year does not at all correspond with the solar year of the Gregorian calendar. This is the reason that Jewish holidays vary so much in date from year to year.
The ancient dependence on the moon to designate months is also the reason that some holidays are celebrated an extra day outside of Israel. Historically, designated observers had to see and officially report that there was a new moon to establish that the month had changed, but it often took them at least a day to convey the report to those outside Israel.
Furthermore, Jews far enough from Israel could be in very different time zones; celebrating an extra day was a way to ensure the holiday had been celebrated on the prescribed day.
Tendencies of Jewish People
Most non-Jews have heard of the famous “Mazel Tov!” exclamation. The original use occurs after the groom breaks glass at a wedding – it means “Congratulations!” and is a playful and joyful conclusion to the wedding festivities. However, now, Mazel Tov is sometimes habitually said after any glass breakage, much like “bless you” is sometimes said after a sneeze.
In spite of the Diaspora, Jewish people have a profound sense of community. They tend to remember and value their familial and friendly connections to other Jews – even those in another country.
Jewish people habitually rock gently back and forth during prayer and will read religious texts in a characteristic chanting cadence. These worship behaviors are not scriptural orders, but they are very much entrenched habits.
Familiarity With Jewish Traditions Is Relevant to Non-Jews
With the Diaspora, Jewish traditions melded with the religious traditions and cultures of peoples all over the world. Sometimes, this was a natural or positive transition; sometimes, it created tension; more often than not, it has been a combination of the two. Christians and Muslims share significant parts of their heritage and customs with Jews. Therefore, it is relevant to those of all faiths (and those not part of any faith) to understand a basic list of Jewish traditions.