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How Judaism began: this ancient religion gave rise to Christianity and Islam. How did it begin?

Founded thousands of years ago, Judaism (JOO-dee-ihz-uhm) was the first major religion to teach a belief in one God. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham, who lived sometime between 2000 B.C. and 1800 B.C., in the region we know as the Middle East. Jews believe that God promised to protect Abraham's people if they remained faithful to Him. Abraham was chosen in part because he was the first to profess a belief in only one God.

The Torah tells that some of Abraham's descendants, who later became known as Israelites, moved to Egypt, where they prospered. After a while, however, a cruel Egyptian Pharaoh (ruler) ordered that they be enslaved.

Centuries of slavery shook the faith of the Israelites. In about 1300 B.C., the Torah says, God chose Moses to go before the Pharaoh and demand their deliverance (rescue). But the Pharaoh would not yield. God then set plague after plague upon the Egyptian people--from diseases that devastated cattle to the Nile River's turning to blood. With each display of divine power, the Israelites' faith in God grew.

But the Pharaoh still would not budge. Finally, God unleashed a devastating tenth plague: The Angel of Death killed the first-born son of each Egyptian family. With the death of his own son, the Pharaoh's will was broken at last. He allowed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. They left in such a rush that the breads they had been baking did not have time to rise.

Today, the annual feast of Passover celebrates the Exodus and the "passing over" of the Angel of Death, who spared the Israelites' first-born sons. The most important symbol at a seder is unleavened (unraised) bread, or matzo.

Israel and Beyond

According to the Torah, God gave the Ten Commandments and other laws to Moses after the Exodus. These laws taught Jews the proper way to live and worship in their chosen land.

The Jews formed the kingdom of Israel around 1029 B.C., in the land promised to Abraham. By 950 B.C., they completed the First Temple in their capital, Jerusalem, for the worship of God. Years later, the Babylonians destroyed it. The Romans destroyed the Jews' Second Temple in 70 A.D. But its Western Wall--also called the Wailing Wall--still stands.

After the Roman conquest, which began in 63 B.C., decades of unrest followed. Many Jews were forced to leave their homeland, renamed Syria Palaestina by the Romans.

As outsiders in other countries, Jewish people often faced persecution. For example, when Czar Alexander II of Russia was murdered in 1881, Russian Jews were blamed. Hundreds of them were killed in attacks called pogroms (pah-GROMS), or organized massacres.

During World War II (19391945), Nazi Germans killed 6 million Jews in Europe. After this Holocaust, the desire of Jews to reunite in Israel grew even stronger.

At the time, most people in what was then called Palestine were Arabs. But a growing number of Jews also lived there. International pressure to create a new Jewish homeland increased. In 1947, the United Nations proposed to divide Palestine into two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab.

The Jews in Palestine accepted the plan, but the Arabs opposed it. In 1948, Jewish leaders declared Israel to be an independent nation.

"Closer to God"

Today, the world's 15 million Jews live their heritage--and interpret the Torah--in various ways. The four main branches of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist--range from strictly following Jewish law (Orthodox) to holding to spiritual principles, rather than an exact interpretation of holy texts (Reconstructionist). Some people consider themselves to be Jewish by birth and by culture, even though they are not religious.

As a Reform Jew, 13-year-old Amanda Garfinkel of Westfield, New Jersey, attends her synagogue (place of worship) many Saturdays and takes Judaism classes. She likes it when rabbis discuss how the Torah applies to modern life. "They give life lessons that I find meaningful," says Amanda.

Shimon Newmark, an Orthodox Jew from Baltimore, Maryland, lives the Torah's laws every day. Last June, when he turned 13, he celebrated his bar mitzvah--a boy's entrance into Jewish adulthood. "Bar mitzvah is the day that you become obligated to all the laws," says Shimon. This includes fasting on Yom Kippur, studying the Torah and the Talmud (a collection of rabbis' interpretations of Jewish laws), and giving to charity. Shimon also keeps kosher, which means eating only foods that Jewish laws say are dean. For example, eating pork is forbidden because the pig is considered an unclean animal.

According to Jewish tradition, fulfilling these obligations is not a chore--it represents a chance to grow. As Shimon says, "It brings you closer to God."


* Exodus: many people leaving a place at once; the flight of the Israelites from Egypt.

* kosker: food that fulfills the requirements of Jewish laws.

* seder: Passover feast.

* Torah: the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.

* Yom Kippur: the holiest day of the Jewish calendar during which Jews fast and ask forgiveness from God.

Your Turn


Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all accept a belief in one God. What other characteristics do these major religions share? How can people of different religions find common ground?



Students should understand

* the key events, people, and tenets of Judaism.


Ask students to name as many religions as they can and to identify each faith's core beliefs.


Abraham is considered to be a father of three faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Jews trace their ancestry through one of his sons, Isaac. Muslims believe Abraham to be one of the first and most important prophets of Islam. Some Arab traditions trace their ancestry through Abraham's eldest son, Ishmael. Christians, whose faith is in part derived from Judaism, also revere Abraham.


MAKING INFERENCES: How did Judaism differ from the other religions that existed when it first developed? (Judaism was the first major religion to teach a belief in one God. Other contemporary religions believed in the worship of many gods.)

COMPREHENSION: According to the Torah, why did God unleash the plagues upon the Egyptians? (God sent Moses to the Pharaoh to demand the Jews' freedom from slavery. When the Pharaoh refused, God set plague after plague upon the Egyptians to convince the Pharaoh of His divine power.)


JERUSALEM: Have students research the history of Jerusalem, a holy city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Instruct them to write an essay explaining the city's relevance to each group, and attach a map showing the sites that are holy to each religion. Students may also explore ways in which devotees of each faith can peacefully claim ownership of and worship in areas of this holy city.



* Culture: How Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people and was one of the first major religions to teach a belief in one God.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How the four main branches of Judaism define their faith's laws and spiritual principles.



* Rubin, Susan, L'Chaim! (Abrams, Inc., 2004). Grades 5-8.

* Kavanaugh, Dorothy, Islam, Christianity, Judaism (Mason Crest Pub., 2004). Grades 5-8.


* Judaism


* The Torah

* Civilization and the Jews



* Match the clue in the left column with the answer in the right column.

-- 11. Babylonians

-- 12. Torah from Egypt

-- 13. Yom Kippur to the Torah

-- 14. Moses

-- 15. Romans

-- 16. seder

-- 17. Egyptians

-- 18. Abraham

-- 19. Talmud

-- 20. Exodus

A. important Jewish holiday

B. flight of the Israelites from Egypt

C. victims of plagues, according to the Torah

D. founder of Judaism

E. first five books of the Hebrew Bible

F. a collection of Jewish laws

G. Passover feast

H. led the Jews out of Egypt

I. destroyed the First Temple

J. renamed Israel "Syria Palaestina"

11. I

12. E

13. A

14. H

15. J

16. G

17. C

18. D

19. F

20. B
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Title Annotation:World History
Author:Friedman, Matt
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 15, 2004
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