Judaism For Dummies®


by Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph. D. and David Blatner




About the Authors

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., one of the pioneers of Jewish spirituality within the Reform Jewish context, was ordained in 1968 from the Hebrew Union College– Jewish Institute of Religion, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received a doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology in 1975. He is a nationally recognized lecturer and teacher, and the author of A Journey of Awakening: A Guide for Using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in Jewish Meditation, as well as a series of meditation tapes for healing and spiritual awakening. Rabbi Falcon founded Makom Ohr Shalom, a Synagogue for Jewish Meditation in Los Angeles, which is still among the largest synagogues of its type in the country. Ted lives in Seattle, where he is rabbi of Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue, a writer, and a psychotherapist in private practice.

David Blatner is an award-winning, best-selling author of eight books on a wide range of topics—from virtual reality to digital imaging to the number pi (π). Known for his easy-to-read and humorous style of writing about difficult subjects, Blatner is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose books have sold over 400,000 copies and have been translated into ten languages. He also frequently writes on the topic of electronic print and Web-based publishing, and has presented seminars in North America, South Africa, and Japan. Mr. Blatner has been a Jew his whole life.



Ted: To my son, Seth, with much love and ever-increasing respect.

David: To my father, Adam, who planted the seed. (In more ways than one.)


Authors’ Acknowledgments

Remember the adage “Never trust a book by its cover”? Well, this cover has our names on it, but that only tells part of a much bigger story. We’d like to thank our many teachers, friends, family, and supporters (some of whom fall into more than one of those categories).

First, we’ve got to give a hand to our wives, Ruth Neuwald Falcon and Debra Carlson, whose patience and love made this grueling process bearable. Thanks, too, to our lead technical reviewer Rabbi Harry Zeitlin, who never failed to offer two interpretations when we had room for only one. His wise and kind availability provided us impressive support in this endeavor. We also relied on the wise and helpful comments of our second technical reviewer, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz. Arielle Vale, Olivier Benhaim, and Amy Bearmon provided a great deal of useful material to help us with the Jewish history and Hebrew chapters.

Similarly, dozens of others—such as Kenana Amin, Avi Landau of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Martin Jaffee of the University of Washington, and Esly Carvalho—contributed facts and figures that helped immeasurably. This book could not have been produced without considerable caffeine (Ted drinks decaf) from Seattle’s Emerald City Coffee (thanks Angie, Matthew, and Tara) and software provided by Davka Corp. and Lambda Publishers (of Encyclopedia Judaica fame). Many thanks to our agent, Reid Boates, and to the folks at Wiley, including Tami Booth, Karen Young, Gregg Summers, Mary Goodwin, and Stacy Klein.

David: I’d like to thank David Weinstein (and his family) for dragging me to shul as a child to eat great food, as well as Glenn Fleishman, Michael Friend, Leah Brass Livesey, Mordy Golding, and Julie Sklare for their inspiration, kind words, and help along the way. And great thanks go to my coauthor, Ted, whose profound, open-hearted teaching helped me see Judaism in a new way.

Ted: I would like to thank my teachers and my students (who are often the same people) over the years, and especially my communities in Seattle and in Los Angeles, who continue to teach me what it means to be a rabbi. For those friends who thought it perfectly reasonable for me to be writing this book, like Stephen Merritt, Sheila Dunn-Merritt, Rabbi David Cooper, and Rabbi Mordecai Magency, a special “bless you.” And a very important word of gratitude for the expertise, the humor, the wisdom, and the friendship of my coauthor, David Blatner.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at www.dummies.com/register/

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Mary Goodwin

Copy Editor: Rowena Rappaport

Acquisitions Editor: Karen Young

Acquisitions Coordinator: Stacy Klein

Technical Editors: Rabbi Harry Zeitlin, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz

Editorial Manager: Jennifer Ehrlich

Editorial Assistant: Michelle Hacker

Illustrator: Pam Tanzey

Cover Photo: ©Artville/Picture Quest


Project Coordinator: Nancee Reeves

Layout and Graphics: Jackie Nicholas, Jacque Schneider, Julie Trippetti, Jeremey Unger

Proofreaders: Carl Pierce, Charles Spencer, York Production Services, Inc.

Indexer: York Production Services, Inc.

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Joyce Pepple, Acquisitions Director, Consumer Dummies

Kristin A. Cocks, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Michael Spring, Vice President and Publisher, Travel

Brice Gosnell, Associate Publisher, Travel

Suzanne Jannetta, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services




Judaism and Dummies: Not an Oxymoron

How to Use This Book

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Pronouncing Jewish Words

Conventions Used in This Book

Feedback, Please

Part I : What Jews Generally Believe

Chapter 1: That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish: Who’s a Jew and Why

The Jewish Tribe

Major Branches of the Tree

Guess Who Else Is Jewish

Chapter 2: One Singular Sensation: Judaism and God

Jewish Beliefs about God

Calling One God Many Names

Looking behind the Name

The Quest for Ultimate Reality

Chapter 3: Torah, Torah, Torah: The Unfolding of a Tradition

Torah: The Light That Never Dims

The Tanach: The Hebrew Bible

A Hidden Revolution: The Oral Torah

The Expanding Torah

Chapter 4: Setting Intentions: Judaism as a Daily Practice

Connecting to God: Mitzvah

The Way of Blessing and Prayer

Going to Shul/Synagogue/Temple

You Are What You Eat: A Brief Guide to What’s Kosher

Rites of Purification

The Garment District

Down Home, Jewish Style

So Go Now and Live

Chapter 5: Jewish Mysticism

Jewish Mysticism 101

The Magical Mystical Tour

Going Above and Beyond: Jewish Meditation

Maps to Understanding: The Images and Symbols

Part II : From Womb to Tomb: The Life Cycle

Chapter 6: In the Beginning: Birth and Bris

The Cutting Edge Ritual

Thanking God for Little Girls

Playing the Name Game

Buying Back the First Born

Chapter 7: Coming of Age: The Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Preparing for the Big Day

Celebrating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Confirming Your Beliefs

Chapter 8: Get Me to the Chuppah On Time: Weddings

Looking at the Origins of the Jewish Marriage

Preparing for the Ceremony

Enjoying the Wedding

Getting a Get: Divorce

Chapter 9: Stepping Through the Valley: The Shadow of Death

Planning for Death

Arranging the Funeral

Observing the Mourning Period

Saying Kaddish

Remembering the Dead

Part III : An Overview of Jewish History

Chapter 10: Let My People Go: From Abraham to Exodus

The Genesis of a People

The Son Also Rises

The Enslavement and Exodus

Entering the Promised Land

Chapter 11: The Kings of Israel: The First Temple

Finding the Right Guy to Be King

Continuing War and Peace

Living under the Lion of Judah

Telling a Tale of Two Kingdoms

The Fall of the First Temple

Chapter 12: Sects and Violence: The Second Temple

Finding a Home away from Home

It’s All Greek To Me

A Parting of Ways

All Roads Lead to Rome

An Edifice Complex

Sects and Violence

Chapter 13: From One Exile to Another: The First Millennium

Beware, the End is Nigh!

Exile to Go, Hold the Anchovies

Jews under Islam

Let My People Stay: Prosperity and Persecution

The Reign in Spain

Chapter 14: The Greatest Horror, The Greatest Triumph

Poland as a “Jewish State”

The Dawning of a New Age

Beyond the Pale

Responses to Enlightenment

The Rise of Nationalism and Racism

We Gotta Get Out of This Place

The Holocaust

A New Jewish State

Chapter 15: Jewish Buddhists and Other Paradoxes of the New Age

In the Shadow of the Holocaust

The Mixed Blessing of America

Jews as Spiritual Teachers of Other Traditions

The New Jewish Spirituality

Jew versus Jew versus Jew

Into a New Millennium

Chapter 16: The Question of Antisemitism

Recounting the Unaccountable

Fearing an Unknown Quantity: The Origins of Hate

Exploding the Myths of History

From Religion to Race: Antisemitism in Modern Times

Toward Healing

Part IV : Celebrations and Holy Days

Chapter 17: Shabbat: Paradise Regained

Understanding Shabbat

Shabbat: Restriction or Relief?

Welcoming the Sabbath

Concluding Shabbat

The Universal Aspects of Shabbat

Chapter 18: In with the New: Rosh Hashanah

It’s Judgment Day

The 40-Day Plan

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah

The Ten Days of Awe

Real Beginnings Mean Change

Chapter 19: Getting Serious: Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry

Celebrating Yom Kippur

Seeing the Light of Yom Kippur

Chapter 20: The Great Outdoors: Sukkot

Jewish Thanksgiving

How to Sukkot

Sh’mini Atzeret

Simchat Torah

Chapter 21: Guilt or Gelt: Chanukkah

Light on the Darkest Night

The Good Fight: What Chanukkah Celebrates

Spinning Oil Tales: Chanukkah Customs

The Real Gift of Chanukkah: Personal Renewal

Chapter 22: Planting a Tree on Tu B’Shvat

Tithing Fruits of Land and Spirit

A Seder of Fruit and Wine

Try This at Home

Enlightened Gardeners

An Ever-Living Tree

Chapter 23: The Jewish Halloween: Purim

Purim: Based on a True Story (Sort Of)

Why Purim Survived

Bang a Gong: Celebrating Purim

Bringing Darkness to Light

Chapter 24: From Groan to Glee: Passover

Looking at the Reasons behind Passover

Edible Do’s and Don’ts

First Things First: Preparing for Passover

The Seder: As Easy as 1, 2, 3 . . .

A Time to Think about Freedom

It’s Not Over till It’s Omer

The Universal Themes in Passover

Chapter 25: Spring Is Busting Out All Over: Shavuot

The Ideas Behind Shavuot

Searching for New Rituals


Chapter 26: Tisha B’Av: A Day of Mourning

Fasting, Reading, and Reflecting

Tu B’Av: Releasing into Joy

Today’s Tisha B’Av

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 27: Ten Great Jewish Thinkers




Joseph Caro

Isaac Luria

Ba’al Shem Tov

Henrietta Szold

Abraham Isaac Kook

Martin Buber

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Chapter 28: Answers to Ten Common Questions about Judaism

Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus?

Why Is Israel So Important to the Jews?

What Does It Mean to Be the “Chosen” People?

Why Are So Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Celebrities Jewish?

What Is the Role of Women in Judaism?

What Is “Jewish Humor”?

What Role Does Music Play in Jewish Culture?

Who’s In Charge of Judaism?

Can You Convert to Judaism?

What’s the Relationship Between Judaism and Islam?

Chapter 29: Ten Folks You Should Know

Sholom Aleichem

Menachem Begin

David Ben-Gurion

Moshe Dayan

Anne Frank

Golda Meir

Reb Nachman

Shimon Peres

Yitzchak Rabin

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn

Adin Steinsaltz

Elie Wiesel

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: Oy Vey! and Other Words You Should Know

A Primer of Basic Words

Yiddish, Yinglish, Oy!

Appendix B: A Sampler of Jewish Prayers and Blessings

Sh’ma and V’ahavta

Upon Awakening in the Morning

Upon Going to Sleep at Night

Various, Sundry, and Otherwise Useful Blessings

Appendix C: Calendar of Jewish Holidays

Months and Years

Double-Day Celebrations

Appendix D: Go Now and Learn

Books for The People of the Book

On the Newsstand

Some Jewish Organizations


It’s amazing how many people have become interested in Judaism in recent years. Some people interested in Judaism are in search of meaningful connections to the past. Some have a hunger for deeper understanding and ritual, a longing for something precious to pass on to their children, something nourishing and loving to live by. For many Jews (and non-Jews, too) this has meant exploring the rich tapestry of Judaism—some discovering the religion for the first time, others re-examining the lost or forgotten traditions from their youth.

For non-Jews, perhaps this interest follows an increasing awareness of the significance of Judaism as the source both of Jesus as well as of the “Old Testament.” There also seems to be a greater openness these days to appreciating the depth of Judaism without seeing it as a threat to other faiths.

For Jews, perhaps this resurgence of interest stems from a community recovering from Holocaust horrors and rediscovering a trust that the faith and practice still exist. Certainly, much of the interest seems to come from the increasing realization that Judaism has much mystical, meditative, and spiritual depth to offer.

The problem is that the vast majority of Jewish books on the market today either tackle one particular subject in great depth (like 300 pages just on the holiday of Sukkot), or they approach Judaism from an orthodox perspective of “These are the 2,145 things you should do if you know what’s good for you.” There’s nothing wrong with either of these approaches, but we want to offer something different. We believe that even a subject as deep and important as Judaism can be fun to read about. And the more you find out about the subject, the more fun it is.

With that in mind, we offer you Judaism For Dummies. Wherever you’re coming from—whether you’re interested in the religion or the spirituality, the culture or the ethnic traditions—this book offers you a glimpse into Judaism that you’ve never seen before, one that helps you appreciate what all the excitement is about. We don’t assume that you have any prior experience with the religion; we explain all the rituals, ideas, and terms that you need to know in a way that you can understand, even if you’re reading about these things for the first time.

Judaism and Dummies: Not an Oxymoron

Being a “dummy” is not just tolerated in Judaism—it’s actively encouraged, and has been for over 2,000 years. Each spring, during the holiday called Passover (see Chapter 24), Jews around the world re-read a book called the Haggadah. The book tells the story of how the Hebrews escaped Egyptian slavery about 3,300 years ago, and it supplements the tale with a bunch of other poems, songs, and fables, including one about four children:

bullet The “Wise” child searches for depth and meaning in the Passover story, trying to find hidden connections and spiritual truths in the holiday.

bullet The “Wicked” child, whose rebellious nature requires detailed explanations for everything, demands that the holiday’s rituals be relevant in his or her own life.

bullet The “Simple” child just smiles, saying, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” This child wants to know how but not why, and finds deep comfort in the rituals themselves.

bullet The Haggadah describes the fourth child only as the “One who doesn’t know enough to ask a question.” This child hungers for knowledge, but doesn’t know where to begin. This is the “dummy” that the title of this book refers to.

However, centuries of rabbis have taught that all these children live within each person, and that you must celebrate them all—and especially the dummy inside.

This book is designed for all four of your inner children. There are times when you might say, “Listen, I just want to know how this ritual is done.” So we describe rituals and give you step-by-step instructions. There are other times when you may want to stomp your feet and say, “What is this tradition? How is it relevant to me?” That’s good! Sometimes everyone needs to express some rebelliousness, so we discuss those things in the book, too.

If you’re a wise and worldly searcher with a longing for connection, you’ll also find jewels in each chapter of this book. Ultimately, we hope you read the book from the open and honestly curious perspective of the dummy’s “beginner’s mind,” which makes you available for deeper learning.

How to Use This Book

This book is a reference, meaning that you don’t need to read it from cover to cover. (Though you’re certainly welcome to do just that.) We wrote the chapters as self-contained packets of information, so for example, you don’t need to read Chapter 4 to understand and benefit from Chapter 5.

The Index is very thorough, and so is the Table of Contents. If you already have some specific questions about Judaism on your mind, look for them there and then dive in.

How This Book Is Organized

Of course, it’s impossible to encompass a topic this incredibly vast (literally millions of pages have been written about Judaism) in a little book like this, so we had to pick and choose what we consider the most important nuggets. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, check out our Web site (see the section “Feedback, Please” later in this introduction) and see if the answer is there, or go to one of the many sites we link to.

In order to get the most out of the book quickly and efficiently, we’ve broken it down into sections, each with its own theme.

Part I: What Jews Generally Believe

We begin by exploring the different groups within the Jewish community, like Ashkenazi and Sephardic, and denominations, like Orthodox, Reform, and so on. Then we target two of the most important issues in Judaism—God and Torah—before discussing the basic practices of Judaism, like the kosher laws and what happens in worship services. Part I ends with a look at the ancient (and really cool) practices of Jewish mysticism (usually called Kabbalah).

Part II: From Womb to Tomb: The Life Cycle

In Part II we discuss how Judaism honors and celebrates the major stages of life with rituals, including the bris (circumcision for boys), Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and funeral rites.

Part III: An Overview of Jewish History

You can’t understand Judaism (or even Western civilization) without knowing something about Jewish history. But that doesn’t mean that the history has to be boring! In Part III we delve into the highlights and the low points—from the Biblical stories to modern day—focusing on what you need to know and why you need to know it.

Part IV: Celebrations and Holy Days

Okay, so it’s Chanukkah again (or Passover or Sukkot, or whatever)—how do you “do it right”? In Part IV we explore every major Jewish holiday, from the weekly Shabbat to the weeklong Sukkot. If you want to know what, where, when, why, how, or who, this is the place to look.

Part V: The Part of Tens

If you’ve only got time for a quickie, make sure to put a bookmark at the beginning of Part V. We include a couple of lists of people you should know about, plus answers to common questions about Judaism.

Part VI: Appendixes

If you’re in a heated debate with a Jewish person, you’d better know the differences between “shlemiel” and “shlemazl,” and between “tuchis” and “tsuris.” Don’t worry, we cover all this in the Appendixes, along with a quick easy-in/easy-out guide to prayers and blessings and a calendar of Jewish holidays. We also feature a list of resources to consult for additional information.

Icons Used in This Book

In order to highlight some important bits of information, we use the following icons throughout the text.


The information next to this icon tells you things that can lead to a deeper understanding of or a more fulfilling experience with Judaism.


This icon highlights ideas you should keep in mind as you explore or practice Judaism.


Wherever you see this icon, you find some disagreement in the Jewish world.


This icon warns you of a more personal story hidden in the text. Read at your own risk.


The text next to this icon will help you steer clear of any roadblocks you may run across as you read about or experience the faith.


This icon highlights some of the many important Jewish teachings from the last few millennia.

Pronouncing Jewish Words

You can’t read about Judaism without bumping into the Hebrew language, and we include a lot of Hebrew throughout this book. However, there are a few things you need to know about reading Hebrew. For example, the Hebrew language is read right-to-left (remember this when you see it in Appendix B).

Cha, Kha, Ha!

Hebrew doesn’t have a “ch” sound, like the English words “chew” or “lunch.” It just doesn’t exist!

On the other hand, English doesn’t have that guttural, throat-clearing sound like the Scottish make when they say “Loch Ness” (like saying “ha” down in your throat instead of in your mouth), and Hebrew does. Some people transliterate (“spell out the way it sounds”) this sound “kh” and others just use “h,” but we use “ch.” That means you should use the guttural sound when you see words like “challah” and “melech.”

However, Yiddish—that Eastern European mixture of Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages—does have the English “ch” sound, and every now and again, we include words that use this sound (like “boychik” and “kvetch”). In these few instances, we let you know which pronunciation to use.

You say Tomato, I say Tomaso

There is one letter in the Hebrew alphabet that Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally pronounced “sav” and Sephardi Jews have pronounced “tav.” The result is that many words can be pronounced correctly in two ways. For example, Shabbat and Shabbos are both correct. Modern Israeli Hebrew follows the Sephardic tradition (with the hard “t”), but many descendants of Eastern European Jews prefer the softer “s” sound.

In this book, we almost always use the Modern Israeli pronunciation. If you’re more comfortable with “bris” (rather than “brit”), “Shavuos” (rather than “Shavuot”), or “B’reishees” (rather than “B’reisheet”), don’t call our publisher and complain—just swap them in your head.

Also note that Israelis tend to place the emphasis of a word on the last syllable, where Westerners tend to place it on an earlier syllable. So, you hear “Shah-vu-OHT” instead of “Sha-VU-ohs,” or “mah-ZAHL tov” instead of “MAH-zel tov.”

Pronouncing vowels

Hebrew vowels should be pronounced almost like Spanish or Japanese vowels: the a is said “ah,” o is “oh,” e is “eh,” i is “ee,” and u is “oo.” For example, Magen David (the star of David) is pronounced “mah-GEHN dah-VEED,” and Tikkun Olam (“the repair of the world”) is pronounced “tee-KOON oh-LAHM.” Whenever possible, we include pronunciation keys throughout the book.

Conventions Used in This Book

We use several other practices throughout this book that might take some getting used to. First, when we discuss dates, we don’t use B.C. and A.D., because they’re based on Christian theology. Instead, we use B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) and C.E. (“in the Common Era”).

We also do our best not to assign a gender to God. As we describe in Chapter 2, Judaism makes it very clear that God is neither male or female. However, when we feel that something is being lost by not using masculine or feminine pronouns, we leave them in.

Finally, please note that translating one language into another always requires interpretation and compromise. The translations of Hebrew that you see here—which are either our own or came from traditional Jewish sources—may be significantly different than those in other books. If you find two different translations for the same text, there’s a good chance that both are true, depending on your perspective, and that there are lessons to appreciate from both versions.

Feedback, Please

The authors and publisher of this book would love to hear from readers. To contact the publisher (or authors of other ...For Dummies books), visit the publisher’s Web site at www.dummies.com, send an e-mail to info@hungryminds.com, or send paper mail to HungryMinds, Inc, 10475 Crosspoint Boulevard, Indianapolis, IN 46256. To get in touch with either of the authors of this book, check out our Web site at www.joyofjewish.com, send an e-mail to authors@joyofjewish.com, or send a real letter to Ted Falcon and David Blatner, P.O. Box 51241, Seattle, WA 98115.

Part I

What Jews Generally Believe

In this part . . .

You’ll find out why you can never be sure someone is Jewish (or not) just by how they look. Plus, you’ll get the skinny on all the details about being Jewish, like is it a race or a tribe? Is it a religion or a practice? Do you have to believe in God? And what’s all this about meditation and the kabbalah? That stuff isn’t Jewish, is it?