Judaism For Dummies®, 2nd Edition

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Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

Pronouncing Jewish Words

About the translations

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: What Jews Generally Believe

Part II: From Womb to Tomb: The Life Cycle

Part III: An Overview of Jewish History

Part IV: Celebrations and Holy Days

Part V: The Part of Tens

Part VI: Appendixes

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

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

What’s in a name?

Jews far and wide

Who decides if you’re Jewish?

After all, it’s a small world

Major Branches of the Tree

Orthodox Jews

Breakaway denominations

Guess Who Else Is Jewish

Chapter 2: It’s All One: Judaism and God

Pondering Jewish Beliefs about God

A religion of deed, not creed

Arguing with God

Where God is

Calling One God Many Names

What’s in a name?

The four-letter Name of God

The Singular Being hidden in the plural

God’s Own name

No end to the names of God

Looking behind the Name

God creates

God reveals

God redeems

Embarking on a Quest for Ultimate Reality

Chapter 3: A Never-Ending Torah: The Unfolding of a Tradition

Torah: The Light That Never Dims

The five books of Moses

The weekly readings

The TaNaKH: The Hebrew Bible

Nevi’im (“Prophets”)

Ketuvim (“Writings”)

The Haftarah

Interpreting the Bible

A Hidden Revolution: The Oral Torah

The law of the land: The Mishnah

The teachings explained: The Talmud

Telling stories: The midrash

The Expanding Torah

Chapter 4: A Path of Blessing: Judaism as a Daily Practice

Connecting With God and Community through Practice: The Mitzvot

613 habits of highly effective people

Women and mitzvot

The reasons for mitzvot

Connecting With God and Community through Blessings and Prayers

Private worship

The community worship service

Going to Synagogue

Four things you’ll find in every synagogue

Who’s who at shul

Following Jewish Dietary Laws: A Brief Guide to Kosher Food

The reasons behind kosher

OU means OK for most

Purifying the Spirit: Rites and Rituals

Dressing for God: Jewish Garments and Clothing Customs

The yarmulka

Fringes and shawls

You shall bind them as a sign: Laying tefillin

The Jewish Home

On every doorpost: The mezuzah

The candelabra extraordinaire: The menorah

So Go Now and Live

Chapter 5: Jewish Mysticism

Delving Into Jewish Mysticism

What mystics tend to believe

The Kabbalah

Taking a Magical Mystical Tour

Early mystical texts

Isaac Luria, Safed’s sage

Israel ben Eliezer, the good master

Going Above and Beyond: Jewish Meditation

Following Maps to Understanding: The Images and Symbols

The Tree of Life

The ten sefirot

The Four Worlds

The five levels of soul

Chapter 6: Ethical Challenges

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

The Golden Rule

Expressions of God

Tikkun olam

Charged to act

Meeting at the Intersection of Righteousness and Charity

Unraveling the Problem of the Other

Intra- and Interfaith Challenges

Embracing Our Sexuality

Mystical visions of sexual union

Birth control and abortion


Prohibited relationships

Finding a Way to Peace

Breaking the cycle

Respecting Animals and the Environment

Bal Tashkhit: Do not destroy

Tza’ar ba’alei khayim: Treat living creatures with dignity

Striving for tikkun olam

Part II: From Womb to Tomb: The Life Cycle

Chapter 7: In the Beginning: Birth and Bris

Making the Cut: Ritual Circumcision

Knowing who’s involved

Adhering to the rituals and ceremonies

Making the choice

Thanking God for Little Girls

Playing the Name Game

Buying Back the First Born

Chapter 8: Coming of Age: The Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Preparing for the Big Day

Celebrating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Reading from the Good Book

Speech! Speech!

A night to celebrate

Celebrating as a grown up

Confirming Your Beliefs

Chapter 9: Get Me to the Chuppah On Time: Weddings

Looking at the Origins of Jewish Marriage

Preparing for the Ceremony

Enjoying the Wedding

Raising the chuppah

Drinking the fruit of the vine

Exchanging the rings

Sharing the seven blessings

Breaking the glass

Putting it in writing

Enjoying sacred moments, before and after

Getting a Get: Divorce

Walking through a divorce

Encountering rare troubles

Chapter 10: Stepping Through the Valley: The Shadow of Death

Planning for Death

Writing an ethical will

Making final confessions

Reciting parting words

Arranging the Funeral

Returning to the earth

Preparing the body

Attending a funeral and burial

Observing the Mourning Period

The first week following a funeral

The first month and year

Saying Kaddish

Remembering the Dead

Part III: An Overview of Jewish History

Chapter 11: Let My People Go: From Abraham to Exodus

The Genesis of a People

Beginnings of a Way

The next generation

Who gets blessed?

Wrestling with God

The Son Also Rises

Interpreting dreams

A dream comes true

The Enslavement and Exodus

A star is born

Are we there yet?

Entering the Promised Land

Chapter 12: The Kings of Israel: The First Temple

Finding the Right Guy to Be King

Continuing War and Peace

Enter David, stage left

Magic and mayhem

Living under the Lion of Judah

The Wisdom of Solomon

Building the Temple

Telling a Tale of Two Kingdoms

The Fall of the First Temple

Chapter 13: Bracketed by Exile: The Second Temple

Finding a Home away from Home

There’s no place like home

Building and rebuilding

It’s All Greek to Me

The ptol and short of it

The last emperor

A Parting of Ways

All Roads Lead to Rome

An Edifice Complex

Not one but many messiahs

Death and dismemberment

Sects and Violence

Chapter 14: The Exiles Continue: The First Millennium

Beware, the End Is Nigh!

Revolutions and messiahs

The raising of the Talmud

Running Out of Rome

Jews under Islam

Second class is better than no class

The rise of the Gaon

All that glitters is gold

Let My People Stay: Prosperity and Persecution

Turn the other cheek

Take the money and run

The Reign in Spain

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition

Christianity or bust

Chapter 15: The Greatest Horror, the Greatest Triumph

When Poland Was a Heartland

Four lands, one people

The Chmielnicki massacres

The Dawning of a New Age

The Enlightenment

The question of citizenship

Going Beyond the Pale

Responses to Enlightenment


To change or not to change

The Rise of Nationalism and Racism

The return of anti-Jewish policies

The pogroms

Getting Worse and Getting Out

Passage to Palestine

Close, but not quite there

Hitler’s rise to power

The Holocaust

Too little, too late

The war against the Jews

The death camps

The fall of the Third Reich

Founding a New Jewish State

Chapter 16: Jewish Buddhists and Other Challenges of the New Age

In the Shadow of the Holocaust

The Mixed Blessing of America

You will be assimilated

The choosing people

Jews as Spiritual Teachers of Other Traditions

I didn’t know Jews did that!

Finding parallels

The New Jewish Spirituality

Jew versus Jew versus Jew

Who is a Jew

Can’t we just work it out?

Considering the Future of Judaism

Chapter 17: The Problem of Anti-Semitism

Recounting the Incomprehensible

Fearing an Unknown Quantity: The Origins of Hate

Exploding Dangerous and False Beliefs

Belief #1: The Jews killed Jesus

Belief #2: There’s an international Jewish conspiracy

Belief #3: Jews practice ritual murder

Anti-Semitism in literature and art

From Religion to Race: Anti-Semitism in Modern Times

Israel and anti-Semitism

The color of anti-Semitism

Twenty-first century anti-Semitism

Toward Healing

Part IV: Celebrations and Holy Days

Chapter 18: A Taste of Paradise: Shabbat

Understanding Shabbat

Shabbat: Restriction or Relief?

Knowing what work to avoid

Discovering what’s enough

Redefining the rules

Doing what you can on Shabbat

Welcoming the Sabbath

Lighting the candles

Saying the blessings over family, wine, and bread

Eating the meal

Attending Shabbat evening services

Morning has broken

Bidding Farewell to Shabbat

Wine and candles

Sugar, spice, and everything nice

The Universal Aspects of Shabbat

Chapter 19: In with the New: Rosh Hashanah

A Day for Making Judgments

The Book of Life: Take two

Teshuvah: Getting back on track

The 40-Day Plan

The days of Elul

Preparations: S’lichot

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah

The Makhzor: The High Holy Day prayer book

Blowing your horn


The Ten Days of Awe

Cleaning your spiritual house


Real Beginnings Mean Real Changes

Chapter 20: Getting Serious: Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry

Seeking forgiveness from God


Celebrating Yom Kippur

Fasting, but not quickly

Taking a long day’s journey

Preparing for Yom Kippur

Considering the Kol Nidre: The evening service

Reading and kneeling

Honoring the Light of Yom Kippur

Chapter 21: The Great Outdoors: Sukkot

A Jewish Thanksgiving

Giving thanks

Getting outdoorsy: Building a sukkah

How to Sukkot

A sukkah born every minute

Waving the lulav and etrog

Sh’mini Atzeret

Simkhat Torah

Chapter 22: Seeking Light in Dark Times: Chanukkah

Shining a Light on the Darkest Night

The Good Fight: What Chanukkah Celebrates

The two books of the Maccabees

Judah puts the hammer down

The story of the oil miracle

The Maccabees get their due

Embracing Chanukkah Customs

Lighting the candles

Blessings for the moment

Remembering the oil: Yummy fried foods

Spinning the dreidel

To gift, or not to gift

Receiving the Real Gift of Chanukkah: Personal Renewal

Chapter 23: Celebrating Renewal: 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 24: A Jewish Carnival: Purim

Purim: Based on a True Story (Sort Of)

It all starts with a banished queen

Enter Esther, stage left

Enter Haman, stage right

Haman’s big mistake

The final battle

Why Purim Survived

The persistence of persecution

Within you and without you

Bang a Gong: Celebrating Purim

Reading the Book of Esther — the whole megillah

Partying and playing dress up

Giving the gift of sweets

Remembering the poor

Other traditions: The Fast of Esther

Bringing Darkness to Light

Chapter 25: From Groan to Glee: Passover

Looking at the Reasons behind Passover

Edible Do’s and Don’ts

Kosher for Passover

The symbolism of Passover restrictions

First Things First: Preparing for Passover

Cleaning out the khametz

Giving to charity at Passover time

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

The haggadah: Seder’s little instruction booklet

Look who’s coming to dinner

The prepared table

Steps of the seder

New traditions: Miriam’s Cup

A Time to Think about Freedom

It’s all about choice

Dayenu: So much gratitude

It’s Not Over till It’s Omer

Agricultural roots

The magical, mystical seven

Yom Ha-Shoah

Israeli Independence Day

Lag B’Omer

The Universal Themes in Passover

Chapter 26: Spring Is Busting Out All Over: Shavuot

The Ideas Behind Shavuot

Receiving the Torah

Meeting at Sinai

Tune in today!

Go tell it on the mountain

Telling stories

Searching for New Rituals

Pulling the mystical all-nighter

Deck the halls . . .

Got milk?

Reading Ruth

Nontraditional traditions


Chapter 27: A Day of Mourning: Tisha B’Av

Fasting, Reading, and Reflecting

Today’s Tisha B’Av

Tu B’Av: Releasing into Joy

Part V: The Part of Tens

Chapter 28: Ten People Who Helped Shape Judaism




Joseph Caro

Isaac Luria

Ba’al Shem Tov

Henrietta Szold

Abraham Isaac Kook

Martin Buber

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Chapter 29: Answers to Ten Common Questions about Judaism

Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus?

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

Why Is Israel So Important to the Jews?

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

What Is the Role of Women in Judaism?

What Is “Jewish Humor”?

Self-examination: Try it at home!

Dress British, think Yiddish

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?

Part VI: Appendixes

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

Appendix B: A Sampler of Jewish Prayers and Blessings

Blessings for food

Blessings making moments special

Blessings for ritual acts

Blessings as reminders and as teachers

Appendix C: Go Now and Learn

Education and social action


Cheat Sheet

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. Since 2001, Rabbi Falcon has worked with Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman, together known as the Interfaith Amigos. With them he has authored Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam, and Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith. Rabbi Falcon founded Makom Ohr Shalom, a Synagogue for Jewish Meditation in Los Angeles, and Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle. He is a speaker, a writer, and a spiritual therapist in private practice.

David Blatner is an award-winning, best-selling author of 15 books on a wide range of topics—from aviation 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 writer whose books have sold over a half-million copies and have been translated into 14 languages. He has presented seminars in North America, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and can be found online at Mr. Blatner has been a Jew his whole life.


Ted: For my grandchildren, Ezra and Veronica, with much love.

David: To my mother, Barbara, who always encouraged me

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 the lead technical reviewer from the first edition, Rabbi Harry Zeitlin, whose wise and kind availability never failed to offer two interpretations when we had room for only one. We also relied on the wise and helpful comments of Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz and Arielle Vale.

Similarly, dozens of others — such as David Morgenstern and Gabe Harbs — contributed facts and figures that helped immeasurably. Thanks, too, to Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Aaron Shapiro, our great technical editors for this second edition. This book couldn’t have been produced without considerable caffeine (Ted drinks decaf) from Seattle’s Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Many thanks to our agent, Reid Boates, and to the folks at Wiley, including Tracy Boggier and our excellent editor, Jennifer Moore.

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 Lawrence Horwitz, Mordy Golding, and Glenn Fleishman for their inspiration, kind words, and help along the way. Thanks, too, to my sons Gabriel and Daniel, who love learning alongside me. 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 taught me what it means to be a rabbi. My work as one of the Interfaith Amigos has deepened my appreciation for the wisdom of Judaism while at the same time celebrating the truths of other traditions, and I am grateful for the presence of Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman in my life. And I continue to be deeply grateful 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 at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Vertical Websites

Project and Copy Editor: Jennifer Moore(Previous Edition: Mary Goodwin)

Acquisitions Editor: Tracy Boggier

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Editorial Program Coordinator: Joe Niesen

Technical Editors: Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Aaron Shapiro

Editorial Managers: Jennifer Ehrlich and Carmen Krikorian

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Cover Photos: ©Mitch Hrdlicka/Getty Images

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

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Indexer: Potomac Indexing, LLC

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

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Composition Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services


We’re amazed by 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 and inspiration for both Jesus and the “Old Testament.” People seem to have 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 that the faith and practice still exist. Certainly, much of the interest seems to come from the increasing realization that Judaism has much to offer in the mystical, meditative, and spiritual realms.

About This Book

The problem facing many people interested in Judaism is that the vast majority of Jewish books on the market today either tackle one particular subject in great depth (such as 300 pages just on the holiday of Sukkot), or they approach Judaism from an orthodox perspective (“These are the 613 things you should do if you know what’s good for you”). We don’t find anything 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.

Even better, we’ve packaged all this great information in easy-to-read chapters that are organized in easy-to-access chunks.

Conventions Used in This Book

We use practices throughout this book that might take some getting used to. First, when we discuss dates, we don’t use BC and AD, because they’re based on Christian theology. Instead, we use BCE (“Before the Common Era”) and CE (“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 nor female. However, when we feel that something is being lost by not using masculine or feminine pronouns, we leave them in.

Additionally, to help you navigate this book as you begin to navigate the world of Judaism, we use the following conventions:

check.png Italic text highlights new words and defined terms. We italicize Hebrew words when we first define them and then use regular font for subsequent appearances of the term.

check.png Boldfaced text indicates keywords in bulleted lists and the action part of numbered steps.

check.png Monofont text highlights a web address.

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.

Cha, Kha, Ha!

Hebrew doesn’t have a “ch” sound, like the English words “chew” or “lunch.” The sound 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. In most cases we transliterate (“spell out the way it sounds”) this “kh” sound. However, for a few words that are better known, such as “Chanukkah” and “challah,” we use “ch” because that’s how they are usually spelled. Even though we spell them using “ch,” you should use the guttural sound when you see words such as “Chanukkah” or “challah.”

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 are 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.

About the translations

Translating one language into another always requires interpretation and compromise. The translations of Hebrew that you see in this book — 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.

Foolish Assumptions

When writing this book, we assumed that our readers didn’t know anything about Jews and Judaism. Toward that end, 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.

In fact, when it comes to Judaism, being a “dummy” isn’t just tolerated — it’s actively encouraged, and has been for over 2,000 years. Each spring, during the holiday called Passover (see Chapter 25), Jews around the world reread 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 the following four children:

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

check.png 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.

check.png 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.

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

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

This book is designed for all four of your inner children. Sometimes you may say, “Listen, I just want to know how this ritual is done.” So we describe rituals and give you step-by-step instructions. Other times 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 This Book Is Organized

In order for you to get the most out of the book quickly and efficiently, we’ve broken it down into parts, 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 and ethical foundations of Judaism, like the kosher laws, what happens in worship services, and what Judaism says about war and the environment. 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 and naming for boys), brit bat (welcoming and naming for girls), 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 list 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 “tukhis” 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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Go from Here

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, if you’re heading to a Jewish wedding, you can jump right to Chapter 9; if you were invited to a Passover seder, dive right into Chapter 25.

Of course, many of the core ideas in Judaism — the themes that we come back to time and time again throughout the book — are all covered in Part I, so you may want to peruse that part first.

As an added bonus, we invite you to check out our online resources about Judaism. Check out our detailed calendar of Jewish holidays as well as our list of ten important Jews you should know at; and feel free to visit our website at And because we believe that Judaism is like a conversation that continues forever, send an e-mail to

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?