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3. Basic practices and institutions

기본적 관례와 제도


Systematic presentations of the affirmations of the Jewish community never served as the sole mode of expressing beliefs of the people. Side by side with speculation--Haggadic, philosophic, mystical, or ethical--there stood, not in a secondary role but as the other of the double focuses, Halakha ("practice," "rules of conduct"), the paradigmatic statement of the behaviour, individual and communal, that embodied concretely the beliefs conceptualized in speculation. Life in the holy community was understood to embrace every level of human existence. The prophets vigorously resisted attempts to limit the sovereignty of the God of Israel to organized worship and ritual. The Pharisees, even while the Jerusalem Temple cult was still in existence, sought to reduce priestly exclusiveness by enlarging the scope of sacral rules to include, as far as possible, all of the people. Rabbinic Judaism, Pharisaism's surviving descendant, continued the process of democratization and sought, through its system of interpretation, to find in every occasion of life a means of affirming divine concern and presence. Viewed negatively by some Protestant theologians, this development has been judged to stifle spontaneity. Yet spontaneity is not necessarily lacking in a world governed by Halakha, although the danger of the stylized routine in religious and ethical life is apparent. Nonetheless, the intention of the Halakhic attitude is to remind the Jew constantly that each and every occasion of life is a locus of divine disclosure. This is most clearly seen in the berakhot, the "blessings," that are prescribed to accompany the performance of a broad spectrum of human actions, from the commonplace routines of daily life to the restricted gestures of the cultic-liturgical year In these, God is addressed directly in the second person singular, his sovereignty is affirmed, and his activity as Creator, Giver of Torah, or redeemer, expressed in a wide variety of eulogies, is proclaimed. There are no areas of human behaviour in which man cannot be met by God, and in terms of its intention, the Halakhic pattern is designed to make such possibilities experienced realities. Yet, again, it must be noted that the situation of the Jewish community determines in a very large way how the intention is actualized. On more than one occasion the Halakhic pattern has served as a defense against a hostile environment and has thus tended to become scrupulosity (an obsessive concern with minute details), but the dynamic of the intention itself has as often broken through to re-establish its integrity and hallow life in its wholeness. (see also Index: worship, berakah)


Perspective on the traditional pattern of an individual's life is obtained by examining a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Berakhot 60b) that was subsequently reworked into a liturgical structure but which in its original form exhibits the intention discussed above. In this passage, the blessings accompanying a man's waking and returning to the routines of life are prescribed. There is a brief thanksgiving on awakening for being restored to conscious life; then the impingement of the external world is responded to in a benediction over the cock's crowing; following this, each ordinary act, opening one's eyes, stretching and sitting up, dressing, standing up, walking, tying one's shoes, fastening one's belt, covering the head, washing the hands and face, has its accompanying blessing, reminding a man that the world and the life to which he has returned exist in the presence of God. These are followed by a supplication in which the petitioner asks that his life during the day may be worthy in all of its relationships. Then, as the first order of daily business, Torah, both written (Bible) and oral (Mishna), is briefly studied, introduced by eulogies of God as Giver of Torah. Finally, there is a prayer for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, for each day contains within itself the possibility of ultimate fulfillment. As indicated, this was originally not a part of public worship (even today it is, strictly speaking, not part of the synagogue service, although it is most frequently recited there) but was personal preparation for a life to be lived in the presence of God.

Such individual responsibility marks much of Jewish observance, so that the synagogue--far from being the focus of observance--shares with the home and the workaday world the opportunities for the divine-human encounter. The table blessings, Qiddush (the "sanctification" of the Sabbath and festivals), the erection of the booth (sukka) for Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), the seder (the festive Passover meal) with its symbols and narration of the Exodus, the lighting of the lamps during the eight days of Hanukka (the Feast of Dedication), are all the obligation of the individual and the family and have their place in the home. It is here, too, that woman's role is defined and here, as contrasted with the synagogue, that she functions centrally. Given the traditional dietary regimen of the Jewish community--the exclusion of swine, carrion eaters, shellfish, and other creatures, the separation of meat and dairy products, the ritual slaughtering of animals, the required separation and burning of a small portion of dough (halla) when baking, the supervision of the Passover food requirements, and many other stipulations--there exists a large and meticulously governed area within the home that is indeed the sphere of woman's religion. There seems not to have been a hierarchy of values in which the home-centred, as contrasted with the synagogue-oriented, practices were given an inferior status. In modern times, however, particularly in Western civilization where the pervasiveness of religious obligation has been replaced by ecclesiastical institutionalism, on the prevailing Christian model, this whole crucial area has lost much of its meaning as a place of divine-human meeting. Thus, for many it is only the synagogue that provides such an opportunity, and the individual act has been reduced on the scale of values. With this downgrading, woman's religion has lost its significance so that her status--when parallels are drawn to her role in the larger society--has been reduced to one of inferiority. However attenuated personal religious responsibility may have become in some environments or transformed into stylized cultural forms, the intention that informs the Halakhic structure, the hallowing of the individual's total existence, remains a potent force within the Jewish community. (see also Index: women)


The other focus of observance is the synagogue. The origins of this institution are obscure and a number of hypotheses have been proposed to account for the appearance of this essentially lay-oriented form of worship. What seems certain is that during the period of the Second Temple--following the return from Babylon and continuing until the Temple destruction in 70 CE--there were, side by side with the official cult, other modes of worship more or less independent of the priesthood and nonsacrificial in form. The reports by the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus in the 1st century, buttressed by the Qumran document (Dead Sea Scrolls), provide some knowledge of the practices of the contemporary Essenes; rabbinic sources, including the earliest layers of the traditional order of worship, enable us to understand another, apparently Pharisaic, mode; the brief allusions to the practices of James and his Jewish Christian companions in the book of Acts suggest yet other varieties. In any case, the grouping that formed the cadre of what eventually became rabbinic Judaism observed some form of worship that, with the destruction of the Temple cult, was able to provide a new centre and even to absorb enough from the defunct priestly institution to suggest continuity and legitimacy. This was probably the basic pattern for synagogal liturgy in the millennia that followed.

At the heart of synagogal worship is the public reading of Scriptures. This takes place at the morning service on Sabbaths, holy days, and festivals, on Monday and Thursday mornings, and on Sabbath afternoons. The readings from the Pentateuch are presently arranged in an annual cycle so that, beginning on the Sabbath following the autumnal festivals with Gen. 1:1, the entire five books are read through the rest of the year. The texts for festivals, holy days, and fasts reflect the particular significance of those occasions. In addition, a second portion from the prophetic writings (in the Jewish tradition these include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, as well as the three major and 12 minor prophets, but not Daniel) is read on many of these occasions. All of this takes place within the structure of public worship and is provided with ceremonies during which the Sefer Torah ("Book of the Torah"), the pentateuchal scroll, is removed from the ark (cabinet) at the front of the synagogue, and carried in procession to the reading desk; from it, the pertinent text is chanted by the reader. The text for the service is divided into subsections varying from seven on the Sabbath to three at the weekday morning service, and individuals are called forward to recite the blessings eulogizing God as Giver of Torah before and after each of these. The order of worship is composed of the preparatory blessings and prayers noted above, to which are added passages recalling the Temple sacrificial cult (thus relating the present form of worship to the past); the recitation of a number of Psalms and biblical prayers; the Shema and its accompanying benedictions, introduced by a call to worship that marks the beginning of formal public worship; the prayer (tefilla) in the strict sense of petition; confession and supplication (tahanun) on weekdays; the reading of Scripture; and concluding acts of worship. This general structure of the morning service varies somewhat, with additions and subtractions for the afternoon and evening services and for Sabbath, holy days, and festivals.

The prayer (tefilla), just mentioned, is often called the shemone 'esre, the "Eighteen Benedictions"--although it actually has 19--or the 'amida"standing," because it is recited in that position. It is made up of three introductory benedictions: praise of the God of the Fathers, of God the Redeemer who resurrects the dead, and of God the holy one who fills the earth with his glory, and of three concluding acts; a prayer for the acceptance of the service, a thanksgiving, and a prayer for peace--with a series of intermediate petitions for knowledge, well-being, acceptance of repentance, forgiveness of sin, and others. On the Sabbath and festivals these are replaced by benedictions that mention the specific occasion but are not petitionary, it being considered inappropriate to attend to workday concerns at these times.

While the general outline of this order of service is found throughout the entire Jewish world, the details have varied, both in different periods and in geographic and cultural areas. The public service, requiring the presence of at least 10 males, the minyan ("quorum"), is generally led by a synagogal official, the hazzan, or cantor, but any Jewish male with the requisite knowledge may act in this capacity since there is, quite strictly, no clerical class in the community to whom such leadership is limited (see The rabbinate , below).

The synagogue room itself has a very simple basic form although, of course, it may be embellished considerably. The only requirements are a container for the Torah scroll(s), the aron ha-qodesh ("the holy ark")--a chest against the east wall, or a recessed closet with doors and a curtain; a prayer desk ('amud) facing the ark at which the reader stands when reciting the service; and the pulpit (bima)--according to some requirements in or close to the centre of the room--from which the Torah is read. In the Spanish-Portuguese tradition, only one desk (called teva) is used. The ark contains one or more scrolls, on which are written the five books of Moses. These are variously ornamented, depending upon the cultural region: European communities decking them in coverings of cloth; Oriental (North African and Near Eastern) placing them in wooden or metal containers. In addition, silver ornaments, in the form of towers or crowns, are often set on the tops of two rods on which the scroll is wound, and a breastplate and a pointer are suspended from them.

Accommodations for the worshippers vary according to the cultural milieu, from rugs and cushions in Oriental synagogues to pews and standing desks in European ones. Given this essential simplicity, the synagogue room itself may be used for other purposes than worship, e.g., study and community assembly. Again, this varies with the cultural pattern.


There are within Jewish life two cycles corresponding to the individual and the synagogal focuses, although they necessarily intermingle. The life of the individual is marked by observances that single out the notable events of personal existence. A male child is circumcised on the eighth day following birth, as a covenantal sign (Gen. 17); the rite of circumcision (berit mila) is accompanied by appropriate benedictions and ceremonies, including naming. Females are named in the synagogue, generally on the Sabbath following birth, when the father is called to recite the benedictions over the reading of Torah. A firstborn son, if he does not belong to a priestly or a levitical family, is redeemed at one month (in accordance with Ex. 13:12-13 and Num. 18:14-16) by the payment of a stipulated sum to a cohen (a putative member of the priestly family). On arrival at the age of 13, a boy is called publicly to recite the Torah benedictions, thus signifying his religious coming-of-age; he is thenceforth obligated to observe the commandments as his own responsibility--he is now a Bar Mitzwa ("Son of the Commandment"). Marriage ( hatuna, also Qiddushin, "sanctifications") involves a double ceremony, performed together in modern times but separated in ancient times by a year. First is the betrothal (erusin), which includes the reading of the marriage contract (ketubba) and the giving of the ring with a declaration, "Behold you are consecrated to me by this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel," accompanied by certain benedictions. This is followed by the marriage proper (nissu`in), consisting of the reciting of the seven marriage benedictions. The ceremony is performed under a huppaa canopy, that symbolizes the bridal bower.

The burial service is marked by simplicity. The body is prepared for the grave by the hevra` qaddisha` (the holy society), clad only in a simple shroud, and the interment takes place as soon after death as possible. In Israel no coffin is used. There are observances connected with death, many of which belong to the realm of folklore rather than Halakhic tradition. A mourning period of 30 days is observed, of which the first seven (Shiv'a) are the most rigorous. During the 11 months following a death, the bereaved recite a particular form of a synagogal doxology (Qaddish) during the public service as an act of memorial. The doxology itself, entirely devoid of any mention of death, is a praise of God and a prayer for the establishment of the coming Kingdom. It is also recited annually on the anniversary of the death (yahrzeit). (L.H.S.)


The term Jewish religious year as used in this section encompasses the cycle of Sabbaths and holidays that are commonly observed by the Jewish religious community--and officially in Israel by the Jewish secular community as well. The Sabbath and festivals are bound to the Jewish calendar, reoccur at fixed intervals, and are celebrated at home and in the synagogue according to ritual set forth in Jewish law and hallowed by Jewish custom. According to Jewish teaching, the Sabbath and festivals are, in the first instance, commemorative. The Sabbath, for example, commemorates the Creation, and Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The past is not merely recalled; it is also relived through the Sabbath and festival observances. Creative physical activity ceases on the Sabbath as it did, according to Genesis, when the Creation was completed; Jews leave their homes and reside in booths during the Sukkot festival as did their biblical ancestors. Moreover, Sabbath and festival themes are considered to be perpetually significant, recurring and renewed in every generation. Thus the revelation of the Torah (the divine teaching or law) at Sinai, commemorated on Shavuot, is considered an ongoing process which recurs whenever a commitment is made to Torah study. (see also Index: Jewish holiday)

An important aspect of Sabbath and festival observance is sanctification. The Sabbath and festivals sanctified the Jews more than the Jews sanctified the Sabbath and festivals. Mundane meals became sacred meals; joy and relaxation became sacred obligations (mitzwot). No less significant is the contribution of the Sabbath and festivals toward communal awareness. Thus, neither Sabbath nor festival can be properly observed in the synagogue according to the ancient tradition if fewer than 10 male Jews are present. Again, a Jew prays on Rosh Hashana and mourns on Tisha be-Av not only for his own fate but for the fate of all Jews. The sense of social cohesiveness fostered by the Sabbath and festival observances has stood the Jews well throughout their long, often tortuous history.

The seven-day week, the notion of a weekly day of rest, and many Christian and Islamic holiday observances owe their origins to the Jewish calendar, Sabbath, and festivals.

i) The Jewish calendar.

1. Lunisolar structure.

The Jewish calendar is lunisolar--i.e., regulated by the positions of both the moon and the sun. It consists usually of 12 alternating lunar months of 29 and 30 days each (except for Heshvan and Kislev, which sometimes have either 29 or 30 days), and totals 353, 354, or 355 days per year. The average lunar year (354 days) is adjusted to the solar year (365 1/4 days) by the periodic introduction of leap years in order to assure that the major festivals fall in their proper season. The leap year consists of an additional 30-day month called First Adar, which always precedes the month of (Second) Adar. A leap year consists of either 383, 384, or 385 days and occurs seven times during every 19-year period (the so-called Metonic cycle). Among the consequences of the lunisolar structure are these: (1) The number of days in a year may vary considerably, from 353 to 385 days. (2) The first day of a month can fall on any day of the week, that day varying from year to year. Consequently, the days of the week upon which an annual Jewish festival falls vary from year to year despite the festival's fixed position in the Jewish month.

2. Months and notable days.

The months of the Jewish religious year, their approximate equivalent in the Western Gregorian calendar, and their notable days, are as follows: (see also Index: Tishri)

Tishri (September-October)

1, 2 Rosh Hashana (New Year)

3 Tzom Gedaliahu (Fast of Gedaliah)

10 Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)

15-21 Sukkot (Tabernacles)

22 Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of the Solemn


23 Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law)

Heshvan, or Marheshvan (October-November)

Kislev (November-December)

25 Hanukka (Feast of Dedication) begins

Tevet (December-January) (see also Index: Tevet, Fast of)

2-3 Hanukka ends

10 'Asara be-Tevet (Fast of Tevet 10)

Shevat (January-February) (see also Index: Shevat)

15 Tu bi-Shevat (15th of Shevat: New Year for Trees)

Adar (February-March)

13 Ta'anit Esther (Fast of Esther)

14, 15 Purim (Feast of Lots)

Nisan (March-April)

15-22 Pesah (Passover)

Iyyar (April-May)

18 Lag ba-Omer (33rd Day of the Omer Counting)

Sivan (May-June)

6, 7 Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost)

Tammuz (June-July)

17 Shiva' 'Asar be-Tammuz (Fast of Tammuz 17)

Av (July-August)

9 Tisha be-Av (Fast of Av 9)

Elul (August-September)

During leap year, the Adar holidays are postponed to Second Adar.

Since 1948 many Jewish calendars list Iyyar 5--Israel Independence Day--among the Jewish holidays.

3. Origin and development.

The origin of the Jewish calendar can no longer be accurately traced. Some scholars suggest that a solar year prevailed in ancient Israel, but no convincing proofs have been offered, and it is more likely that a lunisolar calendar similar to that of ancient Babylonia prevailed in ancient Israel. In late Second Temple times (i.e., 1st century BCE to 70 CE), calendrical matters were regulated by the Sanhedrin, or council of elders, at Jerusalem. The testimony of two witnesses who had observed the New Moon was ordinarily required to proclaim a new month. Leap years were proclaimed by a council of three or more rabbis with the approval of the nasi, or president, of the Sanhedrin. With the decline of the Sanhedrin, calendrical matters were decided by the Palestinian patriarchate (the official heads of the Jewish community under Roman rule). Jewish persecution under Constantius II (reigned 337-361) and advances in astronomical science led to the gradual replacement of observation by calculation. According to Hai ben Sherira (died 1038)--the head of a leading Talmudic academy in Babylonia--Hillel II, a Palestinian patriarch, introduced a fixed and continuous calendar in 359 CE. A summary of the regulations governing the present calendar is provided by Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and legist, in his Code: Sanctification of the New Moon, chapters 6-10.

Fragments of writings discovered in a geniza (depository for sacred writings withdrawn from circulation) have brought to light a calendrical dispute between Aaron ben Meir, a 10th-century Palestinian descendant of the patriarchal (Hillel) family, and the Babylonian Jewish authorities, including Sa'adia ben Joseph--an eminent 10th-century philosopher and gaon (head of a talmudic academy). Ben Meir's calculations provided that Passover in 922 be celebrated two days earlier than the date fixed by the normative calendar. After a bitter exchange of letters, the controversy subsided in favour of the Babylonian authorities, whose hegemony in calendrical matters was never again challenged.

Calendars of various sectarian Jewish communities deviated considerably from the normative calendar described above. The Dead Sea (or Qumran) community (made famous by the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries) adopted the calendrical system of the noncanonical books of Jubilees and Enoch, which was essentially a solar calendar. Elements of this same calendar reappear among the Mishawites, a sect founded in the 9th century.

The Karaites, a sect founded in the 8th century, refused, with some exceptions, to recognize the normative fixed calendar and reintroduced observation of the New Moon. Leap years were determined by observing the maturation of the barley crop in Palestine. Consequently, Karaites often celebrated the festivals on dates different from those fixed by the rabbis. Later, in medieval times, the Karaites adopted some of the normative calendrical practices, while rejecting others.

ii) The Sabbath.

The Jewish Sabbath (from Hebrew shavat, "to rest") is observed throughout the year on the seventh day of the week--Saturday. According to biblical tradition, it commemorates the original seventh day on which God rested after completing the creation.

Scholars have not succeeded in tracing the origin of the seven-day week, nor can they account for the origin of the Sabbath. A seven-day week does not accord well with either a solar or lunar calendar. Some scholars, pointing to the Akkadian term shapattu, suggest a Babylonian origin for the seven-day week and the Sabbath. But shapattu, which refers to the day of the Full Moon and is nowhere described as a day of rest, has little in common with the Jewish Sabbath. It appears that the notion of the Sabbath as a holy day of rest, linking God to his people and recurring every seventh day, was unique to ancient Israel.

1. Importance.

The central significance of the Sabbath for Judaism is reflected in the traditional commentative and interpretative literature called Talmud and Midrash (e.g., "if you wish to destroy the Jewish people, abolish their Sabbath first") and in numerous legends and adages from more recent literature (e.g., "more than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel"). Some of the basic teachings of Judaism affirmed by the Sabbath are God's acts of creation, God's role in history, and God's covenant with Israel. Moreover, the Sabbath is the only Jewish holiday the observance of which is enjoined by the Ten Commandments. Jews are obligated to sanctify the Sabbath at home and in the synagogue by observing the Sabbath laws and engaging in worship and study. The leisure hours afforded by the ban against work on the Sabbath were put to good use by the rabbis, who used them to promote intellectual activity and spiritual regeneration among Jews. Other days of rest, such as the Christian Sunday and the Islamic Friday, owe their origins to the Jewish Sabbath.

2. Observances.

The biblical ban against work on the Sabbath, while never clearly defined, includes such activities as baking and cooking, travelling, kindling fire, gathering wood, buying and selling, and bearing burdens from one domain into another. The Talmudic rabbis listed 39 major categories of prohibited work, including agricultural activity (e.g., plowing and reaping), work entailed in the manufacture of cloth (e.g., spinning and weaving), work entailed in preparing documents (e.g., writing), and other forms of constructive work.

At home, the Sabbath begins Friday evening some 20 minutes before sunset, with the kindling of the Sabbath candles by the wife, or in her absence by the husband. In the synagogue, the Sabbath is ushered in at sunset with the recital of selected psalms and the Lekha Dodi, a 16th-century Kabbalistic (mystical) poem. The refrain of the latter goes: "Come, my beloved, to meet the bride," the "bride" being the Sabbath. After the evening service, each Jewish household begins the first of three festive Sabbath meals by reciting the Qiddush("sanctification" of the Sabbath) over a cup of wine. This is followed by a ritual washing of the hands and the breaking of bread; two loaves of bread (commemorating the double portions of manna described in Exodus) being placed before the breaker of bread at each Sabbath meal. After the festive meal, the remainder of the evening is devoted to study or relaxation. The distinctive features of the Sabbath morning synagogue service include the public reading of the Torah, or Five Books of Moses (the portion read varies from week to week) and, generally, the sermon, both of which serve to educate the listeners. Following the service, the second Sabbath meal begins, again preceded by Qiddush (of lesser significance), and conforming for the most part to the first Sabbath meal. The afternoon synagogue service is followed by the third festive meal (without Qiddush). After the evening service, the Sabbath comes to a close with the Havdala ("Distinction") ceremony, which consists of a benediction noting the distinction between Sabbath and weekday, usually recited over a cup of wine accompanied by a spice box and candle.

iii) The Jewish holidays.

The major Jewish holidays are the Pilgrim Festivals: Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles); and the High Holidays: Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). In common, their observance is required by the Torah and work is prohibited for the duration of the holiday (except on the intermediary days of the Pesah and Sukkot festivals, when work the neglect of which entails monetary loss is permitted). Purim (Feast of Lots) and Hanukka (Feast of Dedication), while not mentioned in the Torah (and therefore of lesser solemnity), were instituted by Jewish authorities in the Persian and Greco-Roman periods. Lackingthe work restrictions characteristic of the major festivals, they are sometimes regarded as minor festivals. In addition, there are the five fasts: 'Asara be-Tevet (Fast of 10 Tevet), Shiva' 'Asar be-Tammuz (Fast of Tammuz 17), Tisha be-Av (Fast of Av 9), Tzom Gedaliahu (Fast of Gedaliah), and Ta'anit Esther (Fast of Esther); and the lesser holidays--i.e., holidays the observances of which are few and not always clearly defined--such as Rosh Hodesh (First Day of the Month), Tu bi-Shevat (New Year for Trees), and Lag ba-'Omer (33rd Day of Omer Counting). The fasts and the lesser holidays also lack the work restrictions characteristic of the major festivals. Some of the fasts and Rosh Hodesh are mentioned in Scripture, but most of the details concerning their proper observance, as well as those concerning the other lesser holidays, were provided by the Talmudic and medieval rabbis. (see also Index: yamim nora`im)

1. Pilgrim festivals.

In Temple times, all males were required to appear at the Temple three times annually and actively participate in the festal offerings and celebrations. These were the joyous pilgrim festivals of Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Originally, they marked the major agricultural seasons in ancient Israel and commemorated Israel's early history; but after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, emphasis was almost exclusively placed on the commemorative aspect. (see also Index: Jerusalem, Temple of)

In modern Israel, Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot are celebrated for the number of days prescribed by Scripture, namely, seven days, one day, and eight days, respectively (with Shemini Atzeret added to Sukkot). Due to calendrical uncertainties which arose in Second Temple times (6th century BCE to 1st century CE), each festival is celebrated for an additional day in the Diaspora.

Pesah commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the servitude that preceded it. As such, it is the most significant of the commemorative holidays, for it celebrates the very inception of the Jewish people--i.e., the event which provided the basis for the covenant between God and Israel. The term pesah refers originally to the paschal (Passover) lamb sacrificed on the eve of the Exodus, the blood of which marked the Jewish homes to be spared from God's plague; its etymological significance, however, remains uncertain. The Hebrew root is usually rendered "passed over"--i.e., God passed over the homes of the Israelites when inflicting the last plague on the Egyptians--hence the term Passover. The festival is also called Hag, Matzot ("Festival of Unleavened Bread"), for unleavened bread is the only kind of bread consumed during Passover. (see also Index: Paschal lamb)

Leaven (se`or) and foods containing leaven ( hametz) are neither to be owned nor consumed during Pesah. Aside from meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables, it is customary to consume only those foods prepared under rabbinic supervision and labelled "kosher for Passover," warranting that they are completely free of contact with leaven. In many homes, special sets of crockery, cutlery, and cooking utensils are acquired for Passover use. On the evening preceding the 14th day of Nisan, the home is thoroughly searched for any trace of leaven (bediqat hametz). The following morning the remaining particles of leaven are destroyed by fire (bi'ur hametz). From then until after Pesah, no leaven is consumed. Many Jews sell their more valuable leaven products to non-Jews before Passover (mekhirat hametz), repurchasing the foodstuffs immediately after the holiday.

The unleavened bread (matza) consists entirely of flour and water, great care being taken to prevent any fermentation before baking. Hand-baked matza is flat, rounded, and perforated. Since the 19th century, many Jews have preferred the square-shaped, machine-made matza.

Passover eve is ushered in at the synagogue service on the evening before Passover, after which each family partakes of the seder ("order of service); i.e., an elaborate festival meal in which every ritual is regulated by the rabbis. (In the Diaspora, the seder is also celebrated on the second evening of Passover.) The table is bedecked with an assortment of foods symbolizing the passage from slavery (e.g., bitter herbs) into freedom (e.g., wine). The Haggada (literally "narration"), a printed manual comprised of appropriate passages culled from Scripture, Talmud, and Midrash, accompanied by medieval hymns, serves as a guide for the ensuing ceremonies and is recited as the evening proceeds. The seder opens with the cup of sanctification (Qiddush), the first of four cups of wine drunk by the celebrants. An invitation is extended to the needy to join the seder ceremonies, after which the youngest son asks four prescribed questions expressing his surprise at the many departures from usual mealtime procedure. ("How different this night is from all other nights!") The father then explains that the Jews were once slaves in Egypt, were then liberated by God, and now commemorate the servitude and freedom by means of the seder ceremonies. Special blessings are recited over the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs (maror), after which the main courses are served. The meal closes with a serving of matza recalling the paschal lamb, consumption of which concluded the meal in Temple times. The seder concludes with the joyous recital of hymns praising God's glorious acts in history and anticipating a messianic redemption to come.

The Passover liturgy is considerably expanded and includes the daily recitation of Psalms 113-118 (Hallel, "praise"), public readings from the Torah, and an additional service (musaf). On the first day of Pesah, a prayer for dew in the Holy Land is recited; on the last day, the memorial service for the departed (yizkor) is added.

Originally an agricultural festival marking the wheat harvest, Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Shavuot ("weeks") takes its name from the seven weeks of grain harvest separating Passover and Shavuot. The festival is also called Hag ha-Qazir (Harvest Festival) and Yom ha-Bikkurim (Day of First Fruits). Greek-speaking Jews called it pentekoste, meaning "the fiftieth" day after the sheaf offering. In rabbinic literature, Shavuot is called atzeret ("cessation, conclusion"), perhaps because the cessation of work is one of its distinctive features, or possibly because it was viewed as concluding the Passover season. In liturgical texts it is described as the "season of the giving of our Torah." The association of Shavuot with the revelation at Sinai, while not attested to in Scripture, is alluded to in the Pseudepigrapha (a collection of noncanonical writings). In rabbinic literature the association first appears in 2nd-century materials. The association, probably an ancient one, was derived in part from the book of Exodus, which dates the revelation at Sinai to the third month (counting from Nisan), i.e., Sivan.

Scripture does not provide an absolute date for Shavuot. Instead, 50 days (or seven weeks) are reckoned from the day the sheaf offering ('Omer) of the harvest was brought to the Temple, the 50th day being Shavuot. According to the Talmudic rabbis, the sheaf offering was brought on the 16th of Nisan; hence Shavuot always fell on or about the 6th of Sivan. Jewish sectarians, such as the Sadducees, rejected the rabbinic tradition concerning the date of the sheaf ceremony, preferring a later date, and celebrated Shavuot accordingly.

In Temple times, aside from the daily offerings, festival offerings, and first-fruit gifts, a special cereal offering consisting of two breads prepared from the new wheat crop was offered at the Temple. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Shavuot observances have been dominated by its commemorative aspect. Many Jews spend the entire Shavuot night studying Torah, a custom first mentioned in the Zohar("Book of Splendour"), a Kabbalistic work edited and published in the 13th-14th centuries. Some prefer to recite the tiqqun lel Shavu'ot ("Shavuot night service"), an anthology of passages from Scripture and the Oral Law (Mishna) compiled in the late medieval period. An expanded liturgy includes Hallel, public readings from the Torah, yizkor (in many congregations), and musaf. The Book of Ruth is read at the synagogue service, possibly because of its harvest-season setting.

Sukkot ("booths"), an ancient harvest festival that commemorates the booths the Israelites resided in after the Exodus, was the most prominent of the three pilgrim festivals in ancient Israel. Also called Hag ha-Asif (Festival of Ingathering), it has retained its joyous, festive character through the ages. It begins on Tishri 15 and is celebrated for seven days. The concluding eighth day (plus a ninth day in the Diaspora), Shemini Atzeret, is a separate holiday. In Temple times, each day of Sukkot had its own prescribed number of sacrificial offerings. Other observances, recorded in the Mishna tractate Sukka, include the daily recitation of Hallel, daily circumambulation of the Temple altar, a daily water libation ceremony, and the nightly bet ha-sho`eva or bet ha-she`uvah ("place of water drawing") festivities starting on the evening preceding the second day. The last mentioned featured torch dancing, flute playing, and other forms of musical and choral entertainment.

Ideally, Jews are to reside in booths--walled structures covered with thatched roofs--for the duration of the festival; in practice, most observant Jews take their meals in the sukka ("booth") but reside at home. A palm-tree branch (lulav), bound up together with myrtle (hadas) and willow ('arava) branches, is held together with a citron (etrog) and waved. Medieval exegetes provided ample (if not always persuasive) justification for the Bible's choice of these particular branches and fruit as symbols of rejoicing. The numerous regulations governing the sukka, lulav, and etrog comprise the major portion of the treatment of Sukkot in the codes of Jewish law. The daily Sukkot liturgy includes the recitation of Hallel, public readings from the Torah, the musaf service, and the circumambulation of the synagogue dais. On the last day of Sukkot, called Hoshana Rabba (Great Hoshana) after the first words of a prayer (hoshana, "save us") recited then, seven such circumambulations take place. Kabbalistic (mystical) teaching has virtually transformed Hoshana Rabba into a solemn day of judgment.

Hoshana Rabba is followed by Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly), which is celebrated on Tishri 22 (in the Diaspora also Tishri 23). None of the more distinctive Sukkot observances apply to Shemini Atzeret; but Hallel, public reading from the Torah, yizkor (in many congregations), musaf, and a prayer for rain in the Holy Land are included in its liturgy. Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) marks the annual completion of the cycle of public readings from the Torah. The festival originated shortly before the gaonic period (c. 600-1050 CE) in Babylon, where it was customary to conclude the public readings annually. In Palestine, where the public readings were concluded approximately every three years, Simhat Torah was not celebrated annually until after the gaonic period. Israeli Jews celebrate Simhat Torah and Shemini Atzeret on the same day; in the Diaspora, Simhat Torah is celebrated on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. Its joyous celebrations bring the Sukkot season to an appropriate close.

2. Ten Days of Penitence.

The Ten Days of Penitence begin on Rosh Hashana and close with Yom Kippur. Already in Talmudic times they were viewed as forming an especially appropriate period of introspection and repentance. Penitential prayers (selihot) are recited prior to the daily morning service and, in general, during the period scrupulous observance of the Law is expected.

According to Mishnaic teaching, the New Year festival ushers in the Days of Judgment for all of mankind. Despite its solemnity, the festive character of Rosh Hashana is in no way diminished. In Scripture it is called "a day when the horn is sounded"; in the liturgy "a day of remembrance." In the land of Israel and in the Diaspora, Rosh Hashana is celebrated on the first two days of Tishri. Originally celebrated by all Jews on Tishri 1, calendrical uncertainty led to its being celebrated an additional day in the Diaspora and, depending upon the circumstances, one or two days in Palestine. After the calendar was fixed in 359, it was regularly celebrated in Palestine on Tishri 1 until the 12th century, when Provençal scholars introduced the two-day observance. Considerable speculation in recent literature concerning the origin of the Jewish New Year festival proves mostly that its early history can only be conjectured, not reconstructed.

The most distinctive Rosh Hashana observance is the sounding of the ram's horn (shofar) at the synagogue service. Medieval commentators suggest that the blasts acclaim God as Ruler of the universe, recall the divine revelation at Sinai, and are a call for spiritual reawakening and repentance. An expanded New Year liturgy stresses God's sovereignty, his concern for man, and his readiness to forgive those who repent. On the first day of Rosh Hashana (except when it falls on the Sabbath) it is customary for many to recite penitential prayers at a river, symbolically casting their sins into the river; this ceremony is called tashlikh("thou wilt cast"). Other symbolic ceremonies, such as eating bread and apples dipped in honey, accompanied with prayers for a "sweet" and propitious year, are performed at the festive meals.

The most solemn of the Jewish festivals, Yom Kippur is a day when sins are confessed and expiated and man and God are reconciled. It is also the last of the Days of Judgment and the holiest day of the Jewish year. Celebrated on Tishri 10, it is marked by fasting, penitence, and prayer. Work, eating, drinking, washing, anointing one's body, sexual intercourse, and donning leather shoes are all forbidden. (see also Index: atonement)

In Temple times, Yom Kippur provided the only occasion for the entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies; details of the expiatory rites performed by the high priest and others are recorded in the Mishna and recounted in the liturgy. Present-day observances begin with a festive meal shortly before Yom Kippur eve. The Kol Nidre prayer (recited before the evening service) is a legal formula which absolves Jews from fulfilling solemn vows, thus safeguarding them from accidentally violating a vow's stipulations. The formula first appears in gaonic sources (derived from the Babylonian Talmudic academies, 6th-11th centuries) but may be older; the haunting melody that accompanies it is of medieval origin. Virtually the entire day is spent in prayer at the synagogue, the closing service (ne'ila) concluding with the sounding of the ram's horn.

3. Minor festivals: Hanukka and Purim.

Hanukka and Purim are joyous festivals lacking the work restrictions characteristic of the major festivals.

Hanukka commemorates the Maccabean (or Hasmonean) victories over the forces of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175-164 BCE), and the rededication of the Temple Kislev 25, 164 BCE. Led by Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, the Maccabees were the first Jews who fought to defend their religious beliefs rather than their lives. Hanukka is celebrated for eight days beginning on Kislev 25. The Hanukka lamp or candelabrum (menora), which recalls the Temple lampstand, is kindled each evening. One candle is lit the first evening; an additional candle is lit each subsequent evening until eight candles are lit on the last evening. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the ritually pure oil available at the rededication of the Temple was sufficient for only one day's light but miraculously lasted for eight days, hence the eight-day celebration of Hanukka. Evidence from the Apocrypha (writings excluded from the Jewish canon but included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons) and rabbinic literature shows an association between Sukkot and Hanukka, possibly accounting for the latter's eight-day duration. Hanukka joy is expressed in festive meals, song, games, and gifts to children. The liturgy includes Hallel, public readings from the Torah, and the 'al ha-nissim ("for the miracles") prayer. The Scroll of Antiochus, an early medieval account of Hanukka, is read in some synagogues and homes.

As recorded in the biblical Book of Esther, Purim commemorates the delivery of the Persian Jewish community from the plottings of Haman, Ahasuerus' (perhaps Xerxes, king of Persia, 486-465 BCE) prime minister. Mordecai and his cousin Esther, the King's Jewish wife, interceded on behalf of the Jewish community, rescinded the royal edict authorizing a pogrom against the Jews, and instituted the Purim festival. The historicity of the biblical account is questioned by many modern scholars. It is now generally conceded that the Book of Esther was written in the Persian period (it contains Persian but not Greek words) and reflects Persian custom. Except for the Book of Esther, the earliest mention of the Purim festival is from the 2nd-1st centuries BCE. The name of the festival was derived from the Akkadian pûru, meaning "lot."

In most Jewish communities, Purim is celebrated on Adar 14 (some also celebrate it on the 15th, others only on the 15th). On the evening preceding Purim, men, women, and children gather in the synagogue to hear the Book of Esther read from a scroll (megilla). The reading is repeated Purim morning. A festive meal during the day is accompanied by much song, wine, and merriment. Masquerades, Purim plays, and other forms of parody are common. Friends exchange gifts of foodstuffs and also present gifts to the poor. Aside from the Esther readings, the liturgy includes public reading from the Torah and recital of the Purim version of the 'al hanissim prayer.

4. The five fasts.

The commemorative aspects of the fasts are bound up with their penitential aspects, all of which find expression in the liturgy. Thus the Jew not only relives the tragic history of his people with each fast, but is also afforded an opportunity to search within himself and focus on his own (and his people's) present and future. Penitential prayers (selihot) are recited on all fasts, and the Torah is read at the morning and afternoon services. (see also Index: fasting)

'Asara be-Tevet (Fast of Tevet 10) commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, in 588 BCE.

Shiva' 'Asar be-Tammuz (Fast of Tammuz 17) commemorates the first breach in the wall of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. It initiates three weeks of semi-mourning that culminate with Tisha be-Av.

Tisha be-Av (Fast of Av 9) commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE. The most solemn of the five fasts, its self-denials are more rigorous than those prescribed for the others, and, like Yom Kippur, the fast begins at sunset. The book of Lamentations is read at the evening service, followed by poetic laments that are also recited Tisha be-Av morning.

Tzom Gedaliahu (Fast of Gedaliah) commemorates the slaying of Gedaliah, governor of Judah after the destruction of the First Temple.

Ta'anit Esther (Fast of Esther), which commemorates Esther's fast (cf. Esther 4:16), is first mentioned in gaonic literature.

5. The lesser holidays.

A major festival in the biblical period, Rosh Hodesh (First Day of the Month) gradually lost most of its festive character. Since Talmudic times, it has been customary to recite Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. In the medieval period, aside from the liturgical practices carried over from the Talmudic period, it was celebrated with a festive meal. Always more diligently observed in Palestine than in the Diaspora, attempts to revive its full festive character are being made in modern Israel.

First mentioned in the Mishna, where it marks the New Year for tithing purposes, Tu bi-Shevat (New Year for Trees) assumed a festive character in the gaonic period, and later in the medieval period it became customary to eat assorted fruits on the holiday. In modern times it is associated with the planting of trees in Israel.

Lag ba-'Omer (33rd Day of the 'Omer Counting) is a joyous interlude in the otherwise somber period of 'Omer counting (i.e., of the 49 days to Shavuot), which is traditionally observed as a time of semi-mourning. Usually celebrated as a school holiday with outings, it is first mentioned in medieval sources, which attribute its origin to the cessation of a plague that was decimating the students of Akiba, an influential rabbinic sage in the 2nd century, and to the anniversary of the death of another great rabbi, Simeon ben Yohai (died c. 170 CE).

iv) The situation today.

Modern attitudes toward the Sabbath and festivals vary considerably. Acculturated Jews under the sway of Western secularism often are ignorant of, or choose to neglect, traditional observances. Attitudes of committed Jews in the Western world are patterned mostly along the lines of accepted Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform practice. Thus for example, driving to synagogue services on the Sabbath is unthinkable in Orthodox circles, a matter of dispute among Conservative rabbis, and normative practice for Reform Jews. Among Orthodox Jews, who best preserve the traditional observances, contemporary discussion centres mostly on technological advances and their effect on Halakhic practice (the behaviour laid down in the written and oral Torah). Whether or not hearing aids may be worn on the Sabbath, and how crossing the international dateline affects observance of Sabbaths and festivals typify the sort of problem raised in Orthodox responsa ("replies" to questions on law and observance). Recent (and often heated) discussion in Conservative literature raises the possibility of abolishing the obligatory character of the additional festival days in the Diaspora (except for the second day of Rosh Hashana), thus unifying Jewish practice throughout the world. Reform Jews, the most innovative of the three groups, observe neither the additional festival days (including the second day of Rosh Hashana) nor the fasts and have introduced numerous modifications in the liturgy as well as in the observances. In recent years more radical Reform congregations have experimented freely with "psychedelic" sound and light effects and other novel forms of synagogue service. (see also Index: Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism , Reform Judaism)

In Israel Sabbath is the national day of rest, and Jewish holidays are vacation periods. Municipal ordinances govern public observance of the Sabbath and festivals; their enactment and enforcement vary with the political influence of the local Orthodox Jewish community. Attempts to interpret festivals along nationalistic lines are common; some kibbutzim (communal farms) stress the agricultural significance of the festivals. Independence Day is a national holiday; the preceding day, Remembrance Day, commemorates Israel's war dead. Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Day)--marking the systematic destruction of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945 and recalling the short-lived Ghetto uprisings--is commemorated officially on Nisan 27; many religious Israelis prefer to commemorate it on Tebet 10 (a fast day) now called yom ha-qaddish (day upon which the mourner's prayer is recited). Since the June 1967 war, Iyyar 28-- Liberation of Jerusalem Day--is celebrated unofficially by many Israelis. Appropriate services are conducted on all the aforementioned holidays by most segments of Israel's religious community.

In Israel and the Diaspora, Jewish theologians often stress the timelessness and contemporaneity of holiday observances. Nevertheless, "revised" Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggada) in which contemporary issues are accorded a central position, appear regularly.

Scholarly research into the origin of the festivals, if unabated, has not advanced significantly in recent years, nor is it likely to unless new evidence is forthcoming. Attempts to trace the development and spread of festival observances have fared better, and studies such as A. Yaari's History of the Simhat Torah Festival (in Hebrew) bode well for the future. (S.Z.L.)


The land of Israel, as is evident from the biblical narratives, played a significant role in the life and thought of the Israelites. It was the promised home, for the sake of which Abraham left his birthplace; the haven toward which moved the tribes who escaped from Egyptian servitude; the hope of the exiles in Babylon. In the long centuries following the destruction of the Judean state by the Romans, it remained inextricably bound up with messianic and eschatological expectations. During the early period of settlement, there seem to have been many sacred localities, with one or another functioning for a time as a central shrine for all of the tribes, without displacing the others. Even the establishment of Jerusalem as the political capital by David and the building of a royal chapel there by Solomon did not bring to an end local cult centres. It was not until the reign of Josiah of Judah (640-609) that a reform centralized the cult in Jerusalem and attempted--although not entirely successfully--to end worship at local shrines. However irregular was the effectiveness of this reform, the Babylonian Exile and the subsequent return saw Jerusalem and its Temple win out over its rivals and become--in law, in fact, and in sentiment--the centre of Jewish cultic life. As noted above, this did not inhibit the rise and development of other forms of worship and even--on a few occasions--other cult centres. Nonetheless, no matter how unpopular the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple became with some segments of the population -- the Qumran community seems to have denied its legality, and the Pharisees complained bitterly about its arrogance and exactions, attempting when politically feasible to impose and enforce Pharisaic regulations upon it--reverence for the Temple itself seems to have remained a widespread sentiment. With the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, such reverence was transformed both by messianic expectations and eschatological hopes into fervent devotion, which, over the following centuries, became idealized and even supernaturalized. The most ardently articulated statement of the crucial role of the land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple is found in the Sefer ha-Kuzari of Judah ha-Levi in which the two are seen as absolutely indispensable for the proper relation between the people Israel and God. Symbolizing the significance of the land and of the city is the practice of facing in their direction during worship. The earliest architectural evidence derived from synagogue remains in Galilee indicates that the attempt was made to arrange the building in such a way that the worshippers faced directly toward Jerusalem. This practice may have continued even in the Diaspora, but at a later date the present practice of setting the holy ark in or before the east wall was established, so that "facing Jerusalem" is now more symbolic than actual.


The transformation of Hebrew into a sacred language is, of course, bound up with the political fate of the people. In the period following the return from the Babylonian Exile, Aramaic, a cognate of Hebrew, functioned as the international or imperial language in official life and certainly gained a foothold as a vernacular. It did not, despite claims made by some scholars, displace the everyday Hebrew of the people. The language of the Mishna, far from being a scholar's dialect, seems to reflect--in the same way as the Koine (common) Greek of the New Testament--popular speech. Displacement of Hebrew--both in its literary form in Scriptures and in its popular usage--did take place in the Diaspora, however, as evidenced by the need to translate Scriptures into Greek in some communities and into Aramaic in others. As far as the emerging order of worship is concerned, there seems also to have been an inclination on the part of some authorities to permit even the recitation of the Shema complex in the vernacular. Struggles over these issues within the communities continued for a number of centuries in various places, but the development of formal literary Hebrew--a sacred tongue, to be used side by side with the Hebrew Scriptures in worship--brought them to an end. Although the communities of the Diaspora used the vernaculars of their environment in day-to-day living and even--as in the case of the communities of the Islamic world--for philosophical, theological, and other scholarly writings, in worship, Hebrew remained the standard until modern times when some of the reform movements in western Europe sought partially--and a very small fraction even totally--to displace it. (see also Index: Aramaic language)



i) Legal, judicial, and congregational roles.

The rabbinate, with its peculiar nature and functions, is the result of a series of developments going back to the period that followed the disastrous second revolt against Rome (132-135 CE). The term rabbi ("my teacher") was originally an honorific title for the graduates of the academy directed by the nasior patriarch, the head of the Jewish community in Palestine in that era, who was also a Roman imperial official. The curriculum of the school was Torah, written and oral, according to the Pharisaic tradition and formulation. The nasi appointed rabbis to the law court (the Bet Din) and as legal officers of local communities: acting with the local elders, they supervised and controlled the life of the community and its members in all of its aspects. A similar situation obtained in Babylon under the Parthian and Sasanian empires, where the resh galuta or exilarch ("head of the exile") appointed rabbinical officials to legal and administrative posts. In time the patriarchate and exilarchate disappeared, but the rabbinate, nourished by independent rabbinical academies, survived. An authorized scholar, when called to become the judicial officer of a community, would at the same time become the head of the local academy and would, after adequate preparation and examination, grant authorization to his pupils, who were then eligible to be called to rabbinical posts. There was, thus, a diffusion of authority, the communities calling, rather than a superior official appointing, their rabbis. What must be kept in mind is that these rabbis were not ecclesiastical personages but communal officials, responsible for the governance of the entire range of life of what was understood to be the qehilla qedosha, the "holy community." (see also Index: Babylonian Exile)

In modern times and particularly in the Western world, the total change in Jewish communal existence required a transformation of this ancient structure. The rabbinate became, for the most part, an ecclesiastical rather than a communal agency, reflecting the requirements of civic life in modern national states. The education of rabbis who now function within this new situation is carried on in seminaries whose structure and curriculum have been influenced by European and American academic institutions. The majority of their graduates serve as congregational rabbis, in roles similar to those of ministers and priests in the Christian denominations, but with some other functions deriving from the particular situation and nature of the Jewish community.

Even in the State of Israel, where certain larger areas, such as that of family law, are still reserved to the rabbinate, it nonetheless functions more as a counterpart to other ecclesiastical organizations, Christian and Muslim, than as an overarching and all-inclusive communal agency that embodies, as in the past, involvement in every aspect of community and personal life.

ii) Chief rabbinates.

The existence of the offices of chief rabbi in the State of Israel derives from the situation in the Turkish Empire when the various religious communities functioned as quasi-political entities in that multiethnic conglomerate. Israel has two chief rabbis, one for the Ashkenazic (European) and one for the Sefardic (Oriental) communities--they no longer function, however, as the heads of whole communities but only of ecclesiastical organizations. The same is true in those countries outside Israel that have the office of chief rabbi; e.g., Great Britain and France. Here they function vis à vis the governments like their ecclesiastic counterparts in the Christian churches. While they have certain kinds of limited authority because of their official position, their jurisdiction extends only over those members of the total Jewish community who are ready to accept it; others form their own ecclesiastical units and act without reference to the chief rabbinate. In some situations, particularly in the United States where there is no similar structure, the title chief or grand rabbi has been assumed occasionally by individuals as the means of asserting superior dignity or even (fruitlessly) authority.


The precise nature of the Sanhedrin (Council Court) in the last years of the Jewish commonwealth is a much disputed matter. The several councils mentioned in Talmudic literature are equally difficult to define with exactitude. There are references scattered throughout medieval literature that suggest the existence of councils and synods but their composition and authority are also uncertain. Around 1000 a synod was held in the Rhineland in which French and German communities participated under the guidance of Rabbenu Gershom, the leading rabbinic authority of the region. The late Middle Ages saw the rise in eastern Europe of the Wa'ad Arba' Aratzot (Council of the Four Lands) composed of communal representatives from Great Poland, Little Poland, Russian Poland (Volhynia), and Lithuania. At the beginning of the modern era Napoleon (1806) summoned an Assembly of Notables--representatives of communities under French dominion--to deal with questions arising from the dissolution of the older status of the Jews and their naturalization as individuals into the new national states. Those decisions of the Assembly that involved questions of Jewish law were subsequently submitted to a Grand Sanhedrin called into being by Napoleon to provide some sort of Halakhic justification for the acts the French imperial government had required of the Jewish communities. During the 19th century the demand for the reform of Jewish life--principally the liturgy of the synagogue, but many other aspects as well--evoked a series of rabbinical conferences and synods that debated the questions and sought to guide the changes thought to be necessary. A similar procedure was followed on the American scene. In both instances, after an initial period in which radicals, moderates, and conservatives argued their respective cases in the same forum, polarization set in and intellectual differences were transformed into competing organizations. In the 1970s the several tendencies within the Jewish communities in North America were institutionalized in rabbinical conferences and congregational unions--Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform--whose influence was in large measure limited to their adherents. In the United States the Synagogue Council of America claims to be the "united voice" of American Jewry in common concerns. There is also a worldwide body in Reform or Liberal Judaism--the World Union for Progressive Judaism.


The above sketch of basic practices and institutions has attempted to describe the so-called traditional situation, although it has been indicated that even here there are variations--actually more than have been noted. In addition, reference has been made to some shifts and changes that represent a giving up of traditional practices on the basis of intellectual decisions about the nature of Judaism, its beliefs, practices, and institutions. Such changes are far too numerous to describe in detail. What is more important is to indicate their motivation. Basically, it is the view that the Halakhic system is not, as a whole and in all of its parts, divinely revealed but is rather a human process that seeks to expose in mutable forms the meaning of the divine-human encounter. Thus viewed, the practices and institutions are understood to be historically determined, reflecting the multifaceted experience of the people Israel as it has sought to live in the presence of God. Historical scholarship has, from this point of view, disclosed the origins, rise, development, and decline of these structures in the past and thus authorizes such changes in the present and future as appear to fulfill the needs of the community and its members. An examination of the specific deviations from the traditional forms makes clear that the application of this position, or attitude, has been subject to wide variation during the 19th and 20th centuries, in which it has operated. Some have seen it as a call for the disengagement from much if not all of the traditional pattern, and a recognition that only the spiritual essence is of importance or consequence for Judaism. Others have argued that an indiscriminate use of historicism (the explanation of values and forms in terms of their historical conditions) is unjustified and that the burden of proof is always upon those who would introduce changes. In the post-World War II period, the question has been whether a reconstituted Halakhic system might not be a requirement of the day. (see also Index: Halakhah)


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