This article follows on from David’s reflections on common misconceptions when teaching Judaism.

Judaism the Essentials by David Hampshire


The trouble is what I think is essential may not be very important to someone else. Hence, any list of essentials is in someway idiosyncratic. What I try to do here though is imagine the limited time that teachers will have to deliver something about Judaism to their pupils. Naturally what is here will need to be mediated relative to age, although I do give some indication about what this might look like at the first three key stages.

It is also important to recognise that ‘Judaism’ really only exists as an idea. How Jews live their Judaism may be very different in different places and may be open to constant negotiation. Hence, a Jewish family who only get to light candles for Shabbat (Sabbath) once a month due to work patterns are not a quarter of what it is to be Jewish compared to a family that can do this every week. As teachers we should not put ourselves in a position of judging other peoples religious expressions or beliefs as if we were the keepers of a tradition to which we ourselves do not subscribe.

Here, then, I present what I think all pupils should know and understand about Jews and Judaism. Given that you will have at most one term to do anything worthwhile I suggest Orthopraxis plus one celebration in depth. If you have time do Shabbat plus one. Trying to do everything will only cause frustration and confusion.


On the whole Jews have been much more interested in doing rather than believing. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Jews really had to think about what they believed and this was in response to Christianity in the West and Islam in the East. Hence, the Torah (in this case the first five books of the Jewish Bible), the Prophets (from the Book of Judges to Second Kings – excluding Ruth – and Isaiah to Malachi – excluding Lamentations) and the Writings (all the other books of the Hebrew Bible including Ruth and Lamentations) do not have a statement of what Jews should believe as such. It was later Jewish scholars that worked this out. There is no commandment in the Bible to say that you have to believe in God, although that is presumed, but there are commandments to say that you should protected the widow, orphan and stranger – among others.

This means that teaching about what Jews believe can be a bit problematic, if not short! Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides) sets out thirteen articles of Jewish faith in the 12th century but even in their day they were highly contested. Even today not all Jews believe all thirteen articles and some don’t believe any other them.

So what might we conclude from this? It is possible to distinguish two types of Jews, broadly speaking. Firstly, religious Jews. These tend to believe that there is God and that this God has communicated His will to the people of Israel. How this was done is disputed, Orthodox Jews tend to believe that God spoke to Moses and that Moses wrote down God’s commandments for this new people in the Torah. Progressive Jews tend to believe that ancient Jews encountered this God of their ancestors and as a community worked out their response to this God – culminating the Torah. For Progressive Jews it makes sense to carry on working out that response; Orthodox Jews try to work how they can better keep the commandments given to Moses. In fact this process was already going on in the Mishna and Gemara (Talmud) and other Jewish writings.

Non-religious Jews come under two categories. There are non-religious Jews who believe that there is a God and that God revealed Himself to the Jewish people they just don’t observe Jewish tradition or, if they do, only the bits that make sense to them. Such Jews use the term ‘non-religious’ to mean ‘non-observant’. There are a substantial number of Jews who hold this position. Other non-religious Jews identify themselves as not believing in God at all but see themselves as part of a people with a particular culture and way of doing things. They may keep lots of the commandments/traditions but they do so for reasons of cultural identity.

So what does that mean at each key stage? Here are some pointers:

Key Stage 1

Jews don’t always agree on what they believe. Religious Jews tend to believe the following:

There is only One God.

  • This God demands that Jews live in a special way that helps them to keep being Jewish. Those demands are often referred to as Torah.
  • Ways of being Jewish include the way you dress, the way you eat, the special days you have, the way you pray and the way you treat other people

 Key Stage 2

Jews are a diverse group of people who are bound together by the sense of being a people. Religious Jews fall into a number of groups defined by belief and practice:

  • Orthodox Jews believe that there is one God who has created a people from Abraham who are expected to live by the Torah. This God is revealed in His dealings with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the prophets. The Torah was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. This Torah is inspired by God and comes in two forms: Written and Oral. Both are equally important as the first can’t be understood without the second.
  • Progressive Jews believe that there is only one God who was encountered by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From these ancestors, along with Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, came the Jewish people. As a people who continued to encounter this God of Israel (Jacob) they formed, and continue to form, ways of responding to that encounter. What matters above all else is how Jews treat other people, especially how they work for the freedom of others who are oppressed.
  • For all Jews it is their identity as a people that helps them to form their response to the world. This means that they can work together for the common good whilst disagreeing with each other.


Key Stage 3

Jewish belief from the 18th century onwards has undergone a series of challenges in light of the general European Enlightenment. From 1770 onwards Jews have been able to participate more and more in the countries in which they found themselves. This led to a division amongst Jews as they came to make sense of their newfound freedoms, often attacked in various ways by others – leading to the Holocaust the foundation of the modern State of Israel.

  • Strictly Orthodox Jews have generally rejected the Enlightenment and sought to preserve the beliefs of Jews as they emerged from the Middle Ages. As such they have become much more conservative than their predecessors. They hold to Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish belief but also to the belief that Jews have a specific vocation. This vocation is to be faithful to all of the teaching of the Torah as understood by the Rabbis to prepare a world for the coming Messiah. They, on the whole, do not believe that the State of Israel should exist. Strictly Orthodox Jews, especially Chassidic Jews, have a mystical view of the world based on the Kabbalah. Mussarnic Jews (Mussar = Virtue) hold that Torah forms character and the highest form of character is known as Ben Torah (literally: Son of the Torah).
  • Modern Orthodox Jews believe much of what Strictly Orthodox Jews believe but they are much more open to the world and see that emancipation has brought some benefits. They don’t, on the whole, hold a mystical view of the world or Jewish tradition, but they do believe that Jews have a specific vocation of witnessing God’s presence in the world. Therefore, to be a Jew is in some way to be prophetic. On the whole Modern Orthodox Jews support the State of Israel as a sign of God’s providence in the world today.
  • Progressive Jews have responded most fully to the Enlightenment. Some have fully embraced modern Biblical criticism, which originates in 19th century German Christianity. They believe that the encounter with modernity is not only the best way for Judaism to survive but also the way that Jews can contribute to God’s purposes for the world. Whilst Progressive Jews do not generally believe that there will be a Messiah they do believe that human beings can bring about the Messianic Age that will see an end to poverty. Progressive Jews increasing support the State of Israel but are often critical of its treatment of Palestinians.
  • Secular Jews believe that the Jewish people are a distinct ethnic group with a long history shaped by religious beliefs and the response of others to their presence. As such they do not tend to organise themselves as a groups – although this is changing in some places. They do, though, often support the State of Israel especially as its founding vision was secular – based on the Napoleonic vision of a nation state as encapsulated in the writings of Theodore Herzl. Secular Jews can be of any political persuasion but there is a long history of Jewish Socialism based on a communitarian view of being human. An example of this would be Poale Zion, of whom David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir were members.

Jews celebrate – choose one of the options

One of the things we do in RE is celebration. Knowing which celebration(s) to focus on, though, is not always easy. Within Judaism there have grown a number of significant celebrations that define Jewish life, even for secular Jews. Research shows that Jews are most likely to go to synagogue during the period of the High Holy Days, especially on Yom Kippur, and that more than third of secular Jews keep the traditional fast. Similarly, most Jews celebrate a Passover Seder meal. These appear to be the two hinges upon which Jewish identity and association hang. Research also strongly indicates that the majority of Jews light candles on a Friday evening and have a special meal. Even Jews who live with non-Jews often light candles on a Friday evening and make the meal special in someway.

For some Jews these are ways of keeping God’s commandments, for others markers of ethnic identity. For pupils it is important to identify exactly what we want pupils to learn from the study of Jewish celebrations. Often we are unclear about why we want pupils to learn certain things – other than it seems interesting or a good idea because there is lots to do! Indeed when studying Jewish celebrations there is lots to do but this can lead to an activity rich/learning poor form of RE. The question we need to ask is the ‘so what’ question. This isn’t always easy to do. Do we want them to know things because knowing things is good? Do we want them to know things because it will change or shape their attitudes to what or who is being studied? Do we want them to know things because we want to cast a light on something of what it is to be human? Do we want them to things because knowledge is powerful and can be used in such a way to challenge pupils about their own perspective on the world? (Education being there to teach us that the world is not as we experience it.)

What ever the reasons we teach about Jewish celebrations are we need to be clear as to the purpose of our study. Here are three celebrations to focus on and the different outcomes at each Key Stage


Key Stage 1

That Jews believe that the family is important. The shape of the family may have changed over time, there were Biblical figures with more than one wife, there were families that included non-biological or foreign members, but that being together as a family at least once a week where no one worked was seen to be important. Jews today celebrate Shabbat in different ways depending on how ‘religious’ they see themselves to be but key to all of this is the belief that we are not defined by what we do but by who we are the relationships we have. The three meals of Shabbat, especially the Friday evening meal, have symbols which remind Jews that families simply being together is important for human growth.

Key Stage 2

That Jews live in a tension between the home and the community but that this is a positive tension. Meeting together and being a family not defined by work reminds us that we are first persons not commodities. Likewise, meeting in community reminds us that we cannot live in isolation from each other. The act of listening to the Wisdom of the Torah in the synagogue, pondering it, arguing with it and living it defines not simply a family but a people. The act of worshipping together helps the community to focus beyond itself. Communities exist not simply for the benefit of members but have a vocation that is greater than the sum of the individuals. In many communities there is a shared meal after the service celebrating the social bonds of the community and supporting members who might not have a family to go home to. How different Jews understand the services and their purposes differs but there is a sharing of a common language and set of aspirations. Social solidarity is important for human flourishing and the synagogue provides that in a tangible way once a week. Likewise, people are not defined by their commercial relationships to each other but simply by their being a member of a community. This is why a former Chief Rabbi so opposed the change to the Sunday trading laws because he believed that by not having a day we don’t work we simply turn people into economic units.

Key Stage 3

The two key blessing done in the home over wine, the Kiddush for Friday night and the one for Saturday morning, focus on two aspects of Jewish thought. The first focuses on God as creator, not just of the universe but also of rest. What defines us is our ability not to work, to cease from labour. Jewish tradition extends this to animals and to the whole of creation. The world too deserves rest and is not there simply to be exploited by humans. The second Kiddush focuses on the Exodus from Egypt and that we are created not to be slaves but to be free. Whilst slavery existed in the ancient world it was not seen to be ‘natural’ by the Jews, unlike Greek thinkers such as Aristotle. Even strangers in Israel – refugees and migrant workers – were seen to be free and were protected by law because the Torah reminds Jews: you too were strangers in the land of Egypt. Freedom, though, isn’t simply from things it is also for things. In the Torah readings Jews encounter their responsibilities both in story (aggadah) and in law (halachah). Different Jewish communities understand these stories in different ways and that is what characterises them as Strictly Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative or Progressive. Nevertheless, Judaism’s traditions have both ecological and social consequences. Jews, though, don’t believe that you have to be Jewish to be fully human but you do have to have a commitment to the Earth and to the people who inhabit the Earth.

High Holy Days

Whilst it is important to recognise that these festivals are in the Torah they are not the new year of the Bible. In fact by the time of the Mishnah the rabbis identify four different new years. The High Holy Days become the Jewish New Year during the period of the Babylonian Exile (c597 BCE – c515 BCE) as it coincided with the Babylonian New Year.

A key concept of the High Holy Days is one of judgement. During the previous Jewish month (Ellul) tradition relates that God is like a king who walks among his people listening to their concerns and worries. On the 1st Tishri God ascends to His throne as a judge. This metaphor is unusual for us, even living in the United Kingdom because for us the monarch has lost any real judicial significance – although look in a Court room and you will see the Monarch’s coat of Arms and if you listen many cases are: The Crown against …… In the ancient world the king or queen was the ultimate judge.

The image of the synagogue being the court room of God is further extended in many communities with men and women wearing white, men sometimes wear a garment called a ‘kittel’. In the Babylonian Imperial court if you were called before the king you would need to strip, bathe and put on white garments. This general pattern remains, especially for Strictly Orthodox Jews. Most go to the mikvah (ritual bath) before Rosh Hashanah and wear the kittel during the services up until the end of Yom Kippur. Traditionally the kittel is a garment worn first at your wedding, then during the High Holy Days and finally when you are buried. Some men also wear it if they are leading a Seder Meal. Different communities have different traditions relating to the wearing of a kittel.

Whilst God passes judgement on Rosh Hashanah that judgement is not sealed until the end of Yom Kippur – and there is even a period of grace until the end of Sukkot, which starts fifteen days after Rosh Hashanah. Therefore the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are ones of deep introspection and determination to make good wrong and to live a life more in conformity with the Torah. As modern people we are not always happy with the idea of judgement, not least a judging God. What the High Holy Days teach, though, is that we are all ultimately responsible for our actions. The prayers in the services do not focus on individuals so much as community because we are also responsible for each other. Whilst these days may appear miserable they are days of great joy. The New Year starts with dipping apples in honey in many families and the wishing each other a sweet new year. The sound of the shofar adds excitement that a new year is beginning and completes Yom Kippur when we can be assured of forgiveness.

Key Stage 1

Jews start their year in the Autumn before the last harvest of the year. As a time of new beginnings they eat sweet foods and many dip apples in honey. They also focus very carefully on what they think and do. The new year will only be good if we can live as we should.

Jews remind themselves of their responsibilities by wearing special clothes, eating special foods and hearing special sounds. One of the stories read at New Year is that of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah reminds Jews of the ram that took Isaac’s place for the sacrifice. This ‘binding of Isaac’ is a key story because it shows the faithfulness of Abraham and Isaac (who was an adult at the time), the faithfulness of God and the promises made to the decedents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Key Stage 2

Jews believe that the High Holy Days are a new beginning and that the burden of sin is lifted. In this way humans are not defined by their past, especially their past mistakes. At times the some of the rituals of the High Holy Days have intricate symbolism, such as the different notes blown on the shofar and the number of times blown. Other rituals are simpler but no less profound. Many Jews perform Tashlik (sometimes rendered Tashlich) where families gather together, often on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, to throw their sins away by taking bread and casting it into a body of water – like the sea or a river. The physicality of the act emphasises the effort needed to change the self to be a better person. Doing it in a group emphasises the need for support from others.

A story read in its entirety on Yom Kippur afternoon is the Book of Jonah. As such it prepares Jews for their mission when the fast has ended, even if they don’t want that mission. Jonah (the dove) presents the Jewish people. Their mission is to proclaim the truth that all shall be judged and need to live according to God’s demands for a moral and spiritual life. Different Jewish communities have understood this call is different ways.

Key Stage 3

On Yom Kippur there are a number of services which move the community through a drama directed at changing both the individual and the congregation. This starts with the Kol Nidre between sunset and night-fall. All vows made but impossible to keep are annulled. This probably started in times when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or Islam but were ashamed of their actions. All the penitential prayers are in the plural, so no one takes overall responsibility. The highlight of the day of Yom Kippur is the Mussaf (additional) service. The leader of the prayers (the Chazzan or cantor) re-enacts the in words the actions of the High Priest from the time of the Temple. This highlights the Jewish belief that words make present distant realities and all those listening are in the place being sung about. This is a powerful view of the nature of memory. Part of the Mussaf service is remembering those who have given their lives for being Jewish. Remembering them is their eternity. At the service of Yizkor (remembering) Jews remember their own dead so to keep them alive too. Throughout the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services God is called on to remember His promises to Israel, his covenant with Moses and ‘us’. If God were to forget ‘us’ we would simply cease to be.

Within the story of Yom Kippur there is the figure of the Scapegoat. Jews would recognise that this image remains powerful for western culture.

Passover – Pesach

Whether Jews define themselves as religious or not they tend to celebrate the Passover Seder with family and/or friends. The festival of Passover picks up a theme common in Jewish thinking that if you remember something and re-enact it symbolically you make it present. Therefore the Haggadah (the book which tells the story of the Exodus in the shape of the Seder meal) tells the listener to consider that they were present at the original events and therefore share the same liberation as the Israelites leaving Egypt.

A major feature of the festival is the eating of matzah (also called matzo [sing.] and matzos [pl.]) for whole eight days – although it is only a mitzvah to eat it during the Seder meal. Matzah is a bread made without leaven (yeast). In the story it is because there is insufficient time to let it rise but in later rabbinic (especially Mussar) it becomes associated with sin. So getting all of your ‘chametz’ (yeast) out of the house is a sort of spiritual as well as physical spring-cleaning. In Jewish tradition Pesach foreshadows the liberation of all people and during the Seder participants are told that their joy cannot be complete because some died for their freedom leaving Egypt and some remain in bondage today. It is important to recognise that this feast is linked to Shavuot (Pentercost) fifty days later – and there is a counting of the days between, called Sefirat HaOmer. It is easy to be free but it is not always easy to know what to do with that freedom. Hence, at Shavuot Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah which sets out the responsibilities of this free people.

Key Stage 1

That Jews listen to the story of the Exodus from Egypt because it is the story of their family. They do this by having a special meal and celebrating it with friends. Sometimes they do this meal twice, once on the first night and once on the second. The second is sometimes done with the larger community. Getting ready for the meal is really important and includes cleaning the whole house from top to bottom. Jews also believe that they have to be spiritually ready not just physically.

The meal has symbolic foods and usually the youngest child able asks the important questions about why this night is different from all other nights.

Key Stage 2

Passover is characterised by special foods and by foods that are forbidden. Many Jews see this as a sort of negative experience – not being allowed things to eat – but Jews experience this very differently and it is a celebration. The Passover works at more than one level. Whilst it commemorates the events of the Exodus in symbolic fashion and the physical liberation it also celebrates spiritual liberation. Free from what and free for what are the concerns of Passover.

Jews also reflect on the wider meaning of Pesach for all humanity. We were created to be free but we are slaves to so many things. Modern slavery is still with us and often unseen. We can also be slaves to our passions, such as mobile phones and electronic devices. In families it is usual to have a no mobile phone policy at the Seder meal – something that can last for three to four hours. Some families go further. Given that mobile phones and tablets will have come into contact with chametz and Jews have to have no contact with it for the whole eight days of Passover they, phones and tablets, are locked away for the duration of the festival.

Key stage 3

Pesach is celebrated in some way throughout the year, especially in its connection to the Shabbat. There is a need, though, to carry on telling the story. The Haggadah, though, does not mention Moses even though he led the people out of Egypt after challenging Pharaoh to let the people go. It is important to remember that Pharaoh was not a human being in this story but actually a God. When the God of Israel sends plagues on Egypt He isn’t challenging a mere human – that would be unfair and cruel – but someone who believed he was divine, something his people believed too. Jewish scholars have seen the presumed ‘god-ness’ of Pharaoh in other political leaders. When human beings think they are gods it doesn’t tend to go well for humanity as a whole.

Secular Jews, whilst appreciating the original telling of the story, have developed less ‘God-centred’ Haggadahs with Moses as the hero emphasising the importance of human action in liberation from slavery. This already had started to happen with a ‘religious’ Jew called Mordechai Kaplan, who founded the Reconstructionist movement. What is interesting, though, is the need to continue telling the story and referring to symbols to meaningfully relate the story of liberation.


It is important that you are clear about what you want pupils to know as a result of their learning and why. Be focussed on what you are aiming to do. The test that they have learned something of worth they should be able talk about it to others.

If you want one overall outcome it might be to challenge them that there is such a thing as ‘religion’ but rather that there are religions. These religions have different starting points, different existential questions and are embedded in different cultural expressions. Therefore, when people talk about ‘religion’ they can challenge the notion on the bases if evidence from what they have learned.