Jews and Judaism in Philadelphia
Apparently, Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania and ranked the fifth most populated city in the United States. The history of the Jews of Philadelphia can be traced back to the Colonial America where they lived since William Penn’s arrival in 1682. Jonas Aaron was the first Jewish resident of Philadelphia in 1703. Following a publication by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI) in 2007, there were about thirteen million Jews in the world most of who resided in the United States and Israel. Despite the fact that the Jews are only 0.2% of the human population and around two percent of the people in the U.S, the influence of the Jews has been significant. The Jewish history, traditions, and beliefs were recorded at the beginning of the 8th Century BCE in the Hebrew Bible. Whereas most of the ancient religions’ sacred texts are focused on philosophical concepts and myths, the center of the Jewish Bible is on historical narrative and the intention of most of the Jewish holidays is to acquaint the modern Jews with their traditions and historical ancestors. The beliefs of the Jews are centered on the conviction that there exists only one God. Notably, this monotheism belief is dominant in the Western World due to the Judaism influence on great religions of Islam and Christianity. Today, approximately fourteen million people around the world regard themselves Jews. The Jewish life is full of rituals, traditions and holidays meant to commemorate the past, a celebration of the present and an expression of the hope of the future. Given this, this paper will discuss the religion of Judaism in Philadelphia by analyzing the beliefs, customs, holy days, rites of passage, major texts and their way of worship.
The Jews hold on to the belief that there is one God who created the Universe and that each of them can have a personal and individual relation with Him. Also, they believe that God works continue to manifest in the world and greatly influence people’s activities. Their relationship with this God is a covenant one, and they faithfully follow His laws and seek His approval in everything thing they do. The Jews believe that their God chose them to be His people for them to be examples of ethical behavior and holiness to the entire world. Their life is communal, and many of their activities must be done in a collective way, for instance, the Jewish prayer book uses the words “we” and “our” in every prayer. Similarly, they feel and consider themselves part of the global community and maintain a close bond with other Jews across the world. The religion is a family faith, and the ceremonies begin on the circumcision of a Jewish infant at the age of eight days according to the instructions given to Abraham by God about four thousand years ago, most of the religious customs of the Jews revolve around the family or home such as the Sabbath meal where families come together to receive the special day.
According to the Jews, a Jew is an individual whose mother is Jewish though some groups accommodate children whose fathers are Jews as Jewish. Traditionally, a Jew cannot lose the special status of being Jewish by embracing another faith; however, they lose their Jewish identity religious element (BBC). Though an individual who is not born a Jew is allowed to convert to Judaism, it is not that easy. For a Jewish person, everything they do is considered a worship act because the Jews agreed to keep God’s laws, thus that way they keep the covenant by doing that please Him being an act of worship. They not only seek to obey the literal interpretation of the law but also the spiritually of the law. The aspect of being part of a community that adheres to certain rules and customs aids in keeping the group together and this is evident with the Jews that have almost successfully evaded assimilation by other faiths.
The Judaism faith is an action faith, and the Jews believe that individuals should not only be judged by the beliefs’ intellectual content but also by the way they live such faith and the magnitude of their contribution to the world’s overall holiness. They believe that God exists, He is one and there no other gods. Unlike the view of God in Christianity who is subdivided into three persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to the Jews God cannot be subdivided into different persons. They also believe that God is above and beyond everything in the universe and does not have a body thus is either male or female. This God is omnipotent, omnipresent and has always existed, exists and will continue to exist. To the Jews, God is just as well as merciful and interested in every person as he listens to everyone and in some cases, speaks to people in unexpected ways.
The idea of the Jews about God is specifically significant to the rest of the world as they are the ones who developed the ideas that there is only one God who chooses to behave in a just and fair way. Notably, before Judaism, the people across the world had their beliefs in various gods whose behaviors were no different with that of humans only that they had supernatural powers. Concisely, the Jews combine two different ideas about God in their beliefs: that He is an all-powerful being beyond that is beyond the imagination and understanding of human beings and is always present caring about every individual just as parents do with their children.
The Sabbath is the holy day for the Jews which they observe every week and keep its customs and laws according to the fourth commandment of the ten commandments of God. It begins at the Friday nightfall and ends the evening of the following day, Saturday. Practically, Sabbath starts a few minutes to sunset on Friday and ends after sunset on Saturday summing up to about twenty-five hours. The resting idea of the Sabbath day comes from the Biblical creation story where God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh day. The day is called Shabbat, which is a Hebrew word for rest. The Sabbath is also part of God’s covenant with the Jews, so observing is a reflection of the covenant and a time to rejoice the kept promises of God. Likewise, the Jews consider the Sabbath a gift from God for His chosen people, a day in which they take a break from the activities of every day and feel special. It is a day with no television viewing, no busy work schedule nor any other stressful thing, a day of calm and stillness in life. The Sabbath is a family time day where families come together, and the singles or people without families form groups to celebrate the Sabbath together. Some of the customs observed on Sabbath are, one, the believers avoid work by ensuring that some of the daily duties like cooking, cleaning, and shopping are completed before the sun sets on Friday. Individuals dress up for the day and make sure that everything is to obey the commandment of making the Sabbath a delight.
Following the Jewish custom, the woman of every household lights candles at the sunset of Friday which is placed in candlesticks to represent to remember the two Zachor and Shamor commandments as well as mark the beginning of the Sabbath. After lighting the candles, they drink sweet wine from the Kiddush Cup to symbolize joy and celebration. For instance, in Philadelphia there are set times for candle lighting that are put up on websites to direct the faithful. The standard time for lighting the candles is eighteen minutes before the sunset (Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, N.P). There is also a traditional soft egg-rich braid shaped bread called Challah that is eaten every Sabbath apart from the Passover when the Jews are not permitted to eat leavened bread. According to BBC, (N.P) it is mandatory for every Jew to have three meals on the worship day where one of the meals is the bread and before eating a particular prayer is recited, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
The Tefillin also known as phylacteries are leather strapped black cubic leather boxes that are worn by Jewish men on their arm and head during morning prayers on weekdays. The boxes have four biblical handwritten texts which are a command to the believers to wear particulars between the eyes and on the hand. Such words are Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:12-21 and Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16. The tefillins are made by special people who often have a certificate proof from the Rabbi to ascertain that they have done it properly. The essence of the rules is to ensure those attires and articles that of such religious significance are made to perfection. The texts on the tefillins are written with halachically acceptable ink. When wearing, firstly, the tefillin of the arm is put on the weaker arm’s upper part, a blessing recitation done and the wrapping of the strap in done seven times on the arm (Robinson, 27). The head tefillins fastened loosely on the individual’s head about a centimeter from their original hairline. After that a blessing is recited and tightening of the strap’s knot is done at the back of the hand while the hand strap is wound thrice round the middle finger as the person recites Hosea 2:21-2.
In Judaism, the clothing worn by Individuals is dependent on the denomination they adhere to. The Orthodox Jewish men wear a skullcap called Yiddish or Kippah on their heads while the Reform or Liberal Jews consider the covering of their heads optional. Essentially, a large number of the Jews wear a covering on their heads when attending the synagogue, praying or at a religious festival or event. Notably, dressing in a skull cap symbolizes devoutness. Also, the Jewish women cover their heads with a hat or a scarf. Concisely, the main reason for covering heads for Jews is to signify fear and respect for God and it is also a way of recognizing that God is above all human. Historically, it is argued whether the covering of the head is per the Torah commandment, but following some Jewish teachings it is a requirement to cover the head. The Jews consider the wearing of a skull cap a way of announcing to the rest of the world that they are Jewish thus their faith’s outward sign.
There are various holy days in the Judaism religion but the Sabbath day is the main one. Some of the other holy days include the Passover, Atonement day, Sukkot, Purim, the days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah. The Passover is a significant festival in the Jewish calendar in which the Jews celebrate the Passover feast in commemoration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The atonement day according to Moses’ teachings is the tenth day of every seventh month. The Jews mark the day by abstaining from drink or food for twenty-five hours, abstaining from sex, not wearing perfume, washing nor wearing leather shoes (BBC, N.P). The important part of the atonement day is the synagogue time, the only day in the Jewish calendar with five services. These services are attended by every Jew even those who are not religious. Moreover, the Jews celebrate the Sukkot also called the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles to commemorate the days they spent in the wilderness during their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land as well as celebrate God’s protection during the difficult times in the desert.
The Purim, one of the Jewish most exciting holy day is the time in which the Jews remember when the Jews in Persia were rescued from extermination by Jewish woman’s courage. During the Purim time, various customary activities are done such as the carnival time, synagogue time, dressing up, making noise and reading the Book of Esther, the woman who saved the Jews in Persia. Rosh Hashanah is the New Year festival of the Jews which they commemorate the world’s creation, lasting for two days. The day is also known as a judgment where according to the Jews, God balances the good and bad deeds of a person in the previous year and then makes a decision on how the following year will be for the individual.
Days of Awe are repentance days and a time for healing which is the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and the day for atonement. During this period an individual admits they have done wrong and make a firm commitment not to repeat the wrong. However, in Judaism forgiveness on behalf of another person is not accepted so God only forgives an individual for the sin they have committed against Him. Therefore, during this time, the Jews are supposed to find the people they have wronged in the past year, and make a sincere and effective apology. The other holy day is the Hanukkah, the festival of lights celebrated in November and December. Hanukkah is a Hebrew word for rededication and the period is for the commemoration of the struggle of the Jews towards religious freedom. In Philadelphia, all these holy days are observed to the latter.
Two major texts are used in Judaism, the Talmud, and the Torah. The Talmud also known as the Shas is the comprehensively written Jewish oral law version and has some commentaries on it. Talmud in Hebrew means to teach or to learn thus is the source from which the Jewish Halakhah code is derived. It consists of Mishnah which is the originally written oral law version and the Gemara, a rabbinic discussions record. On the other hand, the Torah is the initial part of the Jewish Bible which is the central and most significant Judaism document that the Jews have used through the ages (Robinson, 269). These are the first five Mosaic books in the Bible known as Chameesha Choomshey Torah in Hebrew. They are Genesis (Bresheit), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Vayicra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim). Notably, the first American Bible published in Hebrew was introduced in Philadelphia in 1814.The publication was based on Athias Bible’s second edition and unlike that edition; the printing of the Bible was without vowel marks. The vocalized version of the Hebrew Bible was published in 1849 in America (Hebraic Collections, N.P). It is the belief of the Jews that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai fifty days after their Egypt Exodus. It is an illustration of how God wants the Jews to behave and live and contains six hundred and thirteen commandments. The scrolls of the Torah are removed from the Ark, and some parts read three times a week in the synagogue. Small sections are read on Mondays and Thursdays, and the major reading is done on Sabbath morning. The readings begin at the end of the Sukkot, and by the end of the year, the whole scroll will have been read.
The Jews have two main sacraments, the baby rites, and the wedding rites. Just like other religions the baby rites of the females and the male differ. As earlier stated, any child whose mother is a Jew is considered Jewish and thus for a Jewish boy, the Brit Milah or Circumcision ceremony is an important part of their life. It is a religious obligation following the covenant between God and Abraham. Traditionally, the circumcision ceremony is done when a child is eight years old but if they have medical complications the exercise can be delayed. The occasion is attended by men where the child is placed on a relative or friend’s lap, mainly a Sandek and the circumcision is done by a Mohel. After the child is circumcised they are given a name. For a girl, the naming is done in the first public Torah reading at a Synagogue (Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, N.P). Like in other religions, a wedding is a cornerstone in a Jews life that calls for a significant celebration.
In spite of the traditions and laws associated with the wedding, there are some rituals performed weeks before the wedding day. In the past, marriages were arranged by parents with the aid of a matchmaker called Yenta which is still followed by some ultra-Orthodox communities. Regardless of the arrangement, the man had to ask the girl’s father for marriage to secure an engagement for dowry payment. Once the couple is engaged, the wedding rituals begin which include plate breaking as a sign that even at happy times the Jews still the loss suffered. The wedding can be done on any day except the Sabbath, or main Jewish festivals like the Atonement day, the time when Jews are supposed to refrain from work.
In the Judaism way of worship, the synagogue, meditation, prayer, and blessings are the major aspects. Prayers are significant to the Jews as they help in building their relationship with God. Similar to other religions, they pray to exercise and express their beliefs, to reach out their hearts to God, to obey the commandments of God and to share a worshipping life in the community. The prayer should be done with total concentration to God and from one’s heart. They pray thrice in a day, morning afternoon and evening, Regular prayers improve the relationship between an individual and God (BBC, N.P). Jews also practice meditation which to them is the second form of thinking which cultivates the awareness of the divinity in all things. The place of worship for the Jews is the synagogue which is also used as a community center as well as a place of study. There are various historical synagogues in Philadelphia. The main ones are the Mikveh Israel and the B’nai Abraham located in the Section Hill (Landes et al. 207). The Mikveh Israel was the first synagogue in Philadelphia which was begun at around 1745. The services can either be led by a cantor, rabbi or a member of the congregation
In conclusion, the history of Judaism can be traced back to the Middle East at around three thousand and five hundred years ago. Judaism incorporates various corpuses of practices, forms of organization, texts, and theological positions. Notably, Judaism is one of the ancient religions that are still in existence today and is also the original of the three faiths associated with Abraham which also include Islam and Christianity. The founder of the religion was Moses though the Jews believe that Abraham is their Patriarch and they also believe there is only one God who they entered into a covenant with. In reciprocation to the goodness of the Jewish God, the people keep the laws of God and strive to have holiness in each of their lives’ aspect. Currently, there are more than eighty-four havurot and synagogues in Philadelphia. For over three hundred years, Philadelphia has received new neighbors and to date it is the new multi-religious reality in America. Though Judaism is so rich with religious text history, the most important and central document is the Torah, and the interpretation of the Torah laws is known as Halakhah.
BBC. “BBC – Religion: Judaism.” Bbc.Co. Uk, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/.
Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. “Jewish Practice.” Chabad.Org, 2016, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1675888/jewish/Jewish-Practice.htm.
Hebraic Collections. “In the New World – Hebraic Collections: An Illustrated Guide (Library of Congress – African & Middle Eastern Division)”. Loc.Gov, 2010, https://www.loc.gov/rr/amed/guide/hs-newworld.html.
Landes, Aaron, et al. “The Synagogue in Greater Philadelphia: Recent Past, Present, and Future.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 78.4 (2002): 204. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: Updated Edition: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. Simon and Schuster, 2016.