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Intro to Judaism
Monday, January 12, 2009

Rabbi Eli Kohl at Univ. of Maryland Hillel in College Park, Maryland. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Initiation Rituals and Membership

Traditional Jewish religious law, Halacha, defines a Jew as one who is born of a Jewish mother or who has been properly converted to Judaism. The child of any Jewish woman is considered a member of the Jewish faith. However, membership is not limited to birth. A convert to Judaism becomes a member of the Jewish nation, sharing fully in its heritage and privileges and assuming its burdens and tribulations.

It is important to know that there are factions within the non-traditional community who have departed from traditional law by affirming patrilineal descent and other new practices. Many inmates may subscribe to this non-traditional interpretation and staff needs to be sensitive to and supportive of their personal belief.

Eli Kohl Reviews Prayer Items, Daily Prayers, and the Shabbat Service

Judaism from Jesuit Refugee Service | USA on Vimeo

Conversion is a difficult process and requires lengthy study, commitment to observe the basic tenets of Judaism, religious circumcision for males, immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), and confirmation by a rabbinic court. Jews do not proselytize and conversion is generally discouraged. Prison conversions are generally not appropriate.

Conversion must be accomplished with the approval and in the presence of a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbinical authorities. The ritual of conversion must be preceded by the study of Judaism, an affirmation of its basic principles of faith, and a sincere resolution to observe its precepts and practices each day. Resolution is a pivotal requirement upon which the validity of the conversion ritual hinges. The lack of religious commitment negates and disqualifies the conversion.

The conversion must take place with the individual’s voluntary clear consent and intent to observe Judaism’s precepts. There can be nothing which could call into question the convert’s sincerity. Accordingly, it is customary not to perform conversions in correctional facilities. Providing study and resource material to the requesting inmate is acceptable. Upon release from prison, the detainee may choose to continue his/her studies and subsequently arrange for a conversion with appropriate rabbinical direction and supervision.

In addition to the resolution of heart and mind to observe the commandments, the ritual of immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) is required. Males must be circumcised by a mohel (person qualified to perform circumcisions) for the sole purpose of effecting a conversion. If a male previously had a circumcision, a mohel must perform a specific procedure. A legitimate convert is a full Jew in every respect.

Circumcision (or milah) is a ritual that has been observed by the Jewish people since the time of Abraham. This commandment marks the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. Any medical or hygienic value is incidental. The circumcision ceremony is called a bris. The person qualified to perform the milah is known as a mohel. He is carefully trained to perform this procedure. A physician may not perform a bris unless he is an observant Jew. A bris must take place on the eighth day after birth. Only when the infant is sick or weak, and medical authorities concur, may the bris be postponed. If a baby has not been circumcised on the eight day, the procedure should be fulfilled as soon as possible. A bris must take place only during daylight hours and preferably in the morning. Although it is preferable to have a minyan (ten male adults) present, it is not mandatory.

A boy reaches his religious majority upon reaching his thirteenth birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. A girl reaches her religious majority upon reaching the anniversary of her twelfth birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. A boy who reaches this age is called a Bar Mitzvah; a girl is called a Bat Mitzvah. These terms mean a person is subject to the commandments and imply the person is now obligated to observe the laws of Judaism. There are various ways of celebrating these occasions. The nature and extent of the festivities are a matter of local custom and individual preference. These may range from simple refreshments following the synagogue service to elaborate feasts at a catering hall.

There are approximately six million Jews in the United States and the total number of Jewish people worldwide is 14 million.


The terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew have been historically used synonymously and interchangeably. The Bible refers to Abraham as Ivre (Hebrew), because he migrated from the other side of the Euphrates River and Ivri means from the other side. Israel was the alternate name of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Hence, Israel’s twelve sons and their descendants became known as the children of Israel. Jewish is derived from Judah, the son of Israel and the most prominent of the twelve tribes. This became the prevalent name for the entire people when the kingdom of the Judea survived the downfall of most of the land of Israel in 722 BCE. Today, the people are called Jews, their faith Judaism, their language Hebrew, and their land Israel.

Judaism traces its beginning to Abraham who lived approximately 3800 years ago. Abraham broke with idolatry and turned to the service of the one and only God whom he recognized as the Creator of heaven and earth. As the creator, the God of Abraham was independent of nature and of any geographical limitations.

Abraham’s briefs were carried on after him by his son Isaac and after Isaac by his son Jacob or Israel. Jacob had twelve sons who became the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, who became enslaved in Egypt. It was at this time in the history of the Jewish people that there arose for them a national liberator in the person of Moses.

In the third month of their departure from the sand of Egypt the Jewish nation of three million people arrived at Sinai. This burning desert with it cliffs and mountains was the scene of the memorable covenant which God made with the Jewish people. The Sinaitic revelation became the foundation and fount of all Jewish religious knowledge and the guarantee of the truth of the Jewish faith. The Sinaitic revelation to three million people as mentioned in the Book of Exodus left no room for doubt as to either the Patriarchs’ claims or the divine character of Moses’ mission. Fundamental to the revelation was the exhortation to observe the 613 Biblical commandments which is the essence of the Jewish faith and the Torah.

It is important to understand that Judaism cannot be reduced to its biblical period. In 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of Judaism shifted from the rites of the Temple to the study of Torah and its accompanying Oral Tradition. Torah study became a lifelong endeavor and Judaism acquired a distinctly intellectual dimension and character. The

Bible became a revealed text inviting and requiring interpretation and approved interpretation was raised to the status of revelation itself. Thus, Judaism was able to provide clear definitions of norms of action for every new situation, which control and shape the existence of its adherents. Jewish life achieved an inner discipline and Judaism was saved from the excesses of rationalism and mysticism. The achievement of keeping Judaism alive and vibrant for two thousand years of Diaspora existence is one of the wonders of Jewish history. Mark Twain in writing about the Jews states:

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff or star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning, are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret to his immortality?”


Torah from Sinai

The very essence of Judaism rests upon the acceptance of a spiritual historical event in which the Jewish people participated as a group. This extraordinary historical event is the promulgation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. God’s will was also made manifest in the Written Torah, written down by Moses under Divine prophecy, during the forty-year period after the Exodus. The Written Torah is commonly known as The Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch.

In addition to The Five Books of Moses, Judaism believes that God’s will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah, which also has its source at Sinai. This Oral Torah, which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah, has been transmitted orally from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century as the Mishna. More detail was added over the next few centuries and came to be known as the Gemorrah. Together the Mishna and the Gemorrah are known as the Talmud and comprise the complete oral tradition in written form. The Torah is a record of God’s will communicated to mortal and finite man. No interpretation of Judaism is valid if it does not posit God as the source of Torah.

The Oral Torah includes the finer points of the commandments, the details of the general principles contained in the scriptures, and the ways by which the commandments are to be applied. For example, the Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. What constitutes work? How shall work be defined for purposes of the Sabbath? The Written Torah does not answer these questions. The Oral Torah does. The Torah, whether written or oral, directs man how to live and is concerned with every aspect of human life. The commandments of the Torah, its statutes, and regulations, cover the entire range of human and social behavior.

Jewish Law – Halach

Halacha is the overall term for Jewish law. It also refers to the final authoritative decision on any specific question of human behavior. It rests first and foremost upon the Biblical statutes and commandments in the Written and the Oral Torah, then upon all the rabbinic legislation that was handed down through the ages by great rabbinic scholars. Thus, in the broadest sense, Torah refers not only to the Written and Oral Torah, but also to the entire body of rabbinic legislation and interpretations based upon Torah. For the Torah has always been a living law, constantly applied by a living people to real conditions that often change. Though these interpretations are obviously the result of human efforts, they are an integral part of the entire body of religious jurisprudence.

The fact that Jewish law remains vibrant after more than 3500 years is eloquent testimony to the loyalty and devotion of the Jewish people. Halacha is practical, not theoretical. Halacha is legal, not philosophical. Although faith is the basis out of which the halacha develops, its major emphasis is on deed. Halacha asks for a commitment in behavior. Halacha covers every aspect of life, whether it is between man and man or between man and God. As the halacha is all-encompassing, so might it be said that the Jewish religion is all-encompassing. There are no areas in the realm of human behavior with which it does not deal or offer guidance. A person’s eating habits, his sex life, his business ethics, his family life, and his social activities are all under the scope of halacha. The Jewish religion does not disassociate itself from any aspect of life. Fully and properly observed, the Jewish religion is life itself, and provide values to guide all of life. Indeed, Judaism is a way of life; it is deed, not just faith. While there is no minimizing the central role that doctrine plays, the emphasis is assuredly on the deed. The truths of Judaism mean little unless they are translated into a way of life. A fusion of thought and action is vital. The halacha is the means by which the concepts and values of Judaism are applied to everyday living.

The Spirit of the Sabbath

The Sabbath or Shabbos represents the very foundation of the Jewish faith. Indeed, there is no other commandment in all of Judaism for which an individual can find such expression of affection and devotion as for the Shabbos. The Shabbos commandment states: “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work.” Work is not degradation. Judaism proclaims the dignity and sanctity of labor. Work can make man free, but one can also be a slave to work. God’s creative activity was followed by the Sabbath, when He deliberately ceased from His creative work.

It is thus not work but ceasing from work which God chose as the sign of His creation. By ceasing from work every Shabbos, in the manner prescribed by the Torah, the Jew bears witness to the creative power of God. One’s very freedom to work can also lead to one’s downfall. A person’s great powers over the world of nature, which enable one to control and master it, make it fatally easy for persons to think of themselves as a creator responsible to no higher authority.

But here Shabbos comes to the rescue. The unique provisions of the Shabbos laws serve to keep its message in the forefront of our minds. We are prevented on this one day from experiencing our characteristic human drive to produce and create; instead we experience the blessing of rest or menuchah. This menuchah is more than physical rest. It is an attitude of the mind, induced by the Shabbos experience. Quite apart from physical work, there are the insistent demands of our civilization - the car, the telephone, the computer, and the television. Most people are unaware of the toll which these things take of their vital energy. To take only one example: How many can sit alone in a room with a ringing telephone without answering it? The summons is irresistible. On Shabbos, this does not exist.

The spirit of menuchah finds its positive expression in the Shabbos meals. The happy companionship of family and friends, the enjoyment of good food, the songs of praise all combine to form an entirely unique experience. Shabbos has had a most profound influence on Jewish family life. It is a day, when all members of the family are united in joy and fellowship.

How is the Shabbos to be observed to ensure that its sublime purpose be realized? The Torah’s answer is unmistakable: “You shall do no manner of work.” This is the essence of Shabbos observance. The institution of Shabbos then was to serve both as a physical and spiritual halting station in man’s weekly journey, a day set apart and sanctified for spiritual activity.

Work (or to use the Torah’s own term, melachah) is by no means identical with or limited to physical strain or exertion. This is shown by the simple legal fact that a person is not a Shabbos violator if he or she carry a very heavy load inside the home, but if even a small book is carried from home into the street the individual would be profaning the Shabbos. The explanation for this is beyond the scope of this guidebook. It is, therefore, best to keep to the technical term melachah and not use the confusing translation work or labor.

The main source in the Torah for the definition of melachah is the command that all of the various activities necessary for the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert should cease on Shabbos (Exodus 31:13). Here are some of the 39 melachos forbidden on the Sabbath: plowing, sewing, reaping, grinding, cooking, dying, weaving, tying a knot, tearing, traveling in a vehicle, trapping, skinning, cutting to shape, writing, erasing, building, kindling a fire, use of electricity and electrical appliances, and switching electricity on or off. Carrying in a non-enclosed area is prohibited on the Sabbath. Accordingly, in a camp situation, observant Jewish detainees will not be able to carry any object out of their housing units. These melachos, with few exceptions, apply to the major holiday as well.

Melachah is an act that shows one’s mastery over the world by the constructive exercise of intelligence and skill. One can easily see how senseless is the often repeated argument that it is no exertion to switch on an electric light or to write a word. Neither the use of electricity is no less a conquest of nature because it happens to be effortless or is writing a word any less a manifestation of humanity’s creative power just because it seems so simple.

When a person’s life is – or appears to be – in danger, it is one’s duty to do whatever is necessary to save him/her. Similarly, all Shabbos restrictions may be suspended in matters of serious illness. It is important to note that Shabbos (as well as all Jewish holidays) begins on sundown of the preceding evening and concludes approximately one hour after sundown. Accordingly, these times vary from location to location and from week to week.

To properly honor Shabbos and to capture its beauty it is necessary to prepare for its coming. Jews consider the Shabbos their Queen and look forward to welcoming her each Friday evening. It is called the Shabbos Queen. What might family do if a much honored guest was coming for a day? Therefore, effort should be made to provide opportunities for detainees to prepare for the Shabbos. Showering, shaving, and changing clothing are appropriate Shabbos preparations.

Ordinarily, Shabbos candles are lit eighteen minutes before sunset to welcome the Queen. They may be lit about one hour before sunset but never after. Traveling candles (candles in a metal container) are most appropriate. When candles are not approved due to security considerations a detainee may fulfill this obligation by specifically turning on an electric bulb for Shabbos use. Friday evening communal worship services should be conducted in the chapel. This service - the welcoming of the Shabbos Queen - provides a unique spiritual experience for the observant Jew.

Following the service, the Shabbos Kiddush (sanctification blessings) is recited. The Kiddush is normally recited while holding a full cup of kosher grape juice approximately 4.5 ounces. Ordinarily, one person may recite the Kiddush for the entire congregation. When kosher grape juice is not available, the Kiddush may be said over two whole matzos or two whole challahs (special bread). Accordingly, these items should be made available for detainees. When grape juice, matzo, and challah are not available, the Kiddush may be said using tea, coffee, milk, soda, or juice.

The Shabbos communal morning service is the most elaborate of the week. Approximately two hours should be allocated, even though many detainees may prefer a shorter time for worship. After the morning service, the Kiddush is again recited over grape juice. The Shabbos concludes with a ritual called havdolah or separation. It is a ceremony that proclaims the end of the Shabbos sanctity and the beginning of a new week. Materials needed for this ritual are grape juice, a special candle consisting of several wicks and spices, usually cloves. When a special candle is not available, two matches held together and lit, at the appropriate moment is an acceptable substitute. Although every effort should be made to provide kosher grape juice, when this is not available, juice, coffee, milk, or soda may be substituted. It is mandatory to eat three celebratory meals on Shabbos. This can be accomplished by providing ordinary religious diet meals.

The expectant joy with which the Jew receives and honors the Shabbos Queen receives fondest expression in the table hymns sung at the Sabbath service. The table hymns are called zmiros. The celebratory services require two whole matzohs or challahs. The challah loaves may be small, similar to a dinner roll in size, if the Jewish congregation is small in number. Two are used as symbols of the weekly double portion of manna which the Jewish people received before Shabbos during their journey in the desert. Ordinarily, one person may take the two whole matzohs for the entire congregation in their presence. Detainees who desire to consume additional food items to enhance and augment their Sabbath service may do so by purchasing approved kosher food items from the commissary. Accordingly, policy requires that the commissary stocks a sufficient selection of kosher food items if the detainees request this accommodation.

The Holy Person

It is necessary to define just what is meant by a holy person. In Judaism, holiness does not depend upon asceticism, withdrawal from life, excessive denial of human pleasures, or in the repression of all human drives. It consists, rather, in the individual’s full participation in the stream of community life, sharing the joyous as well as the sorrowful experiences which life has to offer and denying no legitimate pleasure, while, at the same time, developing one’s sense of discernment so as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, and the good from the bad.

The Thirteen Principles of Faith

One of the clearest statements of Jewish belief is contained in Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. In formulating these principles, Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and rabbi of the 12th century, went through the entire length and breadth of Jewish literature. In clear, concise language he established the well-known Thirteen Principles. These principles have been studied and reviewed for the past eight hundred years. They are accepted by Jews as the one clear unambiguous creed of Judaism.

For a Jew, however, it is never enough merely to accept a creed. One can believe, but if one does not act on the basis of his belief, then his or her statement of faith is just so many empty words. On the other hand, one cannot practice Judaism in any sense at all unless he understands and believes in the roots from which it stems. It was for this reason that the Thirteen Principles were originally set forth.

The First Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, creates and guides all creatures, and that He alone made, makes, and will make everything.

Comment: This principle involves belief in the existence of God. All existence depends on Him and derives from Him. It is inconceivable that He could not exist. Only God is totally self-sufficient. Everything else, whether it be an angel, a star, a tree, an insect, or anything else, all depend on Him for their very existence. This is the ultimate foundation and pillar of wisdom.

The Second Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is unique and there is no uniqueness like His in any way, and that He alone is our God, Who was, Who is, and Who always will be.

Comment: We believe that the cause of everything is One which cannot be subdivided into a number of elements. God’s unity is unique.

The Third Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatsoever to Him.

Comment: God is totally non-physical. Nothing associated with the physical can apply to Him in any way. Thus we cannot say that God moves, rests, or exists in a given place. When scripture does speak of God in physical terms it is only speaking metaphorically. These descriptive metaphors are adaptations to the human intellect.

The Fourth Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is the very first and the very last.

Comment: This One is an absolute eternity. Everything other than God Himself was created by God out of nothingness. God existed alone before our universe was created. God does not exist in time. Such concepts as beginning, end and age do not apply to Him.

The Fifth Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, to Him alone is it proper to pray and it is not proper to pray to any other.

Comment: This principle teaches us that God is the only One whom we may serve and praise. We may obey only His commandments. There are no intermediaries. All our thoughts are directed only to Him.

The Sixth Principle: I believe with complete faith that all the words of the prophets are true.

Comment: There exists from time to time human beings who have such lofty qualities and achieve such great perfection that they receive pure spiritual wisdom. Their intellect becomes bound up with their Creator and they receive an inspired emanation from Him. This is prophecy. A prophet may not add to or subtract from or amend the Torah.

The Seventh Principle: I believe with complete faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace upon him, was true, and that he is the father of all prophets – both those who preceded him and. those who followed him.

Comment: We believe that Moses was the chief of all prophets. He was superior to all other prophets whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moses attained the highest possible human level. The main reason why we believe in Moses is because of what happened at Mount Sinai: “Our eyes saw, and not as strangers.”

The Eighth Principle: I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher.

Comment: The Torah given to us by Moses originated from God. Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation. Every commandment given to Moses was given together with an explanation. This explanation or interpretation is called the Oral Torah.

The Ninth Principle: I believe with complete faith that this Torah will not be exchanged nor will there be another Torah from the Creator, Blessed is His Name.

Comment: The Torah is God’s permanent word and no one can change it. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from either the Written Torah or the Oral Torah. Therefore, if any prophet comes to amend the Torah, we immediately know that he is a false prophet. It does not matter whether he is Jewish or non-Jewish. It does not matter how many signs or miracles he performs. If he says that God sent him to add or subtract anything, or to explain something differently than our tradition from Moses, he is a false prophet. The same is true if he teaches that the commandments given to the Jewish people were only given for a limited time.

The Tenth Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, knows all the deeds and thoughts of human beings.

Comment: God knows all that men do. Yet man has absolute free will and God does not foresee him nor decree upon him what to do.

The Eleventh Principle: I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments and punishes those who violate His commandments.

Comment: The greatest possible reward is inclusion in the world to come. The greatest possible punishment is being cut off from it.

The Twelfth Principle: I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless, I anticipate every day that he will come.

Comment: We believe and are certain that the Messiah will come. We do not set a time for his coming nor try to calculate when he will come. We believe that the Messiah will be greater than any other human being who has ever lived. We do not hope for the Messiah in order that we might have power or wealth. We desire the Messiah because he will create a community of the righteous, a community by goodness.

The Thirteenth Principle: I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead.

Comment: The resurrection of the dead is one of the foundations transmitted to Moses. It is mentioned many times in our prayers. Innumerable references to it may be found in the Talmud. The concept of resurrection, namely that the body and soul will be reunited after death is found in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 12.

Ritual Immersion – Mikvah

There is provision in Judaism for ritual immersion in a pool of water called a mikvah. The mikvah must comply with a number of precise halachik qualifications. The mikvah must be such as to enable an average adult to stand upright and have the water reach to approximately the chest area. The water must originally have been transported to the mikvah in a manner resembling the natural flow of water.

The general practice is to build cement channels on the mikvah roof which will enable rainwater to flow directly into the mikvah. Piped water may be added later if there are at least 200 gallons of rainwater. The mikvah may not be a portable pool, tub, vat, or spa. The water may not be brought into the mikvah by human effort. Also, the water must be stationary and not flow. Modern day mikvahs are tastefully decorated and kept spotlessly clean at all times.

The Torah forbids sexual relations between husband and wife, beginning with the onset of her monthly menstrual period to the end of seven clean days following menstruation. After this period concludes, the woman immerses in a mikvah and sexual relations with her husband may resume.

There are various customs regarding mikvah use by men. Some observant men immerse frequently, others before the Sabbath and holidays. If arrangements can be made for a private immersion at a community mikvah, and custody levels support furloughs or escorted trips into the community for this purpose, it is proper for requesting detainees to immerse in a community mikvah before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur


It is a Biblical commandment to give charity or, as it is known in Hebrew, tzedahah. Tzedahah literally means righteousness. Every person is required to give charity according to his or her means. Charity should be given cheerfully and sympathetically. The highest form of charity is to help a person before he becomes impoverished by offering a loan or by helping him find employment so as to make it unnecessary for him to become dependent upon others.


Jewish law prohibits the use of a razor to shave male facial hair. This prohibition is based on Leviticus 19:27. This prohibition has had an obvious impact on the historical appearance of the Jewish male and the traditional image of the bearded Jew. Many rabbinical authorities have approved an electric shaver because it cuts as a scissor and not as a blade. Therefore, many observant Jews may be clean shaven. Observant Jewish detainees requesting a shaver should be permitted to use an electric or battery operated shaver. Where the shaver will be maintained is a security issue and needs to be addressed by the proper authorities. Many Jews, including Chasidic Jews, do not cut their facial hair or sideburns, hence, their side-curls (payos) and long beards.


Modesty is an important principle of the faith. Modesty Jewish means moderation in speech, in dress, in eating, and in seeking pleasures. Vulgarity is totality unacceptable. The use of curse words and inappropriate expressions are in violation of Torah standards. It is important to be modest in one’s dress. Modest dress for a woman consists of covering the legs at the knee, the arms at the elbow, and wearing high neckline tops. Observant married Jewish women cover their head hair, either by wearing a wig or head covering, hat, snood, or kerchief. Observant Jewish females do not wear slacks. A skirt should be provided to requesting female detainees.

Vulgarity, in all forms, including literature, television, newspapers, and radio is the very antithesis of Judaism. For an observant traditional Jew, the struggle to maintain sacred traditional values and standards is one of his greatest challenges and spiritual struggles. Observant Jews have no physical contact with the opposite sex. When feasible, opposite sex physical contact between staff and observant detainees should be avoided.

Head Covering

Observant males wear a head covering at all times. This covering is called a yarmulke, kipah, or skull cap. No religious significant is attached to the size, color, or design of the yarmulke. Detainees should be permitted to wear their yarmulke at all times. When in transit, Jewish detainees should be given the opportunity to cover their heads.


A Jewish divorce, called a get, is condoned when necessary. The prerequisites for a Jewish divorce are the consent of both parties and the husband’s authorization for the writing and transmission of the divorce decree to his wife. The divorce decree is written in the presence of a Rabbinical Court called a Bais Din. The divorce document is lettered like and is similar in appearance to a column of a Torah scroll. The husband may deliver the divorce decree personally to his wife or through an agent. Until this is done the Jewish divorce is not consummated. The divorce permits either party to remarry in accordance with Jewish law. Without a get neither party may remarry. A bill of divorce may not be form-printed. It must be hand-written, in its entirety, specifically for the particular man and the particular woman for the purpose of their divorce.


The Bible writes “You shall not imprint any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). This prohibition applies to a mark which is etched into the skin so that it can never be erased. Judaism teaches that if one scratches his skin and inserts ink, or any other coloring matter which leaves a mark, or if one first dyes his skin and then makes the incision, he transgresses this commandment. Accordingly, observant Jews do not apply tattoos to their body.


Abortions performed to preserve the life of the mother are not only permitted but mandatory. Whenever there is a question regarding the life of the mother or that of the unborn child, Jewish law, halacha rules in favor of preserving the life of the mother. There is rabbinic agreement that abortions for reasons of convenience, economics, or other personal reasons are clearly prohibited. While a fetus is not regarded as a living soul until birth, it does have the status of a potential life and may not be destroyed. Abortion is a very serious matter in Jewish law and requires great deliberation before a decision can be made.

Women in the Covenant and Marriage

Women are equally part of the Jewish faith. God’s covenant was not made with the first Patriarch alone, but with both Abraham and Sarah. No covenant is possible without the full participation of Sarah. Indeed, after Sarah’s demise, Abraham makes no significant religious advance or statement. Indeed, all the Patriarchs were partners with their wives, sharing the Divine covenant.

The institution of marriage is sacred. Rooted in loyalty and integrity, nurtured by true love, and immortalized by children, marriage is mandated by Jewish law. No other relationships can so surely guarantee the survival of both Judaism and the human species and perpetuate morality. Adultery is considered the most heinous of crimes, while sex within marriage is most honorable. Husband and wife can produce the light of the future generations.


Bar Mitzvah – A boy who has achieved the age of 13 and is obligated to observe the commandments. It is customary to celebrate this event with family and friends.

Bat Mitzvah – When a young woman reaches the age of 12, she is required to accept her Torah responsibilities. This event is celebrated by family and friends.

Bris – It literally means a covenant of circumcision. It is the ritual circumcision of a male child at the age of eight days or of a male convert to Judaism.

Challah bread – A braided loaf of bread used during the Sabbath services. Matzah may be used as a substitute.

Etrog – A citron used during the Feast of Tabernacles or Succos. This is one of the four species used during Succos.

Haftorah – It literally means the final passage. This refers to the passage from the Prophets read in the synagogue after the reading from the Five Books of Moses.

Haggadah – The book used in the observance of the Passover Seder which tells of the Exodus out of Egypt.

Halacha – It literally means step or guidance. It is the complete body of rules and practices followed by Jews. They include biblical commandments, commandments instituted by rabbis and binding customs. They deal with legal questions.

Hamentaschen – Hamentaschen is triangular, fruit-filled pastry traditionally served or given as gifts during Purim.

Havdolah – It literally means separation. This is a special prayer used at the termination of a Sabbath or a festival.

Kaddish – The ancient Aramaic prayer recited by mourners during the first eleven months of bereavement and on the anniversary of a family member’s death.

Kashrut – These are the Jewish dietary laws.

Kiddush – It literally means sanctification. A prayer recited over the bread and grape juice blessing the Sabbath and/or a holiday.

Kittel – A kittel is a white robe worn by some observant Jews during Yom Kippur. An observant person is usually buried in the kittel he wore during his lifetime.

Lulav – Palm branch used in the ceremony of Tabernacles or Succos. This is one of the four species used.

Matzoh – Matzoh is unleavened bread which is prepared in a Kosher for Passover location with only Kosher for Passover utensils. Only eighteen minutes are permitted to mix, roll, perforate, and bake matzoh from the time water and flour are mixed.

Megillah – It literally means scroll. This is a term commonly applied to the Book of Esther which is read on the evening and morning of Purim.

Melacha – This refers to physical work which is forbidden on the Sabbath and holy days.

Mikvah – It literally means gathering. This refers to a ritual bath used for spiritual purification.

Minyan – It is the quorum necessary to recite certain prayers, consisting of ten adult Jewish men.

Mishnah – The Mishnah is an early written compilation of Jewish oral tradition which is the basis of the Talmud.

Mitzvah – A religious obligation

Mohel – A mohel is a person who is qualified to perform ritual circumcision.

Myrtle – Three myrtle branches are used in the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the four species used during Succos.

Pentateuch – They are the five books of Moses also known as the Chumash.

Schmurah Matzoh – Handmade matzoh used during the Passover season.

Seder – It literally means order. This is the religious service which recounts the exodus, the deliverance from bondage in Egypt. This is celebrated on the first and second evenings of Passover.

Shabbos – It literally means rest. This is the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. It is a day of spiritual enrichment.

Shiva – It literally means seven. It is the seven-day period of mourning after the burial of a close relative.

Shofar – A ram’s horn used as a call to repentance during the Rosh Hashanah services.

Siddur – It literally means order. This is a prayer book used during Religious Services.

Tallis – A tallis is a prayer shawl worn during private prayer as well as in synagogue devotions.

Tallis katan – A tallis katan is a four-cornered, poncho-like garment worn under a shirt used during prayers, both private and congregate.

Talmud – It literally means study. It is the most significant collection of the Jewish oral tradition interpreting the Torah.

Tefillin – Phylacteries

Tsitsit – The tsitsit are the ritual fringes on a tallis katan. These provide the opportunity to fulfill the commandment to place fringes (tsitsit) on the corners of the garments.

Willow – One of the four species used in the ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Yahrzeit – It is the anniversary of the death of a relative. The Jewish calendar is followed in establishing the anniversary, not the Gregorian calendar.

Yarmulke – A yarmulke is a skull cap that is also known as kipah.

Zmiros – Songs sung around the Sabbath table.