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Jewish Traditions

A JPS Guide

Authored by Dr. Ronald L. Eisenberg

Publication Year: 2010

This is a comprehensive and authoritative resource with ready answers to questions about almost all aspects of Jewish life and practice: life-cycle events, holidays, ritual and prayer, Jewish traditions and customs, and more. Ronald Eisenberg has distilled an immense amount of material from classic and contemporary sources into a single volume, which provides thousands of insights into the origins, history, and current interpretations of a wealth of Jewish traditions and customs. Divided into four sections--Synagogue and Prayers, Sabbaths and Festivals, Life-Cycle Events, and Miscellaneous (a large section that includes such diverse topics as Jewish literature, food, and plants and animals)- this is an encyclopedic reference for anyone who wants easily accessible, accurate information about all things Jewish. Eisenberg writes for a wide, diversified audience, and is respectful of the range of practices and beliefs within today's American Jewish community--from Orthodox to liberal.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society

Front Matter

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pp. v-vi


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pp. ix-xx

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pp. xxi-xxii

The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions originated from my own search for answers to questions relating to a variety of Jewish issues, and thus it is ultimately a book that I wanted to read. As proven by my own experience, I am convinced that many Jews could gain a substantially greater spiritual satisfaction from the rituals and life-cycle events they observe by understanding...


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pp. xxiii

Life-Cycle Events

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The Stages of Life

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pp. 3

According to the commentators, up to age 15 represents the period of education through Torah and mitzvot. From 15 to 50 is the time of raising a family and social responsibility; from 50 to 80 is the period of wisdom and counsel; and after 80 is the time to prepare for the end, when a wise person withdraws from the scene and allows the new...

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First 16 Years of Life

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pp. 4-27

The birth of a child is a joyous event in Judaism. In addition to reflecting the participation of the parents in the ongoing process of creation, childbirth is also the fulfillment of the first mitzvah in the Torah—to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). According to the Mishnah (Yev. 6:6), this commandment is incumbent only on the male and is...

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pp. 28-56

The Jewish tradition views marriage as the ultimate human condition and basic to a healthy life. As the Talmud observes, “One who does not have a wife lives without joy, without blessing, and without goodness” (Yev. 62b) as well as without Torah, protection, and peace. Marriage is believed to have been established by God at the time of Creation both...

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pp. 57-61

According to Biale,1 the biblical prohibitions that form the basis of the sexual codes in the halakhah prohibit only incestuous and adulterous relations. When polygamy was permissible, as during biblical times, a married man was not forbidden from having sexual relations with an unmarried woman as long as he could theoretically marry her...

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pp. 62-73

In early biblical times, an Israelite male could simply divorce his wife at will and send her from his home. The Jewish law of divorce is based on the verse: “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious [or a matter of indecency] about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and...

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pp. 74-122

In Jewish thought, both life and death are part of the divine plan for the world. Life is deemed the highest good, and human beings are obliged to cherish it and preserve it. Every person is mandated to marry and procreate to share in perpetuating the human species (Yev. 63b). One must preserve oneself in a state of health. The...

Sabbath and Festivals

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pp. 125-154

Scholars have related the word “Sabbath” to the Babylonian “sapattu,” the full moon at mid-month, which apparently was a day of favor, or to the “unlucky day” occurring at seven-day intervals when the king’s activity was severely restricted.1 However, there is no convincing explanation of how it became separated from the lunar cycle to become...

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Festivals and Fasts

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pp. 155-170

The generic Hebrew term for the festivals is “hagim” (sing., hag), which comes from a verb meaning “to celebrate.” The word is related to the Arabic “haj”—the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Torah describes the festivals as “mo’adim” (appointed times or seasons), which some simply refer to as “yom tov” (good day). The festivals allow the Jew to recognize...

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High Holy Days

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pp. 171-226

Repentance (teshuvah) is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness.1 It requires a combination of genuine remorse for the wrong committed plus evidence of changed behavior. The Bible uses numerous phrases to indicate the need for human beings to play an active role in the process of repentance—“direct your hearts to the Lord” (Josh. 24:23)...

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Fall Festivals

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pp. 227-243

Sukkot (lit., booths), also known as Tabernacles, is one of the three agricultural pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Shavuot) mandated in the Torah (Lev. 23:39–43). Beginning on the 15th of Tishrei, the full moon five days after Yom Kippur, this joyous harvest festival is named for the temporary shelters in which the Israelites dwelled as...

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Winter Festivals

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pp. 244-263

Hanukkah (Dedication) is the eight-day festival that begins on the 25th of Kislev (December) and commemorates the victory of Judah Maccabee and his followers over the army of the Syrian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes. In the fourth century B.C.E., Greek forces under Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, including...

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Spring Festivals

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pp. 264-302

The spring festival of Passover (Pesach) commemorates the redemption of the Jewish people from bondage and the Exodus from Egypt. One of the three pilgrimage festivals (with Shavuot and Sukkot), Passover also celebrates the spring barley harvest in Israel. The name derives from the 10th plague, when God “passed over” (pasach) the...

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Fast Days and Summer Observances

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pp. 303-309

The 17th of Tammuz commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 C.E.), which occurred three weeks before the destruction of the Second Temple on Tisha b’Av. The Jerusalem Talmud maintains that the break in the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians that led to the fall of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.) also occurred...

Synagogue and Prayer

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pp. 313-349

The synagogue is considered by many Jews to be the most important institution in Judaism. The three Hebrew designations for the synagogue indicate its major functions—beit knesset (house of assembly), beit tefillah (house of prayer), and beit midrash (house of study). The Yiddish term for a synagogue is “shul” (school), reflecting the fact that Jewish...

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pp. 350-397

Prayer is a way for mortal humans beings to communicate with a personal deity, a God who exists, hears, and answers. It can take the form of praise, petition, thanksgiving, and confession. All of this is encompassed in the most common Hebrew word for prayer, “tefillah” (Isa. 1:15), and the corresponding verb “hit’pallel” (1 Kings 8:42), which...

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Daily and Sabbath Prayers

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pp. 399-472

Daily Jewish worship consists of three services—Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Ma’ariv (evening)—based on the biblical verse, “Evening and morning and at noon will I pray and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice” (Ps. 55:18). They also correspond to the daily offerings (Tamid) brought in the morning and toward dusk, as well...

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Personal Prayers

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pp. 473-481

Modeh Ani (I gratefully thank) are the initial words of a short prayer said immediately upon waking up in the morning. The full prayer—“I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion; great is Your faithfulness!”—does not mention any of the divine names and thus may be said while still...

Jewish Literature

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pp. 485-497

The English word “Bible” derives from the Greek “biblos,” the vernacular translation by the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews of the Hebrew term “ha-Sefarim” (The Books). Used by Daniel (9:2) to refer to the writings of the prophets, ha-Sefarim was the earliest Hebrew designation for Scripture and was widely used for the sacred writings in the early talmudic...

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Rabbinic Literature

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pp. 498-511

Following the devastating defeat by the Romans and destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis were convinced that the very survival of the Jewish people could be achieved only through intensified dedication to Torah. This included not only the Five Books of Moses (Written Law), but also a complete understanding of the divine plan for how the Chosen...


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pp. 515-529

The term “mitzvah” (plural, mitzvot) comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to command” and applies to a religious obligation. In common usage, mitzvah has also come to mean a “good deed.” The Torah uses several other terms to indicate laws—“torah” (teaching; Lev. 6:2), “chukah” (statute; Num. 19:2), “mishpat” (ordinance; Num. 9:14)...

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Proper Behavior and Ethical Living

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pp. 530-572

As Shimon the Just declared in the opening lines of Pirkei Avot (1:2), “On three things does the [continued] existence of the world depend: Torah [study], avodah [initially the temple service, later prayer], and gemilut hasadim.” Thus gemilut hasadim (lit., “the giving of lovingkindness”) is a core social value, which the Rabbis considered a quintessential...


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Symbols of Jews and of Israel

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pp. 575-582

The Magen David (lit., “Shield of David”) has become the most distinctive and universally recognized sign of Judaism and Jewish identity. It is a six-pointed star (hexagram) formed by two interlocking equilateral triangles, one pointing upward and one pointing downward. A popular symbol in Europe and the Middle East since ancient...

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Magic and Superstition

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pp. 583-589

Fearing injury from unseen evil forces, all ancient cultures turned to the protective magical powers of a variety of amulets, charms, and talismans. Despite rabbinic contention that tefillin (Deut. 6:8–9) and the mezuzah (Deut. 11:18–21) were only reminders of the divine commandments and the duty to bear witness to their God, many Jews...

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Other Customs and Concepts

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pp. 590-651

The Torah expressly prohibits shaving the “side-growth of your beard” (Lev. 19:27, 21:5), which was interpreted to mean the hair between the head and the cheeks. The long and curly hair at the side of the head, known as payot (in Hebrew) and payes (in Yiddish), has become a sign of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The reason for the ban on shaving...


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pp. 655-691

During the biblical period, the Mediterranean diet generally consisted of grains, such as wheat (see p. 669) and barley (see p. 669), and legumes, such as lentils (see p. 686) and fava beans, which were cultivated in permanent settlements. Most vegetables were picked wild when needed and cooked for the daily meal. Grapes, figs, and dates...

Plants and Animals

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pp. 695-704

In ancient Israel, trees were an important source of food and shelter. Their wood provided for the construction of houses, boats, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem. The shade of trees was especially valuable in the hot sun of the Land of Israel, and their fruit was a valuable commodity for nutrition and export...

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pp. 705-732

The prohibition against cruelty to animals (tza’ar ba’alei hayim; lit., “pain of living things”) is a fundamental Jewish value, based on the concept that human beings are responsible for all God’s creatures. Not only is cruelty to animals forbidden, it is a positive commandment for human beings to show compassion and mercy to them. The eating...


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pp. 733-765


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pp. 767-768


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pp. 769-774

Weekly Torah and Haftarah Readings

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pp. 775-776

Torah Readings for Holidays and Special Sabbaths

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pp. 777-778

Orders of the Mishnah and Tractates of the Talmud

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pp. 779-781


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pp. 783-806

E-ISBN-13: 9780827610392
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827608825

Publication Year: 2010

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