The Jewish community in the diaspora is full of rich diversity, customs, traditions and cultures from across the world, and is built upon communities and families of differing denominations and observances. From culturally Jewish people and Orthodox Jews to Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, being Jewish looks different depending who you ask.
Jewish customs, laws and traditions
There are many different customs and traditions within Judaism, and they are observed at differing levels depending on your denomination. The more conservative or orthodox someone is, the more strict their adherence to the customs will be.
Shabbat is known as the day of rest in Judaism, coinciding with the sabbath on Saturdays. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturdays. At the start of shabbat, candles are lit and a blessing is said. In a household with multiple genders, women will light the candles and say the blessing. In single households, men or gender-nonconforming people can light the candles.
For Jews of more observant denominations, they will also refrain from using technology, driving, turning on or off electricity, cooking and anything that would constitute work through shabbat.
Keeping kosher, or adhering to kashrut, is a dietary custom in the Torah that has roots in hygienic practices from centuries ago, but not all kosher laws were born out of sanitary needs.
Put simply, keeping kosher is adhering to specific rules around preparation, as well as the exclusion of some foods and rules around what foods can be eaten together. For example, Jews who keep kosher do not eat pork, camel, rabbit or shellfish. The Torah states that you can eat any animal that has cloven hooves and chews its cud, and from the waters, you can eat anything that has fins and scales. To keep kosher, you also can’t eat any winged insects, reptiles, rodents and amphibians.
Of the meat that can be eaten, it has to be certified kosher, meaning it was prepared in a ritual slaughter called shechitah, which is widely considered the most humane method of slaughter. The ritual is done by a shochet, who is well-trained in Jewish law and specifically kashrut. The Torah also forbids the consumption of blood – as it is believed that the life of an animal is contained in the blood – so kosher meat also goes through a broiling or soaking and salting process to remove all remaining blood.
Kosher law also instructs that you cannot eat meat and dairy together. Loosely translated to English, the Torah states you cannot “boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, meaning you cannot mix meat and dairy during food preparation, cooking or eating. If you eat meat, you must wait anywhere from three to six hours before eating dairy. If you eat dairy first, you only need to rinse your mouth and eat a neutral solid like bread, before eating meat.
The separation of these food groups also applies to where the food is stored, the dishes it’s cooked and eaten with and how the dishes are cleaned. If someone keeps a kosher kitchen, they will often have two sets of everything. Two fridges – one for dairy and one for meat – two sets of dishes, utensils, pots and pans and often two sinks to separate the dishes. Because of the complexity of keeping a kosher kitchen, some observant Jews will eat only meat or only dairy at home, or eat only pareve, meaning neither meat or dairy.
The Jewish calendar is full of many meaningful holidays throughout the year, from Chanukkah and Purim to Passover and Shavuot. And while more observant denominations of Jews will mark every holiday, only some of them require full days of observance in the synagogue. Orthodox and Conservative Jews will almost always observe the High Holidays, and many Reform or culturally Jewish people will as well.
The High Holidays begin during the month of Elul in the Jewish calendar, which is usually in September or October. Rosh Hashanah, a two-day holiday, rings in the Jewish New Year and is the first of the High Holidays. The Jewish New Year is marked by prayer in the synagogue, blowing of the shofarand celebration with family and friends that traditionally includes desserts of pomegranates, apples and honey for a sweet year ahead. A week later, Jews observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by fasting for 25 hours and praying in the synagogue all day.
According to My Jewish Learning, Jewish denominations are the principal categories of religious affiliations, often related to how observant someone is or what specific traditions and customs they observe or adhere to. Not all Jewish people consider themselves as part of a denomination, however, with increasing numbers of Jews considering themselves “just Jewish” or “culturally Jewish.”
How can someone be Jewish without being observant? I once had a rabbi tell me that Judaism is unique, not just a religion and not quite an ethnicity, but a tribe. Unlike an ethnicity, someone can join the Jewish faith and become Jewish, but unlike a religion, once you’re in, you can’t become “not Jewish.” This is because Judaism is passed down from your parents, and all Jews are descendants of Jewish tribes. So if you’re born Jewish and convert to a different religion, you’re still Jewish. If you’re born Jewish but don’t believe in the faith, you’re still Jewish. And if you convert to Judaism, you will always be Jewish, and your kids will be Jewish too.
The three largest Jewish denominations according to My Jewish Learningare Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, which includes Modern Orthodox Jews and Haredi or Ultra Orthodox Jews.
Reform Judaism is considered less strict or adherent to Jewish law than it’s Conservative and Orthodox counterparts. The Reform movement is meant to adapt Jewish traditions to the modern times, and encourages it’s members to adopt traditions and customs that are personally meaningful to them, rather than needing to adhere to all Jewish laws and traditions.
On the other end of the spectrum are Orthodox Jews, the most observant of the denominations. Orthodox Jews adhere to all traditional Jewish laws like observing Shabbat, keeping kosher and some gendered customs. Gendered customs include men and women praying separately in synagogue and married women covering their hair with a sheitel – a wig or head covering that covers all of a woman’s hair after she marries.
Conservative Jews are considered more observant of Jewish laws and customs than Reform Jews, but less so than Orthodox denominations. The Conservative Jewish movement adapts certain customs to modern times, like driving to synagogue on Shabbat and all genders praying together in synagogue.
It’s important to remember that all denominations of Jews are important and help make up the rich fabric of the Jewish community, and your level of observance doesn’t negate your Jewishness or commitment to Judaism.