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Jews are both a religion and an ethnicity. In a religious sense, the term refers to both the followers of the ancient religion known as Judaism. In an ethnic sense, it refers both to religious Jews, and also to many who have rejected the religion of Judaism but still identify themselves as Jews.

Who is a Jew?

Traditionally, Jewish law (halakha) defined a Jew as someone who is either:

  • the child of a Jewish mother; or
  • a convert to Judaism according to halakha Jewish law.

Unlike the common Western conception of membership of a religion, mere belief in the principles of Judaism does not make one a Jew under Jewish law. Similarly, non-adherence to Jewish principles of faith does not make one lose one's Jewish status.

This standard has been followed by the Jewish people for at least the past 2,000 years, and possibly longer. In the last 50 years, two liberal (primarily American) Jewish groups Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism have rejected this definition of Judaism. They no longer require converts to follow traditional Jewish procedures of conversion, and they accept a person as a Jew even if their mother is non-Jewish, so long as the father is a Jew. This has resulted in a serious schism in the Jewish people; today many Americans who consider themselves Jews are not considered Jews by Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, or even by many Reform Jews outside of the United States.

See Reform Judaism on the issue of "Who is a Jew?"

Judaism, thus, is a peculiar combination of a religion and a non-exclusive ethnic group (i.e. this ethnic group has a way to allow others to join.)

Jewish Religious Beliefs

Religious Jews hold the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah to be sacred documents. According to the Torah, there are 613 binding commandments that Jews are obliged to follow. Traditionally, Jews believe that the Torah was given by God to the prophet Moses at Mount Sinai, with hundreds of thousands of Israelites witnessing the event.

Ancient Israelites

Most Jews around the world are descended from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), a Semitic people that settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. A kingship was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon. King David conquered Jerusalem (first a Canaanite, then a Jebusite town) and made it his capital. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, Israel (in the south) and Judah (in the north). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century B.C. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century B.C. The Judahites were exiled to Babylonia, but later many returned to their homeland, henceforth known as Judea. An independent Jewish kingdom led by the Hasmonaean Dynasty existed between 165 and 63 B.C. This was followed by a period of Roman rule. In A.D. 66, Judeans began to revolt against against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was smashed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. The Romans conquered the Temple in Jerusalem and stole the holy menorah. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion, until the 2nd century when Julius Severus ravaged Judea in putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After A.D. 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem.

Many Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. The Israelite people became dispersed throughout the ancient world to places as diverse as Rome, Crimea, India, Yemen, and China. Their descendants account for a significant proportion of the ancestry of many Jewish communities. Some Jewish people are descended from converts to Judaism. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians converted to Judaism in the past; today in the United States and Israel some people still convert to Judaism (numbers?).

Modern Divisions of Judaism

The main divisions of Jews in modern times are Ashkenazim (Central and East European Jews) and Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews). Smaller groups include the mizrakhim (Oriental Jews from Asia from countries like Kurdistan and Persia), Gruzim (Georgian Jews from the Caucasus), Juhurim (Mountain Jews from Daghestan and Azerbaijan in the eastern Caucasus), Teimanim (Yemenite Jews from southern Arabia), Maghrebim (North African Jews), Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews, also known as Falashas), and Bene Israel (Indian Jews). Out of these communities, the largest are the Ashkenazim, whose ancestors lived in countries like Germany, Russia, and Poland.

Sects of Judaism

Almost all Jews today are Rabbinical Jews, who follow Judaism through the lens of the oral law, contained in the [[Mishnah] and Talmud. A much smaller group known as the Karaites still exists. They reject the teachings in the Mishnah and Talmud. (Members of this group usually refer to themselves as Karaites, and not as Jews.) One small community of Samaritans is still extant; however, their religion is not the same as rabbinic Judaism. The Samaritan faith and the faith of Jews today branched over a milennia ago, and Samaritans do not consider themselves, nor call thsemselves, Jews. The Samaritan religion is based on some of the same books used as the basis of rabbinic Judaism, but these religions are not identical. Samaritan scriptures include the Samaritan version of the Torah, the Memar Markah, the Samaritan liturgy, and Samaritan law codes and biblical commentaries. They do not recognize the legitimacy of the oral law, nor most of the Jewish Bible (Tanach).

Jewish synagogues are led by rabbis (spiritual leaders). In many synagogues there is a hazzan (cantor) that leads many parts of the prayer services. The Role_of_the_cantor_in_Judaism used to mainly informal, but in the last century has become more of a profession. The spiritual leader of a Karaite community is often called a hakham. Many Sephardic communities also refer to their leaders as hakham. Among Teimanin, the term mori (teacher) is used.


Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was around 17 million. The Holocaust reduced this number to around 11 million. Today, there are an estimated 13 million Jews worldwide. Of these, around 6 million live in the United States and slightly fewer than 6 million live in Israel. Most of the remainder live in Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Argentina and Russia.

Israel is the only country in which Jews form a majority of the population. It was established as an independent state on May 14, 1948. The symbol on the Israeli flag is known as the Star of David ("Magen David" in Hebrew).

Despite the small number of Jews worldwide, many influential thinkers in modern times have been ethnically Jewish. These include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman.