What is a Jew and Important Jewish Tenets

Traditional-Orthodox Jewish Tenets

The Maimonides formalized the traditional Jewish Tenets, 13 of them.  I summarized them below, consolidating some for the sake of clarity:

I believe with complete faith that:

  • The Creator, is One and Alone, was—is—will-be, the Creator of ALL, and that He alone made, makes and will make all things (pure monotheism). The Creator is incorporeal, free from all anthropomorphic properties; and that He has no likeness at all.
  • All the words of Moshe and all the Prophets – those preceding and proceeding Moshe – are true.
  • Moses received the whole Torah which we now possess and it will not change.
  • The Creator knows all the deeds and thoughts of human beings, rewards those who observe His commandments, and punishes those who transgress.
  • The Messiah will come soon, and although he may tarry, I wait every day for him to come.  There will be resurrection of the dead at the time of the Creator’s will.

The Orthodox Jew recites these as a part of the daily prayer.  I provided a translation of that prayer at the end of the article.
However, not all Jews are Orthodox… and regardless, these tenets, at least a few of them, represent some difficulties to the thinker. Here are a few:

  • Resurrection of the dead – what does it mean and how would it happen? Even the Maimonides himself, being an acclaimed physician, had an issue with this…
  • There is a seemingly contradiction between the tenet that The Omnipresent is incorporeal and has no likeness at all to Genesis.  In Genesis 1:26 we read: And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  How can the conflict between the two settled?
  • The Holy One Blessed Be He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked: We do witness so many cases that are the opposite of that.  How come?

Who is a Jew?

The Law of Return turned the principles of the Declaration of Independence into an abiding law in 1950:

“Every Jew has the right to come to this country [the State of Israel] as an oleh [immigrant]”

A Jew – one who was born to a Jewish mother or maternal grandmother, and converts to Judaism through orthodox process.

The Knesset amended the Law in 1970 by adding the following groups:

  • People with Jewish ancestry, be it a Jewish father or grandfather.
  • Reform and Conservative (non-orthodox) conversions that take place outside of Israel are eligible for the provisions of this law.
  • Those Jews who converted to another religion do not enjoy the rights provided by the Law of Return.  The fact that they are still  Jews according to halakha is not relevant for that purpose.

The 1970 amendment is reminiscent of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws: Any person who would have been targeted by the Nazis for being Jewish deserves the right to a safe haven in Israel.

Pew Research Center definition for a Jew which is most applicable to the American Jewry can be found at https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/sidebar-who-is-a-jew/

In essence, it relates to the American Jews, and it is the widest possible definition, that essentially includes every person that consider oneself as a Jew.

What is a Jew?

Is Judaism a Religion?  Yes and No.

Yes, in a sense that when practicing Jewish religion, it is unique and different from other religions.  No – one doesn’t need to observe religious doctrines at all – not even believe in God – to be Jewish.

Is Judaism an Ethnicity? Yes and No.

Yes – it’s very basic origin is Semitic that starts around the second Millenia BCE.  No – There are the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, each of these groups comprises additional subgroups, according to their country or ethnic origin.  The Sephardic Jews are decedents of those who lived in Spain and Portugal until the 16th century CE).  So are the Conversos – the decedents of those who converted to Christianity to save their lives.

In addition there are the Jews that lived in specific territories: the Jews of Georgia, Kavkaz, Bukhara, the Yemenite Jews, the Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews (Bnei Israel, Bnei M’nashe, Bnei Ephraim, Kuchen Jewry) and so many more – not to mention Jews by Choice and Jews of color.

Does Culture Identify the Jews? Yes and No.

Yes – some holidays that are celebrated by all are unique and identical with all. No – even those that are celebrated by all are very different in traditions and ways of celebration, and of course, each group has its own additional holidays (Moroccans – Mimunah; Sigad – is celebrated by the Ethiopian Jews).

How About Language: Does Language Identify Judaism? Yes and No.

Yes – Judaism is the only “religion” that uses Hebrew both as a sacred and mundane language (even Yiddish and Ladino have a significant portion of it coming from Hebrew). No – one doesn’t need to know Hebrew at all to be a Jew, even an observant, orthodox Jew!

Is Judaism identified by food? Yes and No.

Kashrut (dietary laws that dictate what foods are allowed or not to be consumed) – Yes; types of food, level of kashrut observance – no.

Other identifiers in your opinion?

I welcome your thoughts and inputs, and commit to respond to your comments.

Conclusion (in part – my own):

Jews are members of a People – Am Yisrael. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructing Judaism denomination defined it as a civilization. I’d rather call it People, because of some additional identifier that are unique to the Jewish People that are not present in other civilizations.

Each and every individual is placing oneself on a spectrum on each and every tenet that one adheres to.  Some of these tenets that I will list further come from the 13 traditional ones while others find their origins in the vast wealth of Jewish teachings and literature. And there are many more that Jews adhere to that are absent from the list.
Watch this video clip on YouTube to get a nice summary of the above with an additional definition to the above:   http://youtu.be/BCmHd_scHik.

“Universal” Jewish Tenet


It is one of the Ten Commandments.  It is a sacred day.  The vast majority of Jews celebrate Shabbat and hold it differently from all other days in one way or another.  The mere separation of Shabbat by making it different, sanctifies it.  Friday Evening dinner, lighting Shabbat Candles and making a blessing – over the candles, over wine, over bread – is emotional and important to many – more than other Shabbat rituals.

Along with Shabbat, probably to a lesser extent, come other Holidays.  The High Holidays – Rosh HaShanah (the first days of the Jewish Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are very important.  Passover, being a holiday of family gathering for learning, reenacting history and eating comes close (maybe even equal to the former two).

Sh’mah Yisrael:

This is unarguably the most important statement/prayer in a Jew’s life.  It is pronounced as follows: Shmah Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.  Hear (also listen, harken) Yisrael (can be understood as the whole People and also as the single solitary, individual Jew): Adonai (the way we pronounce the explicit name of God that we do not really know how to pronounce it – the Tetragrammaton Y H V H) is our God (with plural accent, insinuation) Adonai is One (unique, the only one that there is no other but Him).

You can see that this statement alludes to a few of the traditional tenets we discussed at the very beginning of our conversation.

Orthodox Jews recite this statement several times during each and every day, last one – just before one fall asleep.  It concludes the prayers of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur is yet another tenet – it is the only day in which the attendance of Jews in prayer and synagogue is the highest).  AND it is the last statement a Jew – regardless of adherence to the requirements of the religion – utters and/or needs to hear on one’s dying bed, just before the soul leaves the body.


The Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and the State of Israel occupies a not-insignificant part of the thoughts and emotions of every Jew.  Even the extreme ultra-orthodox Jews that object the mere existence of the State of Israel hold the Land of Israel as sacred and the subject of yearning.

Regardless of political view, of level of criticism one would have to the politics of the State, the situation with the Palestinians in the West Bank – the care, concern and recognition that the State of Israel has the right and must exist is unwavering.  It is clear today, as it was 7 and 8 decades ago, that the State of Israel is the ONLY safe heaven to every Jew.  All it takes that someone else considers one to be a Jew and persecutes that person because of that perception.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh – All of Israel Are Responsible for One Another:

This is the overarching tenet that the previous one – Israel – is a private, singular case, of.  This tenet mobilizes Jews to do and to care for Israel and act on its behalf.  It could be donating money to the Bond and other Jewish funds, and advocate for Israel.  Bikkur Ḥolim – visiting the sick, Ḥesed – acts of loving kindness, Tzdakah – charity, are a few additional ways to act upon this responsibility.  All these are not acts of good will of the heart but regarded as a duty, commitment. We are doing so, the because the one who needs our help did help someone else even if we don’t known to us.

When a Jew receives a prize or award, Israel is successful with something  – many Jews, no matter how far related they are – are happy and rejoicing.  That is true when the opposite happens to a Jewish congregation or even a person.  We mobilize to help.   When a Jew is convicted with wrongdoing, so many of the Jewish brethren fill the shame.

Love the Other:

We all know “love your neighbor as yourself”.  I’d translate it somewhat differently: Love TO your fellow human as yourself.  The added TO indicates that this love is an action, a verb.  Not just a mere emotion.  DO acts that demonstrate your love to the other.  The motivation to DO is the emotion of love.  It includes any human being that one has an interaction with, regardless how insignificant it is.

We also know this in its negative presentation – “do not do to others what you don’t want to be done to you”.  In my opinion, this form is limiting, and I’d rather use the positive, affirmative, presentation of the concept.  This tenet expands the previous one to include non-Jews as well in the acts of support.  This tenet also powers yet another one, called “Tikkun Olam” repairing, mending the world.

Sanctity of Life:

The sanctity of life is one of the highest values in Jewish ethics and theology.  Basically, to save life – a single soul – one can violate all the commandments of Torah (and then some…).  One who saves a single life is considered as if one saved the whole world.

Free Will to Make Choices and Accountability:

Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have put before you: life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!”.  Judaism brings forth this concept of free will, the ability to choose, to its fullest extent.  This concept weaves throughout the whole Bible.  Together with it goes the responsibility and the accountability to bear the consequences of one’s choices.

The concept of free will and choice is basic and fundamental.  It also explains why bad things happen, and why God does not intervene to stop those things from happening.

Importance of Education:

Torah commands the Jews to educate their children. Here are two examples: “you shall explain to your child” (Exodus 13:8) Is one.  The Sh’mah prayer “You shall repeatedly Impress them upon your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7) is another one. This was so important – actually as the sanctity of life.  When the Romans banned the study of Torah, Rabbi Akiva refused to follow that decree.  He continued teaching in public and became a martyr as a result.  At the worst of conditions, in ghettos during the Holocaust, the Jewish communities kept schools open and taught children, no mater what the conditions were.


Do you think of any other important tenets? please write me, tell me what it is and why you think it is an important tenet.  I will be more than happy to incorporate your thoughts, and make sure to cite you as the contributor.

Latest News and events

Yom Kippur 1973: My Personal Memories of that Horrific War


On Yom Kippur 2023, I shared my memories with Havurah Shir Hadash congregation. The following is an edited transcript of the recording that is also shared here.

United with Israel We Shall Prevail and Overcome!


It’s time for us to unite and act together: All Israel are responsible for each other! Now, when Israel is under the vicious attack of the barbarian Hamas no one can stand indifferent. We all must speak up and show solidarity with Israel.

Repentance and Forgiveness – Two Sides of One Coin: Reframing the Past and Changing the Future


Rosh HaShanah, Jewish New Year, calls to examine our actions during the past year, make amends and promise not to repeat mistakes. This process is called Teshuvah, repentance.

Ekev – The Shema Second Portion: The Consequences of Free Choice


Parashat Ekev ends with the second portion of the Shema prayer. In it, Moshe explains the consequences, for better or worse, of choices the People or Israel will make.


Skip to content