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Home: Religion: Judaism: Judaism, Jewish History Overview and Time Line.

JUDAISM, JEWISH HISTORY OVERVIEW & TIME LINE


Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History


One of the most respected and widely used reference books on Jewish life, culture, religion, and tradition. Easy to read and filled with fascinating insights for Jews and non-Jews.

Brief History of Judaism

Following is a brief history of Judaism, Jewish faith and culture through the ages. For a complete jewish history time line, see: Judaism, The complete Jewish history time line.

Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality.

Ancient Jewish History
(through 50 AD)

Ancient Israelites

For the first two periods the history of the Jews is mainly that of Palestine. It begins among those peoples which occupied the area lying between the Nile river on the one side and the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers on the other. Surrounded by ancient seats of culture in Egypt and Babylonia, by the deserts of Arabia, and by the highlands of Asia Minor, the land of Canaan (later Judea, then Palestine, then Israel) was a meeting place of civilizations. The land was traversed by old-established trade routes and possessed important harbors on the Gulf of Akaba and on the Mediterranean coast, the latter exposing it to the influence of other cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

Traditionally Jews around the world claim descendance mostly from the ancient Israelites (also known as Hebrews), who settled in the land of Israel. The Israelites traced their common lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Jewish tradition holds that the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons (one of which was named Judah), who settled in Egypt. Their direct descendants respectively divided into twelve tribes, who were enslaved under the rule of pharaoh Ramses II. In the Jewish faith, the emigration of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan (the Exodus), led by the prophet Moses, marks the formation of the Israelites as a people.

Jewish tradition has it that after forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites arrived to Canaan and conquered it under the command of Joshua, dividing the land among the twelve tribes. After a period of rule by rulers named Judges, a kingdom 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 north) and Judah (in the south). Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V in the 8th century BC. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BC. The Judahite elite was exiled to Babylon, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland, led by prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians. Already at this point the extreme fragmentation among the Israelites was apparent, with the formation of political-religious factions, the most important of which would later be called Sadduccees and Pharisees.

The Hasmonean Kingdom

After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, his demise, and the division of Alexander's empire among his generals, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed. A deterioration of relations between hellenized Jews and religious Jews led the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to impose decrees banning certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Hasmonean family, (also known as the Maccabees).

This revolt eventually led to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BC to 63 BC. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated as a result of civil war between the sons of Salome Alexandra, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The people, who did not want to be governed by a king but by theocratic clergy, made appeals in this spirit to the Roman authorities. A Roman campaign of conquest and annexation, led by Pompey, soon followed.

Judea under Roman rule was at first an independent Jewish kingdom, but gradually the rule over Judea became less and less Jewish, until it became under the direct rule of Roman administration (and renamed the province of Judaea), which was often callous and brutal in its treatment of its Judean subjects. In AD 66, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was defeated by the Roman emperors Vesesapian and Titus Flavius. The Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, stole artifacts from the temple, such as the 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 while putting down the bar Kokhba revolt. After 135, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem, although this ban must have been at least partially lifted, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

The Diaspora

Many of the Judaean Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. This is the traditional explanation to the diaspora. However, a majority of the Jews in Antiquity were most likely descendants of convertites in the cities of the Hellenistic-Roman world, especially in Alexandria and Asia Minor, and were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, as the sense of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy of conversion, which spread the Jewish religion throughout the Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

Judaism- Jews in the Middle Ages (50 AD through 1750 AD)

Jews in the Middle Ages: The history of Jews in the Middle Ages (approximately 500 CE to 1750 CE) can be divided into two categories. The history of the Jews in Arab lands (mainly Spain and North Africa) covered in Jews in Muslim Lands and the history of Jews in Europe.

Middle Ages History of Jews in Europe

Fall of Rome

The Eastern Roman Empire, under assault from barbarian invasion, passed a number of laws in the early Middle Ages, including the legislation of Justinian which culminated in the principle of taking away civil rights from heretics and unbelievers and of making their existence as difficult as possible. The restrictive laws of Constantine and Theodosius were renewed with increased rigor. The public observance of their religion was forbidden the Jews. The loss of their civil rights was followed by disregard for their personal freedom. In the wars waged by the Iconoclasts (eighth and ninth centuries) the Jews especially had to suffer, and mostly at the hands of iconoclastic emperors who were suspected of being heretics with Jewish tendencies. Many Jews fled to the neighboring states of the Slavs and Tatars, which were just coming into existence, and found refuge and protection on the lower Volga and on the northern shores of the Black Sea in the realm of the Khazars.

While the East-Roman empire was prolonging its inglorious existence by perpetual warfare with neighbors who were ever growing stronger, the Western Roman Empire fell prey to the barbarians. With the exception of the restrictive laws of the first Christian emperors, which still remained in force, the Jews were not troubled on account of their faith.

Church Laws in the Early Middle Ages

Not until the beginning of the ninth century did the Church succeed in drawing all humanity within her jurisdiction, and in bringing together and definitely settling the regulations in canonical law which the authority of the Church ordained for believers and their treatment of non-believers. Intercourse with Jews was almost entirely forbidden to believers, and thereby a chasm was created between the adherents of the two religions, which could not be bridged.

On the other hand, the Church found herself compelled to make the Jew a fellow citizen of the believer; for she enforced upon her own communities the Biblical prohibition against usury; and thus the only way left open to her of conducting financial operations was to seek loans at a legally determined rate of interest from the adherents of another faith. Through these peculiar conditions the Jews rapidly acquired influence. At the same time they were compelled to find their pleasures at home and in their own circles only. Their sole intellectual food came from their own literature, to which they devoted themselves with all the strength of their nature.

The Crusades.

The trials which the Jews endured from time to time in the different kingdoms of the Christian West were only indications of the catastrophe which broke over them at the time of the Crusades. A wild, unrestrained throng, for which the crusade was only an excuse to indulge its rapacity, fell upon the peaceful Jews and sacrificed them to its fanaticism. In the First Crusade (1096) flourishing communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed; see German Crusade, 1096. In the Second Crusade (1147) the Jews in France suffered especially. Philip Augustus treated them with exceptional severity. In his days the Third Crusade took place (1188); and the preparations for it proved to be momentous for the English Jews. After unspeakable trials Jews were banished from England in 1290; and 365 years passed before they were allowed to settle again in the British Isles (see History of the Jews in England). The Jews were also subjected to attacks by the Shepherds' Crusades of 1251 and 1320.

Expulsions.

Everywhere in the Christian Occident an equally gloomy picture was presented. The Jews, who were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450, were scattered in all directions, and fled preferably to the new Slavic kingdoms, where for the time being other confessions were still tolerated. Here they found a sure refuge under benevolent rulers and acquired a certain prosperity, in the enjoyment of which the study of the Talmud was followed with renewed vigor. Together with their faith, they took with them the German language and customs, which they have cultivated in a Slavic environment with unexampled faithfulness up to the present time.

Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The renaissance of art and science was coeval with the death of the Byzantine empire; and the newly discovered art of printing scoffed at canonical laws which tried to enslave thought. In the same year in which Spain expelled the unbelievers the shores of America appeared above the horizon. The age of inventions and discoveries brought about an immense change in ideas. Only the Jews remained in the night of the Middle Ages. These homeless people were crowded from the west of Europe ever farther toward the east. They had to seek refuge in the realms of the Slavs and the Turks, in which a native culture was as yet unknown. Their external circumstances were not at first unfavorable. They even attained to high positions in the state, at least in Turkey. Don Joseph Nasi was made Duke of Naxos; and Solomon Ashkenazi was ambassador of the Porte to the republic of Venice.

Judaism, Jewish History
The European Enlightenment and Haskalah (1750-1800s)

During the period of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, significant changes were happening within the Jewish community. The Haskalah movement paralelled the wider Enlightenment, as Jews began in the 1700s to campaign for emancipation from restrictive laws and integration into the wider European society. Secular and scientific education was added to the traditional religious instruction received by students, and interest in a national Jewish identity, including a revival in the study of Jewish history and Hebrew, started to grow. Haskalah gave birth to the Reform and Conservative movements and planted the seeds of Zionism while at the same time encouraging cultural assimilation into the countries in which Jews resided. At around the same time another movement was born, one preaching almost the opposite of Haskalah, Hasidic Judaism. Hasidic Judiasm began in the 1700s by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and quickly gained a following with its more exubarent, mystical approach to religion. These two movements, and the traditional orthodox approach to Judiasm from which they spring, formed the basis for the modern divisions within Jewish observance.

At the same time, the outside world was changing. Though persecution still existed in some European countries (hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in the 18th and 19th centuries), Napoleon invited Jews to leave the Jewish ghettos in Europe and seek refuge in the newly created tolerant political regimes that offered equality under Napoleonic Law. At the same time, Jewish migration to the United States created a new community in large part freed of the restrictions of Europe.

1800-1900 Jewish History

1800's- The 19th century saw some integration, combined with increasing persecution and a growing sense of nationhood. SeeDreyfuss Trial, Theodor Herzl and Zionism.

1900's- Jewish involvement in World War I. Jews in the Weimar Republic and other countries in the interbellum. World War II and the Holocaust. The Establishment of the State of Israel.

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Judaism - The Rabbinical View of Jewish History

According to religious Jews, the Biblical patriarch Abraham was the first Jew. Rabbinic literature records that he was the first to take on the world and proclaim the folly of idolatry. As a result, God promised he would have children, starting with Isaac, who would carry on his work and inherit the land of Israel (then called Canaan) after having been exiled and redeemed. According to the Bible, God gave Isaac's son Jacob the name Israel, meaning "he who struggles with God", and dedicated his descendants to be his nation.

God sent Jacob and his children to Egypt; after they eventually became enslaved, God sent Moses to redeem the Israelites from slavery. After the Exodus from Egypt, God led them to Mount Sinai and give them the Torah, and eventually brought them to the Land of Israel.

God set aside the descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother, to be a priestly class within the Israelite community. They first officiated in the tabernacle (a portable house of worship), and later their descendants officiated in the Temple in Jerusalem

Once they had settled, the tent was planted in the city of Shiloh for over 300 years during which time God provided great men, and occasionally women, to rally the nation after he sent enemies to attack them. As time went on, the spiritual level of the nation declined to the point that God allowed the Philistines to capture the temple in Shiloh.

The people of Israel then told Samuel the prophet that they had reached the point where they needed a permanent king like other nations had. God knew this was not best for the Jews, but acceded to this request and had Samuel appoint Saul, a great but very humble man, to be their king. When the people pressured Saul into going against a command conveyed to him by Samuel, God told Samuel to appoint David in his stead.

Once David was established, he told the prophet Nathan that he would like to build a permanent temple. As a reward, God promised David that he would allow his son to build the temple and the throne would never depart from his children. David's son Solomon built the first permanent temple according to God's will, in Jerusalem.

After Solomon's death, the kingdom was split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel had a variety of kings, but after a few hundred years, because of the rampant idolatry God allowed Assyria to conquer Israel and exile its people. The kingdom of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem and contained the temple, remained under the rulership of the house of David. However, idolatry increased to the point that God allowed Babylon to conquer it, destroy the temple which had stood for 410 years and exile its people to Babylon, with the promise that they would be redeemed after seventy years.

After seventy years the people were allowed back into Israel under the leadership of Ezra, and the temple was rebuilt. This second temple stood for 420 years after which it was destroyed by the Roman general (later emperor) Titus. This is the state in which it is to remain until a descendant of David arises to restore the glory of Israel (the current existence of the Islamic Dome of the Rock doesn't matter to the Rabbinical view).

The Torah given on Mount Sinai was summarized in the five books of Moses and together with the books of the prophets is called the Written Torah. The details which are called the Oral Torah were to remain unwritten. However as the persecutions of the Jews increased and the details were in danger of being forgotten, they were recorded in the Mishna, and the Talmud, as well as other holy books.

Judaism does not easily fit into common Western categories, such as religion, race, ethnicity, or culture. This is because Jews understand Judaism in terms of its 4,000-year history. During this stretch of time, Jews have experienced slavery, anarchic self-government, theocratic self-government, conquest, occupation, and exile; they have been in contact, and have been influenced by ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenic cultures, as well as modern movements such as the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. Thus, Daniel Boyarin has argued that "Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension."
 

 
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