The Basic Doctrines and Practices of Judaism

The basic doctrines and practices of Judaism are mainly defined by the Torah, which contains the commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai. The most familiar among these commandments are the so-called Ten Commandments, which are expressed in Exodus 20:1-17 as follows:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

“You shall not murder.”
“You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

One simplification of the Ten Commandments is as follows (see Altman 1985, 21; quoted in Urubshurow 2009, 102):

  1. I am the L-rd your G-d. There is only one G-d, The L-rd.
  2. You will have no other gods, neither in belief nor through an act of worship.
  3. You shall not pronounce the Holy Name of G-d needlessly.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it, by ceasing productive labor and dedicating it to spiritual rest.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not commit any act of adultery.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor.
  10. Do not covet your neighbor’s possessions.

(Note: the vowel “o” in the words referring to God and the Lord was intentionally omitted so as to be faithful to the original Hebrew word referring to Yahweh, namely “YHVH,” which does not contain any vowel. See discussion below.)

The Jews, however, believe that the rules or commandments, or mitzvot in Hebrew, that God revealed to Moses are much more than these 10 rules. Traditionally, they believe that these commandments, all found in the Torah, amount to 613. Accordingly, what the Jews refer to when they speak of the “Mosaic Law” or the “Law of Moses” are not just the Ten Commandments but the entire 613 mitzvot. The 613 mitzvot were identified and itemized by the Jewish philosopher and rabbi and Torah scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). Maimonides’s full name was Moses ben Maimon, but he is known in the Hebrew world as Rambam, an acronym of his title as “Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.” Maimonides is considered to be the first person to write a systematic code of all Jewish law which he laid down in his book Mishneh Torah (Deming 2015, 289-90). He itemized the mitzvot as consisting of 248 positive rules and 365 negative rules (Rich 2012).

While the Ten Commandments (Aseret ha-Dibrot in Hebrew) are also part of the 613 mitzvot, Jewish scholars refer to the 10 Commandments as the 10 category commandments, meaning, the ten general (or generic) rules under which the particular rules in the 613 mitzvot can be classified. They further note that the first five of these 10 commandments, written on the first tablet, all concern love of God (the fifth, love of mother and father is considered under love of God for a person’s mother and father are regarded as God’s co-creators of the person); whereas the next five, written on the second tablet, all concern love of neighbor. In any case, based on the list identified by Maimonides, the 613 mitzvot concern the following themes: (1) God, (2) Torah, (3) signs and symbols, (4) prayer and blessings, (5) love and brotherhood, (6) the poor and unfortunate, (7) treatment of Gentiles, (8) marriage, divorce, and family, (9) forbidden sexual relations, (10) times and seasons, (11) dietary laws, (12) business practices, (13) employees, (14) servants and slaves, (15) vows, (16) oaths and swearing, (17) the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, (18) the court and judicial procedure, (19) injuries and damages, (20) property and property rights, (21) criminal laws, (22) punishment and restitution, (23) prophecy, (24) idolatry, idolaters, and idolatrous practices, (25) agriculture and animal husbandry, (26) clothing, (27) The Firstborn, (28) Kohanim and Levites, (29) T’rumah, Tithes, and taxes, (30) the temple, the sanctuary, and sacred objects, (31) sacrifices and oferings, (32) ritual purity and impurity, (33) lepers and leprosy, (34) the king, (35) Nazarites, and (36) wars.

The Thirteen Principles of Faith

In addition to itemizing the 613 mitzvot, another extremely important contribution of Maimonides to Judaism was his formulation of the Thirteen Principles of Faith in his book The Guide to the Perplexed, which have become the credo of Judaism (De Lang 2000, 63-65). They contain the core beliefs of Judaism, which include monotheism (the belief in one God), the Mosaic Law, God’s rewards and punishments for human deeds, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead (see Urubshurow 2009, 113). The following is one translation of these principles from the original Hebrew:

  1. God exists.
  2. God is one and there is nothing else like him.
  3. God is spiritual in nature; he does not have corporeal aspects (physical form).
  4. God is an everlasting God, without beginning or end.
  5. God alone is the appropriate object of worship and prayer.
  6. The Hebrew prophets spoke the truth from God.
  7. Moses was the greatest of God’s prophets.
  8. God gave Moses both the Written and Oral Torah.
  9. There is and will be no other Torah other than the one revealed to Moses.
  10. God is aware of every thought and action of human beings.
  11. The righteous will receive a reward from God; he will punish the wicked.
  12. The promised Messiah will come at the proper time.
  13. All human beings who have ever lived will be raised from the dead.

The following is another translation (Urubshurow 2009, 113-114):

  1. The Creator is the Author and Guide of everything that exists.
  2. The Creator is a Unity.
  3. The Creator is not corporeal.
  4. The Creator is first and last.
  5. It is right to pray to the Creator, but to no other being.
  6. All the words of the prophets are true.
  7. The prophecy of Moses is true and he was the father (criterion) for all prophecy.
  8. The Torah now in our possession is the one given to Moses.
  9. The Torah will not be changed, nor will the Creator give any other Torah.
  10. The Creator knows the deeds and thoughts of people.
  11. He rewards those who keep his commandments and punishes those who disobey.
  12. Though the Messiah delays, one must constantly expect his coming.
  13. The dead will be resurrected.


Thus the Jews believe that there is only one God, the creator of the world and the author of the divine laws, both written and oral, which were given to Moses. God is pure spirit and has no beginning and end. He is wholly good and all-powerful. As there is only one God, then all praises, prayers, and worship should be directed to him alone. God is also just, for he rewards those who do good (those who follow his divine laws) and punish those who do evil (those who do not follow his divine laws). The Jews refer to God as Yahweh or YHVH. Hebrew was traditionally not written with vowels, so the name of the Lord that is translated as “Yahweh,” which was revealed to Moses, was originally written as “YHVH.” When Moses asked the Lord his name so he would know what to tell the Israelites if they asked who sent him to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, the Lord replied, “Ehyeh asher Ehyet3′ (translated as “I am who I am.”). “YHVH” and the phrase “Ehyeh asher Ehyef’ are related in terms of their grammatical roots. It is, however, customary for Jews never to speak the name YHVH aloud. Instead, they use the word Adonai (meaning “Lord”) as a substitute when reading the Hebrew scriptures. It is only the high priest of the temple of Jerusalem who is allowed to say “YHVH” and only during the celebration of the holy Day of Atonement.

The Afterlife

The Jewish belief in an afterlife is called Olam Ha-Ba, translated as “The World to Come.” The expression Olam Ha-Ba, incidentally, is also used to refer to the messianic age, the period in which the Messiah that the Jews are waiting for will come. The world to come thus means both the kind of world that one will live in after one’s bodily death and the kind of world that will be established by the Messiah when he finally comes.

While believing in an afterlife, the Jews have no precise doctrines indicating the specific nature of the afterlife. Consequently there are Jews who believe in reincarnation, while there are some who believe in something similar to the Christian heaven and hell (the difference, however, is that the Jews believe that punishment in hell is only temporary—there is a specified time for the punishment after which the soul is either completely destroyed or goes to a state of remorse). The lack of precise doctrines in this mater is a result of the Jewish emphasis and focus on how to live life in the here and now according to the laws of God, and not on how to get into heaven.

The Messianic Age

Regarding the Messianic Age, the Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the righteous dead (dead Jews who lived a righteous life).The Messiah, from the Hebrew word mashiach which literally means “the anointed one,” is conceived by some Jews as a human being, not a god or a demigod, who will be a great political and military leader. They believe he will deliver the Jews all over the world from oppression, establish peace on earth, create a world government based in Israel, and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, among others.The Jews (except those affiliated with a form of Judaism called Messianic Judaism) do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Before Christ, there were in fact others who also claimed to be the Messiah, all of whom the Jews also rejected. They also believe that the prophet Elijah, who did not die but simply ascended to heaven, will someday return to the world to announce the coming of the Messiah. And when the Messiah comes, the dead Jews who faithfully obeyed God will be resurrected and will live among those still living.