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Jews are both a religion and (although arguably) an ethnicity. In a religious sense, the term refers to the followers of the ancient religion known as Judaism. In an ethnic sense, it refers both to religious Jews, and to those who have rejected Jewish principles of faith yet still identify as Jews in a cultural or ethnic sense.

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Who is a Jew?

Traditionally, Jewish law and tradition defined a Jew as someone who is either:
  • the child of a Jewish mother; or
  • A person who converts to Judaism in accord with 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. 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 much longer. 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 are discussed in detail in the entry on Judaism; this article discusses the ethnic group.

In the past, a technical distinction was made between the word "Israelite" and the word "Jew". According to the Talmud, the word Israelite refers to somebody who is Jewish but does not necessarily practice Judaism as a religion. The Talmud states, "An Israelite even though he has sinned is still an Israelite." In this usage, the distinction is not made between Jew and Israelite and they are both called Jew. However, in modern day English, this terminology is not used; modern day English speakers often instead refer to "religious Jews" or "secular Jews".

The issue of patrilineal descent

In the last half of the 20th century, two theologically 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 among the Jewish people; today many Reform Jewish and secular Jewish-Americans consider themselves Jews in spite of not being 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?" (http://www.shamash.org/lists/scj-faq/HTML/faq/18-03-14)

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 mysterious 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 the Levantine[?] culture.

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. 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, the Israel (in the north) and the 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 Babylonia, but later at least a part of them returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians.

After the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Kingdom was formed which sought to incorporate Greek culture into the Persian world. When the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, supported by hellenized Jews, attempted to rededicate the Jewish temple to Zeus, the orthodox Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees and created an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty[?] which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. This was followed by a period of Roman rule. In 66 CE, Judeans began to revolt against the Roman rulers of Judea. The revolt was smashed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus Flavius. The Romans destroyed all but a single wall of 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 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 heaved, since at the destruction of the rebuilt city by the Persians in the 7th century, Jews are said to have lived there.

Many of the Israeli 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.

Before the rise of Islam the Jews inhabited the entire Roman empire; with the Arab expansion, some of them would move as far as India and China. Some Jewish people are also descended from converts to Judaism outside the Mediterranean world. It is known that some Khazars, Edomites[?], and Ethiopians[?], as well as many Arabs before the days of Islam, converted to Judaism in the past; today in the United States and Israel some people still convert to Judaism.

Ethnic Divisions

The commonly-used terms Ashkenazi and Sephardic refer both to a religious and an ethnic division. Some scholars hold that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Palestinian Jewish religious tradition, and Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Babylonian religious tradition.

Jews have historically been divided into four major ethnic groups:

  • The Yemenite Jews (also known as Teimanim[?]). These are Oriental Jews whose geographical and social isolation from the rest of the Jewish community allowed them to develop a liturgy and set of practices sufficiently distinct from other Oriental Jewish groups so as to be recognized as a different group.

Smaller groups of Jews include the following:

  • The Ethiopian Jews, also known as the Falasha[?] or Beta Israel.

  • The Romaniotes, i.e. Greek speaking Jews living in the Balkans from the Hellenistic era until today (almost 6,000 people worldwide)

Yiddish is the tradition language of the Ashkenazi, whereas Ladino (Judeo-Portuguese) is that of the Sephardim. Most Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, but others spoke Aramaic or Persian.

Following the Spanish Inquisition the Sephardic Jews were dispersed, some migrating to Europe, where they were assimilated into the Ashkenazi, others migrating to the Middle East where they were assimilated into the Oriental Jews. Most Oriental Jews practice Sephardic rite and are therefore sometimes referred to as Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews practice Ashkenazi rite.

Out of these communities, the largest by far are the Ashkenazim, comprising ~80% of the Jewish total, with Oriental Jews comprising most of the remainder.

Sub-groups of Jews include the Gruzim (Georgian Jews from the Caucasus), Juhurim[?] (Mountain Jews from Daghestan[?] and Azerbaijan in the eastern Caucasus), Maghrebim[?] (North African Jews), Abayudaya[?] and (Ugandan Jews)

Ancient 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 refer to themselves as Karaites, 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 that of all other Jews diverged over a millennium ago; Samaritans do not consider themselves, nor call themselves, 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).

Religious leadership

Jewish synagogues are led by rabbis (spiritual leaders). In many synagogues there is a hazzan (cantor) that leads many parts of the prayer service. Many Sephardic rabbinic Jewish communities refer to their leaders as hakham. Among Yemenite Jews, known as Teimanin, the term mori (teacher) is used.

The spiritual leader of a Karaite community is often called a hakham.


Prior to World War II the world population of Jews was around 14-16 million. The Holocaust reduced this number to around 10-11 million. Today, there are an estimated 13 million Jews worldwide in over 134 countries. Of these, around 5.8 million live in the United States and 4.3 million live in Israel. Most of the remainder live in Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Argentina and Russia, including 2.4 million in Europe.

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 (only born Jewish), Noam Chomsky and Milton Friedman. See List of famous Jews


The English word "Jew" ultimately comes from the Hebrew yehudi, meaning "Judean" or inhabitant of the land of Judea (named after Judah). It passed into Greek as Ιουδαιος, Ioudaios, and then into Latin as Judaeus. In both these languages the name can mean "Judaean" or "Jew", depending on context.

See also: Judaism, Jewish history timeline, Gentiles, History of Jews in the United States, History of the Jews in the Soviet Union, List of famous Jews, Australasian Union of Jewish Students

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