It is thought that Hebrew was the Semitic language spoken by the ancient Israelites as far back as 1000 BCE. It is written from right to left using only consonants without vowels, and in the 2nd century BCE, was superseded by Aramaic. Later, Yiddish was developed by the Eastern European Jews, while Ladino was the language of the Sephardic and Orientals. But Hebrew remained essential for worship. Today, some prayer books are printed in Hebrew, side by side with a translation. Traditionally, prayers are read with a distinct melody, and in certain services a curved ram’s horn (shofar), is blown, in memory of Isaac’s sacrificial ram.
Because the Torah forbids the making of idols or any graven image, statues, human figures and human portraits are shunned, and in manuscripts, human figures are depicted with the heads of animals. From ancient times, portrayal of God’s presence in the Holy Scriptures has always been described as a hand descending from the heavens. The religion of Islam also forbids depictions.
For the reckoning of religious days, Jews use a lunar calendar; it dates from 3,760 years previous to the modern calendar. The first month of the Jewish civil year is Tishri (part of September and October), and the Jewish New Year, known as Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated as the anniversary of Creation, and a ram’s horn is blown to proclaim God as King of the universe. It is the first of ten Days of Atonement, when God sits in judgement. The last Day of Atonement is known as Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year when, with a 24 hour fast, Jews repent of their sins and beg God for forgiveness in a night-and-day-long service in the synagogue. The tradition of the scapegoat is continued, with modifications, by the Eastern Jews. Originally, the High Priest laid the sins of the Jewish people on to the scapegoat, which was then allowed to escape into the wilderness. It is believed that the goat carries away the sins of the tribe. The Eastern Jews have modified this rite by substituting a sacrificial cock for men and a hen for women. Since the slaughter of animals for sacrifice is inadmissible except in the Temple of Jerusalem, Western Jews do not look kindly on this tradition. After Yom Kippur, a week-long harvest festival beginning on 15th Tishri is held, and on the first day, the last grapes are harvested. Known as Sukkoth, this commemorates God’s protection during the 40-year journey of the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert after they escaped from Egypt. Originally a spring festival beginning on 19th April (March-April), the seven-day Festival of the Passover (Pesach), when, in a service conducted in the home, only unleavened bread is eaten, marks the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt. The name is derived from the Angel of Death “passing over” the houses of the Israelites, while the tenth plague sent by God killed all the first-born children and animals of the Egyptians. Not a scrap of leavened foodstuff remains in the house before Passover. At this Festival, unleavened bread, bitter and green herbs and lamb are traditionally eaten. While leaving Egypt, they could not wait for the yeast to leaven the bread. Bitter herbs symbolise the sorrows of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt. Green herbs are associated with spring while salt water reminds them of the tears shed by the Children of Israel. Lamb is associated with Pesach because on the original night of the Passover its blood was smeared on the door-posts of Jewish houses to distinguish them from the houses of the Egyptians, so that the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ them without harm. During the days of the Passover, Jews say to each other, “Next year in Jerusalem”. They fast on 9th Ab (July-August), when the Day of National Mourning is kept in memory of the days when, in 568 BCE and 70 CE, the first and the second Temples of Jerusalem were demolished. There are those who start fasting three weeks in advance of this date. Within this three-week period, no weddings take place, and no celebrations are held.
Celebrated seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks commemorates the Jews receiving the Ten Commandments from God, through Moses, on Mount Sinai. It is also known as Pentecost and marks the offering of the first fruits.