The people of Israel are as varied as the land itself. Although by the latest census 80% of the population of the State of Israel is Jewish, this doesn’t mean all Jewish people have the same customs or traditions. As for the remaining 20% this part of the population are generally referred to as Arabs. I will try to briefly explain some of the differences of the various groups.
The Jewish religion was the first monotheistic religion. The main books of thought in Judaism are the Old Testaments which consist of the Five Books of Moses (Torah, or Chumash), the Prophets, and the Writings, (Book of Psalms, Chronicles, The Book of Esther, and eight additional books). Jewish people are generally divided into two different groups, the Ashkenazi’s and the Sephardic Jews. In the year 587 BCE the Babylonians conquer the Land of Israel, and send the inhabitants into exile in Babylon. With this exile the Twelve Tribes of the People of Israel lose their tribal identity. After 40 years in exile Ezra and Nehemiah are given permission to return to the Land of Israel. The majority of the Jewish people remands in Babylon and eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. During the time of the Crusades some of the Jews of Israel move to Europe and eventually spread to central and eastern Europe. These Jews were known as Ashkenazi Jews. A major center of Judaism also developed on the Iberian Peninsula until 1492 when the Spanish monarchy forced the Jewish population to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Jews whose ancestors came from the Mediterranean basin, Mesopotamia (Iran, Iraq), Afghanistan, central and eastern Asia, or Spain are known as Sephardic Jews.
Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews follow and keep the same laws from the Torah (Five Books of Moses), the Mishnah and Talmud but have different traditions, and ways of celebrating various Jewish holidays, and pray in the Bet Knesset with a quorum of at least ten adult men three times a day. Both these groups are Jewish and their similarities are greater than their differences.
In our modern society here in Israel today we have some Jews who are more observant than others. Some of these ultra-orthodox Jews wear different clothes to show their affiliation with different rabbinical schools of thought or original origins. Some of these Jews will wear round high fur hats, some low hats surrounded by a ring of fur, some round black felt hats, others black felt fedora type hats. Under these hats some wear black silk kippas (yarmulkes) while others wear large white knitted kippas. Some wear log cloth coats and some coats with narrow black stripes vertically on a white background. Most wear peot, or ear locks hanging behind their ears as well as beards. The ear locks stem from a tradition called pe ah where people did not harvest the corners of their fields, and as a result, men do not shave the “corners of their heads”. Since we obviously don’t have corners on our heads it was decided the hair above and behind the ears who not be shaved. As for beards we are told not to take a knife (razor) to our face, like the Egyptians did (they were usually clean shaven) when we were slaves in Egypt. These Jews are usually, but not always Ashkenazi Jews.
Ultra Orthodox festive ceremony Photo courtesy: Travelujah
There are ultra-orthodox Jews who do not have beards though. The ultra-orthodox women very often keep their heads covered and wear shirt sleeves past their elbows and their skirts below their knees for modesty’s sake. The ultra-orthodox avoid physical contact with the opposite sex and some of the men keep their eyes down to avoid looking at women especially those they believe are immodestly dressed, wearing tight or revealing clothes. When visiting ultra-orthodox neighborhoods like Mea Shaerim in Jerusalem, please respect the residents and dress accordingly, no shorts, tank tops or miniskirts, rather a scarf or shawl over women’s shoulders if not a long sleeve shirt and either a long skirt, or a scarf wrapped around their waist. As for men, no shorts or tank tops, tee shirts and jeans are ok. The ultra-orthodox generally do not serve in the Israel Defense Force for religious reasons, although there is an Infantry Battalion of ultra-orthodox men where all the instructors are men only so there’s no problem of men and women mixing.
There are also observant Jews not quite as strict as the ultra-orthodox and these people are called Modern Orthodox or in Hebrew Kippa Shruga. This term refers to the men’s kippa or yarmulke (the traditional head covering for observant men). Whereas the ultra-orthodox men wear black silk kippas, or large white kippas, the modern orthodox men wear knitted kippas of various colors and designs.
Modern Orthodox Jewish Brit Mila (Bris) ceremony; Photo Courtesy Travelujah
Many modern orthodox girls and women knit these kippas for their fathers, brothers, or friends. The kippa Shruga boys and men dress like most men today wearing anything ranging from jeans and tee shirts to suits, depending on the occasion. Kippa Shruga males like the ultra-orthodox men and boys wear a rectangular garment braided in each corner called tzitzit. This is usually worn under your shirt but very often wear the fringes, or tzitzit hanging out from their shirts. The reason for wearing the four cornered garment with fringes is in the Book of Deuteronomy 22:12 it is written “You shall make fringes upon the four quarters of your vesture, wherewith you cover yourself” In the warm weather you can find them wearing sandals and shorts (but not too short, usually just above the knees) and other than their kippas on their heads look like any other guy in N.Y., London, or Rome. Modern orthodox females and women generally dress modestly wearing sleeves to their elbows and skirts past their knees but sometimes wear pants under their skirts if there is a need. Some of these women volunteer with the Magen David Adom (Israel’s Emergency Medical Service) so for modesty sake of climbing in and out of ambulances they’ll wear pants under their skirts. The kippa shruga folks are just as observant but less stringent in the ways they follow the Jewish laws. The men generally serve in Combat branches of the IDF as do some of the women. These women are recognized by wearing long green skirts as part of their uniforms. Many of the modern orthodox women do National Service instead of military service for their two year obligation, working in youth centers, schools, hospitals, with senior citizens or the Emergency Medical Service to name a few places.
We also have Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and secular Jews, but these aren’t always easy to identify by their dress. Jewish people are white, brown, yellow, black, occidental or oriental. Some cover their heads, some choose not to. Judaism is a religion, a way to acknowledge a monotheistic G-d and to pay respect and homage to his belief regardless of how you choose to dress.
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Moshe Friedman is a licensed tour guide and writes frequently for Travelujah, the leading Christian travel community focused exclusively on connecting Christians to Israel. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah. For further information on touring contact Moshe iirectly at MosheF@netscape.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org