Jewish Learning: Types of Jews

posted in Analysis, at 31 December 2020 00:00 AM EET by admin

Judaism is the world's oldest monotheistic religion, dating back nearly 4,000 years. Followers of Judaism believe in one God who revealed himself through ancient prophets. The history of Judaism is essential to understanding the Jewish faith, which has a rich heritage of law, culture and tradition.


Ancient Religious Groups:

Since the biblical period, Jews have been divided into three religious groups:

Kohanim (Priests)

The descendants of the sons of Aaron who served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem;


The descendants of the tribe of Levi, who also worked in the Temple as musicians, singers, guards, and gatekeepers; and

Israelites (Yisraelim)

Those from the other 11 tribes.

The vast majority of today’s Jews are Israelites, but Kohanim and Levites still have a few distinguishing feaatures. Kohanim are subject to some restrictions on whom they may marry and are forbidden from coming into contact with corpses. They also receive the first aliyah when the Torah is read. Levites receive the second aliyah during Torah reading, and are exempt from redeeming their first-born sons.

Ethnicities: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi Etc.

Jews from different parts of the world have developed distinct cultures and customs. Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe are known as Ashkenazim. Much of what, in America, is thought of as Jewish — bagels, Yiddish, black hats — are actually specific to Ashkenazi culture.

Jews from Spain, the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish Diaspora are known as Sephardim. Starting in the eighth century, they enjoyed a “Golden Age” of harmony with Christians and Muslims in Spain that lasted for about 200 years. When Jews were exiled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, they fled to other areas of the world, bringing their unique traditions, including their language–Ladino–with them.

Mizrahim, or Oriental Jews originate primarily from Iraq, Persia, and Yemen, but can be found everywhere from Morocco to Calcutta.

In addition, a community of Jews has lived in Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years. The majority of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s, where many continue to observe a number of distinct practices and customs.


Jews vary dramatically in their approach to Jewish traditions, laws and ritual observance. In the United States, the major religious streams of Judaism are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. The Orthodox population is itself quite diverse, with numerous subgroups, such as ultra-Orthodoxor haredi Orthodox(a group that includes HasidicJews), centrist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox. Many Jews do not identify with any one denomination, instead describing themselves as “nondenominational,” “transdenominational,” “post-denominational” or “just Jewish.”

Semites and Anti-Semitism

As a whole, Jews are sometimes referred to as Semites, but this can be misleading. This term originally comes from the Bible, referring to Shem, one of Noah’s sons. The Jewish people are thought to be descendants of Shem. In modern times, anti-Semitism is understood to be anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activities. Both Hebrew and Arabic (along with Amharic) are classified as Semitic languages. 

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