The world religions that arose in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share some common traits. The most important is monotheism [monotheism: belief in one God], the belief in a single, all-powerful God. They also believe in prophets, holy people who revealed the word of God. One important prophet in these religions is Abraham, known as the father of the Jewish people.
The early history of Judaism is shrouded in the mists of time. Most scholars believe, however, that Abraham was a real person who was born some 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. According to Jewish scripture, God visited Abraham one day and made a sacred agreement, or covenant [covenant: a sacred agreement], with him. Abraham promised that he and his descendants would follow God’s teachings and God promised to love them. Abraham’s descendants were known as the Israelites, sometimes called the Hebrews. They were the ancestors of the Jewish people.
Military defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans contributed to the exile of most Jews from their ancient homeland. By 200 C.E., Jewish communities could be found settled throughout the area of the Roman Empire, in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
According to the Torah [Torah: Judaism’s most sacred text, consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible], Abraham and his family moved to Canaan, later called the Land of Israel, a region of land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. His descendants later formed the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes traveled to Egypt to escape a famine. The Torah says that they were enslaved by the Egyptians for generations and that God performed miracles to free them. On the return from Egypt, the prophet Moses had a vision of God while praying at Mount Sinai. There, according to scripture, Moses revealed God’s laws on stone tablets. These laws, which included the Ten Commandments, would form the basis of Judaism.
The Israelites settled again in Canaan, which they regarded as their “promised land.” By 1000 B.C.E., they established the Kingdom of Israel, led by kings who united the tribes of Israel. The second of these rulers, King David, made the city of Jerusalem the capital of the kingdom. His son, King Solomon, built the Temple, the most sacred place in Judaism, there.
When Solomon died, in about 930 B.C.E., the Kingdom of Israel separated into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Both were later invaded and conquered. The kingdom of Israel was conquered in 722 B.C.E. by the Assyrians. In 597 B.C.E., the Babylonians invaded Judah and attacked Jerusalem, then the capital of Judah. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Most of the people of Judah, now known as Jews, were forced into exile. The Babylonian Exile was the start of the Jewish Diaspora [Jewish Diaspora: the spread of the Jewish people outside their homeland, beginning about 586 B.C.E.](die-AS-pur-ruh). From this time on, the Jewish people were dispersed across the Middle East and beyond. Other invaders, including the Romans, later occupied their land and caused more Jews to leave. Nevertheless, the Jewish religion survived. Jews both within the Land of Israel and throughout the Diaspora maintained strong connections to their homeland, stressing its importance and facing toward Jerusalem in their daily prayers.
Jewish religious leaders called rabbis, which literally means “teachers,” were crucial to the survival of Judaism. They preserved Jewish teachings and discussed ways to apply these teachings to new situations that Jews encountered. The early rabbis recorded Jewish traditions. This record eventually became the Talmud, which together with the Hebrew Bible forms the foundation of Jewish religious practice and ethical values. It includes some of Judaism’s most famous quotes, such as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and study it.”
This engraving shows King Solomon overseeing the building of the First Temple, which was completed around 957 B.C.E. The temple served as a center of worship and national identity for ancient Israel. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. The Second Temple was rebuilt in its place, although it too was eventually destroyed. Today, the site of the Second Temple, in Jerusalem, is still the most sacred site in Judaism.