Jewish culture is one of the most diverse international societies in the world. Encompassing religion, ethnicity, tradition, and a nation, there are many different ways that people consider themselves to be Jewish – and while tracing Jewish genealogy isn’t the only option for exploring your Semitic background, it’s a powerful one. Jewish DNA testing, which is widely available, allows you to explore your heritage, helping you understand whether or not you and your family are Jewish – along with some details about your background that might inspire you to do some further digging on your own. Whether or not you want to pursue a Jewish heritage test, we recommend looking into some history on Jewish culture and Jewish genealogy.
A brief history of Jewish culture
Jewish genealogy dates back thousands of years and is steeped in rich tradition, rituals, holidays, and ways of life. Historical experts believe that the Jewish people originated in the Middle East – specifically in the area that is now Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Jewish people have faced many challenges throughout their history, like persecution, exile, and war – and all of these struggles continue to plague Jewish people throughout the world today. There are plenty of significant Jewish events that have occurred throughout time, but we’ve highlighted some of the most pertinent moments that define and speak to Jewish culture and tradition today.
One of the most important events in Jewish history is the Exodus, which took place in the 13th century BCE. This was the Moses-led liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus is commemorated every year during the holiday of Passover – one of the most significant holidays in the Jewish calendar.
The Second Temple Destruction
Another important event in Jewish history is the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, which led to the dispersal (a.k.a. the “Diaspora”) of the Jewish people throughout the world. This event marked the beginning of a long period of exile.
The Writing of the Talmud
The Talmud (or “teaching”) is an ancient text compiled of Jewish ideas, sayings, and stories. Touching all areas of life, learning, and spirituality, the Talmud was first written in 350, and serves as the central code for rabbinic law today.
The Holocaust is known as the most catastrophic and evil modern piece of Jewish history. The Jewish genocide took place in Europe during World War II and was led by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Approximately six million mass murders and exterminations were carried out via shootings, concentration camps, and pogroms. In an effort to “never forget,” several monuments, memorials, and museums are dedicated to this horrific event, and just over 67,000 survivors of the Holocaust are still alive today.
Continued global anti-Semitism
Although the Holocaust took place almost 78 years ago, anti-Semitism remains alive and well throughout the world, and hate crimes against Jewish people continue to occur on a regular basis. Recent acts against Jewish people and culture include the targeted shootings of two Jewish men in Los Angeles, anti-Semitic fliers found in Wisconsin blaming COVID-19 on Jewish people, and anti-Semitic vandalism in Alabama – and that’s just scraping the surface with a quick Google search. This is why Jewish DNA analysis can be a controversial topic; while many people want to know their family’s history and where they come from, it remains dangerous to claim Judaism, depending on where you reside in the world.
Highlights of Jewish culture and traditions
Despite the challenges Jewish people have faced throughout the past few centuries, Jewish culture and traditions have been carefully preserved and passed down from generation to generation. We’ve rounded up some of the most prominent Jewish traditions that continue to be honored and celebrated today – a list that might just inspire you to pursue that Jewish heritage test or Jewish DNA testing.
Spanning over eight days of celebration, Hanukkah is a winter Jewish festival that celebrates the recovery of Jerusalem, and the rededication of the Second Temple that was destroyed centuries ago. Hanukkah is observed with the nightly lighting of a nine-branched candelabrum known as a “menorah.” The holiday ritual is accompanied by the singing of Hanukkah songs, dreidel spinning, and delectable Jewish treats like latkes or sufganiyot.
- Lag B’Omer
Lag B’Omer takes place on the 33rd day of the Omer – the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot. There are a few different theories when it comes to its origin. Some believe Lag B’Omer commemorates the end of the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, and others believe the holiday celebrates the anniversary of Simeon ben Yochai's death. Either way, Lag B’Omer often involves the lighting of bonfires, weddings and parties, listening to music, and first haircuts for three-year-old Jewish boys. The way you celebrate Lag B’Omer will depend on what sector of Jewish culture you belong to, what region you reside in, or what your preference is as a Jewish person.
Positive results on a Jewish heritage test might inspire you to celebrate Passover: one of the most widely-celebrated Jewish holidays in the world. Passover honors the story of Israelites escaping Egyptian slavery, and takes place for either seven or eight days. It begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan with a seder meal. Depending on the branch of Jewish culture, sacrifices are offered and/or scripture is recited in the holiday’s honor.
Purim commemorates the Jewish people being saved from annihilation at the hands of Haman – an official of the Achaemenid Empire. The holiday begins with a day of fasting, and involves a synagogal reading from the Book of Esther. Jewish people will also exchange gifts, make donations to the poor, make traditional Jewish food and sweets, and host carnivals for Jewish children to enjoy.
- Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah (or “Yom Teruah”) is known as the Jewish New Year. It’s meant to remember the creation of the world, and sparks a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that ends with Yom Kippur – or the “Day of Atonement.” Taking place over a period of two days, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with prayer services, symbolic foods (like apples dipped in honey to signify a “sweet new year”), and special rituals and greetings that mark the new year.
Taking place on the seventh day of the week (a.k.a., Saturday), Shabbat – or “the Sabbath” – is a day for Jewish people to free themselves from the everyday labors of life. The day is reserved for spiritual reflection, family time, and rest. Different Jewish cultural sectors approach the day in their own way: while some will simply take the day off of work, others will also refrain from things like cooking, driving, or using electricity.
Shavuot (or “Shavuos”) is known as the “Feast of Weeks.” The Jewish holiday takes place on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, and historically marked the start of the wheat harvest in Israel. Today, Shavuot is celebrated with night-long Torah studies, the consumption of dairy products, synagogue attendance, Book of Ruth readings, and time off from work.
- Shemini Atzeret
This Jewish holiday is celebrated on the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which typically takes place in early autumn. People are meant to take work off for the celebration, taking the time to bond with God. Similar to many other Jewish holidays, prayers are recited and synagogue is attended.
Sukkot takes place for seven days and is reserved for Israelites who are making a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple. Jewish people may also take the day to build a “sukkah” – a.k.a., a hut – where they live, eat, and sleep throughout the seven-day period.
- Yom HaAtzmaut
Yom HaAtzmaut is known as Israeli Independence Day – commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. The holiday is accompanied by ceremonies, feasts, and gatherings.
- Yom HaShoah
Yom HaShoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day – a time to commemorate the horrific events that resulted in six million Jews being murdered.
- Yom HaZikaron
This holiday is Israel’s official remembrance day: dedicated to fallen Jewish soldiers and civilian victims of anti-Semitism.
- Yom Kippur
Known as the holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei. It focuses on atonement and repentance and consists of fasting, prayer, sin confessions, and other means of religious celebration and reflection.