Judaism in the World

c. 2000‑1500 BCE The Patriarchal Period

According to the Biblical narrative of Genesis, the first Jew was Abraham, commanded by God to leave his native Mesopotamia for the land of Canaan. As the founding fathers of the nomadic Hebrew tribes, Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob became known to Jewish tradition as the Patriarchs. Their wives—Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel—are the Matriarchs. This formative period ended when Jacob, renamed Israel, followed his son Joseph to Egypt during a period of famine in Canaan.

c. 1260 BCE Moses, the Exodus, and Sinai

Exodus, the second book of the Bible, relates how the prophet and lawgiver Moses led the twelve Israelite tribes—descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob—out of their slavery in Egypt. During their sojourn in the desert, the tribes were united into the “people of Israel” at Mount Sinai, the traditional site of God’s revelation of the Torah.

c. 1200‑1050 BCE The Israelite Conquest of Canaan

Under the leadership of Joshua, the twelve tribes conquered and reapportioned Canaan as the land of Israel. Thereafter the people were led by a series of religious/military chiefs called Judges. From this period comes the earliest archaeological evidence of the people of Israel, mentioned on an Egyptian stele in the name of Pharoah Merneptah.

c. 1049 BCE Samuel Anoints Saul King of Israel

With this event the period of the Judges ended and the Israelite monarchy began. Saul’s successor David (ruled c. 1002‑970) established a united kingdom, centered in his capital city of Jerusalem. David’s son Solomon (c. 970‑931) built a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, thereby unifying Israelite religious life there as well. Following Solomon’s death, however, his warring sons divided the kingdom between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

722 BCE The “Ten Lost Tribes”

The northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and its population deported. These are said to be the ten tribes lost to Jewish history. The Israelite monarchy continued in Judah, and the era of classical prophecy began. As the monarchy declined over the next century and a half, the major prophets in Israel were Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

586 BCE The Babylonian Exile

The Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah based in Jerusalem, destroyed its Temple, and exiled the monarchic and priestly leadership. Although the Babylonian Exile lasted only fifty years, the first permanent Diaspora, a Jewish community outside Israel, was created. It was probably during this period that the people of Israel came to be called Judean and later, Jews.

444 BCE Ezra Reads the Torah

Following the return to Israel (called “Zion” after Mt. Zion in Jerusalem) in 538, and the rebuilding of the Temple in 515, Ezra the Scribe returned in 458 and commenced work on the final composition of the Book of the Law, the Torah. On Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) in 444, Ezra read the Torah in public for the first time, marking the emergence of Judaism as a formal religion.

164 BCE The Maccabean Revolt

A Jewish group called the Maccabees rebelled against the Syrian Hellenists and rededicated the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. These events are commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. Jewish independence was reestablished under a Maccabean/Hasmonean monarchy, and Biblical history came to an end. The concluding book of Daniel is also dated to 164 BCE.

0 CE Hillel and Jesus in Judea

During a period of religious and political turmoil under Roman rule, various interpretations of Judaism competed for primacy. The priestly tradition of the Sadducees tended to align itself with the ruling power. The scribal tradition of the Pharisees, represented by sages such as Hillel and Shammai, later emerged as Rabbinic Judaism from which all major, contemporary forms of Judaism derive. The apocalyptic tradition of the Essenes formed the background for the emergence of early Christianity. About this time, according to tradition, rabbi Hillel died and Jesus was born.

40 CE Philo of Alexandria

In the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, Egypt, a burgeoning Jewish community was highly assimilated into Greek culture. The Septuagint, a second century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and the philosopher Philo are the best known examples of the Alexandrian blend of Hellenism and Judaism, a pattern of cultural synthesis continuing to this day. In 40 CE, the elderly Philo traveled to Rome as part of a Jewish delegation to plead for the sanctity of the Temple in Jerusalem.

70 CE Destruction of the Second Temple

Following the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66 CE, the Roman armies began the reconquest of Judea. In 70 CE the Roman General Titus entered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Three years later, the Jewish rebels—called “Zealots”—made their last stand at the mountain fortress of Masada. With the destruction of the Temple and the mass suicide of the rebels in the face of anticipated capture and slavery, the very survival of Judaism was endangered. In response, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai moved the Sanhedrin (the rabbinical council) from the besieged Jerusalem to the town of Yavne, and there established a new yeshiva, a rabbinical academy, for the reconstruction of Jewish law.

c. 220 CE Completion of the Mishnah

With two more unsuccessful revolts against Rome—the Diaspora revolt in 114-17 and the Bar‑Kochba revolt in 132-35 CE—the military option was exhausted and rabbinic activity was redoubled. Following the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, the Sanhedrin and a succession of academies moved to the Galilee in the 140s CE. Two generations later, around 200 CE, the curriculum of the yeshiva was redacted into the first compendium of Jewish law: the Mishnah.

c. 500 CE Completion of the Talmud

Ongoing rabbinic debate and scholarly productivity culminated in a voluminous commentary on the Mishnah called the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud (the “Yerushalmi”) was compiled c. 400 CE, and a century later, the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud (the “Bavli”) was completed in the famed academies of Sura and Nehardea.

882 – 942 CE Saadiah Gaon in Babylonia

With the decline of Jewish life in Judea, Babylonia emerged as the major Jewish community of the world. It reached its peak under the leadership of Rav Saadiah Gaon (known as Rabbi Saadiah the Genius), the head of the yeshiva of Sura. Born and educated in Egypt, Saadiah moved through the yeshivot of Palestine, Syria, and Iraq before being called to Babylonia. There he authored an early prayer book and the first major medieval Jewish theological treatise, The Book of Beliefs and Doctrines; he wrote in Arabic and is considered a pioneer in the field of Judeo-Arabic literature.

900 – 1100 CE The “Golden Age” of Spain

For two centuries, Jewish life thrived in Muslim Spain, known in Hebrew as Sepharad. This Sephardic Jewish community produced a rich culture exemplified by courtiers such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut (905‑75), and poet/philosophers such as Solomon ibn Gabirol (c. 1020‑57) and Judah ha‑Levi (c. 1075‑1141).

1040 ‑ 1105 CE Rashi in France

In southern and central Europe (called Ashkenaz, Hebrew for Germany) a more insular Jewish culture flourished which produced rabbinic commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud. The foremost exponent of this tradition was Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (also known as Shlomo Yitzchaki), more commonly referenced by his acronym, Rashi. Rashi’s commentaries are used in Jewish study to this day.

1135 – 1204 CE Maimonides in Egypt

The greatest figure in the intellectual history of medieval Jewry was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known also as Maimonides and by his acronym, Rambam. Born in Cordova, Spain, he moved to Fez, Morocco and eventually settled in Cairo, Egypt where he became court physician to the Muslim ruler. As a rabbinic scholar, Maimonides merged the traditions of Sepharad and Ashkenaz in the Mishneh Torah; as a philosopher, he synthesized Jewish and Aristotelian thought in the Guide for the Perplexed.

1290 CE Jews Expelled from England

Following the First Crusade in 1096 and the Crusades of the 12th century, the Jewish status in Christian Europe rapidly declined. Anti‑Jewish stereotypes and false accusations abounded. The deteriorating situation culminated in the mass expulsion of the Jews of England.

1492 CE Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain

Exacerbated by the “Black Death” of the mid‑fourteenth century, the scapegoating of Jews increased and book burnings, rioting, and expulsions ensued. In 1391, massacres of Jews spread across Christian Spain, leading many to submit to baptism. The new phenomenon of converted Jews (called marranos or conversos) led to a campaign to root out false Christians. The institution of the Inquisition in 1483 culminated in royal decrees to expel the Jews of Spain in 1492 and the Jews of Portugal in 1497.

1516 CE The Ghetto of Venice

To accommodate the growing number of Jewish refugees, the authorities of Venice, Italy created a special quarter for Jews in the ghetto (lit., foundry) district of the city. This became the prototype of a series of Jewish quarters established throughout central Europe, serving to segregate Jews from the majority population and culture.

1564 Joseph Caro Publishes the Shulchan Aruch

In Ottoman Turkey, part of the emerging Sephardic Diaspora, the scholar Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488‑1575) first completed the Beit Yosef, a detailed commentary on Jewish law, the Halakhah, and then summarized his rulings in the Shulchan Aruch, which became the standard guide to Jewish practice in use to this day.

1560s CE The Kabbalists of Safed

The Zohar, purported to have been written c.1286 by Moses de Leon of Castille, became the central text of Jewish mysticism, called the Kabbalah. With the disaster of the Spanish expulsion, the Kabbalah attracted many new adherents who sought explanation for their suffering. A center of Jewish learning arose in the Palestinian town of Safed under the great Kabbalists Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522‑70) and Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534‑72).

1648 CE Massacres in Poland

The Cossack uprising under Bogdan Chmielnitski, accompanied by widespread massacres, ended a period of security and prosperity for the Jews of Poland. Highly organized under the “Council of the Four Lands,” Polish Jewry’s greatest rabbinic figure was Rabbi Moses Isserles (c. 1520‑72) of Cracow, who adapted the Caro’s Shulchan Aruch for Ashkenazi Jews.

1657 CE Jewish Rights Guaranteed in Holland

Sephardic refugees began to arrive in Amsterdam at the end of the sixteenth century. By the mid‑seventh century, the community had grown in size and importance. Two of its most noteworthy members were Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel (c.1604-57), who petitioned Cromwell for Jewish readmittance to England in 1655, and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), whose heretical views had him excommunicated from the Jewish community in 1656. On July 13, 1657, Dutch Jewry was granted full rights of residence and trade, the first acts of the “emancipation” of Jews in early modern Europe.

1665 CE Shabbetai Zvi, Claimed Messiah

Influenced by the Lurianic Kabbalah, Nathan of Gaza announced the arrival of the Messiah in the person of Shabbetai Zvi (1626‑76). Shabbatean messianism caught the imagination of great numbers of Jews and lived on through the next century, most notably in the Polish Jewish circle of Jacob Frank (1726-91).

1700‑1760 CE The Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism

A more successful movement of Kabbalistic messianism was Hasidism, founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer. Known as the Baal Shem Tov, he preached in the Podolian town of Medzibozh in the 1740s and 50s. After his death his Hasidim (followers) spread his teachings of popular piety throughout Eastern Europe. The first work of Hasidic literature, Jacob Joseph of Polnnoye’s Toldos Yaakov Yosef, was published in 1780. The rabbinic opponents of Hasidism were led by Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, the Vilna Gaon (1720‑97).

1783 CE Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah

Following Emperor Joseph II of Austria’s Edict of Tolerance in 1782, there was hope for the further abolition of medieval restrictions on Jewish life. Moses Mendelssohn (1729‑86) became the principal spokesman of the movement to acclimate Jews to European culture. In 1783, the Berlin Haskalah, Hebrew for “enlightenment,” was inaugurated with the publication of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and the founding of Ha‑Me’assef, the first modern Jewish literary magazine.

1791 CE Emancipation of the Jews of France

After intense debate in the National Assembly, Revolutionary France granted citizenship to its Jewish population—the first formal emancipation of Jews by a modern European state. Though the principle of equal status was spread throughout Europe by French conquest, opposition to Jewish emancipation remained. In 1806, Napoleon convened a modern “Sanhedrin” at Paris to test the loyalty of his Jewish subjects.

1810 CE The First Reform Temple

Israel Jacobsen built the first modern synagogue, called a “temple,” in Seesen, Germany. In 1815, Jacobsen moved to Berlin and instituted a private service in his home. Three years later, the New Israelite Temple Association inaugurated the first systematic Reform worship service in Hamburg. The opening of the Hamburg Temple signaled the start of the Reform movement in modern Judaism. Its principles were clarified in the rabbinic synods of 1844‑46, led by Reformers Abraham Geiger (1810‑74) and Samuel Holdheim (1806-60).

1819 CE The Birth of Modern Jewish Scholarship

Following anti‑Jewish riots in Germany, a group of Jewish university students formed the Verein fur Kultur und Wissenschaft des Judentums, a scholarly society for the defense of Judaism by intellectual means. The Wissenschaft group developed into the first movement for the scientific study of Jewish sources. Among its members were Immanuel Wolf (1799‑1829), Leopold Zunz (1794‑1886), and the young Heinrich Heine (1797‑1856).

1836 CE Hirsch and Neo‑Orthodoxy

In response to Reform Judaism and the Wissenschaft group, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) argued for the viability of traditional Judaism in the modern world. His best known work, Nineteen Letters on Judaism, was published in 1836. In 1851 he was called to serve as rabbi of the congregation of Frankfurt‑am‑Main, where he established his vision of a “Neo­-Orthodox” Judaism.

1854 CE Frankel and “Historical Judaism”

Seeking a middle way between Reform and Orthodoxy, Zecharias Frankel (1801‑75) formulated a rationale for the preservation of Jewish tradition he called “positive historical Judaism.” In 1854, he was appointed director of the Juedisch Theologisches Seminar at Breslau, which he developed into the prototype of the modern rabbinical seminary. Frankel’s moderate position set the precedent for today’s Conservative movement in American Judaism.

1881 CE Anti-Semitism and Jewish Resettlement

The 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II precipitated a wave of pogroms (anti‑Jewish riots) in Russia. Anti-Semitism, a term coined about 1879, began to spread as a modern political movement. The years 1881‑82 saw the onset of a mass immigration to the United States as well as the beginnings of the Zionist movement. Leo Pinsker’s 1882 pamphlet “Auto-Emancipation” precipitated the founding of a proto‑Zionist movement and the First Aliyah (1882‑1903), a movement of pioneering settlement in Palestine.

1897 CE Theodor Herzl and Zionism

Shocked into action by the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair in France, Austrian playwright and journalist Theodor Herzl (1860‑1904) organized the political movement of Zionism. Although Zionist literary utopias had been published before, Herzl’s The Jewish State burst on the scene in 1896 and motivated the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.

1920s CE Rosenzweig and Buber in Germany

The major figures in early 20th century Jewish thought were two German Jewish philosophers of religion, Franz Rosenzweig (1886‑1929) and Martin Buber (1878‑1965). Rosenzweig’s major work was The Star of Redemption (1921) and Buber’s was I and Thou (1923). In 1920, Rosenzweig founded the Freies Judisches Lehrhaus, a center for modern Jewish education. Rosenzweig and Buber also collaborated on a German translation of the Bible.

1933‑1945 CE The Holocaust

The rise of Nazism in Germany was the final blow to the promise of Emancipation. After revoking Jewish citizenship in 1935, the Nazis accelerated their attempt to rid Germany of its Jews. During World War II, radical Nazi anti-Semitism led to the murder of nearly six million Jewish men, women and children throughout Europe—one‑third of the world’s Jewish population. The Holocaust, as the catastrophe has come to be known, is a central event in modern Jewish consciousness.

1948 CE The Establishment of the State of Israel

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave new impetus to the Zionist movement. Combining international lobbying, overseas fundraising, agricultural settlement in Palestine, and the building of a civil infrastructure called the Yishuv, the Zionist movement laid the groundwork for the establishment of the state in 1948. As a Jewish symbol, the rebirth of Israel ended centuries of exile and powerlessness, helped to heal the pain of the Holocaust, and offered new possibilities for the future of Jewish life.

1967 CE The Six-Day War and Jewish Survival

Israel’s victory in the Six‑Day War in June of 1967 led many American Jews back to an identification with Israel. The preoccupation with Jewish survival was also evident in renewed concern over the rate of intermarriage, as well as belated attention to the Holocaust as a pivotal event in Jewish history.

1972 CE First Women Rabbis Ordained

In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained as a Reform rabbi by Hebrew Union College. In the same year, a New York‑based Jewish feminist group called Ezrat Nashim issued “Jewish Women Call for Change,” a manifesto demanding the equalization of religious rights for women in Conservative Judaism. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which had been the first seminary to admit women, graduated its first class in 1973. Women’s ordination was not approved by the Conservative movement until 1983, and the first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Eilberg, was ordained two years later.

1973 CE Yom Kippur War

In October 1973, Israel was embroiled once again in a war with her Arab neighbors. The war began on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. While the majority of Israelis were at synagogue and the attack caught the nation by surprise, the war was won by Israel. The fighting lasted from October 6th-25th and dashed any sense of security Israel had felt after the Six Day War.

1970s CE Alyiah from the USSR

In the last ten to fifteen years of the Soviet Union, world Jewry rallied around the cry of alleviating the suffering and persecution facing the Jews in the USSR. Natan Sharansky, who now chairs the Jewish Agency, is the poster-child for this movement, whose book Fear No Evil documents his experiences. Thousands of Jews, with the financial support of their Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, were eventually allowed to leave the USSR, with many making aliyah to Israel, while others immigrated to other Western countries.

1993 CE Oslo Peace Accords

On September 13th, 1993 Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin of Israel and PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) Chairman Yasser Arafat publicly signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn along with President Bill Clinton. While this agreement heralded in a time of unprecedented optimism in the region for a true, lasting peace, it lost favor at the turn of the millenium with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, due to a perceived lack of follow-through by both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

1995 CE The Rabin Assassination

Throughout the world, Jews flocked to their synagogues to mourn the tragic death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The killing by the hand of a Jew sparked mutual recriminations between Orthodox and non‑Orthodox Jews as well as new initiatives for reconciling opposing camps within Judaism.

2000-2005 CE The Second Intifada

As the new millenium unfolded, Israel and Palestine were embroiled in the most violent clash in recent memory. Sparked by a visit to the Temple Mount by opposition leader Ariel Sharon on September 28th, 2000, the Intifada was marked by a spike in violence on both sides, with Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Jerusalem and the surrounding areas and the Israel Defense Forces responding by targeting locations in the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank) and setting up a system of checkpoints. This eventually lead to the erection of the Separation Barrier to ostensibly keep violence out of Israel. The Second Intifada led to a widespread malaise among left-wing Israelis (and Jews worldwide), with many feeling hopeless in the face of the violence.

2012 CE Spain Welcomes Descendants of Sephardic Jews Who Fled During the Inquisition

In late 2012, the Spanish government announced that descendants of the Sephardic Jewish community who fled during the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth century would, upon proof of lineage, be granted a Spanish passport and a fast track to citizenship. This led to an influx of applications and ongoing discussion about who qualifies as “Jewish.”