Jewish Culture


Identifying oneself as a “Jew” means you belong to a culture that is richly tied to heritage, religion, and tradition.  The Jewish people originated in Israel and are strongly tied to the religion of Judaism.  Now, Jews can be found in many different areas across the globe and although they may all have established smaller communities with their own set of values and norms, they are still deeply tied back to their roots.  Some would argue that being Jewish is a “way of life” (Rich, 2008).  This is a life that is dictated by the Torah (the first five books of the bible), communicated in Hebrew, and branded with a rich history of trials and struggle (Oxford University Press, 1999).


The Jewish tradition is most notably traced back to biblical figures and political strife.  The culture is rooted in Israel where ancestry includes such biblical figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rich, 2008).  However, those that identify themselves as Jewish in modern times have not necessarily maintained a strong religious tie to their heritage.  Instead, their personal Jewish culture is defined by the area in which they live and the people in which they interact.  Those that are tied to the race of “Jewish” identify themselves through their maternal line (Rich, 2008).  Alternatively, you can be adopted into the culture by active participation in the Judaism and a sincere involvement in the community and a commitment to their values and norms (Rich, 2008). Thus, all those that identify as Jewish may not have blood ancestry tying them to the culture.

Most people would commonly believe that a culture so richly tied to a religion would be flooded with rules and specific mandatory beliefs.  However, Judaism itself does not have a set of obligatory beliefs.  Instead, most recognize the 13 principles of faith: God exists, God is one and unique, God is incorporeal, God is eternal, prayer is directed towards God, the word of the prophets are true, Moses’ prophecies are true and he is the greatest of prophets, the written Torah and oral Torah were given to Moses, there will be no other Torah, God knows the deepest thoughts and deeds of men, God will reward the good and punish the wicked, the messiah will come, and the dead will be resurrected (Rich, 2008).  These 13 principles of faith allow for much personal opinion yet provide guidance and stability.  Depending on how strongly you believe the principles are the word of God and thus the “law” you are more “orthodox” or traditional than others.  The Jewish culture is more concerned with one’s actions that the stringency of one’s beliefs.  As a Jew you would believe in maintaining quality relationships; not only with god but with other human beings as well.

Norms within the Jewish culture are defined by the Jewish law, Torah, or Judaism.  Women are regarded as separate and equals.  They are the ones who determine when marital sex in appropriate and they are not to be mistreated.  The third woman’s mitzvah suggests that women should separate herself from their husbands during the time of her period and perform a ritual bath (Jewish Virtual Library, 2010).  It is after this cleansing that they couple may resume sexual intimacy (Rich, 2008).  Traditional gender roles are accepted as a norm (Rich, 2008).  It has been noted and history proves that within the Jewish culture, women are to play the primary roles of mother and wife.  Similarly, women are responsible for marking the beginning of the holiday season with lit candles and they have a dough-separating tradition that is strongly tied to the bible.  It has been written that being Jewish is strongly tied to family.  They identify themselves as a “nationhood” or “peoplehood” and feel a sense of connectedness to one another.  Their norms are therefore reflect their values.  They value compassion, truth, holiness, humility, love and peace and view them more as ideals (Oxford University Press, 1999).  Their culture, again, is a way of life.

Sense of self/space:

Though there is no single definition for Jewish identity, there are trends defined by the Halakhah, or the Jewish law. According to the Halakhah, “identity is determined simply by matrilineal descent. Birth is, of course, the most basic level at which Jewish identity is ‘ascribed’” (Trockman, 2004). There is also an emphasis on ‘achieving’ identity. Achievement of identity implies that, with hard work and perseverance, one can become whatever they choose.

During pre-modern times, some Jewish people gave up their own identification in order to avoid persecution, though most found safety in through the Jewish community (Semans and Fish, 2000). As they entered the modern world, Jewish people slowly began to assimilate and identified less with the Jewish communities.

Communication style:

Some orthodox Jews do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex, and prefer to only greet verbally (Freilich, 2005). Jewish people typically speak the language of the country in which they live; yet the language in prayer is Hebrew. Additionally, “All body language and behavior should be modest and proper among observant Jewish people” (Freilich, 2005).


Relationships in the Jewish society are taken very seriously. Love is based off of background, commitment, education, etc. These are all unrelated to romantic love. The Jewish culture believes that physical touch only causes confusion and limits self-control. True love should be based off of all things spiritual, intellectual, and emotional – not physical. According to Stolper in 1984, “Jewish law states that once a young woman begins menstruating, she assumes the status of nidah, and remains, from that point on, “off limits”, in regard to physical contact with men, until the day of her marriage.

It is customary for the bride and groom not to see each other for one week before their wedding. The day before the wedding, it is tradition for the bride and groom to fast. The wedding ceremony itself usually lasts about 30 minutes, and is full of age-old traditions. After the ceremony, the groom smashes a glass with his right foot, to “symbolize the destruction of the Temple” (Rich, 2005).

Judaism looks unfavorably upon divorce, yet it is not prohibited. In certain cases, it can be encouraged. According to Jewish law, a marriage is not dissolved until a bill of divorce (called a ‘get’ in Hebrew), is exchanged between the husband and wife (Kolatch, 1989).

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Time conscious/work habits:

Diligence at work is praised in Judaism. However, work is not viewed as the “center of life or as its primary source of meaning” (Meir, 2004). Additionally, they believe you should ‘work to live’, not ‘live to work’. More important is their dedication to the Torah. Work is not permitted on Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This may not be possible for all Jews, as the holidays change days each year. Many of the holidays will fall on weekdays, and many people cannot afford to take the time off. However, when possible, one should not work (Rich, 2008).

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Health Care Environment:

Some cultural taboos to be aware of in the Jewish community incorporate the aspect of physical touch. According to Jewish law, “any physical contact between males and females during the day of menstruation and for a week after” is forbidden (Thomas, 2007).  Additionally, Orthodox men will not touch a woman, nor look in the eyes of a woman that is not their wife (Boylan, 2005).  Premarital sex is strongly discouraged, as marriage ensures a sense of commitment and responsibility. Sex is not viewed as simply a source of physical pleasure for people in the Jewish religion (Rich, 2005). There are also taboos that deal with diet. Practicing Jews will only eat ‘kosher’ food – food that conforms to the rules of their religion. During Passover, all       leavened grain products are avoided (Rich, 2008). In terms of health, Jews place life above all else. They are not allowed to hasten death with assisted suicide, euthanasia, or suicide (Boylan, 2005).


During the WWII there was a limited amount of public education available to Jews in Eastern Europe for several centuries.  When there were no laws prohibiting discrimination in employment there was a very high incidence of employers specifying that Jews are not wanted in their work environment. “They were excluded from many basic industries such as commercial banking, automobile manufacturing, shipping and transportation, agriculture and mining” (Waldman, 1995). Now that there are laws prohibiting discrimination it illegal to refuse hire and equality to anyone due to their religion or race.

US Statistics:

US population: 1.7–2.2% of the U.S. population

Metropolitan areas with the largest percentage Jewish Populations

Rank State Percent Jewish
1 New York 9.1
2 New Jersey 5.5
3 Florida 4.6
4 District of Columbia 4.5
5 Massachusetts 4.4
6 Maryland 4.2
7 Connecticut 3.0
8 California 2.9
9 Pennsylvania 2.7
10 Illinois 2.3

Metropolitan areas with the largest Jewish populations

Metro Area Number of Jews
New York 2,028,200
Miami 337,000
Los Angeles 662,450
Philadelphia 285,950
Chicago 265,400
San Francisco 218,700
Boston 261,100
Baltimore 276,445

Top 5 Things a Healthcare Provider Should Know About the Jewish Culture:

  1. Jews in America have wide variation in their adherence to rituals. Some practices may be strictly adhered to, while others might be ignored. It is important to ask your patient about their preferences. The nurse or health care provider should facilitate the observation of religious practices or rituals, but they should never attempt to participate in them unless asked.
  2. Many orthodox Jews “keep kosher”, which generally means that they do not eat pork or shellfish, and they do not mix diary with meat. Be sure to ask your patient if they are following any special diets.
  3. When providing care for a Jewish person of the opposite sex, ask before touching them. Orthodox Jews generally do not touch members of the opposite sex unless it is their spouse or family member.
  4. Modesty is an important facet in the Jewish community. Protect your patient’s privacy to the best of your ability.
  5. Judaism places life above all else. If necessary, one can violate the Torah to save a life.

Differences between the Jewish culture and the US culture:

  • The Jewish people recognize alternative traditional holidays
  • Orthodox Jews eat only Kosher foods
  • Very strict rules are applied to female and male intimate interactions, of which are only to occur after marriage
  • Modesty is seen as an important value and social trends may not be acceptable
  • The Jewish people recognize certain eating habits/patterns in coordination with some holidays
  • Judaism is richly tied to the Hebrew language

Jewish Clothing:

Jewish prayer costume: clothing worn by the descendants of Abraham for praying.
Kippa: cap.
Prayer shawl: large piece of fabric worn on the shoulders.
Prayer book: set of prayers printed on pages and binded in a cover.
Fringes: set of loose bits decorating a fabric edge or clothing.
Temple memorial bands: fabric ribbons of the temple’s colors.


This is a Greek-styled dress that consists of a robe made of a cloth which is tied at the shoulders, flows freely on both sides, and is tied together at the waist with a rope. The Persian style consists of boots or sandals, pants, and a loose tunic (Buckles, 2002).


The tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl worn while reciting morning prayers as well as in the synagogue on Sabbath and holidays. The tallit has special twined and knotted fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners (Buckles, 2002).


Tzitzit or tzitzis are fringes or tassels worn by observant Jews on the corners of four-cornered garments, including the tallit, and are only worn by men. (Buckles, 2002)


A kippah or yarmulke is a thin, slightly-rounded skullcap traditionally worn at all times by observant Jewish men, and sometimes by both men and women. It is worn as a sign of respect and reverence for God. (Buckles, 2002)

Jewish Diet

The Jewish diet has certain rules that were set by the Hebrew bible and are said to ensure the health and well being of the people. Cleanliness is very important in this culture and they avoid unclean animals. Their diet is a major factor in defining their culture and distinguishing them from other religions  (Fellner, 1995).

Kosher: refers to that which is in accordance with the established standards of Jewish ritual, typical food and its preparation. Meat that is kosher comes from animals that both chew a cud and have cloven hoofs (sheep and cows), and that are killed in accordance with special slaughtering procedures. Kosher meat must be prepared in such a way as to remove all traces of blood. Seafood is considered kosher if the animals caught have scales or fins. Poultry is kosher if it is slaughtered and prepared in the same way as meat. Kosher prohibits the consumption of dairy products at the same time, or immediately before or after a meal that includes meat. Different cooking and serving utensils are required for dairy and non dairy meals (Fellner,1995).

Rosh Hashanah Menu

The menu for Rosh Hashanah is festive and elaborate.  No salt on the table and the emphasis is on sweet dishes. Among the traditional dishes are tzimmes (sweet carrots) and honey cake

Round Holiday Hallah

Sweet and sour meatballs

Autumn vegetable soup

Mixed green salad with raspberry vinaigrette

Glazed turkey breast

Deluxe honey cake

Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast menu

this menu  is usually dairy and contains a variety of dishes which can be served buffet style. fresh juice, cheese, fish, bagels, and salads, deviled eggs, mocha walnut chiffon cake

Sukkot Menu:

This is the time for hearty meals and hospitality. The Sukkot menu reflects the harvest bounty. Traditional dishes include stuffed foods and strudel

stuffed cabbage

white bean soup

assorted peppers salad

lemon chicken

steamed sesame broccoli

plum strudel

Hanukkah menu:

There are no formal festive meals for Hanukkah, but foods fried in oil are traditional.

butternut squash soup

Israeli salad

pan glazed apples with old fashioned potato latkes

cauliflower pancakes

jelly doughnuts

ice cream with chocolate sauce

fresh fruit

Purim Menu:

This festive meal is usually eaten in the afternoon.

chicken pea and bean salad

mushroom Garlic chicken

poppy seed noodles

snow peas, red peppers, bamboo shoots

cranberry fruit punch

Seder Menu:

Most extravagant of all Jewish holidays. All ingredients should conform to Passover regulations. The following menu is traditional and creative, filling but not too heavy.

chicken soup with matzo balls

vegetable broth for vegetarians

mushrooms in puff shells

boston lettuce in orange dressing

new potatoes with dill

tarragon asparagus

pecan meringue cookies

Shavuot Menu: traditionally dairy

cold cherry soup

baby spinach salad with lemon vinaigrette dressing

broccoli mushroom crepes

blueberry streusel coffee cake

spinach or ricotta manicotti with tomato sauce

sautéed zucchini

white/dark chocolate cheesecake


Jewish Language:

Jews use a different written and spoken language throughout the world, depending on where they live. The differences can vary from a few changes to a large grammatical difference.  The primary Jewish languages used are Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Jewish English.

Jewish-English: the difference between English and Jewish English could be either a small addition of a few Hebrew words such as Hannukah or matzah or it could be a huge difference in syntax and phonology.

Yiddish which simply means “Jewish,” is a language that was heavily used by the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.  After the genocide in Europe, cultural assimilation in America, and pressure to shift to Hebrew, Yiddish is no longer the most widely spoken Jewish language.

Judeo-Spanish is a language used by Jews originating from Spain.

Judeo-Arabic is a language used by the Jewish population of the Arabic speaking world

(Benor, 2003).


A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion.  Oxford University Press (1999).  Oxford reference online. Oxford University Press: Washington State University.

Benor,S.B. (2003). Jewish Language Research Website. Retrieved from

Boylan, L. (2005). Caring for patients of diverse religious traditions: Judaism. Home Healthcare Nurse, 23(12), 794-797. Retrieved from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Buckles, L. & Toropov, B. (2002). The complete idiots guide to work religions: Second Edition. Indianapolis,IN: Beach Brook Productions.

Fellner, J.B. (1995). In the Jewish Tradition: A Year of Food and Festivities. New York,NY: SMITHMARK Publishers Inc.

Freilich, D.Y. (2005). Judaism. Retrieved from

Kolatch, A.J. (1989). The Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers.

Meir, A. (2004). What does Judaism say about work ethic? Retrieved from

Retrieved from:

Retrieved from: The Visual Dictionary.

Rich, T. (2008). Jewish Holidays. Retrieved from

Rich, T. (2005). Marriage. Retrieved from

Semans, M., & Fish, L. (2000). Dissecting life with a jewish scalpel: a qualitative    analysis of jewish-centered family life. Family Process, 39(1), 121. Retrieved

from CINAHL with Full Text database.

Stolper, P. (1984). Love, Dating, and Marriage. Retrieved from

The Association of Religion Data Archives (1998).  Retrieved from:

The Jewish Virtual Library (2010).  American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.  Retrieved from:

Thomas, D. (2007). Menstrual Taboos in Religions and Cultures. Retrieved from

Trockman, J. (2004). Identity and Motivation of Jewish Communal Professionals. Retrieved from

Waldman,L. (1995). Employment Discrimination against Jews in the United States. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

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