To Be a Jew

A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life


By Hayim H. Donin

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The classic guide to the ageless heritage of Judaism

Embraced over many decades by hundreds of thousands of readers, To Be a Jew offers a clear and comprehensive introduction to traditional Jewish laws and customs as they apply to daily life in the contemporary world. In simple and powerful language, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin presents the fundamentals of Judaism, including the laws and observances for the Sabbath, the dietary laws, family life, prayer at home and in the synagogue, the major and minor holidays, and the guiding principles and observances of life, such as birth, naming, circumcision, adoption and conversion, Bar-mitzvah, marriage, divorce, death, and mourning.

Ideal for reference, reflection, and inspiration, To Be a Jew will by greatly valued by anyone who feels that knowing, understanding, and observing the laws and traditions of Judaism in daily life is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.


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Despite the availability of an abundance of books on Judaism that range from the most elementary to the most sophisticated, including excellent translations of the great Hebrew classics, I do not know of a single compact volume that combines (1) a review of basic Jewish belief in terms that an educated layman can understand, (2) a handbook covering the basic laws and observances needed for daily Jewish living under contemporary living conditions, and (3) a rationale for these observances. This book is intended to fill that gap in the contemporary literature dealing with Judaism.

While there are many excellent and useful volumes about Judaism, they do not give a reader who has not previously been exposed to Jewish religious life any precise directions on how to go about observing the teachings of the faith. This book is intended to provide just that sort of guidance. My aim is to set forth in condensed form the laws that govern Jewish living under contemporary conditions in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Western Europe, Israel, and other modernized societies.

This is a practical handbook on how to live a Jewish life, while trying to answer the constant query, “Why?” The why is partially dealt with in the part on “The Underlying Creed,” in the introductory essays to each of the chapters, and in the sections on the Law.

In writing this book, I had in mind the great numbers of Jewish people who have had a minimal Jewish education and/or have not been brought up in an intensive religious environment. I hope that it will be useful for (1) college study groups, (2) adult education, (3) the guidance of proselytes, (4) young couples about to be married, (5) Jewish families interested in enriching their lives through the study of their ancient heritage—a heritage which speaks to modern man and relates to contemporary issues.

Yet this book cannot be termed complete. There is no substitute for a thorough study of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, with their many commentaries; nor for laboring over the Talmud, the various Codes of Jewish Law, and the various compilations of Responsa on continuing halakhic questions. There is no substitute for studying the philosophy of Judaism as expounded and expressed in the brilliant classical works of Judah Halevi and Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and Bachya Ibn Pakuda, of Hasdai Crescas, Joseph Albo and Samson Raphael Hirsch, nor for delving into the writings of many contemporary scholars who have been seeking to translate the eternal truths of the Jewish faith into the contemporary idiom and to grapple with problems, old and new, on the basis of the knowledge and the insights that we have access to in the second half of the twentieth century. There is no substitute for studying in depth the history of the Jewish people—the challenges it has faced from without and from within, its defeats and victories, its suffering and redemption. There is no end to the depths of meaning to be found in studying the Torah; there is no limit to the new facets of understanding to be discovered as one carefully examines this extraordinary gem. “Turn it and turn it over again for everything is in it” (Ethics of the Fathers 5:25).

The Talmud tells the story of a proselyte who came to the great sage, Hillel, in the first century B.C.E. and asked to be taught the whole Torah quickly, in the time that he could remain standing on one foot. Instead of losing his temper at this impossibly presumptuous request, Hillel showed great patience and understanding. He answered by saying: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah, the rest is its commentary. Go and study it” (Shabbat 31a).

Hillel’s statement, his way of expounding upon the Biblical commandment, “and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18), may still stand as the capsule summary of Judaism. It is, however, still essential to “go and study the rest.” This book has been prepared to help the interested questioner take the first steps in going on to “study the rest” and apply what he learns to his daily life.

A rough draft of this book was prepared and substantially completed in Jerusalem from October 1968, through July 1969, while I was on leave from my congregation. It was a year that left its everlasting impact upon me and my entire family, an opportunity and an experience for which we shall be ever grateful.

I wish to express my sincere thanks to Rabbi Joshua Hutner, Director of the Rabbi Herzog World Academy in Jerusalem, to Rabbi Shlomo Joseph Zevin, its venerable President, and to Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and Vice-Chairman of the Academy’s Board of Directors for graciously providing me with the physical space and congenial surroundings at the Academy where I could concentrate on my work, for putting at my disposal the library and facilities of the Academy where major work is being done on the publication of the Encyclopedia Talmudica, and for helping me to make the acquaintance of the group of great scholars who labor there in rabbinic research, whose friendship, kindness, and accommodation I shall always cherish.

I am most thankful to and appreciative of my editor, Erwin Glikes, whose wise counsel and professional guidance contributed immensely to this book.

I am also deeply grateful to Rabbis Max Kapustin, David Silver, and Pinhas Stolper for their many suggestions and helpful observations, and particularly to Rabbi Yehudah Parnes, Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University for the meticulous care with which he critically reviewed the entire manuscript. While I shoulder all responsibility for whatever errors may be found in this text, I am deeply indebted to all the above for contributing to whatever excellence or merit this work can claim.

Hayim Halevy Donin



Perhaps more than any generation in memory, ours is one consciously searching for meaning. Pressed by questions from the younger among us, our concerns turn increasingly to a search for human values, away from the race for yet greater affluence and toward finding greater purpose for our lives.

In a sense, many in this generation have come to the same conclusion as did King Solomon in the remarkably exciting Biblical book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) which concerns itself most directly with a search for a meaning to life. Many today have also come to the conclusion that so many of the things to which they have been exposed, the material values they have hitherto confronted, the pleasure principle that has in effect determined their values in life—“this too is a vanity… an empty wind.…” Like Kohelet, the contemporary generation has been discovering for itself that happiness is not secured solely by physical comfort or economic well-being. The latter surely enables one to be more comfortable in his misery; it provides one with more ways by which to salve a spiritual emptiness or to anesthetize an emotional pain. But it is of little value in curing. In the long run, it is the discovery of meaning that is the key to personal fulfillment; it is the discovery of purpose that gives a man or woman a reason to want to live. In feeling useful and needed, man finds his happiness.

The modern Jew who has come to view with justified disdain the vain pursuits of a superficial, materialistic culture should realize that the purpose and meaning to life he is seeking can be found in his very own heritage. A Jewish life, reflecting the authentic values and life style of the Jewish heritage, is beautiful and good in a particular sense, and possesses meaning and significance also in a universal sense. But it may lie there as a buried treasure, perhaps totally unknown to him. If he has heard about it, he may be skeptical of its worth because his own experience with that heritage has been only superficial, his knowledge of it at the very best only elementary, and his understanding of it either incomplete or distorted. So he proceeds to reject it even before he has ever possessed it, often making no effort seriously to dig out that treasure, to experience it, and to appraise it. The Hebrew Prophets early noted that Israel often plants the seeds and cultivates the vineyards of everyone else while neglecting its own. The quirk in the character of the Jewish people which permits such self-neglect is surely not even in the long range interest of the world.

The Jew is today desperately needed as a Jew by the Jewish people. And I daresay that it is only as a Jew, consciously reflecting the values and ways of authentic Jewish life, that he is also desperately needed by the world. Since the dangers confronting the Jewish people in their struggle to assure physical and spiritual survival must not be underestimated, it is essential that more of Jewish intellect, energy, skill, and sacrificial idealism be redirected toward the strengthening of what is authentically Jewish.


The Underlying Creed


The Cornerstones of Judaism


The terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew have historically been used synonymously and interchangeably. The Bible refers to Abraham as Ibri (Hebrew), probably because he migrated from the other side (east) of the Euphrates River and Ibri means “from the other side.” Israel was the alternate name of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Hence his twelve sons and their descendants became known as the children of Israel, or the Israelite Nation or People. Jew is derived from Judah, the son of Israel, the most prominent of the Twelve Tribes. This became the prevalent name for the entire people when the Judeans from the Kingdom of Judea survived the downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. when Ten Tribes were led into captivity. Thus today, the people are called Jewish, their faith Judaism, their language Hebrew,* and their land Israel.

This people, Israel, started life as one family tracing its antecedents back to Abraham, the Hebrew who lived approximately 3800 years ago. The monotheistic faith firmly held by Abraham, and the “Covenant with God” entered into by him and reaffirmed by his descendants, identified this family as the adherents of a special faith. The family did not claim exclusive rights to this faith, but on the contrary, were eager to attract others to it. As this God-intoxicated family and those who joined them in faith grew in number, accepting the Torah as their Divine Constitution, taking possession of the land promised to them by the Master of the universe, they assumed the characteristics of a nation, a people speaking a common language, living within a specified geographic area, sharing common memories and a common destiny, and exercising the attributes of national sovereignty.

On the basis of their origin, Jews everywhere have regarded themselves as members of a family, an expanded family to be sure, and oftentimes a far-flung family, but a family nevertheless. Membership in this family derives from the mother. The child of any Jewish woman is thus considered to be a member of the family. But membership in the family has never been limited by birth. It has always been open to all, and those who share the faith of this family may be “adopted” into it. Thus, the convert to Judaism not only becomes a partner in faith with the children of Israel, but through faith, the proselyte himself becomes one of the children of Israel, sharing fully in its heritage and its privileges and assuming its burdens and tribulations. In accepting the Jewish faith, the proselyte thus joins the Jewish people or nation. In accepting the religious duties of the present, and in assuming the spiritual mission of the future, he also ties himself to the collective past.

Although the natural tendency for any family is to be exclusive and to look inward, this particular family was never exclusive. In times of persecution it was sometimes forced to withdraw in self-defense, but generally it looked outward and reached out to the world at large. When the central sanctuary in Jerusalem was built, Jews saw it as a “House of Prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7, see also Kings I 8:41–43).

In the very emphasis upon the particular, this singular family reflected the noblest form of universalism. The universalism that permeates the faith of Israel is reflected not only in its theological formulations and in its visions of the future, but in the very composition of its people. This seemingly “exclusive” people includes those whose skins range from the lightest to the darkest in colors, and within it a broad range of cultural diversity is represented. Yet despite the diversity that exists among them and the multitude of languages they speak, Jews regard themselves as related, as true brethren stemming from a common Semitic family. Although it is religion which unites them and it is only on the basis of religion that newcomers are admitted into fellowship, this feeling of kinship is very strong—and the mystery deepens when we realize that even Jews who rebel against the faith and discard its religious beliefs and practices are still regarded as Jews, and generally themselves still feel the bonds of kinship.

This sense of kinship felt by the Jewish people may be more of a “mystical” experience than a rationally definable one. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Jews have never quite been able to fit into the convenient categories used by historians or sociologists to define nations, races, religions, and other social groupings. Except for the fact that the Jews obviously do not constitute a race (for race is a biological designation), the Jews are not just a religious faith, even though they are that; and they are not just a nation, even though they are that too, according to definitions of the term “nation.” The problem is usually resolved by using the term “people” instead of either “faith” or “nation.”

This difficulty in categorizing the Jewish people may well be part of their uniqueness. It is a uniqueness which according to the believer was given its permanent stamp by the Divine command, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

The Jewish people were once described in these poetic terms:

There is a river in the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, in the mightiest floods it never overflows. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain and its mouth is in the Arctic seas. It is the Gulf Stream. There is in the world no other such majestic flow of waters. Its current is more rapid than the Mississippi or the Amazon, and its volume more than a thousand times greater. Its waters as far out from the Gulf as the Carolina coasts, are of an indigo blue; they are so distinctly marked that their line of junction with the common sea-water may be traced by the eye. Often one-half of a vessel may be perceived floating in the Gulf Stream water, while the other half is in the common water of the sea—so sharp is the line and such the want of affinity between those waters, and such too the reluctance, so to speak, on the part of those of the Gulf Stream to mingle with the common waters of the sea. This curious phenomenon in the physical world has its counterpart in the moral. There is a lonely river in the midst of the ocean of mankind. The mightiest floods of human temptation have never caused it to overflow, and the fiercest fires of human cruelty, though seven times heated in the furnace of religious bigotry, have never caused it to dry up, although its waves for two thousand years have rolled crimson with the blood of its martyrs. Its fountain is in the gray dawn of world’s history, and its mouth is somewhere in the shadows of eternity. It too refuses to mingle with the surrounding waves, and the lines which divide its restless billows from the common waters of humanity are also plainly visible to the eye. It is the Jewish people.

Although a small people, separate and distinct, Israel has nevertheless not been a withdrawn people. Though standing alone, it has not stood aside. Jewish history is interlaced with that of every other nation and empire. “Jews… have witnessed and taken part in more of the human career, they have recorded more of it, shaped more of it, originated and developed more of it, above all, suffered more of it, than any other people,” wrote Ernest van den Haag. The history of the Jews has been a history of interaction with the rest of the world—although Western scholars reared in a Christian-dominated society have tended to perceive only myopically the role of the Jew and of Judaism in that history, and to treat condescendingly anything that related to Jews or to Judaism. Textbooks of history, sociology or philosophy rarely have anything significant to say about the Jewish people or Jewish thought after the beginning of the Christian era. The bias against Judaism and the Jews that was reflected for so long in the texts and the curricula of the Christian universities was bequeathed to the secular academic world even after theological influence waned and the institutions became secular. Even Jews who entered this academic milieu were subtly influenced by the existing bias and unquestioningly accepted it themselves. Generally ignorant of their own history and philosophy, they fell sway to the notion that serious Jewish thought beyond the Biblical period either did not exist or did not merit the concern of serious scholarship.

Though denied, despised, rejected, persecuted, confined, and restricted through history, Jews and Judaism, the people itself and its sacred books, have nonetheless often set in motion forces that marked major revolutionary changes and advances in Western religions, in the natural and medical sciences, and in social philosophies. The contributions by individual Jews in every field of creative endeavor, in the advancement of human knowledge, in the elimination of suffering, in the development of commerce, have filled volumes. Judaism’s traditional emphasis on social justice through social action has had a noticeable effect in contemporary times.

For a people who have always been numerically insignificant, “the fewest of all the nations,” ha-m’at mikol ha-amim to use the words of the Torah, to have compiled such a record of achievements, and to have been on the scene of world history for so long while surviving all attempts to assimilate it and even to annihilate it, something more must be involved than the capacities of the people themselves.

The devout Jew looks upon that “something more” as a fulfillment of Divine prophecy that “through you and your descendants will all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14), and as a vindication of Israel’s Covenant with God: “For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and you did God choose to be unto Him a treasured people from among all the peoples upon the face of the earth” (Deut. 14:2). The devout Jew accepts the status with humility and thanksgiving, seeing it as a yoke and a burden as well as a distinction. He sees himself as a servant of the Lord, ready to do His bidding at all times. Serving the Lord takes many forms: spending one’s life studying Torah, faithfully observing the ritual and ethical commandments, struggling for justice and righteousness in society. The learned and observant Jew ignores none of the ways.

Whatever the believing Jew may find himself doing in fulfillment of that role, and whatever apparent “smallness” or “insignificance” his existence may appear to have, for him there is cosmic significance and purpose in doing the bidding of the Lord.

The skeptical Jew, on the other hand, who does not at all see himself as a servant of the Lord, is embarrassed by any reference to Israel’s enjoyment of Divine favor or any notion of a special national mission. Such talk even on the part of non-Jews tends to embarrass him, and he is eager to repudiate all such notions. But his attempts at repudiating the meaning of Jewish history are invariably contradicted by history itself, which does not permit Jews to become “like all the other nations,” to become merely another national entity among nations.

We believe that the nations and peoples of the world have their Divine purposes and their assigned roles to fulfill, too, for God is the God of all the world, not just of Jewry. And we see our divinely ordained assignment as involving a unique role, one to which history itself bears witness. It implies a special purpose in life, a reason for our existence. That purpose is not to make Jews of all the world, but to bring the peoples of the world, whatever their distinctive beliefs may be, to an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God and to an acceptance of the basic values revealed to us by that God. It is to serve as a means by which blessing will be brought to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

It is this mission which underlies for Jews the coming of the day “when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty, and all mankind will call upon Thy name.” It is only in these terms, supernatural though they be, that any plausible explanation can be offered for Israel’s ability to survive against the many obstacles and threats to its very existence, and its success in penetrating the thought of most nations. It is in these terms that we discover meaning even in Israel’s historical suffering and dispersion, as in its achievements, its strengths, and its restoration to Zion.


The bond between the Jewish people and the land which came to be known as Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, began at the time of Abraham.

I will maintain My covenant between Me and you and your offspring to come as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I give the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession.

(Genesis 17:7–8)

Thus began Israel’s bond to what was then—3800 years ago—the land of Canaan and was to become the land of Israel. The long sojourn by the children of Israel in Egypt, where they were enslaved and oppressed, was followed by their mass exodus and their return to the land that had been promised them. In the final prophecy to Moses just before his death, we read again “And the Lord said to him; this is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring’” (Deut. 34:4). Hence the name: The Promised Land; it was promised to Israel.

The exodus from Egypt and the possession of the land of Israel, serve as the historical fulcrum of Israel’s Covenant with God. It was only on the soil of Israel that all the commandments of the Lord could be implemented; it was only on the soil of Israel, “at the place that He will choose” (Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem) that the permanent central sanctuary of the Jewish people could be built; it was only on the soil of Israel that the children of Israel would realize their fullest potential as a people; it was only on the soil of Israel that God’s promises to Israel and His blessings would take on reality—if Israel proved itself worthy by its adherence to the commandments and by its loyalty to the Covenant. As the people were called upon to become a “holy people,” their land was to be a “holy land.” It was not to be defiled by the pagan practices that were then prevalent in the land and in the world at large. These pagan rites, the abominations, the idolatries, the Israelites were bidden to purge from the soil.

According to Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, the great scholar and sage who lived in the thirteenth century), to take possession of the Holy Land and to live in it must be counted among the Biblical commandments incumbent upon Jews to fulfill. It is written “You shall take possession of the land and dwell therein, since I have given you this land to inherit it” (Numbers 33:53). He sees Israel’s possession of the Holy Land as tied in fact to the destiny of the world. “So long as Israel occupies it, the earth is regarded as subject to Him,” said Nachmanides. A contemporary American folk philosopher may have inadvertently made the same point: “I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel, so will it go with all of us.”1

Ever since the Israelites first settled the land of Canaan about 3200 years ago (approximately 1200 B.C.E.), the land was never again devoid of Jews. Though they were conquered by foreign armies and ruled by foreign rulers, sometimes becoming a minority in their own country when the majority fled or was expelled, they never entirely left it. Many Jews stayed even after the destruction of the First Temple and the downfall of the First Commonwealth in the year 586 B.C.E., when large numbers of other Jews were exiled to Babylonia. The Babylonians had conquered the land and exiled most of its people, but by 515 B.C.E., after the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persians, the Jews were ready to return to rebuild what had been destroyed and to reestablish the Second Commonwealth, symbolized by the rebuilding of the Second Temple.

About five and a half centuries later, in 70 C.E., the destruction of the Second Temple and the downfall of the Second Commonwealth at the hands of the Romans dealt another severe blow to the Jewish people. Several attempts to reestablish independence and to throw off the yoke of foreign rule took place during the next sixty-five years, but all these attempts failed. While small settlements of Jews remained on the soil, the bulk of the people scattered to countries far and wide, almost literally to the ends of the earth.

Wherever they were, Jews dreamed of some day returning and reestablishing their independence, of restoring their national existence. They dreamed of it and prayed for it; never for a day was the Holy Land out of their thoughts. During the centuries, the land was overrun by a series of invading and conquering armies—Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Turks, and finally by British forces during World War I. And while individual Jews throughout the centuries sometimes returned to the Holy Land, if only to finish out their years and be buried there, an organized effort for a mass return and resettlement of the land aiming toward the reestablishment of an independent sovereign Jewish State did not begin to materialize until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Zionism, the name given to this organized effort, was and is a struggle for national liberation and for the crystallization of a national identity on the part of a nation that had been forced to wander from country to country over the centuries.


  • "Rabbi Donin has, in a clear, concise, and easy to read manner, revealed the basic laws, customs, and guiding principles of Judaism to vast audiences. I have personally given away hundreds of copies as gifts and enthusiastically welcome its reprinting."—Rabbi Steven Dworkin, former executive vice president, Rabbinical Council of America
  • "Both highly informative and inspiring. The eloquence of his presentation will guide and direct both Jew and non-Jew to the major texts that are at the foundation of Jewish life. Though written from modern Orthodox point of view, this book is indispensable to those committed to the Conservative and Reform versions of Judaism."—Dr. Benjamin Z. Kreitman, founder of Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues
  • "Without a doubt, To Be a Jew is one of the all time great introductions to Judaism and is always on my short list of recommended books."—Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, National Jewish Outreach Program
  • "The republication of To Be a Jew is an occasion to celebrate. In this masterful book, the late Rabbi Donin meticulously and painstakingly collected, classified, and analyzed a multitude of Halakhot that are relevant to the life cycle of every Jew. The author succeeded in integrating a vast array of seeming minutia--behavioral Halakhot--into an uplifting symphony where 'all my bones' explode in a song of gratitude to the Ribbono Shel Olam."—Rabbi Simcha Krauss, Young Israel of Hillcrest
  • "A clear, concise, and cogent introduction to an exciting, vibrant, and dynamic tradition, helpful for newcomer and old-timer alike."—Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University
  • "For a general discussion of Jewish living, To Be a Jew is unexcelled. It is comprehensive and clear."—Ruth Frank and William Wollheim, The Book of Jewish Books

On Sale
Aug 13, 2019
Page Count
464 pages
Basic Books

Hayim H. Donin

About the Author

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (1928-1982) established himself as an incomparable teacher and interpreter of Jewish laws and practice through his classic books To Be a Jew, To Pray as a Jew, and To Raise a Jewish Child, all published by Basic Books. For twenty years he was Rabbi of Congregation B’nai David in Southfield, Michigan, where he was also Adjunct Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Detroit. Rabbi Donin held a Ph.D. in Education and was also the founder and president of the Akiva Hebrew Day School in Detroit.

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