A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs

A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs

A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs

A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs


One of the world's experts on classical Jewish history and literature here offers a clear and useful interpretation of the three major periods of Jewish history from the time of the Bible up to the present. It is a view from the inside, a description of the actual practice and thought of three epochs:

  • the time of the Jerusalem temples
  • the Judaism of any place (the dispersion)
  • the modern period

The inner dynamics of each period are capsulized in terms of three meals: the priest's meal with God in the Temple, all Israel's meals with God in no particular place, and all Israel's meals at home on the special occasion of the gathering of the family. This book offers a distinctive solution to the problem that all teachers of the study of religion face: how to relate the religion described in books to the same religion as it is lived in the world. What emerges is a captivating account of the life-forming nature of a dynamic religion in vastly differing historical contests. Included are maps, illustrations, photographs, and a glossary.


Three meals serve as the touchstone for the presentation of the three epochs of the history of Judaism: formative, normative, and contemporary. If we understand who eats the meals and where, how, and what they eat, we may gain a sound and clear picture of the main traits of each epoch in turn, from beginning to the present. These pages endeavor to solve a problem that all teachers face in the study of religion: how to relate the religion described in books with the same religion as it is lived in the world beyond. In my earlier textbooks I have concentrated on book-Judaism, setting forth what we find in the holy books, providing an account of the relationship between what is in those books and the world of the people who wrote those books. Here my starting point is Judaism in the streets, the rites of the faith leading to an examination of its holy writings and their principal ideas. If this textbook succeeds, it will provide a model of how we may study religion beginning with the faith as it is expressed in its holy actions and only then proceeding to the faith as it is explained in its holy books.

I have worked out the same theory of matters in a textbook anthology, meant to serve on its own as the single reader for a complete course in the history of Judaism. That book is quite different from this, but the same basic teaching problem is addressed in both: how to begin with the religion we know today, and work outward, and backward, to its historical unfolding.

This textbook takes its place among my many efforts to think through approaches to teaching about Judaism. Each book makes its own point. Diverse colleagues in schools, colleges, and universities have formed their own preferences, responding to their particular interests and those of their students. Because my primary professional commitment is to teaching, I have devoted

1. An Introduction to Judaism: Textbook and Anthology (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1992).

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