Top 5 Things You Probably Think About Judaism That are Totally Not True David Kasher

Let’s do a test: What has horns and runs Hollywood? OMG, I hope you didn’t just think of Jews!! But if you did, I can’t blame you, I guess. I did too – and I’m a rabbi! The myths and stereotypes that follow Jews around are pretty legendary, and most everyone has heard of them. I mean, Michelangelo’s statue of Moses actually has horns!! And as for running Hollywood, well, I mean, there are lots of Jews in Hollywood, but that’s because we’re super-duper talented, okay? Not because there’s some kabbalistic media conspiracy! Geez…

Thankfully, most of these kinds of myths are widely dismissed as ridiculous tall tales, fueled throughout history by anti-semitism. But there is another category of Jewish “urban legends” that are still in need some myth-busting. Now, these are much less harmful. Not vicious stereotypes meant to demonize Jews, just some random misconceptions about Jewish religious practice that most everyone seems to believe – including most Jews themselves!

I worked as a rabbi on a college campus for four years, and there were certain myths I heard again and again.  Either students would ask, “Is this really true???”, or more often, just assume it was.  So, to clear the record once and for all, I thought I’d compile a list of the Top Five Things You Probably Think about Judaism that are TOTALLY NOT TRUE.

Ready? Let’s knock them down, one by one:

1. If you have a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery: FALSE.

It is true that tattoos are traditionally forbidden by Jewish law, because of a verse in Leviticus that says, “You cannot… carve any marks onto yourself” (although even here there is some debate in early Jewish sources about whether any tattoo would be forbidden, or just ones with idolatrous names in them). But it certainly doesn’t follow that those who have them cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Now, cemeteries are run by people, and I’m not saying no cemetery manager in history ever came up with weird restrictions about who was in and who was out, but if they did, it wasn’t based on Jewish law. I mean, seriously – if any time someone did something wrong they couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, no one would ever be buried in them again.

2. Food is kosher because the rabbi blessed it. FALSE.

Food is either kosher or not kosher because of what it is, not because someone with special powers makes it kosher. Like, pork is not kosher, chicken is. There are some rules about how the food has to be prepared.  Animals have to be slaughtered in a certain way, you can’t mix meat products with dairy products and you can’t cook food on pots and pans that have been used to cook non-kosher food, etc. So in order to get kosher certification, often a rabbi is brought in to oversee the process and make sure all of the rules are followed.  But he’s more of a monitor than a magician. He can’t make any special blessings to “kosher up” the food. I wish he could, because then I’d bless myself a bacon-double cheeseburger and chow down!

3. Hannukah is the biggest Jewish holiday. FALSE.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Hannukah’s cool. I love Hannukah. It might even be my favorite. But it’s nowhere near as important a time in the Jewish calendar as Rosh Hashana. Or Passover. Or even, for that matter, the next major holiday this year – Shavuot – which most people have never heard of (I certainly never did when I was growing up). But all of those holidays are mentioned in the Torah, which means they are thought of as having been commanded by God, whereas Hannukah is a later holiday put together by the rabbis to commemorate a military victory over the Syrian Greeks and a miracle of oil that burned longer than they thought it would. Pretty rad, for sure, but it’s no Yom Kippur, when all our sins are forgiven. So why does everyone make such a big deal of Hannukah? Well, short answer: it’s pretty close to this other holiday where Santa gives cool gifts to all the good little boys and girls, and hey, no fair – Jews want cool gifts too!

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  1. Michelangelo put horns on his Moses statue because of a misreading of the Bible: when Moses comes down from Sinai he has rays of light around his head, but in the Latin Bible the word for “rayed” is “cornuta,” which literally means “horned” (not sure how light-rays and horns have anything in common except sticking away from your head, but there it is). So at least it wasn’t meant as an insult!

    • Ooops! *anti-semitism.

    • Thanks, Meredith! I’d never heard the Latin, but yeah, that’s just how it works in Hebrew as well. The word for “ray” and the word for “horn” are the same: קרן (keren), and somewhere along the line “rays coming off of his face” got translated into “horns coming out of his head.” Innocent enough mistake, I guess, but I think the perpetuation of the idea over time probably has something to do with anti-semtitism. But you’re right, I don’t blame Michelangelo for the insult.
      Thanks again. All the best!

  2. The cat with the beard is Woody Allen as Virgil Starkwell, in ‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969). Ole Virgil is in prison. An opportunity arrises for an early parole if he volunteers to be tested with a new vaccine. The tests on Virgil Starkwell is deemed a success, save for one temporary side effect; “For several hours he was turned into a Rabbi.” Rabbi: In Judaism, a rabbi (pron.: /ˈræbaɪ/) is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רַבִּי rabi [ˈʁäbi], meaning “My Master.” Do a little research on what Jewish MIT teacher Noam Chomsky says about the media. (I found nothing about horns)

    • Woody Allen nerd coming at you…the photo is actually from Annie Hall. Annie’s Grammie Hall is a “classic Jew hater” and this is how Allen perceives that she is seeing him. Virgil Starkwell is shot as a Rabbi in a jail cell. Phew…feel better now ;-)

    • *My mom loved Woody Allen flicks. Before the age of 14 I had seen every Woody Allen movie. My mom once took me to a Woody Allen Festival here in Long Beach. My two sisters would not go with my mom to see these films. I was the only one that would accompany mom on her quest. As a kid, I loved Woody Allen films. I still do, of course. My mom also loved Bruce Lee and James Bond movies. She also took me to festival showing these movies. I grew up to be a secret agent and a master at Kung Fu –that is very neurotic. Ty. Tyvm

  3. Very educational. I think I may have thought 2 of them to be true, so I guess I did okay. But even some of the points that I knew weren’t true, you gave some added information that I just didn’t know anything about. Very educational. Thanks!

  4. these articles is positive. To aconocer religions that are unknown to the vast majority

  5. The hole in the sheet is for Mormons.

  6. I really really appreciated this article. Thank you!

  7. Yes but why the funny beard? Lol!

    • The cat with the beard is Woody Allen as Virgil Starkwell, in ‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969). Ole Virgil is in prison. An opportunity arrises for an early parole if he volunteers to be tested with a new vaccine. The tests on Virgil Starkwell is deemed a success, save for one temporary side effect; “For several hours he was turned into a Rabbi.” Rabbi: In Judaism, a rabbi (pron.: /ˈræbaɪ/) is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רַבִּי rabi [ˈʁäbi], meaning “My Master.” Do a little research on what Jewish MIT teacher Noam Chomsky says about the media. (I found nothing about horns)

  8. Well I have heard that Jewish people run Hollywood or the news etc, but not that they had horns. Must have missed that part of it. Part 5 is just silly, if the sheet had a hole it it the two bodies would be touching at least in one place :) Good for me I already knew these were false (and I’m not Jewish).

  9. I would also add that gehenom is very very unlike the Christian version of hell. There’s no fire and brimstone, no physical torment (which makes sense since in whatever version of an afterlife you believe in, you certainly don’t get to have a body there), and no evil Satan trying to cause pain and misery for eternity. If anything, I would equate gehenom more to purgatory – a cleansing process through which you realize how much potential you had that you didn’t act on and during which you get the chance to repent for those sins.

    • Christians don’t believe Satan rules hell. He is going to be sent there to be punished. He won’t have time rule anything or bother anyone.

  10. What a fun article! I appreciate the wit. =) Great job!