Basic Tips For Writing Orthodox Jews


This article was contributed by Shira M. Rabinowitz. Thanks so much, Shira!

More and more these days, Jewish characters appear in fiction, both non-Orthodox and allegedly Orthodox - most of the time when they're supposed to be Orthodox, they really aren’t. This is a list of tips to help the aspiring writer write Orthodox Jewish characters.

Table of Contents



Orthodox Jews wear different clothes.

Generally, women will wear skirts to or past the knee, sleeves to or past the elbow, and necklines to or above the collarbone. Married women cover their hair, tie it up, or cut it very short, depending on the community and the context.

Men wear semi-formal clothes and never go without having their head covered, whether by a kippah, a hat, or something else. Orthodox Jewish men cannot eat without having their heads covered.

Men will also carry with them a bag containing a large four-cornered garment with tassels at the edges (tallis) and phylacteries (tefillin).


Orthodox Jews eat different food.

We only eat kosher food. There are too many laws to go into, but a few important things are that we don’t eat in restaurants that are not under rabbinic supervision no matter what food is served there. We don’t eat meat that does not come from animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves (including pork, yes), certain kinds of fish, or meat not slaughtered by Jews in a special manner called shechitah, or vegetables not checked for bugs. Fish and other types of meat are not eaten on the same plate, and we wait 1-6 hours between consuming meat and dairy. Some of us don’t drink milk not supervised by Jews. Except for plain soda, water, and coffee that does not contain milk, nothing in a non-kosher establishment can be presumed to be kosher.

We also use separate dishes and cooking vessels for different foods - milcheg for food containing milk/dairy, fleishig for food containing meat, and Pesach (food containing no wheat products that have been out long enough to rise (18 minutes) before baking). Glass is an exception - as long as it's washed between uses, it can be used to cook anything. Everything cooked in a non-kosher vessel is not kosher.

A few examples of hechsherim (symbols certifying that a food item is kosher) that are generally accepted are the OU, the OK, the StarK, and the ChofK. The OU is most common.

We say blessings before and after eating food, so we avoid eating in places where we could not say the blessings.


Orthodox Jews keep Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath).

The Jewish Sabbath takes place from Friday evening to Saturday evening. (New days start at night.) Keeping Shabbos has a lot of implications. Mainly:

  1. We don’t turn electronics on and off on Shabbos. We also don’t use ones that are already on.
  2. We don’t drive.
  3. We aren’t accessible to the non-Jewish community, because we spend most of our time then in shul (synagogue - Orthodox Jews do not call it temple).
  4. We can’t cook.
  5. We can’t put on makeup, brush our hair, or bathe/take showers.
  6. We spend a lot of time learning Torah and try to maximize productive use of time.
  7. We don’t go to work or engage in financial transactions.
  8. We can’t light fires.
  9. We can’t carry outside an eruv.
  10. We can’t go more than a certain distance from our home city (about 3000 feet).


Orthodox Jews have a LOT of holidays.

The main ones for which we take off work are:

  1. Rosh HaShana. This is the Jewish New Year and day of judgment. It is a very solemn holiday filled with rituals to begin the new year auspiciously. All vows are annulled here. It is usually in the early fall. It is two days long.
  2. Yom Kippur. This is also a 25-hour fast day beginning at night. It is ten days after Rosh HaShana and is the day on which God seals verdicts.
  3. Succos/Succot. This is five days after Yom Kippur and is a seven-day festival followed by a two-day festival. The first two days and last two days have most of the restrictions of Shabbos (see below), and the middle five are lesser holidays and do not. On the first seven days, the lulav is taken. People also live in a small hut known as a succah. Both of these are too complicated to summarize, so I would suggest doing more research if you intend to set your story around this holiday.
  4. Purim. This holiday - usually in the spring - commemorates the victory of the Jews in Persia over their oppressors. This does not have the restrictions of Shabbos. On it, people send food packages to each other and feast. Many people deliberately get drunk because it is a commandment to.
  5. Pesach. This is an eight-day festival in the spring. On it, we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. Similarly to Succos, the first two days have similar restrictions to Shabbos and the last six are less restrictive. Throughout the holiday, most ordinary wheat products are forbidden. Ashkenazi Jews also avoid anything with seeds that could conceivably be used to make bread (kitniot). The first two nights of the holiday have large, elaborately structured meals known as sedarim (sing. seder). I would suggest looking these up in order to write one properly, as there is too much involved to summarize.
  6. Shvuos/Shavuot. This is a two-day holiday. It commemorates the giving of the Torah and is in the late spring to early summer. It has similar restrictions to Shabbos.

All of these that have similar restrictions to Shabbos are very nearly the same, but we can light fires from other fires and cook and carry things. If you’re setting your story in a particular year, make sure the dates of these holidays don’t interfere.


Orthodox Jews have fast days.

All fast days forbid drinking as well as eating. There are several:

  1. Tzom Gedalya. This is right after Rosh HaShana and is a 12-hour fast beginning at sunrise. It, like all other fasts, ends when three stars are visible in the night sky.
  2. Yom Kippur. This is a 25-hour fast beginning at sunset. It has all the restrictions of Shabbos. It is the only fast that overrides Shabbos.
  3. Assarah Be’Tevet. This is a 12-hour fast beginning at sunrise. It commemorates the fall of Jerusalem.
  4. Ta’anit Esther. This is a 12-hour fast beginning at sunrise. It is right before Purim and commemorates the fast of the Persian Jews before they fought.
  5. Shiv’Asar Be’Tammuz. This is a 12-hour fast beginning at sunrise and begins the Three Weeks. During the Three Weeks, a lot of restrictions apply. We don’t have weddings, listen to music, shave, have haircuts, or buy new clothes. The Nine Days begin on the first of Av and are more stringent: during them, we don’t eat meat, drink wine, launder clothing or wear freshly laundered clothing, swim, make new clothes, or cut nails. Additionally, all the restrictions of the beginning of the Three Weeks apply.
  6. Tish’a Be’Av. The Three Weeks end here. This fast is in mourning for the Temple. It is 25 hours long. We don’t sit down on anything higher than the floor until midday. We are very solemn and mournful. Like on Yom Kippur, we spend most of our time in shul.


Miscellaneous

Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite gender unless they are close relatives, married to each other, old, or in a life or death situation.

We will violate Shabbos and other restrictions to save lives.

We go to prayer services (davening or tefillot) every morning, afternoon and evening.

We value education highly and spend much longer in school daily with a dual curriculum (if we can afford private school, which most of us try to). If your character goes to public school, rest assured that they will be tutored on the side and not just sent to Sunday school. Most Jews go to college.


This is not a comprehensive list.

If you have any other questions, contact me at shiramrabinowitz(at)gmail(dot)com or run your piece by another Orthodox Jew. Try to run it by a frum, or religious one, as that will get you results more in keeping with this article.

-Shira M. Rabinowitz


See Also:
Basic Tips To Avoid Tokenism
Basic Tips To Write Subcultures & Minority Religions Better



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