The Jewish people have lived many more years in exile than in their homeland. During the 50-year period of Exile, also known as the Babylonian Captivity, that began in 586 BCE, the Jews began the strict observance of religious laws and rituals they now needed to hold them together. The identification of Judaism with an ethnic and cultural bond as much as a set of religious principles probably had its beginnings in this period of dispersion. Circumcision, the Sabbath, the feasts of Passover (commemorating the escape from Egypt and the founding of Israel), Shabuot (the giving of the Law to Moses), Tabernacles (wandering in the desert), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Rosh Hashannah (the New Year) became part of every Jew’s life, and were passed along with the laws and scriptures from generation to generation.
The Jews dispersed not only to Babylon (modern Iraq) but also to Samaria, Edom, and Moab in the north, and to Egypt. But within less than a century, under the benevolent rule of the Persian king Cyrus the Great (whose alliance with the Medes had superseded the Babylonian empire), and his son Darius, the Jews were allowed for the most part not only to worship as they wished but to return to Judah, which more than 50,000 did. According to historians, the returning Jews then imposed the rigorous version of religious law developed in exile on all Jews.