Judaism’s Religious Books
Judaism’s Sacred Texts
The importance of Judaism’s sacred texts extends far beyond their religious significance. These ancient documents embody not only Judaism’s religious precepts, but also the historical, cultural and social heritage of the Jewish people. In Israel, where attitudes towards tradition range from the ultra-orthodox to the secular, sacred texts carry a variety of meanings – from a spiritual, moral and practical guide to everyday life, to a historical and cultural wealth which is critically examined and studied.
The stories, ideas and philosophies of the sacred texts, encompassing millennia of Jewish study and thought, are evident in much of Israel’s modern culture, which draws on the legacies of the past even as it gives voice to the issues and concerns of the present.
The following is a basic, structured list of the central works of Jewish practice and thought.
- Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Rabbinic literature
- Jewish Biblical exegesis (also see Midrash below)
- Nevi’im (prophets)
- Works of the Talmudic Era (classic rabbinic literature)
- Mishnah and commentaries
- Tosefta and the minor tractates
- The Babylonian Talmud and commentaries
- Jerusalem Talmud and commentaries
- Midrashic literature:
- Halakhic Midrash
- Aggadic Midrash
- Halakhic literature
- Major Codes of Jewish Law and Custom
- Mishneh Torah and commentaries
- Tur and commentaries
- Shulchan Aruch and commentaries
- Responsa literature
- Major Codes of Jewish Law and Custom
- Jewish Thought and Ethics
- Siddur and Jewish liturgy
- Piyyut (Classical Jewish poetry)
Many traditional Jewish texts are available online in various Torah databases (electronic versions of the Traditional Jewish Bookshelf). Many of these have advanced search options available.
Jewish legal literature
The basis of Jewish law and tradition (halakha) is the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses). According to rabbinic tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to the ancient priestly groups, the Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the tribe of Levi), some only to farmers within the Land of Israel. Many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed, and only 369 of these commandments are still applicable today.
While there have been Jewish groups whose beliefs were based on the written text of the Torah alone (e.g., the Sadducees, and the Karaites), most Jews believe in the oral law. These oral traditions were transmitted by the Pharisee school of thought of ancient Judaism and were later recorded in written form and expanded upon by the rabbis.
According to Rabbinical Jewish tradition, God gave both the Written Law (the Torah) and the Oral law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Oral law is the oral tradition as relayed by God to Moses and from him, transmitted and taught to the sages (rabbinic leaders) of each subsequent generation.
For centuries, the Torah appeared only as a written text transmitted in parallel with the oral tradition. Fearing that the oral teachings might be forgotten, Rabbi Judah haNasi undertook the mission of consolidating the various opinions into one body of law which became known as the Mishnah.
The Mishnah consists of 63 tractates codifying Jewish law, which are the basis of the Talmud. According to Abraham ben David, the Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Judah haNasi after the destruction of Jerusalem, in anno mundi 3949, which corresponds to 189 CE.
Over the next four centuries, the Mishnah underwent discussion and debate in both of the world’s major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylonia). The commentaries from each of these communities were eventually compiled into the two Talmuds, the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). These have been further expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.
In the text of the Torah, many words are left undefined and many procedures are mentioned without explanation or instructions. Such phenomena are sometimes offered to validate the viewpoint that the Written Law has always been transmitted with a parallel oral tradition, illustrating the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the details from other, i.e., oral, sources.
Halakha, the rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is based on a combined reading of the Torah, and the oral tradition—the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. The Halakha has developed slowly, through a precedent-based system. The literature of questions to rabbis, and their considered answers, is referred to as responsa (in Hebrew, Sheelot U-Teshuvot.) Over time, as practices develop, codes of Jewish law are written that are based on the responsa; the most important code, the Shulchan Aruch, largely determines Orthodox religious practice today.
Jewish philosophy refers to the conjunction between serious study of philosophy and Jewish theology. Major Jewish philosophers include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Saadia Gaon, Judah Halevi, Maimonides, and Gersonides. Major changes occurred in response to the Enlightenment (late 18th to early 19th century) leading to the post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers. Modern Jewish philosophy consists of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox oriented philosophy. Notable among Orthodox Jewish philosophers are Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Yitzchok Hutner. Well-known non-Orthodox Jewish philosophers include Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Will Herberg, and Emmanuel Lévinas.
- A law that operates under certain conditions will surely be operative in other situations where the same conditions are present in a more acute form
- A law operating in one situation will also be operative in another situation if the text characterizes both situations in identical terms.
- A law that clearly expresses the purpose it was meant to serve will also apply to other situations where the identical purpose may be served.
- When a general rule is followed by illustrative particulars, only those particulars are to be embraced by it.
- A law that begins with specifying particular cases, and then proceeds to an all-embracing generalization, is to be applied to particulars cases not specified but logically falling into the same generalization.
- A law that begins with a generalization as to its intended applications, then continues with the specification of particular cases, and then concludes with a restatement of the generalization, can be applied only to the particular cases specified.
- The rules about a generalization being followed or preceded by specifying particulars (rules 4 and 5) will not apply if it is apparent that the specification of the particular cases or the statement of the generalization is meant purely for achieving a greater clarity of language.
- A particular case already covered in a generalization that is nevertheless treated separately suggests that the same particularized treatment be applied to all other cases which are covered in that generalization.
- A penalty specified for a general category of wrongdoing is not to be automatically applied to a particular case that is withdrawn from the general rule to be specifically prohibited, but without any mention of the penalty.
- A general prohibition followed by a specified penalty may be followed by a particular case, normally included in the generalization, with a modification in the penalty, either toward easing it or making it more severe.
- A case logically falling into a general law but treated separately remains outside the provisions of the general law except in those instances where it is specifically included in them.
- Obscurities in Biblical texts may be cleared up from the immediate context or from subsequently occurring passages
- Contradictions in Biblical passages may be removed through the mediation of other passages.
Orthodox and many other Jews do not believe that the revealed Torah consists solely of its written contents, but of its interpretations as well. The study of Torah (in its widest sense, to include both poetry, narrative, and law, and both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud) is in Judaism itself a sacred act of central importance. For the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, and for their successors today, the study of Torah was therefore not merely a means to learn the contents of God’s revelation, but an end in itself. According to the Talmud,
- These are the things for which a person enjoys the dividends in this world while the principal remains for the person to enjoy in the world to come; they are: honoring parents, loving deeds of kindness, and making peace between one person and another. But the study of the Torah is equal to them all. (Talmud Shabbat 127a).
In Judaism, “the study of Torah can be a means of experiencing God”. Reflecting on the contribution of the Amoraim and Tanaimto contemporary Judaism, Professor Jacob Neusner observed:
- The rabbi’s logical and rational inquiry is not mere logic-chopping. It is a most serious and substantive effort to locate in trivialities the fundamental principles of the revealed will of God to guide and sanctify the most specific and concrete actions in the workaday world …. Here is the mystery of Talmudic Judaism: the alien and remote conviction that the intellect is an instrument not of unbelief and desacralization but of sanctification.”
To study the Written Torah and the Oral Torah in light of each other is thus also to study how to study the word of God.
In the study of Torah, the sages formulated and followed various logical and hermeneutical principles. According to David Stern, all Rabbinic hermeneutics rest on two basic axioms:
- first, the belief in the omni-significance of Scripture, in the meaningfulness of its every word, letter, even (according to one famous report) scribal flourish; second, the claim of the essential unity of Scripture as the expression of the single divine will.
These two principles make possible a great variety of interpretations. According to the Talmud,
- A single verse has several meanings, but no two verses hold the same meaning. It was taught in the school of R. Ishmael: ‘Behold, My word is like fire—declares the Lord—and like a hammer that shatters rock’ (Jer 23:29). Just as this hammer produces many sparks (when it strikes the rock), so a single verse has several meanings.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 34a).
Observant Jews thus view the Torah as dynamic, because it contains within it a host of interpretations
According to Rabbinic tradition, all valid interpretations of the written Torah were revealed to Moses at Sinai in oral form, and handed down from teacher to pupil (The oral revelation is in effect coextensive with the Talmud itself). When different rabbis forwarded conflicting interpretations, they sometimes appealed to hermeneutic principles to legitimize their arguments; some rabbis claim that these principles were themselves revealed by God to Moses at Sinai.
Thus, Hillel called attention to seven commonly used hermeneutical principles in the interpretation of laws (baraita at the beginning of Sifra); R. Ishmael, thirteen (baraita at the beginning of Sifra; this collection is largely an amplification of that of Hillel). Eliezer b. Jose ha-Gelili listed 32, largely used for the exegesis of narrative elements of Torah. All the hermeneutic rules scattered through the Talmudim and Midrashim have been collected by Malbim in Ayyelet ha-Shachar, the introduction to his commentary on the Sifra. Nevertheless, R. Ishmael’s 13 principles are perhaps the ones most widely known; they constitute an important, and one of Judaism’s earliest, contributions to logic, hermeneutics, and jurisprudence. Judah Hadassi incorporated Ishmael’s principles into Karaite Judaism in the 12th century. Today R. Ishmael’s 13 principles are incorporated into the Jewish prayer book to be read by observant Jews on a daily basis.
- “Judaism 101: A Glossary of Basic Jewish Terms and Concepts”. Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America. 12 April 2006. Archived from the original on 19 February 2001.
- Danzinger, Eliezer. “How Many of the Torah’s Commandments Still Apply?”. Chabad.org. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
- Codex Judaica Kantor 2006, p. 146″ (as cited on Judah haNasi)
- Abraham ben David, Seder Ha-Kabbalah Leharavad, Jerusalem 1971, p.16 (Hebrew) (as cited on Judah haNasi)
- Student, Gil. “Proofs for the Oral Law”. The AishDas Society. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
- The Prayer book: Weekday, Sabbath, and Festival translated and arranged by Ben Zion Bokser. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company. pp. 9–10
- Kadushin, Max 1972 The Rabbinic Mind New York: Bloch Publishing. p. 213
- Neusner, Jacob 2003 Invitation to the Talmud Stipf and Son, Oregon xvii–xxii
- Stern, David “Midrash and Indeterminacy” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988), p. 151.
- Neusner, Jacob 2003 Invitation to the Talmud Stipf and Son, Oregon xvii-vix; Steinsaltz, Adin 1976 The Essential Talmud New York: Basic Books. 3–9; Strack, Hermann 1980 Introduction to the Midrash and Talmud New York: Atheneum. 95; Stern, David “Midrash and Indeterminacy” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 132–161
- Stern, David “Midrash and Indeterminacy” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988), p. 147.
- Cohen, Abner 1949 Everyman’s Talmud New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. xxiv; Strack, Hermann 1980 Introduction to the Midrash and Talmud New York: Atheneum. 95
- Cohen, Abner 1949 Everyman’s Talmud New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. xxiv; Steinsaltz, Adin 1976 The Essential Talmud New Yorki: Basic Books. 222; Strack, Hermann 1980 Introduction to the Midrash and Talmud New York: Atheneum. 95
- Strack, Hermann 1980 Introduction to the Midrash and TalmudNew York: Atheneum. p. 95
- סדור רינת ישראל לבני חוײל Jerusalem: 1974, pp. 38–39
- Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, 2006 The Koren Sacks Siddur: Hebrew/English Prayer Book: The Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth London: Harper Collins Publishers pp. 54–55
- Nosson Scherman 2003 The Complete Artscroll Siddur Third Edition Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications pp. 49–53
- Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Nissen Mangel, 2003 Siddur Tehillat Hashem Kehot Publication Society. pp. 24–25
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