Jewish Sacred Texts

Jewish Sacred Texts

    These ancient documents embody not only Judaism's religious precepts, but also the historical, cultural and social heritage of the Jewish people.
  • The Babylonian Talmud

    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 millenia 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 Torah
    The TorahAt the basis of all Jewish sacred texts is the Torah. In its most basic sense, the Torah is the Pentateuch - the five books of Moses, which tell the story of the Creation of the world, God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mt. Sinai (where God enunciated the Ten Commandments), the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, and a recapitulation of that experience shortly before the entrance to the Promised Land.
    The principal message of the Torah is the absolute unity of God, His creation of the world and His concern for it, and His everlasting covenant with the people of Israel. The Pentateuch both embodies the heritage of the Jewish people - retelling its history, setting forth its guiding precepts and foretelling its destiny - and carries universal messages of monotheism and social conduct, which have had tremendous impact on western civilization. Thus, the Torah is also the origin of certain non-Jewish traditions, among them the recognition of the Sabbath as a day of rest.
    Torah also signifies teaching. The Pentateuch itself uses the word Torah to denote a specific body of statutes; in this sense, Torah means "law," and is often so translated generally.
    While Jewish tradition has throughout the centuries ascribed divine authorship to the Torah, many scholars and modern Jewish thinkers hold that the Torah was compiled incrementally by various authors over a long period of time, making it not only the shaper of Jewish history but also its product.
    The Bible
    The Jewish Bible is known in Hebrew as the Tanakh, an acronym of the three sets of books which comprise it: the Pentateuch (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). The latter two include nineteen compilations, largely in Hebrew but with certain books of the Ketuvim also containing extensive portions in Aramaic, which were composed over a period of centuries - from shortly before the Israelite conquest of the Land of Israel (13th century BCE) to shortly after the return to Judah and Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE).
    The books of the Prophets contain historical writings covering the period between the settlement of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and their exile to Babylon, as well as the moral and religious exhortations of the Prophets (among them Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel). The Writings, also known as the Hagiographa, are a mixture of liturgical and secular poetry, wisdom literature and historical writings.
    The Tanakh is the Jewish canon, which assumed its final shape between the Babylonian exile and the first century CE. The sages who took part in the finalization of the canon excluded certain texts, known as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, which they did not consider divinely inspired. The Jewish canon is distinguished from the Christian canon in the non-inclusion of the New Testament and a slightly different order of presentation of the Prophets. Diacritical marks (for vocalization, pronunciation and cantillation) were finalized by the tenth century CE.
    Copyists of canon literature for ritual use in synagogues work with ancient tools (parchment and quill pens) and take the greatest care to avoid modifying the text in any way. The oldest known parchments (the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced shortly before the Common Era) are virtually identical to those produced today.
    The Bible is the most translated book in the world. It has been rendered into more than 200 languages in its entirety, and individual books have been retold in nearly a thousand tongues for and by non-Jewish peoples. Its translation began with the Septuagint (a translation into Greek rendered for Jewish use in Egypt) in the early third century BCE.
    Although canon texts are never amended or edited within the context of their religious use, Biblical criticism - an academic discipline that takes a historical and critical approach to the canon - has compiled a massive body of scholarship since its coalescence in the nineteenth century.
    Commentaries on the Canon
    The Bible has given rise to numerous commentaries, which are included among the Jewish sacred writings. The first known Jewish commentaries date from the second century BCE, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the vernacular. Although also known as targumim - translations - they are interpretive and contain fragments of exegesis and legend. There are targumim for all the biblical books except for those written largely in Aramaic.
    Rabbinical commentaries have proliferated from the Talmudic era (see below) to the present day. Their purpose, in many cases, was to make the biblical text, as well as the rabbinic traditions concerning it, accessible to medieval and then modern audiences. The approaches of the commentators range from the literal to the mystical, with careful attention being paid even to minute details in the Biblical text: an ellipsis, a grammatical oddity, a "misspelling," or even a letter of a different size may elicit a torrent of commentary. The best-known rabbinical commentator on the Bible is Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105), who tried to strike a balance between literal explication of the text and classical rabbinic homiletics.
    The Oral Law
    The Mishna
    According to tradition, the oral law - a hermeneutic, interpretive, and analytic exegesis of the Torah, the written law - was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and handed down by a succession of lay and clerical elites. By the second century BCE, and especially after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), the rabbinical leadership, faced with a proliferation of traditions and interpretations, began to arrange and edit the material. The final result was a document redacted and arranged by Rabbi Judah Hanasi (second century CE) and called the Mishna, a word signifying "repetition" and "teaching." Sages whose teachings are mentioned in the Mishna are known as Tanna'im. The Tannaitic period, during which the Mishna was compiled, lasted from the destruction of the Second Temple to the early part of the third century CE.
    The Mishna is divided into six orders, each comprised of tractates, ordinarily reckoned at 63 in number. Each tractate is divided into chapters, which in turn contain various numbers of teachings, each also known as a Mishna (pl.: Mishnayot).
    Other material from this period, which was not included in the Mishna, can be found in the Tosefta or in additional teachings, known as Baraitot, found in the two Talmudim (see below). The Mishna as well as this supplementary material are written almost exclusively in Hebrew.
    The Mishna is also an important source with regard to matters of the Temple rite and lay customs of the time.
    The Talmud
    With the advent of the Mishna, a class of rabbis known as Amora'im (third century CE through the sixth century) discussed this document, elaborated on it, performed emendations and reconciled ostensible contradictions. The totality of their endeavor is the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishna together form the Talmud (pl. Talmudim) - a word that refers to the act of study.
    There are in fact two Talmudim, Jerusalem (compiled in the Land of Israel) and Babylonian. The Babylonian Talmud covers 37 of the 63 standard tractates and includes several later works - 2.5 million words on 4,894 folio pages in all. The Jerusalem Talmud is structured differently - shorter, more succinct, at times cryptic, and more focused on legal matters. The Babylonian Talmud contains more Biblical homiletics and exegesis, and its argumentation is easier to follow. The Gemara generally adheres to the structure of the Mishna, but branches associatively into other matters, creating a free-form admixture of remarks - legalistic, anecdotal and ethical.
    Unlike the Mishna, much Talmudic discourse is in Aramaic. Because of the Talmud's special nature and its role as the basis for religious rulings, many of them applying to daily life, the commentaries on this work are especially copious.
    The Talmudic style is often either conversational or elliptic, in the manner of "lecture notes." Unlike biblical texts, Talmudic passages have innumerable variant readings and abound with copyists' errors, erroneous insertions, and euphemisms meant to circumvent hostile censors.
    Aside from their primary religious purpose, both Talmudim contain important information regarding the events, customs and language of their time. As such, they have been studied at length by modern scholars of history, religion and linguistics.
    The systematizing of the Talmud began several generations before its final version was produced in the early sixth century CE. The earliest fragmentary manuscripts of the Talmud extant today may date from the ninth century. The first complete printed Talmud was produced in 1520-1523 by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian. His edition created an external form of the Talmud that has survived without change ever since, including pagination and the layout of the major commentaries.
    Alongside the Mishna and the Talmud grew a corpus of texts dedicated to the exegesis of the Bible, known as the Midrash (pl. midrashim). The earliest texts of Midrash contain exegetical traditions of the Sages from the period of the Tannai'm. These texts are dedicated to both Halakhic (legal) and Aggadic (homiletical) exegesis.
    During the period of the Amorai'm, the exegesis of the Bible was mainly limited to homiletical matters (Aggadah). The main collection of Amoraic exegesis is the Midrash Rabbah, ordered according to the books of the Bible and containing both line-by-line exegesis (e.g., Bereshith Rabbah - on Genesis) and more developed sermonic material (e.g., Vayikrah Rabbah - on Leviticus).
    Commentaries on the Oral Law
    Just as the Mishna required a "commentary" in the form of the Gemara as soon as it was redacted, so did the Talmud need explication once it assumed its definitive form. The first running commentaries on the Talmud (as distinct from limited remarks) took shape in the tenth century. Rashi's eleventh-century commentary, spanning nearly all tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, remains the most popular and influential work of its type.
    Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote the first comprehensive commentary on the entire Mishna - an Arabic work translated into Hebrew in the late thirteenth century.
    Commentaries on the Talmud, including the Mishna, are so vast as to account, in nearly microscopic print, for half - if not most - of the pages in a standard Talmudic volume. On a typical page of Talmud, a small quantity of text is bracketed by two commentaries: Rashi's and that of the Tosafot, the work of 12th-14th century rabbis who refer to other locations in the Talmud in order to clarify and resolve perceived inconsistencies. Arrayed around this material, in the margins of the page, are textual emendations, references to biblical verses and miscellaneous specialized remarks.
    Halakhic (Legal) Literature
    Neither the Mishna nor the Talmud is a true code of law. Because both the rabbinical leadership and the laypersons desired such a code - for religious purposes and for the administration of their autonomous communities - post-Talmudic authorities developed a genre of "arbitership" that followed two paths: responsa and formal codification. Each seeks to refine the Talmudic eclectic into lucid rules for religious and civil conduct, coupled with inspirational and moral messages.



    Responsa are a Jewish "common law." Usually originating in laypersons' queries to rabbis, they date to the Talmudic period. By the tenth century, as the Jewish dispersion widened, the number of responsa reached tens of thousands. Although the first collection of responsa appeared in the first half of the eighth century, the arbiters did not generally publish their responsa in book form, as many do today.

    Responsa are important not only in their explication of legal and ritual minutiae, but in the light they shed on Jewish history. Whenever a new halakhic code gained wide acceptance, new opportunities and needs for responsa arose. Collections of responsa have been produced for all circumstances, including Nazi ghettos and concentration camps. Some collections are so thoroughly studied that their authors are known by the names of their books only.
    The Codes
    However comprehensive the responsa can be, they are no substitute for a constant and readily consultable legal code. The aim in creating such a code was to form a legal system for current use, at once authoritative and anchored in earlier sources.
    The first prescriptive legal code arranged by subject matter, the Halakhot Pesuqot, appeared in the 8th century. A breakthrough endeavor in this respect was Sefer Hahalachot (Book of Laws) by Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi (1013-1103). Arranged in the order of 24 Talmudic tractates, it covers only laws used at the time - excluding, for example, the sacrificial rite. This was followed shortly afterwards and is best represented by Maimonides' Mishne Torah. The very name of this book suggests a recapitulation of the oral law, and the text is set forth in pure Mishnaic Hebrew. The novelty of the Mishne Torah is its ambition to be free-standing. After he refined the entire Talmud into definitive rulings, Maimonides reasoned, Jews should not have to consult any work other than his.
    Maimonides' work was severely criticized in some quarters for its audacity. An army of critics, defenders, and neutral commentators has spent the interceding centuries probing and debating the sources of some of his rulings, which he did not cite. This process defeated Maimonides' purpose: Jewry at large, except for the Yemenite community, did not embrace his code as its exclusive source of halakhic authority.
    Foremost among the later codifiers was Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575), who combined Maimonidean and Alfasian elements along with the four-division structure of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher into a new code, entitled the Shulhan Arukh (the "Set Table"). The Shulhan Arukh is even more succinct and conclusive than the Mishne Torah, dispensing not only with sources but also with ethical remarks and explications of rules. It also overlooked the customs and halakhic rulings of Ashkenazi Jewry. To correct this, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Poland (1525 or 1530-1572) authored a "Tablecloth" for Caro's "table." This action, in addition to two 17th century commentaries - Magen Avraham and Turei Zahav - has made the Shulhan Arukh the abiding authority for nearly all Orthodox Jews.
    Jewish mysticism is preoccupied with esoteric matters extending beyond the legally-oriented literature. The "generic" collective name of this branch of sacred texts, kabbala (from the Hebrew lekabel, to receive, signifying knowledge handed down by tradition) represents the esoteric teachings of Judaism, especially those that emerged in the twelfth century and thereafter. In its wider sense, kabbala denotes Jewish mysticism in its entirety.
    Kabbalistic writings created a Jewish "mystical theology" that has its own sub-genres and terminology. They seek God in all things, probe His mysteries and explore relations between divine and human life. Important kabbalistic themes include angelology and demonology, the traits and secret names of God and eschatology (the study of the End of Days).
    The main work in kabbala is the Zohar ("Splendor"), a body of literature including exegetical statements, homilies, and eclectic discussions that parallel the weekly Torah portions and the first part of the Song of Songs. While Kabbalistic tradition traces the Zohar to the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his associates, modern literary scholarship places its authorship in the thirteenth century, when it became known, and credits its authorship to Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon in Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid.
    Several generations after the Zohar came to be known, it sparked a renewal in the development of kabbala in Spain, including a profusion of commentaries. The expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) infused kabbala with messianic and apocalyptic trends and expanded its sphere of influence to Italy, Northern Africa, Turkey, and the Land of Israel. From there, it spread to Poland and Lithuania, where it also influenced the Hassidic (Pietist) movement, which is sometimes described as "applied kabbala."
    Mainstream Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities do not encourage widespread study of mystical literature, especially by the young, possibly as a result of Talmudic comments about the power and danger of kabbalistic thinking. Today, kabbala is also the subject of academic and modern study, due mostly the work of world-renowned scholar Professor Gershom Sholem.
    How Jewish Sacred Texts are Used
    The Torah (Pentateuch) is divided into fifty-four "portions," which are read at the synagogue every Sabbath in an annual cycle, beginning and ending shortly after the Jewish New Year. Excerpts from the Prophets and other biblical writings are read on the Sabbath and festivals. The readers of these texts use the cantillation marks set forth a millennium ago in melodic patterns that vary among different communities.
    Study of the Talmud is most intensive in yeshivot (religious academies), but also occurs in synagogues and individuals' homes - where this activity is also a social event - and in universities. Most major universities in Israel today have a department of Talmudic or Rabbinic literature. In accordance with a twentieth-century innovation, thousands of laypersons study a page of Talmud each day, following a coordinated schedule, thus covering the entire work in approximately seven years.
    Most synagogues maintain well-stocked libraries of sacred texts and collections of religious books.
    Sacred Texts in the Jewish Home
    Sacred texts can be found on the bookshelves of many Jewish homes. The Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings), often accompanied by commentary, can be found even in most secular homes (many Israelis receive a Tanakh as a gift on occasions such as finishing school or completing basic training in the army). In observant homes (and many non-observant ones as well), the basic literature is often accompanied by an extensive library, including the Biblical books with additional commentaries, the Mishna (with basic commentaries), the Talmud (voluminous commentaries included), the Shulhan Arukh, and later codes and manuals on religious practice. Alongside these are works in related disciplines of religious scholarship - philosophy, ethics and current events, to name only three - and specialized literature corresponding to the family's affiliations (Hassidic, Sephardi, Ashkenazi). Rabbis own and consult vast collections of Talmudic commentaries, responsa and legal codes.
    Prayerbooks are standard in the homes of almost all Jews. The siddur (pl. siddurim), used in daily and Sabbath worship, reflects more than a millennium of development, before which prayers were treated as part of an oral tradition and recited by heart. Although the commission of prayers to writing began at the end of the Talmudic era, the first true siddur, Seder Rav Amram Gaon, compiled at the request of Spanish Jewry, dates from the ninth century. First used only on Yom Kippur and other fasts, the siddur has gained such acceptance that current rabbinical thinking strongly discourages memorization. Some siddurim also contain festival services, halakhic guidelines for worship and commentaries on the liturgy. The liturgical rite is presented in several versions, differentiated by communities (Ashkenazi, hassidic, Sephardi, Yemenite). Some siddurim have a service for Israel's Independence Day, introduced by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
    Additional articles of sacred literature found in many homes include the Haggada (the Passover story) and a Sabbath hymnal (often coupled with the Grace after Meals).
    Because they are sanctified by their content, these writings, when rendered unusable, are placed in a geniza (storage facility or archive) and then given a ritual burial.
    Modernity and the Sacred Texts
    The emergence of a Hebrew-speaking community in Israel, millions strong, made Jewish sacred texts more accessible and has given rise to a profusion of new works in the modern vernacular. Cardinal among them are Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's commentary on the Talmud (Babylonian and Jerusalem) and Rabbi Pinhas Kehati's commentary on the Mishna. Jewish statehood, the existence of a Jewish army, relations with non-Jews, international trade, and modern agriculture and food handling are only a few of the issues covered in thick rabbinical treatises, books, periodicals and pamphlets.
    Jewish texts have also played a pivotal role in the revival of Hebrew culture in Israel. Bible studies are now included in the curricula of all schoolchildren, secular and observant (with the educational approach and areas of emphasis formulated accordingly), while universities pursue the study of these texts in a variety of interdisciplinary approaches. The influence of the Jewish sacred texts is also evident in modern Israeli art and literature, which give ancient stories, concepts and imagery a new shape and voice. Two notable literary examples are Israel's national poet, H. N. Bialik, and Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, both of whom drew extensively on Rabbinic sources in their internationally-acclaimed works.
    The computer revolution has not left the sacred literature unaffected. A responsa database has been in existence for nearly a generation at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. More recently, private entrepreneurs have created "Torah software" and products such as the Hebrew Bible and Talmud online. Profuse religious commentary, ranging from the weekly Torah portion to advice in observing dietary laws, has become available on the Internet.
    In Israel today, the study of Jewish sacred texts and their adaption to modern life continues with unprecedented vigor.