The Jewish Bible

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The ultimate book of the Jewish library is the Hebrew Bible. The phrase Bible originated among Christians. While English-speaking Jews today might use the phrase, this often causes misunderstanding. Christians refer to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as the Bible, whereas Jews apply the phrase only to the Hebrew Bible. Very often people use the same word and they are referring to different literary works.

Since this causes many problems, you will find many Jews today using another designation for the Hebrew Bible. It would be an acronym based on three Hebrew words that describe the three components of that Bible. The acronym in Hebrew is Tanakh. This word is comprised of the first Hebrew letter for the three components of the Jewish Bible. The first component is the Torah, hence the T. The second component the prophets, Nevi'im, hence the N. The third component are the books that have a collected title to them known as scriptures, or Ketuvim.

The Torah: Sacred Among Sacred Books

The Torah, the five books of Moses, reigns supreme in terms of prestige and sanctity. It is considered by traditional Jews to have been given in its entirety to Moses at Sinai. That was one of the principles that Maimonides listed as a major tenet of Judaism.

The Torah is read regularly as part of the Synagogue ritual. You will know maybe that there are many artworks that depict a scene within the synagogue, the scene centers around the reading and lifting up of the Torah. Because this book was considered to be so sacred, it could only be produced for ritual purposes in a very special manner. It had to be written on parchment with quill, with a certain type of ink. If you made one mistake, if one letter was left out, the book would be disqualified from public reading at synagogues.

I can tell you this happens to this very day. The reader is preparing to read one of the texts, and suddenly he discovers a word missing. Everything stops.

Chronologically, the Torah begins with the creation of the world, and ends with the death of Moses. Almost all the legal components of Judaism are considered to have their source in the Torah.

In antiquity, the books of Moses were probably the only text taught to children who had any formal education. In the Greco-Roman world, there was a wealth of literature that could be used to introduce them to the school system. It might be poetry, history, etc. Judaism had no secular literature. The education of children was intended to make them knowledgeable of this Torah. This was the text that was taught.

The Prophets

The second segment of the Hebrew Bible is comprised of the books of the prophets. They come from the period of Israel’s settlement in the land of Canaan, after the death of Moses. As we have seen before, they come down to the end of the First Temple period, the destruction of the Temple, and they end there.

While some of these books contain historical narrative, the majority of the books of the prophets are exhortations of the same prophets to their contemporaries. They include the castigation of their leaders for their sins. They frequently contain foretelling of either imminent or distant events. They allude to the hopes for a rejuvenated national and universal order.

The prophets also enjoy a role in the synagogue services, but in truth it is a secondary role. Not all the books of the prophets are read in their entirety in the synagogue services. Within a period of a year, all of the Torah is read, but only portions of the books of the prophets are added to the reading of the books of Moses.

Traditional Judaism, however, makes one very important point regarding the prophets. Prophets could not introduce new laws or abrogate existing ones. The basic assumption of Judaism was that their role is primarily to promote the moral behavior of the people of Israel. This is very important. Jews have an aversion not only to prophets interfering in the legal system, but there are beautiful stories in Rabbinical literature where even revelations from God himself cannot interfere in the legal system.

Prophets cannot change the law, God cannot change the law, the law was given to human beings and it is for them to interpret and apply.

The Ketuvim or Scriptures

The third section of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew referred as Ketuvim or “scriptures”, it is indeed a collection of a very varied genera. You find there wisdom literature, poetry as well as some historical narratives. The largest book in this third component is the book of Psalms. These beautiful poems one time were attributed either in their entirety or partially to king David himself, although we know that some of the psalms were clearly written much after the time of David.

The scriptures contain unique books known as scrolls, the Hebrew word is Megillot. There are five scrolls that are read on five different occasions during the Jewish liturgical year. These five books are the books of Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Book of Esther.

The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon raised major problems among post-biblical scholars who could not imagine what an erotic love song is doing in the Bible. The only solution was to interpret the Song of Solomon in an allegorical fashion. This could not really mean what it says, that two lovers are plotting to meet and yearn for one another, this must be a love song between God and the people of Israel.

The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of the temple. Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom. It is a very interesting book of wisdom. Many scholars found mystical influences in this book. It asks very uncomfortable questions. What is this world all about? What is the meaning of the world? It is one of the great forerunners of Jewish philosophy in many ways.

The Book of Ruth is a very touching one that tells the story of the process of conversion of a non-Jewish woman to Judaism.

Among others, in this third section is the Book of Job, clearly asking a major theological question. Why is the role of the just so miserable in this world sometimes? One of the last books is the Books of Esdras, which talks about this return of the captives from Babylonia to Judea.

Here is where the Bible ends. All subsequent books in Judaism could be considered expansions and elaborations of the Bible. Everything flows out of the Bible.