Sacred Books in Judaism

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Four thousand years of Jewish history produced four thousand years of literary development. Understanding Judaism requires a familiarity with the library of Judaism. It is somewhat ironic. The author of one of the books of the Bible known as Ecclesiastes, ends his book with an interesting warning against making many books. The irony is that if Jews have propensity for anything, it is precisely for the production of many books.

Here we will describe those literary works that fashioned and directed Jewish behavior. What we have to do is to understand that Judaism functioned within a literary category, and although this literature at times was oral until it was actually put into writing, it was indeed literature. These were formulated texts and they had a definitive influence on the development of Judaism.

Jews, in general, were brought up as bibliophiles. The book has a revered status in Judaism. When a book falls to the ground, Jews pick it up and kiss it. This has a tremendous impact on children, who are taught from the earliest stages of their education that a book is not something to be handled lightly.

All books that are not longer used are not simply discarded. Instead, they are stored or buried, so as not to be toasted around. This custom is known as Genizah, the storing or hiding of a book. Usually, it would be a sacred text, but there might be other books that also are stored in a Ganizah.

In the late 19th century, in the old city of Cairo, one such repository of ancient books was discovered. It is known as the Cairo Genizah. It is one of the most fascinating discoveries in the history of Judaism. In the late 19th century, we found hundreds and thousands of fragments of books, text that we have known and texts that were not even known to us at that time. We found the handwriting of Maimonides himself. We have texts going back to the Second Temple Period for which we did not have a Hebrew original until the Cairo Genizah.

We might refer to Jews as people of the book. You open the book to know how to behave. You open the book as a way not just of learning what God wants of you, but almost as a way of religious devotion. One studies from the book as a means of worship. The book takes on a tremendous sanctity and a tremendous centrality in the Jewish mind.

The appearance of printed books in the 16th century introduced a vast amount of learning to the masses of Jews. We must remember that until the invention of the press, most Jews could not afford books. Books were the property of scholars and rabbis. Beginning in the 16th century, we encounter a popular phenomenon of Jewish learning.

Everyone now has a Prayer Book. Everybody now has a Haggadah. Most people might have some edition of the Bible. The library in a Jewish home becomes one of the most important, if not the most important room in all the house. Here we will talk about the books or groups of books that shaped Jewish history:

  1. The Jewish Bible: The ultimate book of the Jewish library is the Hebrew Bible. All subsequent books in Judaism could be considered expansions and elaborations of the Bible.

  2. Books of Laws: After the Bible, the second major corpus of Jewish literature was produced by the formulators of what we referred to as Rabbinic Judaism. That is to say, those sages rabbis who in the post-temple period tried to revitalize a Judaism that had to survive without a temple.

  3. Jewish Prayer Books: If there is one book that defined Jewish behavior and believe, it was the Jewish Prayer Book. The earliest prayer books appeared in the 8th and 9th century. They were produced in Babylonia by rabbis.